Tony Furtado is not a bluegrass musician. His earlier records and his resume, which includes winning the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, in 1987 and 1991, earned him a place amongst the bluegrass elite. But a close listen to any of the 15 or so records he’s been releasing since the late 1980s speaks otherwise.
His playing with Laurie Lewis, his time in jamgrass band Sugarbeat, and his solo performances that have found him playing in venues from coast to coast, including Durango every few years since the mid 1990s, reveals an exploration of acoustic blues, bluegrass, and up-beat folk that has a home at traditional bluegrass festivals as well as the folk and jam-band world.
The Tony Furtado Trio, which includes Eric Thorin on bass and Luke Price on fiddle, will perform Feb. 7 at the Henry Strater Theatre; opening the show is local pianist Jonas Grushkin.
“I’m not really a traditional bluegrass player, I never have been,” admitted Furtado. “I tried to fit into that mold back in the early 90s when I was first releasing albums on Rounder records, but I felt like a square peg in a round hole. There were other things I was hearing and wanting to do.”
Less Flatt and Scruggs and more Ry Cooder, it’s safer to just give Furtado the title of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. His post-Rounder Records career has found Furtado continuing to play acoustic-based music, but ditching the bluegrass and banjo twang for darker, slide-driven instrumentation.
While his stellar playing is ripe with melodic and tempo drive, there’s also great depth to what he does while remaining quite subtle, whether the vehicle of the song is three-minute piece, or a stretched-out narrative ripe for a soundtrack. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a banjo, acoustic guitar, or something else.
“It’s not necessarily about the instrument anymore. I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting over the years so it’s mostly whatever instrument is working for that song,” he said. “It’s still kind of split, sometimes a little more heavy on the banjo now that I’m playing a cello banjo with some of the songs. … The cello banjo sounds like a bass banjo; it’s got the thump but its still got a little bit of the twang. It’s a big statement when plugged in.”
Something long-time Furtado fans may not know is the other artistic ace he keeps up his sleeve: He’s a sculptor. It’s something he got into right around the same time he started playing banjo, but shelved when banjo playing became a full-time job. Since returning to the sculpture world, Furtado has discovered that it aids his creative drive. The solitude of making skull mugs or ceramic animals results in new sounds and melodies in his head, eventually working their way out via picking, pushing, hammering, and sliding his fingers on the strings of an instrument.
“Ten or 12 years ago, I got a studio and started focusing on what I would have learned had I stayed in college and it’s been great. It’s such a good outlet for me and one of those things I need to do. And it helps balance things out. Sometimes if I’m doing more of that I’ll have more musical ideas come to me while I’m sculpting, and then vice versa. It’s the same side of the brain, and they definitely help each other.”