Peace, Soul & Rock 'n' Roll
A rough draft of this article was unprofessionally published in the first print issue of the 2019-20 academic year. The revised copy below will be reprinted in Issue 2, which is scheduled to release mid-November. On behalf of the entire Backdrop staff, Editor-in-chief Ally Lanasa has sent her sincerest apologies to the Kaukonens for the series of inaccuracies in the originally published article.
Ally Lanasa and Elena Golubovich
Perched on the edge of the Ohio River is the old coal town of Pomeroy, just 24 miles south of Athens. The county seat of Meigs County is the current home to Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen, who founded Fur Peace Ranch in 1989. Fur Peace Ranch serves as a music camp for musicians to learn from renowned performers such as Jack Casady, G.E. Smith, David Lindley, Steve Kimock, Bob Margolin, Chris Smither, Peter Rowan and, of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Jorma Kaukonen.
“[At] the beginning, it was a way for Jorma to give back to his fan base,” Vanessa says. “Jorma said, ‘Help me run this school. Let’s give back to these guys who have been paying for our tickets for the last 50 years.’”
Jorma, a Grammy-nominated pioneer of psychedelic rock, has more than half a century of experience in the music industry and excels in a variety of instrumental techniques that he shares with his students. Fur Peace Ranch offers instruction for varying musical styles on an assortment of instruments, including mandolin, banjo and guitar. Its name came from Jorma’s belief that the ranch is “a fur piece from anywhere,” meaning, “it’s a long way from anywhere.”
Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Jorma was an avid fan of musicians like Buddy Holly, a 1950s rock ’n’ roll star, who influenced blues and rhythm. Jorma’s parents also inspired him to listen to gospel music, although they weren’t religious. As a teenager, he learned guitar alongside his neighbor Jack Casady, who would become his band member in the counter-culture psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane and still-touring Hot Tuna. Together, they discovered the array of music played in clubs and concerts in the nation’s capital and bonded over a love for blues, country and jazz.
After high school, Jorma attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he met Ian Buchanan, who introduced him to the fingerstyle fretwork of the Reverend Gary Davis. Then, a work-study program in New York expanded Jorma’s interests in American folk and blues and increased his skillset as a guitarist.
Jorma continued his education at Santa Clara University in the 1960s, where he met rhythm guitarist Paul Kanter. In 1965, they founded Jefferson Airplane in the San Francisco Bay area with Marty Balin. Shortly after, Jorma called in his childhood friend Jack Casady, who was still living in D.C., to audition as the electric bassist. The famous mezzo vocalist Grace Slick joined the band after the release of its first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” in 1966. During Jefferson Airplane’s career, Jorma and Casady often played shows together at local clubs as an additional creative outlet. After striking a record deal, the masterful duo formed Hot Tuna in 1969.
During one of Hot Tuna’s concerts in Key West, Florida, in summer 1988, Jorma met Vanessa. After his set, Vanessa was invited backstage where she promised to take Jorma on a sailing trip—despite not owning a boat—in hopes to impress him. After frantic calls to friends, she finally found a boat to borrow and took Jorma and his band on the water. The two connected through their love of music and were married later that year. They moved to L.A. where Jorma was partaking in the Jefferson Airplane reunion of 1989. Following the reunion, the Kaukonens moved back to Jorma’s place in Woodstock, New York, for two years. While living in Woodstock, they learned about an offer for a piece of land in Meigs County.
Now after decades of running “a ranch that grows guitar players,” the Kaukonens have served over 4,000 repeat students. Jorma’s passion for education as a means of repaying the music community spans from the 1980s when he taught guitar classes, gave individual lessons and ran workshops with The New School for Social Research in New York, according to Boulder Weekly. As the co-owner, Vanessa is responsible for planning workshops, art shows and retreats for various organizations, which can range from two to six days. With a background in civil engineering, she built the ranch from its imaginative state into reality. Over the years, the Kaukonens have expanded their ranch with various attractions, including the Psylodelic Gallery, which is located in the towering silver silo at the edge of the property. The interior of the silo is a gleaming white pine with a gift shop on the first floor and spiral stairs leading to the second. Tie-dye bean bag chairs are pushed against the walls to make room for the collaged guitars being showcased in the middle of the room. The gallery houses revolving art shows as well as Jorma’s personal collection of posters, artifacts and photos from his musical career with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. The most popular features at Fur Peace Ranch are the workshops led by Jorma. Musicians travel from around the world to learn from the founding member of two legendary bands in a small and intimate setting. Single-occupancy cabins create a slow spiral formation behind the main buildings, employing the feng shui method that creates a flow of energy meant to inspire the students, who may practice on benches surrounding the fire pit.
“That community of like-minded spirits that not only love the same kind of music—more or less but the geeky stuff that comes along with being guitar players,” Jorma says. “You talk about strings or weird stuff that nobody else would talk about in a million years, but we talk about it.”
Jorma’s humble demeanor is the type of easy-going teaching style that encourages his students to explore their sound within a serene, yet unexpected environment.