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The high priest of found sound
Joe Craven can make music with just about anything
"I call myself a self-appointed arts activist," Joe Craven says.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more versatile musician than Joe Craven. He spent 17 years as the fiddler, percussionist and second mandolin player in the David Grisman Quintet, and is an ace guitarist, banjo and ukulele picker, and a high lonesome vocalist right out of the top drawer.

There’s so much more to Joe Craven, though. He’s at Randy Wood Guitars on the 15th, and he’ll unpack – and play – a motley assortment of “instruments,” everything from spoons to squeeze toys, from to Jell–o molds and cake pans to old boots and garden tools.

Craven’s professional partners in the string music universe have included Stephane Grappelli, Jerry Garcia, Alison Brown and Psychograss, and he’s recorded loudly–praised CDs of cover tunes running the gamut from Django Reinhardt to the Stanley Brothers.

He sees his mission, however, as spreading the gospel that music – art, expression and creative discovery – is in everyone. He’s a musicologist, historian and archivist whose shows are equal parts inspiring concert and motivational speaking and you–can–do–it encouragement.

And humor. Joe Craven is a very, very funny guy.

I’ve heard your motivational talks; you’re passionate about art in all its forms. Tell me why?

Joe Craven: I call myself a self–appointed arts activist. There are many, many definitions for what art can be for people. And they all have validity. But I love the idea that it’s a problem–solving mechanism. And if you see that as its motus operandi, you begin to see how important having art in our education system really needs to be. But in our public education system, art for some people is an enhancement; it’s something tangential to more fundamental, important curriculum.

Yet ironically, something that promotes critical thinking, flexibility and problem–solving really needs to be put at the bedrock of fundamental education, rather than this bottom–feeder activity that’s the first to get whacked on the chopping block. I fully subscribe to the notion that creativity is more important than literacy.

How did the notion of “found sound” come into your sphere?

Joe Craven: One of the things that’s really important with this is the notion of play – validating play, as in being playful, as in being experimental, as in that childlike wonder combined with the discipline of an adult. That beautiful marriage that can open up all these possibilities.

The “found sound” arena is a result of that kind of playful observation – the idea that the music is you, it’s not the object. It’s not the thing, it’s what you bring to it that makes for effective expression.

It started in recording sessions, where we were needing certain percussive sounds. I’ve always had this playful sense about me. We were doing a Charlie Parker piece, some folks and I, and we needed a drummer to do brushwork, like on a snare. Swing a backbeat. And I had been playing, between takes, with my fiddle case. It had a Cordura covering, with a very pronounced texture, and I was rubbing it and creating brush sounds. I realized OK, there’s the snare, but I need a hi–hat sound. So I imitated it with my mouth. And basically I said “Hey about this?” We tracked it, and everybody said “Damn. That’s great.” Not only is it really cool, but it’s sonically refreshing from the predictable.

I watched a clip of you playing a bundt cake pan. Can you look at something and think, mathematically, it has some musical value? Or do you just start banging on it and see what happens?

Joe Craven: You bang on it and see what happens! There are visual things: You look at an angel food cake pan, a bundt pan or whatever, and it has this architecture – it has this bell–like quality.

And the shaft down the middle, there’s the thing I grip. And I have a ring on my finger, so I can sit there as I’m holding it and tap that metal–on–metal. And my other hand beats the outside. And there’s a pitch to it, so I can sing to the pitch of the pan.

But you never know. It’s like I tell my students: You can’t win if you don’t enter. And you must be present to win.
It’s this thing of why not? And then really bring all your faculties to the process.

Because the object is the object. What comes from the object is what you bring to it. So if you really want to see the potential of something, there’s a responsibility there to bring everything you can to it. When you do that, you either get “Nah.”

Or you get “Holy shit, man, this is incredible.”

Is fiddle your primary instrument? Is that how you started?

Joe Craven: I have no primary. It’s all part of my toolbox. To use the old cliche  line, I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I’m not real focused on any one thing, but I get around on all of ‘em, and I just delight in having them serve this bigger idea.

You’ll be back in March, for the Savannah Music Festival. You’ve been there before — what will you be doing at this year’s festival?

Joe Craven: I’m going to be curating some stuff with three other percussionists, all of them great. All of us are very diverse from one another.

I’m also going to be interviewing Bela Fleck onstage, which will be fun too. And I’ve done some performing at the festival — the first time I was there was with Grisman.

Joe Craven

Where: Randy Wood Guitars, 1304 E. Highway 80, Bloomingdale

When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15

Tickets: $20

Phone: (912) 748–1930

Artist’s Web site: