Nancy Bodily's Interview with Joe Craven

The world is Joe Craven’s toolbox
by Nancy Bodily

Joe Craven sucks in his cheeks, drops his jaw, rolls his eyes back into
his head and begins to play … his face … with mighty hands tapping out
“Turkey in the Straw.” The rhythm is true, a nice hollow sound, and you can
tell he’s done this a time or two, his face just one of the many tools in
his box, “when the world is your musical oyster.”
Craven the musician, teacher, grassroots organizer, MC, crazy hat
wearing, larger than life artist is in the KDRT studio and he’s brought just
a few of the items he keeps in his “big” toolbox. Next up in the “everything
is an instrument” axiom, is a donkey jawbone Craven plays with a deer
antler, “love that bone on bone sound,” he says with a grin. “The way the
teeth rattle and tap, but my favorite sound is when you gently tap the side
of the jawbone,” he says, as he proceeds to play and sing a Caribbean-style
version of “Old Dan Tucker,” the whole while strumming the jawbone.
With his kitchen-sink instruments and crazy costumes, Craven is a long
time, jubilant ambassador for the power of music and art and their role in
our lives. In addition to his busy touring schedule as a musician, he also
fills his workdays with workshops designed to teach the power of music and
art in our lives.
“A lot of my outreach work is to encourage people to take possession of
what they already have and that is their story … and then to encourage
people to engage in art as a way of bringing their story into play. …
recognizing that art is a problem solving mechanism. It should not be
something that is merely enhancement. It should be at the bedrock of our
being, teaching us critical thinking … the pursuit of possibility to realize
that there’s more than one right answer to get at something.”
Certainly Craven has pursued his own possibilities. A graduate of the
University of South Carolina, Craven and his mandolin made their way out
west in 1979. From a job as an art curator in Reno, Nev., this Dixon
musician eventually made his way to the music stage full time playing
mandolin, fiddle, rhythm and percussion with an extended family of
musicians: David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Stéphane Grappelli, Maria Muldaur,
Vassar Clements, The Alison Brown Quartet, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Utah
Phillips and many more.
The gift of playing with so many different musicians, Craven says, gave
him the opportunity to explore the potential of music and instruments, and
more than most musicians these days, Craven blows away any conventions about
music genres. He plays Caribbean/folk music with a jawbone, translates
Nirvana into bluegrass, and likewise bluegrass into beat box music. And in
his critically acclaimed 2004 release “Django Latino,” Craven applies Latin
rhythms to selections from the French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“That’s the beauty of the folk process tradition, taking an old idea and
doing something new with it. … The more you learn about other people’s music
… the more you learn about your own. Music doesn’t need labels, it needs
Well, opportunity is a knocking for Craven these days, with two new CD’s
hot out of the recording studios and a possible third recording on the way.
The first is a collaboration with Codetalker front man Bobby Lee Rodgers,
yet unnamed but they’re leaning towards “Porch". Craven flew down to
Savannah, Georgia, to work with Rodgers on this disc filled with original
music, with Craven composing several songs on the soon to be released CD.
A second collaboration came with San Francisco’s jazz composer and
bassist Sam Bevan. “Foakee” is quintessential Craven bringing elements from
a host of genres for a sound that’s part bluegrass, part blues, and part
“You’re a product of your listening environment … and I listen to it
all,” says Craven with a sly little grin.
For a taste of his musical menagerie, Craven is performing Friday, March
6, at The Odd Fellows Hall, 415 2nd Street, in Davis, Ca. True to his work
as a community organizer, Craven is taking time out of a busy touring
schedule to perform in this fundraiser concert for KDRT 95.7, which is
Davis’ only grassroots, low-power radio station. Doors open for the show at
6:30 p.m. with the music starting at 7:15. Tickets are $15 for adults, $17
at the door, and $10 for students with ID and are available online at, at Armadillo Records in Davis and at the door.
Opening for Craven is the band Aesthetic Cling, another group of
musicians who believe that the world is their instrument, with Wayne Hagen
the band’s front man playing the jug like it’s never been played. When asked
the obvious question, Hagen replies “Why do I play the jug? Why do I
breathe? There's something so elemental, primitive about laying down a
rhythm blowing into a jug. And there's just something insane and crazy about
standing up in front of people and making music with a jug - I get a kick
out of it.”
With Forest Flanagan playing guitar, ukulele, kazoo and vocals, Julio
Inglasseson lead guitars, vocals and general weirdness, Andy Farenwald
(Banjo Andy) on the banjo (obviously) and kazoo, and of course Hagen on the
jug, washboard, kazoo, mandolin and vocals, listening to this band is like
remembering what it’s like to sit on the front porch on a warm summer
afternoon, tapping your toes and grinning from ear to ear.
Certainly the price is right, the music is good, the beer will be cold,
and the money goes to the earnest effort of a team of volunteer DJs pursuing
their passions, so come on down to a great show.

Who: Joe Craven, with Aesthetic Cling opening
What: Fundraiser for KDRT, 95.7, low-power radio
When: Friday, March 6
Where: Davis Odd Fellows Hall, 415 2nd Street, Davis, CA
Time: Doors open at 6:30
Tickets: $15/$17, $10 for students with ID
To purchase:, Armadillo Records in Davis or at the door

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