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The New Instrument

Tony Furtado puts aside bluegrass in favor of singing his own songs

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Already on his second (maybe third) career in music, 36-year-old slide guitarist and singer-songwriter Tony Furtado will play with his band Friday night, Sept. 10, at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Bluegrass fans may remember Furtado as the former banjo prodigy who, as teenager, twice took home the top prize at the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship and who served as a member of Laurie Lewis & Grant Street until 1989.

A few years later, Furtado's love of old blues and folk inspired him to set aside the banjo--at least temporarily--to master the slide guitar. By 1997, he was gathering acclaim for his roots-rock instrumentals and attracting the attention of the burgeoning jam-band community.

Eventually, Furtado's creative spirit required another outlet. He aspired to write songs, and sing them, too. The result is his recently released, ninth solo album, These Chains, produced by alt-country mastermind Dusty Wakeman and released on Tucson's Funzalo Records.

Although Furtado had been "sneaking" vocal songs into his sets for years, the new record is the first recording on which he sings--in his sweet, clear tenor--his original compositions.

"Usually the songs I would do were covers of old folk songs or whatever. I would even take old lyrics and put new music to it," Furtado said, during a recent phone interview from Reno, Nev., where he was finishing off a solo acoustic tour. "But when I got serious about this, I gave myself a little more time to focus on and approach being a songwriter, approach it in the way I would play a new instrument, and approach singing like learning to play a new instrument, because that is what it is."

To prove how serious he was, he also sought out more experienced songwriters with whom he could collaborate. Furtado's Tucson-based manager, Mike Lembo (who also runs Funzalo Records), helped him connect with Jim Lauderdale, Jules Shear and Al Anderson from N.R.B.Q.

"I did that partly because we wanted to come up with something that was going to be a good record to listen to and so I would have chance to sit down with some experienced songwriters," Furtado said.

Furtado will get the chance to meet and listen to another expert songwriter when he plays Tucson this Friday. His opening act is none other than Peter Case, the Grammy-nominated folk-rock singer-songwriter who has released 10 solo albums in the last 20 years, including the anthology Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile? Selected Tracks 1994-2004, which will be released Sept. 14.

Case, who turned 50 this year, is a former member of the influential New Wave bands the Nerves (from San Francisco, circa late '70s) and the Plimsouls (Los Angeles, early '80s).

The latter had a hit with "A Million Miles Away," one of the finest power-pop songs recorded. Case's compositions have been recorded by such acts as Alejandro Escovedo, Robert Earl Keen, the Goo Goo Dolls, the Flamin' Groovies, Marshall Crenshaw, Blondie and the Go-Gos.

Case's new album collects tracks from the four albums he recorded for Vanguard Records during the last 10 years, and includes two new songs--"Wake Up Call," which he wrote as a reaction to news of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, and "My Generation's Golden Handcuff Blues," a commentary addressing the gap between rich and poor and the erosion of our personal freedoms.

Although Furtado admitted to not knowing Case's music, he said he was interested in hearing and learning more about his colleague.

Around the time Case was forming the Plimsouls, Furtado was an 11-year-old from a hitherto non-musical family in Southern California. He accepted an assignment from his teacher to write a report on any musical instrument of his choice, and chose the banjo. Young Tony became so fascinated with the instrument that he started taking lessons and, as kids are wont to do, lost himself in his passion.

"I had pretty much immersed myself in the banjo, trying to learn everything about it and become as proficient on it as possible. When you're a kid playing real fast on a banjo, that's a pretty cool thing to do."

Although he excelled in the realm of bluegrass, he said it was never one of his favorite forms of music. What drew him to the banjo was its versatility.

"I remember my first banjo lesson, and my teacher said, 'Check out this banjo player in a group from Ireland.' And then he was like, 'Check out this Eagles record, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and how they use the banjo.'"

Once Furtado discovered his love of early raw blues, traditional American and Celtic folk music, as well as jazz, he was attracted to the guitar.

"I think there are a lot of people who play instrumental music who, when they are trying to really push the envelope of their musical abilities, will tend to focus a little more and more on jazz, which is a form known for its freedom of expression and improvisation." Which is not to say that he didn't learn good lessons from his compatriots in the world of bluegrass. "A lot of what I learned from back then was about interacting with other musicians in a situation, and the vocals themselves and how to leave room for that."

Furtado also said he attributes his sense of melody to listening to Irish music. In keeping with his love of folk and the blues, he enjoys listening to a cappella prison work songs and archival field recordings such as those made by musicologist Alan Lomax.

It turns out Furtado will follow in Case's footsteps without knowing it. Although he will play with a band in Tucson, Furtado is planning a solo acoustic album, culled from live recordings on the tour that just wrapped up last week in Nevada.

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