By Mike Templeton

Traditional Appalachian music has persisted for so long, and appeals to so many people, because it is continuously changing, much like the culture itself. There is the constant tension between tradition and innovation that keeps things like Bluegrass and Old-time music alive. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is pleased to profile local musician Andrew Jensen who is taking these traditional musical forms and pushing them to new regions with a mix of tradition and improvisation that will remind you of the best Bluegrass pickers and the fluid styles of any jam band.

If you scroll through Andrew Jensen’s Facebook, you will quickly see that he more or less lives and breathes music. He does not have an official recording yet, but his social media is loaded with clips of him playing multiple instruments. We will get to that part of his musical talents, but the clips reveal something fascinating. Andrew Jensen plays bluegrass and old-time music, but he plays with a style that comes out of his unique place in the evolution of these musical styles. While there are clips of him that sound quite traditional, there are others that reveal a distinctly twenty-first century flair that is all his own.

In one clip, Andrew is not playing a traditional acoustic instrument. I asked him about this, and he told me, “This was from an open jam where anyone could get up and play. I was playing an electric Fender Telecaster.” However, he is playing in the style of old-time music, and what he achieves is an almost psychedelic fusion of traditional styles and improvisation that grows out of jam band styles like the Grateful Dead. He said, “One of my main influences is Jerry Garcia. My dad used to listen to the Grateful Dead, and he saw them a few times. He introduced me to the Dead and Jerry Garcia.” There are other influences, but you get the idea of where Andrew Jensen is coming from as a musician who plays traditional Appalachian music and infuses it with improvisation and a distinctly modern direction. 

Andrew lists Bill Monroe as another of his most important influences. Monroe, of course, is part of the bedrock of what we now call bluegrass. For Andrew Jensen, the influence of Monroe and other bluegrass musicians goes beyond just the sounds. The style of playing stringed instruments so closely associated with bluegrass opened Andrew’s own style of playing and put him on his current course. “I played with the common flatpicking style for a long time until I picked up the banjo and started using finger picks. I then started playing guitar the same way, and music came out freely once I started playing this way.” This style of playing is evident in everything he plays.

Andrew Jensen grew up in Northern Kentucky and attended Thomas More University, where he was taught by Core Member Sherry Cook Stanforth, and attended events she organized in collaboration with UACC. He has family who came from the Appalachian region, but this influence on his life is of the second-generation order; present in his life but indirect, as he describes it. He began playing guitar at the age of 12, he is almost 27 now. “I struggled for a long time to play the most basic things. Then things began coming to me in a kind of epiphany, and I could suddenly play.” He described his musical style as focused on modal music. He focuses on a musical mode or basic structure, and from there the music simply flows through improvisation. In one clip on his Facebook page, he is playing around with a resonator guitar and a slide. The music has all the features of old-time music, but he lets things flow into experimental tones and registers, moving the slide in a diagonal instead of straight over the frets.

Andrew now sings, and plays guitar and banjo, Dobro (a resonator guitar common in bluegrass and old-time music and are played with a slide), mandolin, and “a little bit of bass.” If it has strings and can be plucked, he can play it. We have featured traditional music on this blog several times, and what is most interesting about Andrew Jensen is the ways he is extending these traditional forms. Andrew is one of those rare musicians who demonstrates mastery of traditional musical forms but is completely uninhibited in the ways he plays then. Even something as traditional as a solo mandolin song takes on unexpected dimensions as he improvises around the traditional mode and tonal center. You always know what you are hearing, but you cannot know how far he will push it.

Andrew does have a regular band: The Harmless Varmints consist primarily of Andrew and musical partner Indigo who plays cello. This combination alone is your first cue that you are not going to hear your average bluegrass/old-time sounds. He explained that “different people have joined us over the years, but the heart of the band is me and Indigo.”   Andrew said there are plans for the Harmless Varmints to go into the studio, but capturing what they do presents challenges for recording. “We are always pushing the envelope with the music and even the instruments. We just got a bass player, and that changes the dynamic of things,” he said. Andrew’s own style relies heavily on improvisation, and given that the band really consists of two core members, getting this kind of fluid style onto a recording can be difficult. Still, we look forward to hearing what comes out of such a recording session.

Appalachian music—bluegrass, old-time music, and innovative hybrids—are features of the cultural life of greater Cincinnati, and this is why the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition takes care to present examples of how these musical forms keep evolving. Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Jensen is one of those rare talents who takes traditional forms and re-invents them for a new age and a new audience. His unique way of blending things like bluegrass and jam band improvisation infuses new life into something familiar and takes Appalachian music to utterly new places.  You can learn more about Andrew and his band at their Facebook page, and catch them live at The Southgate House Revival on Thursday, April 6, 2023, 7:30 –11pm.

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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