The band wanted to call themselves Hot Shit. Their record company wanted them to be the Rolling Stones. Neither one got what they wanted. “I wish we’d been the next Rolling Stones,” Jorma Kaukonen laughs. But his band Hot Tuna made out pretty good anyway. “I guess the good news is that we got to make a bunch of albums.”
Kaukonen and pal Jack Casady got their rock ‘n’ roll credentials and admission into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame through their other band, Jefferson Airplane. “It’s real seductive stuff,” Kaukonen says of the fame that came from working with the Airplane. “And you get used to that kind of thing. But when it really ceased to be fun for me on any level, which was 1972, I quit.”
The Airplane went on in various incarnations, but Hot Tuna proved to be the music that has endured for over three decades. There was a brief layoff, but Kaukonen says Tuna never really broke up. “There was maybe a five year period where we maybe didn’t play together a lot, and a couple of years where we didn’t play together at all. But since ’85, regardless of what other projects we’ve had going on, we’ve always had Hot Tuna gigs.”
Although drummers, harp players and even violinist Papa John Creach have wandered in and out over the years, Kaukonen and Casady have always been the core band. “Jack’s my oldest pal,” Kaukonen says of Casady, who he enlisted to play with him in the Airplane in 1965 for 50 bucks a week. “We’ve been playing together since the late ’50s. He’s a great bass player. He has an intuitive way to go to what I consider interesting places.” Kaukonen praises Casady’s flexibility and ability to provide a melodic groove to traditional music where most bassists are mere bottom feeders.
Traditional music was and is the roots of Hot Tuna. But from ’71 to ’76, which Casady and Kaukonen have called their metal period, the music was as electric and psychedelic as the Airplane. Hot Tuna is now back to its acoustic sound, more or less. “Acoustic is my first love,” Kaukonen says. “That said, none of us play wooden music, or ‘unplugged’ music hardly. So my ‘acoustic’ guitar not only has a transducer but also has a humbucker under the neck.”
Tuna still has a traditional sound, with Kaukonen’s intricate fingerpicking and Casady’s melodic, adventuresome bass enhanced with the addition of mandolinist/banjoist Barry Mitterhoff.
Despite his dedication to tradition, Kaukonen had said that his rock ‘n’ roll past had been keeping him out of the more authentic festivals. But since playing MerleFest, Hot Tuna has become an in-demand band on the bluegrass/folk circuit. When not touring, Kaukonen and Casady can usually be found teaching music at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, a 17-cabin music retreat in a rural county in southeastern Ohio.
Kaukonen says his goal is instruction without intimidation. In his school, you don’t need a blessing from some exalted being to play music. “I don’t think it started out by guys considering themselves to be chop heads and all that stuff,” the guitarist says. “They were just sitting on the back porch, playing guitar. That’s the way I learned, and that’s the way I try to teach it.”
Hot Tuna plays two acoustic sets at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh Friday, July 8 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of show.