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Jon Stickley’s bluegrass band ditched vocals and found its voice

Jon Stickley (center) with drummer Hunter Deacon (left) and violinist Lyndsay Pruett
Jon Stickley (center) with drummer Hunter Deacon (left) and violinist Lyndsay Pruett

In 2015, Jon Stickley brought in revered jazz drummer Dave King to produce his next bluegrass album. He didn’t bargain for the profound change ahead.

Until that point, the Jon Stickley Trio mixed songs from other artists featuring vocals with their own instrumental originals. King pushed hard for the band to ditch vocals entirely.

“It took us a little while to come around to that idea,” Stickley said. “At first, we had a strong reaction ‘No, absolutely not. Everyone’s always telling us to sing more at our shows.’ But we held onto that idea that it was the most original version of what we do best.”

The Jon Stickley Trio leaned into progressive bluegrass instrumentals and fans followed. Today, Stickley is hailed among the vanguard of what’s called flat-picking guitarists. His band has found a comfortable groove in odd-time signatures and virtuosic flourishes without straying from the roots of bluegrass—or the edgier subdivision known as newsgrass.

The Jon Stickley Trio performs Friday as part of the Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Mill Spring.

“I like to do weird stuff that’s almost like it’s playing a trick on the listener,” Stickley said. “Taking bluegrass guitar tropes and things that I’ve done so often in jams and putting a little bit of a different spin on that.”

Stickley grew up in Durham. He played guitar in assorted rock bands and, in his senior year of high school, found Americana music through a banjo player who asked him to join his group. Stickley went to college thinking he’d become a park ranger. It wasn’t until playing in bluegrass jams that he got serious about studying and improving as a guitarist. He moved to Asheville in 2006 and played mandolin and bass in other people’s bands until starting his own.

“I didn’t love the guitar heroes of rock that much. I kinda considered it passé and not so cool, growing up in the grunge era,” he recalled. “But then getting into bluegrass and the technicality of playing lead on an acoustic instrument, I’ve actually come to love all these artists. Prog music and the Dixie Dregs, Steve Morse, I’ve kinda found out about through people telling me our band sounds like them.”

Stickley said committing to all-instrumental music not only compelled his band to raise its musicianship, but also to think more expansively as composers.

“I’m not just taking a solo on a bluegrass song anymore,” he said. “I’m now the lead vocal and I need to play in a way that could create the same emotional response in people.”

By the elasticity of their music, the Jon Stickley Trio has been able to slide into a variety of settings and crowds, from the well-heeled audience of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C to a 2 a.m. slot at a Florida indie festival. In mid-September, they’re playing at the Bourbon & Beyond Festival in Louisville, on the same day that also features Pearl Jam, Greta Van Fleet and the Always Sunny Podcast. A new album is on the horizon for next spring.

“If we only played jamgrass festivals from now on, I would be stoked. It’s a family, it’s friends, everyone hangs out. Those festivals and that energy is kinda what kept us going,” Stickley said. “We’re still growing, we’re still evolving, we’re still trying all sorts of new stuff. We’ve got new music coming out and we plan on touring and doing this project for as long as we can. Everyone’s in it to win it.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.