A Three-Axe Onslaught
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Guitar Army are the supergroup’s supergroup. The guitarists that form the band’s core – John Jorgenson, Lee Roy Parnell and Joe Robinson – aren’t only well-respected axe men. They also sing and write their own music, and they’ll be taking the stage at Sweetwater’s Performance Pavilion Saturday, June 9 at 7 p.m.
The unofficial band leader, Jorgenson, like many musicians, grew up in a musical household. His mother taught piano lessons; his dad was a college band leader. From a very young age, Jorgenson was surrounded by the classics: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of Animals, the soundtrack to the Disney film Fantasia. He played a number of instruments as a boy, including the piano and the clarinet. His passion, though, was the guitar. His parents were reluctant to get him one, but they eventually gave in.
As a teen, Jorgenson played in a neighborhood garage band, covering the likes of the Rolling Stones, Grand Funk Railroad and the Beatles.
It was in the early 80s that Jorgenson really got serious about his craft. He was living in Los Angeles and hoped to become part of the burgeoning north Hollywood rockabilly scene, which was lead by Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, Los Lobos, Rosie Flores and Highway 101. His dream came true: he became lead guitarist for LA-based rock/country outfit the Desert Rose Band.
Then fate, it would seem, intervened yet again and Jorgenson met guitarists Jerry Donahue, Jeff Rose, Bill Bremner and Will Ray. On a lark, the five men played a live gig together, assuming it would be a one-and-done thing. The audience was won over, though, by the men’s talent and the unique sound of so much shredding, and Jorgenson, Donahue, and Ray decided to form a band helmed by three guitarists and to call themselves the Hellecasters.
“Five guitarists is probably too much, so we thought we should just have three, and then we needed a name to tell people what it is so I came up with the name,” Jorgenson told EarlyBlues.com. “I then said that we shouldn’t just do country and blues jams, which is what people are going to expect, but let’s do songs. Jerry was American but grew up in England, so he was well steeped in the traditions of the Shadows, you know, the instrumental melodic guitar music that’s normal for him, and that was our plan. We had only planned to do one show, just for fun, and at the end of that show people were coming up to us and saying, ‘When are you guys playing again? I want to tell my friends about it. You have to do it again.'”
The Hellecasters went on to release three studio albums and a compilation. After the band split, Jorgenson became one of the country’s most sought after session and touring guitarists, playing with Elton John, Sting, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. He also formed the John Jorgenson Quintet and the John Jorgenson Blue Grass Band and is widely credited with pioneering the American gypsy jazz guitar, which he modeled after the stylings of Django Reinhardt. In addition to the guitar, Jorgenson plays saxophone, clarinet, bouzouki, pedal steel and mandolin.
Parnell’s musical pedigree is likewise stellar. He cut his teeth on Southern soul in the club scenes of Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth and New York City, later moving to Nashville where he had a standing gig at the beloved Blue Bird Cafe. While in Nashville he also got signed to a publishing deal and penned a number of country hits, including “Tender Moment” and “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?”
Not much of one, actually. Parnell, who played a ’57 Les Paul Goldtop guitar from the time he was 15 until he was in his 30s, had the heady pleasure of seeing a Les Paul guitar named in his honor. In 2011 he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
He told Rock and Blues Muse magazine that he is always writing and that these days he usually starts with lyrics rather than a riff.
“Someone will say something to someone or someone will say something to me and it will have a profound effect on me. I keep a running list on my phone. Before, I kept lyrics in notebooks, and I’ve got notebooks piled up to my waist, but now, everything goes on the phone and is backed up to the cloud. It’s important to get it down because you won’t remember. You think you will, but you won’t. If you’re lying in bed and come up with something, you gotta get up, grab a guitar, sit down and once again nail your butt to the chair until it’s done. It’s fun, but it’s work. Songwriting is basically 90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration.”
And sometimes it’s simply a matter of world class talent. At 27, Robinson is the youngest member of Guitar Army. A native of Australia, Robinson first began playing out at the tender age of 11. Two years later he won the Australian National Songwriting Competition. Four years after that, he took top honors on the competitive television show, Australia’s Got Talent.
Robinson might have started his career as a child virtuoso, but he’s proven over time that he is no flash in the pan. Premier Guitar magazine said as much in their profile of the now veteran musician: “Once in a while a young guitarist captures the attention of music lovers early in his career and manages to sustain this interest as he matures creatively and sheds the ‘prodigy’ label … Joe Robinson is one of those rare talents.”
Guitar Army’s name is no coincidence. Jorgenson, Parnell and Robinson, along with their three-person backup band, are a force to be reckoned with. They have their voices, their pens and, most of all, their guitars, and they aren’t afraid to use them in whatever way they see fit to show their audiences a blistering, bluesy, rocking and sometimes even twangy good time.