Awards & Accolades
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BLUEGRASS IN A BIG BROWN TRUCK; A MANDOLIN PICKER IS HAILED AS A MASTER
BUT HE'S KEEPING THE DAY JOB, THANKS
By Neil Strauss - February 1, 2000
Johnny Staats slid open the door of his United Parcel Service truck and crept cautiously through the snow toward the door of a dilapidated red house, carefully inspecting the yard for clues indicating the presence of a dog. ''These kind of calls right here are where you have to watch out for Fido,'' he said, hiding a package behind a shovel on the porch and jogging back to the safety of his truck.
For 11 years Mr. Staats has worked for U.P.S. here. And few of his co-workers can understand why. Not only has he proven in competition after competition that he is the best mandolin picker in the state and beyond, but this year he accomplished something extremely rare for a bluegrass musician: He signed a record deal with a major label, the Time Warner subsidiary Giant Records.
''I'd sure hate to lose him as a driver,'' said Doug Adams, Mr. Staats's supervisor at U.P.S. ''But I don't know why a man with those talents continues working here. I guess it's the security.''
Mr. Staats, 30, who has a wife and two children to support, is emblematic of a changing attitude toward the music business, molded in recent years by layoffs, consolidation and canceled contracts with musicians. No longer is signing to a major label a means of making it or a meal ticket for life. With the unpredictability of the business and the difficulty of breaking even on any release that sells less than half a million copies, signing to a major label may not make one much richer than performing in the street.
So for now Mr. Staats is keeping his day job, especially since he became a full-time driver only recently, too late to take advantage of the U.P.S. employee stock plan that made a few of his managers into millionaires overnight when the company went public last year.
''I'm kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,'' he said. ''This job is real good money. And the music business is shaky. One minute you're living on steak, the next minute you're living on beans.'' (U.P.S. drivers here earn about $1,500 a week.)
Some like to say that Mr. Staats's music is bewitching: everyone who hears it falls under its spell. He is one of those rare musicians who appears out of nowhere with his style honed from years of nonstop practice but who has not been jaded by the music business.
His playing is dazzlingly fast but always precise and never showy. His voice is sweet and warm and lends itself to easy harmonies. He has a classical-music ear for arranging pieces and varying the theme; and he composes his own instrumentals, programmatic pieces that tell stories of traveling and hunting.
When Mr. Staats began visiting Nashville to try his luck in a studio, word quickly spread that there was an uncommonly talented unknown in town. Some of the most popular bluegrass and country stars began stopping by to record with him, including Kathy Mattea, Sara Evans, John Cowan, Tim O'Brien, Jon Randall, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. Suddenly Mr. Staats's recording sessions became known as the Johnny Staats Project.
When his producers dropped off copies of the CD (a demo not even released through any sort of record label) to Tower Records in Nashville last year, it began selling as many as 21 copies a week, placing it between Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the store's sales ranking.
That sales success was largely thanks to an employee at Tower, Jen Gies, who said she fell in love with the CD the moment she heard it. She played it constantly on the store's sound system, prompting even customers unfamiliar with bluegrass to pick up a copy. On her birthday the album's three producers -- as obsessed with the project as she is -- sent her yellow roses.
Such a warm tale may be uncommon in the music business, but this kind of response seems to occur frequently around Mr. Staats. Others who have been drawn in by his playing include Roger Hunt, an eccentric millionaire from Charleston, W.Va., who not only helped finance his music but also has volunteered to be his roadie; Scott Hill, a local pet store owner who during an epiphany while selling his umpteenth can of flea powder decided to quit the family business and signed on as Mr. Staats's manager; Derek O'Brien, a potter from Atlanta who volunteered to sell T-shirts; and John Van Meter, Jon Ely and Ron Sowell, three country-music veterans with very little production experience who decided to become his producers.
It is very rare for an unknown bluegrass musician to attract any type of entourage, let alone one as motley and dedicated, and more willing than Mr. Staats to set aside their jobs. ''That's the magic of Johnny, and I have no idea how to explain that,'' said Mr. Van Meter, a Sony Music Publishing executive who works with many of Nashville's top singers and songwriters.
Mr. Hunt, a former miner who made tens of millions by manufacturing a newer, better roof bolt, said: ''I've never heard anybody like him. He is as pure as the driven snow. I'd give him the shirt off my back.''
As for Mr. Staats, as sincere, hard-working and good-natured a country boy as there ever was, he is dumbfounded by all this attention.
''Before all this, I really struggled to try and do something in Nashville,'' he said as he motored down icy side streets on his U.P.S. route. ''I was at the point where I was just going to play contests for the rest of my life and give up on my dream. I knocked on every door. But when I wasn't looking for it anymore, that's when it happened.''
Mr. Staats is, by nature, a man whose energy level is always on high. He delivers his packages the way he practices: quickly, accurately and with a diligence bordering on obsession. On a typical day he spends 10 to 11 hours delivering packages, often picking his mandolin in the back of the truck during his lunch break. Returning home, he practices for another hour or two before dinner, sometimes unwinding with a little Mozart or Beethoven. (''Them's what I call geniuses,'' he explained.) Then he takes his dog to hunt raccoons for three to four hours. Every now and then he gets a little sleep.
He was born into a musical family in West Virginia: his sister played banjo, his mother was a pianist, and his father, a foreman at a gravel company, played guitar. His uncle, a fiddler, took him to bluegrass festivals as a child, but it was his father who first urged him to take up the mandolin at age 7. Once he began learning chords and songs, he was hooked: he'd fall asleep and let the eight-track play until he woke up in the morning.
''In high school the only thing I wanted to do was to play music,'' he said. ''I'd practice seven to eight hours a day. I wasn't interested in a football, basketball, nothing. I've played so long before, I've seen blood come out from under my fingernails.''
After graduation he began loading trucks for U.P.S., slowly working himself up to the rank of driver.
''I worked part time at first,'' he recalled. ''And the way I made extra money was in music contests. I learned to play everything I could find: mandolin, fiddle, guitar. At Vandalia, I came in first on guitar, first in mandolin, and third in fiddle. That was a good payday. I made $1,200 just in contest money.''
It was at the Vandalia Gathering, West Virginia's annual heritage festival, where the Johnny Staats Project was born. Ron Sowell, the musical director for the National Public Radio show ''Mountain Stage,'' stood on the sidelines amazed by Mr. Staats's playing.
''It was like seeing Mark O'Connor when he was 10 years old and no one knew who he was,'' Mr. Sowell remembered, referring to the virtuoso fiddler. ''I pride myself on knowing the West Virginia scene, and I'd never heard of Johnny Staats before. It was like he materialized.''
Mr. Sowell booked Mr. Staats to play on ''Mountain Stage,'' his first performance in an actual theater. ''Just to look up and see everybody screaming and hollering was something else,'' Mr. Staats said, recalling his standing ovation. ''I bet you they stood up and clapped for a full five minutes. I mean, I'm just a guy used to coon hunting and maybe playing a square dance on Saturday night.''
Mr. Sowell is also a songwriter. He collaborates with another writer in Nashville named Jon Ely, and the two of them work with Mr. Van Meter at Sony Music. As Mr. Sowell played a tape of the ''Mountain Stage'' performance to his partners, they caught the fever as well.
''On one of Ron's visits, he said at the end of a meeting, 'I heard something the other day on ''Mountain Stage'' I thought you'd like to hear,' '' Mr. Van Meter remembered. ''And I was blown away. You could hear the crowd responding to Johnny, and it was just remarkable.''
Mr. Sowell brought Mr. Staats to Nashville, and Mr. Van Meter organized a picking party at his house with bluegrass luminaries like John Cowan, who was impressed enough to ask Mr. Staats to join his band. Over the next two and a half years the two songwriters and their publisher helped pay for Mr. Staats to visit Nashville and, in dribs and drabs, record a demo album with some of the city's top singers and pickers.
Oddly, independent labels like Sugar Hill and Rounder passed on the record, but major labels were excited, even though Mr. Staats's job prevented him from committing to long tours. With visions of Grammy Awards dancing in her head, Debbie Zavitson at Giant Records signed him to the label on the basis of the demo recordings alone.
''I haven't even met Johnny,'' she said. ''He's never even set foot in the offices. I don't know if I've ever heard of something like that happening before in this town.''
Back here in Vienna, Mr. Staats continued on his route. By day's end he had handled more than 200 packages, made more than 100 stops, flirted with two receptionists and managed not to get bitten by one dog.
''I don't even know how I'd react if I ever made enough money as a musician to leave this job, because I'm so used to going to work,'' he said at dinner later that night, still wearing his U.P.S. cap. ''It would be a weird way of life, when you're not told to be here or deliver this package.''
He held out his hands, caked with grime. He had washed them three times since work, and the dirt still would not come off.
''This right here,'' he said, displaying his brittle, blackened palms and fingers, ''is the real world.''