Scofield with the 1986 Ibanez AS200 he used exclusively for tracking Country for Old Men. “I have two AS200s,” says Scofield. “I really like the way they sound and feel.” Photo by Nick Suttle
Country and jazz might seem like an unlikely combo, but there’s a rich history of collisions between these two idioms. Jazz musicians from Sonny Rollins to Bill Frisell have used cowboy and country songs as source material for improvisation, and country musicians like Bob Wills and Jimmy Bryant filtered their music through a jazz lens.
Jazz guitarist John Scofield has occasionally winked at country during his five-decade career, which has included stints with such jazz legends as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Joe Henderson; collaborations with bands like Medeski Martin & Wood and Gov’t Mule; and more than 30 albums as a leader.
But Country for Old Men, the follow-up to 2015’s Past Present, marks the first time that Scofield has fully acknowledged his affinity for country. On the album, Scofield is joined by drummer Bill Stewart, organist and pianist Larry Goldings, and bassist Steve Swallow—all frequent collaborators. He transforms songs by George Jones, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and others into smart vehicles for bebop improvisation.
Whether or not you like jazz or country—and contrary to what the title suggests—Country for Old Men is an exciting outing with plenty to offer guitar fans of all stripes. As always, Scofield’s approach is anything but staid, and he delivers his angular bebop lines in the most compelling ways. Then there’s his unmistakable tone: warm and full-bodied, highly detailed, and so easy on the ear.
Scofield spoke with Premier Guitar the day before he took off for a European tour. He told us about how he gets that killer sound, how he learned to make his guitar sing like a country crooner, and described the strategies he used to put a jazz slant on country tunes.
More often than not, you’re photographed with an Ibanez thinline. Is that what you used for recording Country for Old Men?
On the album, all I’m playing is an Ibanez AS200. I have two of them, and this is a black one they made for me in 1986, which I haven’t played as much. I also replaced the electronics with two Voodoo pickups—copies of old Gibson patent-applied-for humbuckers.
And then I didn’t use any pedals. I just went through my 1964 Deluxe Reverb that I bought maybe 15 years ago. It was kind of messed-up when I got it. The amp didn’t feel like it had enough power and it didn’t sound right. I had it looked at and somebody told me that the transformer looked wet. Turns out it had been in a flood and wasn’t performing correctly, so I put in a new transformer and the amp has sounded fantastic ever since.
You get such a nice warm sound, with a hint of overdrive. So that’s all from the amp?
Yep—the Deluxe is a good sound for me, cranked, but not all the way up. On that amp, I set it around 4 or 5, where I find a sweet spot, breaking up, but not too much. I think I had the reverb on a small amount, but didn’t use any tremolo on the record.
Do you play any guitars other than Ibanez semi-hollows?
I have a 1963 ES-335 that I got a long time ago, and I recently got a 1962 ES-330 that I really like. I’ve got an old Fender Telecaster, the guitar I bought in high school that somebody resold me about 10 years ago, and I have some Custom Shop Fenders. I have a nice old Gibson Howard Roberts as well. But I mainly play those Ibanez guitars because I’m used to them, and I really like the way they sound and feel.
Do you think you’ll ever use any of those guitars live or on recordings?
I’m not sure my 335 is the greatest example of that model. I like it, but it sounds a little uneven. I’m really tempted to use the 330, because I really like the sweet sound of those old P-90 pickups. But I’m not quite used to the feedback [that’s inherent to a fully hollow guitar like the ES-330] because I’ve been playing the semi-hollows for so long. So I’m waiting to use the 330 for some live situation where I can get used to it.
Country for Old Men is a great album title.
That came from my wife, Susan, who’s my business partner. I told her I wanted to make a record of country songs, and she goes [dryly], “Country for old men.” It’s a reference to No Country for Old Men, a fantastic novel by Cormac McCarthy that got made into a scary-ass Coen Brothers movie. I found out the quote comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The first line is “That is no country for old men.” In any case, the title Country for Old Men cracked me up because, when I play, I see a lot of men my age in the audience.
How did the country project come about?
I’ve always liked country music: the classic stuff from Hank Williams to Buck Owens to Merle Haggard. I’ve been aware of the music ever since I started playing, but I’m by no means a country musician. I would get a record and get into some stuff as a fan every now and then. Not long ago I realized how you could turn some of these country tunes into jazz vehicles to blow on. So it’s really a jazz record with these country tunes. But when I play the heads, I really try to get a country kind of sound, which speaks more to the influence of the great singers than a specific style of country guitar playing.
How do you channel the singers on guitar?
I listened intently to the singers. I actually transcribed some of George Jones’ vocal parts—he’s the master of a very rococo style. There’s a lot of melisma, notes in between notes, and that’s what I’ve always loved about country. I wrote down the notes of the vocal parts. Then I tried to play them on guitar and just generally gave up, but went for the overall feel instead.
I found that playing lines all on one string is one way to make the guitar sound like a voice. I’ve actually been working on things like that not just for this record, but in general.
For a jazz guitarist, you pick near the bridge a lot on the album.
That’s just trying to get that sound a guitar makes. A lot of blues guys do it, and on those semi-acoustics it works better than on, say, an ES-175. Whatever sound I get on the guitar comes from just experimenting with my hands to produce different sounds. I happen to gravitate toward that certain sound you get playing close to the bridge, though lately I’ve noticed on ballads I’m picking more up toward the neck.
How did you select the songs for the record?
On this album I already knew all of the songs except for one. I could relate to all of them, and when I sat down to play the melodies and arrange them on guitar, everything unfolded naturally. The first song on the record, “Mr. Fool,” a George Jones tune, was not one I’d heard before. Larry Goldings is a fan of country and Mr. Jones, and he played the song for me. Actually, James Taylor had played it for him. And I just loved the track right away, and I knew I could arrange it and turn it into jazz like the others.
Describe the arranging process.
It wasn’t like writing big-band charts. It was, in fact, some of the easiest music I’ve worked out in a while—at least on the surface. I changed some things harmonically so the tunes would be playable with a bebop language, as well as a country language, so I could use either style to improvise. That meant recomposing the songs a little—not like changing the chord progressions to “Giant Steps” or anything like that. It’s more about putting in the occasional ii–V. I thought about that a lot: borrowing harmonically from modern jazz and putting a little of it in country. A perfect example is “Red River Valley”—a three-chord song, with basically the same harmonic structure as “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s the same idea that’s been done so often with the basic blues progression—putting in those passing, ii–V, and diminished chords to make it more of a vehicle for bebop improvising.