Hell Revisited
Hell Revisited

The hottest thing going in genre-bending music during the past year has been the award-winning Hellecasters, whose first album on Mike Nesmith’s Rio Records Return of the Hellecasters raised a lot of eyebrows and the entire guitar world’s pulse rates with its eclectic high octane blend of Celtic, Country, and good old rock and roll music. Three masters of the guitar, John Jorgenson (ex-Desert Rose Band), Jerry Donahue (ex-Fairport Convention), and slide wizard Will Ray have unleashed another album, Escape from Hollywood, and during a hiatus between performing at the 1994 Arlington Fall Nationals Guitar Show and a benefit at New York’s Bottom Line, held as a tribute to the late Danny Gatton, joined Vintage Guitar for a round table discussion.

You’ve all committed to doing this benefit performance at the Bottom Line to help the family that Danny Gatton left behind …while the Hellecasters will headline, a real heartfelt support from the music community has become a part of this event, including Sonny Landreth, Arlen Roth, Jimmy Vivino, G.E. Smith, and of course the remaining members of the Danny Gatton band. How are you feeling about Danny’s death?

John: I was called the following morning by someone close to Danny, so I wouldn’t hear about it through the news. I appreciated that. In thinking back …I wasn’t that surprised. He was having problems with depression, and that can be as debilitating as any physical illness. He’d suffered a big loss with the death of his friend Billy Windsor earlier in the year …they were buddies forever. I felt bad that he couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. His achievements, his wonderful playing didn’t make any difference. I wasn’t that close to him as a person, although we’d become friends during our time playing together. But I felt a loss, that one of our own, had been taken. And now he’s gone.

Initially, when I spoke with Harold from Guitar World (major sponsor of the event with Allan Pepper of the Bottom Line), the idea was to do a recording that would help benefit the family who were left behind. That didn’t seem like enough, and it wasn’t immediate. Harold and I agreed that Mrs. Gatton and Danny’s daughter, Holly, needed support now, so we plunged ahead with this tribute to Danny at the Bottom Line in NYC. I committed the Hellecasters, and everyone’s been wonderful right from the start, covering their own expenses, including plane fare, so that all the money could be channeled to the family. We couldn’t have done it without everyone pitching in.

Jerry: What a tremendous loss. We’d grown to be good friends lately. We’d all gotten together at James Burton’s new Rock and Roll Cafe on a weekend, and there was so much going on. James was celebrating his birthday, and the opening of his new hangout, and Fender wanted to shoot an ad featuring us, the three Telecaster players, all together. We jammed together at the club that night, and had such a wonderful time. There was no way of knowing that he was in such pain. Danny was such a gentleman, even with people who had just met him. I guess he kept his deepest thoughts and problems to himself, and only his closest friends were even aware that he was troubled. He was a startling guitarist, and a very special person. He’ll be missed by anyone who had the good fortune to meet him and get to know him, but universally by all those who loved his music.

What have you guys been up to musically?

Jerry: Mostly, I’ve been working with the Hellecasters and trying to keep time zones straight. We just finished the new album, Escape from Hollywood, and we brought a limited edition of about a thousand CD’s to Texas just for the guitar show. Our new album is a real departure …it was pretty democratic the way this one worked out. It’s all original material, unlike the first album, and I’m featured on about a third of it. This time around, all the songs have been written specifically for the Hellecasters nothing is recycled. We’ve grown together more, and the product is more unified.

I think you can really tell that there’s been a period of growth in the band. While the album is less of a hodgepodge, musically it’s also more diverse. We’ve got elements of Celtic, country, mid-Eastern, and world music here. At the same time there’s a real continuity that’s apparent. We recorded at Trax Studio in Hollywood with Michael McDonald, and the experience was just wonderful.

John: Composition-wise it’s a much better record. It’s got a lot more of Jerry’s compositions on it, which I’m really pleased with. I was pushing for that on the first album, but it just didn’t work out. The band’s been in existence for awhile now, so the concept of what we should be doing and are capable of is a bit stronger. The material is now unique to the band. We’re not as country oriented; there are more elements of Gypsy, Celtic, Ska, Reggae. Who knows, we may even find a wider audience! (laughter)

Will: We all enjoyed ourselves a bit more on this effort, and I think that our listeners will feel the same way. The rhythm section of Steve Duncan on drums, Dennis Belfield on bass, and the one-minute Master himself, John Hobbs on keyboards is a big part of us. Fun is what got us here in the first place, and what keeps us going.

VG: How do the three of you record together?

Jerry: A lot of the work is done initially outside the studio, and the final “keeper” performance is done by the writer in the studio. We all have the same format machines, so we’ll use ADAT or 16-track at home and swap reels. That way the critical performances don’t have to be rushed, and we have time to really get it right. We all have to live with the final product, and it has to be as good as possible. When we physically get together it’s to learn the routines, to work out parts and harmonies.

John: A lot of what we do live, recreating those parts that are already on record, and making it breathe, is the art and the challenge of this band. We really try to get it right!

Any new equipment changes?

Will: Matchless is still my main choice for amps, and they had enough faith in us to help us be a part of the Arlington Fall Nationals Guitar Show (Matchless, Paul Bechtoldt of Vintage Guitar, and Jim Cowan of Rio Records were instrumental in bringing the Hellecasters to Texas). Aside from my Carvin acoustic-electric, G & L’s are my number one and two axes.

Jerry: I’m now using the Soul-O 75 amplifier from Groove Tubes in conjunction with an emulator box that will be coming out shortly. The box is manufactured in England, the Sessionmaster JD-10, and I’ve been jumping up and down since I found it. It will be marketed over here by Morley. Originally it was a rack mount device, and I used it on three tracks from the first Hellecasters album, to my mind the best sounds I got (“King Arthur’s Dream”, “The Claw”, and “Orange Blossom” for the curious). The sounds were so good, I had people calling me up leaving messages on the phone, asking what I had used. It’s a preamp/speaker emulator that I played through direct to the board, but not designed for live use. I got them to shrink it down to the size of two Boss pedals, very compact and light.

Whenever I’ve recorded, with my favorite guitar and amp, I’ve tried to recreate that sound in other situations and failed. There’s just too many variables the room, the mikes and mike technique, the amp, etcetera. The redesigned JD Sessionmaster lets me dial in my sound and duplicate in any situation, either live through an amplifier or in the studio. It’s amazing, and it frees me up to concentrate on my playing, which is where I really should be focussed anyway.

The unit is solid state, and it’s the only non-tube device I’ve ever used that I’ve liked. For many reasons, recording has come a long way in the past 40-odd years, and most sounds including voice and acoustic guitars sound better now. But there was a certain sound achieved on the electric guitar recorded through the older equipment that was unique, and quite elusive. That’s why so many people have done research to find out what kind of guitar and amp were used on a certain session, and when you try to re-create the sound …it’s just not there. People forget that it didn’t stop there; what kind of mikes were used, the board, the tape all varied the sound. The originator of the Sessionmaster, Stewart Ward of Award Design, has considered all these factors, and the result is just amazing, either live or recorded.

What does the future hold for the three of you?

Will: I’m active as I can be as a producer in Los Angeles, and am always looking for new talent to work with. Of course I love the Hellecasters, and will work with them as long as it’s fun and we all feel that way.

Jerry: I’m releasing, through Music Sales, an instructional book called The Original Guitar Styles of Jerry Donahue, and it shows the real guts of what I do and how I do it, in notes and tablature, as well as featured solos from the Hellecasters and some of my original work on Neck of the Wood. We’re very explicit in the photos, showing hand position and fingerings, so anybody should be able to learn from it.

We’re also getting ready to go to England, just John, Will, and myself, and we’ll pick up a rhythm section over there, actually The Backroom Boys’ section, which is the band I work with when I’m in Europe. They’re big Hellecasters fans, and we’re looking forward to working with them.

We’ll be playing at the London Music Show, and will try to do some dates in Norway as well. If all goes well, the Hellecasters will do France and Germany in January, and Australia in February.

John: I’ve renewed my love for gypsy music. Just this year I met an incredible player, Roman, at a Django festival in France last June, and he’s one of the foremost guitarists in Europe in the Django-style of playing. He was planning on coming to the Chet Atkins Convention later that year, and asked me to accompany him at that event, even though we’d just met. It was quite an honor. I speak pidgin French, and his invitation just blew me away.

I made the date in Nashville by disappearing for one day between recording with the Hellecasters and a live date in Dallas. We rehearsed for about a half hour, and I felt like the result was pretty good …but a later viewing of the tape of the event really set my mind at rest. It was better than good. Now we’re planning an album together, me and Roman, with each of us contributing five tunes. I’m really thrilled.

Starting in March I’m going to be part of Elton John’s band. He saw me with the Desert Rose Band in 1988. A whole crowd was there at the Roxy, including Bernie Taupin, Steven Stills, Bruce Hornsby. It was a big deal for me. After the concert, we all met backstage, and Elton made a point of introducing himself to me and told me how much he liked my playing, I could sense that I had entered his consciousness then, and that something might play itself out later.

Well, three weeks ago, I got a phone call… “Hello, John…this is Elton.” He was riding around in his car in Los Angeles, and was very excited about the new album he’d just finished.

He said, “This is the best stuff I’ve done in years. It’s a band oriented album, and Davy (Johnstone) and I were talking about another guitarist for the road next year, one who can sing, and you were the first person we thought of!”

Well, I was blown away. When we sat down to talk at his hotel, I explained to him about the Hellecasters commitment, and my session dates, and a solo album I’m working on for next year. He just suggested that I listen to the album. When I heard his new music, my mind said, “You have to play this music.” It was fantastic. Great guitar parts, wonderful tunes, strong writing. It is the best stuff he’s done, and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be a part of it.

At first, I thought it was impossible, with all the musical projects I’m involved in, including the Hellecasters. But, it’s always been possible in the past for me to juggle matters and make it work, if the commitments were important enough. So, somehow it will all come out all right.

Will Ray, John Jorgenson, and Jerry Donahue.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’95 issue.