American Routes Shortcuts: Jeff Little
Pianist Jeff Little takes fiddle melodies and flat-pick guitar leads that he grew up hearing and plays them on the piano in lightning-fast runs. Emerging as a prodigy and player in North Carolina, Jeff Little went on to work as a Nashville session man. Toured with country artists, including Keith Urban and John Michael Montgomery, and continued his solo gig. After twenty years in Nashville, he returned to Appalachia as an educator. Jeff told us about his mentors at his dad's music shop in the Blue Ridge.
Jeff Little: I'm originally from Boone, North Carolina, which is in the northwest corner. My family had a music store there, and there would be all sorts of great players in there all the time in downtown Boone, and my father actually played with Doc Watson before I was born, and they were great friends. And another great guitarist who was in there all the time was Wayne Henderson, who's a great luthier as well, and then there would just be all sorts of players in there, you know? It was like the gathering place, but ever since I can remember, like they say, like I was six or seven years old, I had that opportunity to sit in with those kind of musicians.
Nick Spitzer: Well, you've spoken of people that play guitar and we think of fiddle tunes, and we think of flat-picking along with fiddle tunes at a high rate of speed. How did you end up as somebody on the piano?
JL: My dad plays a lot of instruments, including piano. So, he was a piano player, and there would be a couple of other piano players in there that would sit in on that kind of music, but the other thing was, first of all, I think it came the easiest. I always tell this little story on stage sometimes if I'm talking about, you know, kind of where this style comes from it’s like, you know, if Doc Watson's there, Wayne Henderson's there, why in the world would anybody pick up a guitar, first of all.
NS: Tell me about Doc. Your first encounters with Doc and how you played together over time?
JL: I guess at my home, or even in the store, I remember Doc, and by the time I started sitting in with Doc, I could play a little bit. Pretty decent at eight or nine years old, and so, I never knew him anymore, really as a friend first, and a friend of the family first.
NS: Kind of like an uncle.
JL: Exactly, but also, I knew how musically talented he was. He was the best musician at that point I had ever seen or played with. It was impeccable, and so, we started playing like that, and then later on, when I got in high school, I'd do some local things with Doc. And that became a really cool thing because we would just sit down, and believe it or not, piano and guitar, and that's where I thought, you know, this piano really fits if you make it feel correctly with this music it really works, you know? I would be sitting there and him just doing those, kind of, intricate runs, and things on the guitar, and I would try to emulate those with my right hand much more than—more of like the chord kind of based solos you hear sometime on the piano. So, it's like more of one individual note after another like Doc might do or other guitarists that play kind of like that traditional flat-picking.
NS: But those fiddle tunes, as played on the guitar, go very fast.
NS: You are playing very, as some people would call it, 'notey' music.
JL: Well, it's true. It's kind of interesting, because if I do- even if I do, maybe, a blues tune or a boogie-woogie tune, which I love to play as well, my solos tend to be more note oriented at that point. The bass notes may sound more like a bass and then the other part of the chord may sound more like a mandolin chop or that type of rhythm, or a thumb pick guitar. The intricate things with the right hand is fun to do, but really what sets it all up, is making sure the left hand is exactly in time.
JL: Nothing's clean if it's not, like, right in the pocket all the time.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.