String Master

Celebrated guitarist Jorma Kaukonen helps others find melody in the Ohio hills.

“A fur piece from anywhere” isn’t a phrase many outside Appalachia are familiar with. It suggests a seclusion that extends beyond “off the beaten path” — a place one usually happens upon by chance, and rarely by choice. What city and ’burb-dwellers may not understand, though, is that living a “fur piece from anywhere” has its advantages. That’s what Jorma Kaukonen realized when he decided that, after years of living and traveling throughout the world, a plot of land in southern Ohio would be the home of his next endeavor.

“There was nothing here but a snake-infested building,” Kaukonen says of what became Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp — playing  on the "fur piece" expression — a 119-acre plot just north of Pomeroy, Ohio, where monthly workshops offer amateur and seasoned musicians the opportunity to congregate for several days of learning and playing. Since Kaukonen and his wife Vanessa opened their gates to enthusiastic campers in 1998, Fur Peace Ranch has grown substantially, in part because of Kaukonen’s status as one of music’s living legends. The Jefferson Airplane founder, Hot Tuna guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has been performing for more than 50 years. Always a hardworking musician, Kaukonen still tours 200 nights out of 365, zigzagging across the country in a tour bus.

Had he not gone the music route, he says, “I would have been a truck driver.”
Kaukonen, 69, a self-described “Army brat” whose father was in the Foreign Service, grew up in Washington, D.C. He traveled the world with his family as a youth, living in both Pakistan and the Philippines in the 1950s.

And, like many other kids his age, Kaukonen became interested in music. But it wasn’t until he laid eyes on a friend’s six-string guitar that his interest grew into a passion. “I took piano lessons like every kid in the neighborhood, and I liked it, because I liked music. But I went over to my friend Mike’s house and he had this Gibson guitar, and I really liked it,” Kaukonen says.

“So I went to my dad and said, ‘I want a guitar.’ Of course, by this time, I’d already been through a number of instruments that I couldn’t play. He said, ‘If you want me to buy you a guitar, you have to learn two songs.’ And I’m sure he figured that I never would.”

But Kaukonen did.

After graduating from high school, he opted to study at Antioch College, where the institution’s freethinking take on education appealed to him. However, his focus was set on music more than his studies.

“I wasn’t asked to leave Antioch, but I wasn’t encouraged to come back,” he laughs. “They weren’t grading on guitar playing.”

Eventually Kaukonen turned his focus back to school, but this time, his sights were set on California. He ended up at the University of Santa Clara, graduated and was again attracted to the music scene.

“The first weekend that I was in California, I saw this sign for a hootenanny in San Jose,” he says. “I got a ride over there, and I met Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and all of these people who became somebody later on, but, at the time, were just guys like me hanging out. And we started to play.”

Eventually, through a job teaching guitar lessons, Kaukonen became acquainted with Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, and the two connected over their love of music. But while it wouldn’t be long before the Airplane would be packing them in at the Fillmore, Kaukonen wasn’t sold on the idea of joining a band at first.

“[Kantner] wanted me to play in the band, but I wasn’t really interested in playing pop music. I went to audition anyway, because I wasn’t doing anything else except teaching guitar, and it was fun. I dug it. And I could see that there was more to this rock ’n’ roll thing than meets the eye,” he says.

Kaukonen performed with the Airplane until 1972, when he left to more seriously pursue his passion for the blues with Hot Tuna, the blues-rock duo that he and Airplane band mate Jack Casady had formed as an answer to their musical restlessness.

“[Jefferson Airplane] could do a lot of things well,” he says. “But they couldn’t do what I wanted to do. And, after a while, it just became clear to me that it was time to move on.”

Today, Hot Tuna still sells out shows nationwide.As a solo artist, Kaukonen — who is famous for his fingerstyle blues — has produced 14 albums. He’s currently working on his 15th, which is slated for a spring 2011 release.

In 1990, Kaukonen received a phone call from a friend in southern Ohio; he was selling property, and wanted to know if Jorma would be interested. Kaukonen made the trip from Woodstock, New York (where he and wife Vanessa were living), surveyed the land and made an offer.

“When I told Vanessa about it she thought I had lost my mind,” says Kaukonen, who admits he never thought he’d end up in Ohio.

Soon after making the move, the pair began tossing around the idea of turning the land into a camp for musicians.

“We thought we could have a guitar camp here. But originally, my vision of a camp was probably just me and my buddies sitting around a campfire,” Kaukonen says with a laugh.

“Later, Vanessa got to thinking, and she said ‘We could really do that.’ So she drew up the plans and we built the place.”

Today, the ranch brings in world-renowned instructors — including bassist Jack Casady, fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff — for workshops ranging from songwriting and mandolin-playing to blues guitar. Hundreds have come for the workshops — four days of non-stop music — since 1998.

“We have great teachers and there’s a lot of stuff you can learn, but there’s something more important and less tangible that happens here,” Kaukonen, who is among the instructors, says. “It’s that feeling of community and comradeship and brotherhood, the stuff that sounds sappy when you put it into print. But it really happens.

“I think one of the most important things for me is that musical communication,” he continues. “That ability to be able to open doors, and to make [guitar playing] unintimidating, because anybody can learn how to play.”

Because of his music education efforts at the ranch and within the Appalachian community, Kaukonen will be honored this month with the Ohioana Library Association’s Music Citation, an award given annually to an Ohioan for unique and outstanding accomplishments in the field of music.

“It’s not something I’ve expected, and it’s not something I’ve sought out,” he says of the recognition. “But it’s an honor when it happens, and I really, truly, do appreciate it. [An award] doesn’t make you who you are, but it’s a good part of the story.”

And as for that story, the remaining chapters will likely include continuing to be a part of the community in southeast Ohio, and all that entails.

“I’ve moved so much over the course of my life,” he says. “And now, I’ve been here for almost 20 years. This is my home.”

His wife of nearly 22 years, Vanessa, who owns and operates the ranch and organizes the camps, agrees. “Ohio is a great place,” she says. “They don’t call it ‘the heart of it all’ for nothing. We travel all over the world, Jorma and I, but when we fly over Ohio… when we come back into the hills…I think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s why I live here.

“It is, “ Vanessa adds, “this country’s best-kept secret.”

Clearly, being a fur piece from anywhere works for the Kaukonens.

“I’m a live-in-the-moment-type guy,” Jorma says. “Over the years I’ve been really lucky. …. At this point in my life, I’d like to say that there was a goal, and that I planned everything. But that’s just not the way it worked. It’s just evolved. And I just really like where I am today.”

For more information on Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp classes and workshops, as well as performances at the facility’s 200-seat theater, visit