When it comes to folk, old-time, and bluegrass music, there are few players that can compete with Jody Stecher. Since the 1960s, Stecher and his recordings have been credited by an entire generation of players from David Bromberg to David Grisman for introducing them to those original songs and music, and his enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject is seldom approached, much less matched. If the worth of a person is measured by the lives they’ve touched and influenced, then Jody Stecher’s worth makes him a rich man, indeed.
To listen to Jody Stecher is to hear music that is pure and true, authentic in every detail. Like the old time music that inspires him, you have to listen beyond the surface in order to hear the subtleties and beauty. And it’s that search for beauty that propels his performances. Stecher said, “There is an unexamined idea that to sound modern, you have to sound ugly, or to sound modern, you have to sound really, really smooth because any edge is ugly. There are all these unexamined opinions and I think the best thing to do is to listen to the older music and hear how beautiful it is. Bluegrass music can accommodate anything, but I would prefer that it would be both more beautiful and more exciting.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1940s and 50s, Jody Stecher, whose last name is pronounced with a hard “K,” was surrounded by music and mandolins. Stecher explains, “There were mandolins in my family. I had a great aunt that played mandolin. I had a second cousin that played. There was also a guy who was married to a cousin, who was well known in the family as a mandolin player. So it was all around me.” In addition to the mandolin, Stecher came to soak up a myriad of musical influences and eventually became equally accomplished on the guitar, fiddle, banjo, and even classical Indian instruments like the sarod and sursringar.
Music was a big part of everyday life in the Stecher household. His father could play a couple of tunes on any instrument and his mother was a talented singer. But it was soon evident that Jody Stecher had a special aptitude for music. Because of this, he was encouraged by his family to take his music as far as he could. When he was 11, his great aunt gave him her mandolin and he even had the loan of an old Gibson A2 from a cousin. His mother let him use her small-bodied, flat-top guitar made by Raphael Ciani, who was an uncle and teacher of the famous guitar builder, John D’Angelico. Stecher said of this guitar, “It was very nice for a boy of 12 to play on.” It was just the right size for him.
Stecher mostly learned to play the different instruments by ear, though he did have a few guitar lessons to learn basic chord positions and right-hand patterns. When it came to the mandolin and bluegrass in particular, he explained, “I grew up listening to the radio. One song out of three or four was what we call bluegrass now, but back then it was just part of country music. So I heard it all the time. I just copied what I heard and then made up my own ideas.”
It wasn’t long before Stecher was playing and recording professionally. His first recording was in 1962 when he was 15 and it was a collection of bluegrass tunes called Banjo Time recorded for a local supermarket; the band was called the Banjo Band. He got a whopping $51 for doing it, but the names of the band members were left off the album.
It was during the 60s that he ran across another bluegrass mandolin player in the New York area and his name was David Grisman. They were even in a band together called the New York Ramblers, though Stecher ended up playing guitar in the band, and they’ve maintained a close friendship over the years. Stecher said, “Back then, I was in Brooklyn and he was in Passaic, New Jersey, which is a long way apart, but we knew each other and we’d come down to Washington Square to play bluegrass. It would be unthinkable today that he and I could be in the same group because we were both mandolin players, but I also play guitar and I didn’t care; I just wanted to play the music. So then we could play together. Even now, occasionally, David plays with his bluegrass band and sometimes his guitar player, Jim Nunnally, can’t do the gig because he is playing in other bands, so I’ve stepped in and played some shows. It’s always fun.”
Stecher finds his personal technique to be one that changes to suit the musical environment in which he finds himself. For him, it’s never a matter of “one size fits all.” Adaption is important to him. “To me, technique and expressiveness are partners. Technique enables expression to come out unfettered. When I play, either with friends or in performance or in a recording session, I don’t think about technique at all. The technique is what I practice, but when I play, I am playing with the mind of the singer and the technique is there to rely on.”
Stecher continued, “If I’m playing a song—and that means something with words—I have the words and the breathing in my mind, and I like to be able to play it how I would sing it. I always tell my students, at least be able to play with the singer does. But what a lot of instrumentalists do is dumb down the melody and they don’t hear what the singer is really doing. Just try to play what Carter Stanley sang; it’s not as simple as you think. There’s unusual timing and there are swoops and curves, and the melody is more subtle and complex than you’re taking it to be. On the other hand, I don’t play mandolin just like a vocalist, because then it would fall flat. You know, then I use the right hand. I don’t change the melody at all, but I add to it with right-hand strokes and give it some rhythm and it starts to sound like mandolin music. It gets very lively and it brings out the potential of the instrument. The mandolin just sounds so good with rapid strokes, including tremolo, which is really rapid strokes. It just sounds so wonderful.”
Stecher has always been a prolific composer and he has been able to take the forms and idioms of old-time and bluegrass and apply it to modern sentiments. In this way, his songs take on a patina of age and authenticity that very few people can match, and at the same time, they carry a relevance to our times.
As long as Stecher keeps performing and recording, he’ll be doing his part in making bluegrass and old-time music beautiful and exciting.