John Harrelson

Biography

He was born in a cross-fire hurricane or something like that. Yeah, living ain't easy, but he's learned lots doing it. Maybe he'll even tell you about it when he died.

"If music had calories, I'd weigh ten-thousand pounds." JWH.

Start with today, he says.

This after we confess to writer's block: "There's too much to tell!"

Today, he suggests. Always good advice, but not the most common when approaching a biography. Most people want to start at the beginning. Give the D.O.B. and move on from there-crawling, walking, talking, so forth. But the man is all about turning things upside down and, knowing his track record, we take the advice; we follow his lead.

And so today: Today, after slowly coming to his feet and tugging on his boots, after a cup of black and a smoke (or two), John William Harrelson teaches some classes. Courses in the history of Rock and Roll, of Jazz, of Music in America and beyond. Courses that SoCal college kids have the good fortune to find themselves attending, learning the who-what-when-and-where's of that thing that means so much to them, yet they know so little about.

Harrelson brings to the podium years of both scholarly and practical knowledge. Part professor, part player, he's that rare bird in academia who can walk it and talk it, having earned his PhD in Historical Musicology at Claremont Graduate School in 2000 and his street stripes over nearly five decades as a musician, performer, songwriter, instructor, writer and producer.

On any given day he can be found doing any one--or all--of these things. He continues to perfect his considerable skills as a master of the guitar (all styles) and keyboard (piano, organ, synth, etc.). He finds time to push the harmonica new places and is continually adding (increasingly exotic) instruments to the list of those he can play: vibraphone, sax, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, bass, an array of percussion, flute, dulcimer, koto, tampoura, rebab, and others.

All these skills, all this knowledge, adds up to an incredible surplus of value when Harrelson's in the studio, wearing his producer hat (more like a beret). In that mode, he's all about the song, bringing to bear an archivist's knowledge of the form, pushing for shape, sharpening the hooks. And with all those instruments in his back pocket, there's often no need for hired guns; he layers the tracks with his own arsenal of instrumental know-how.

His demand as a producer is ever-growing. The five most recently completed projects demonstrate his range of styles and interest, covering punk, rock, folk, blues and metal. A CD of Afghan folk music, produced in 2000, was a European success. His list of future projects is equally eclectic, promising to run the range from the raw to the sublime, and always fat with soul.

And while the studio can be called his second home, his first home is the stage. Still performing on a weekly basis, Harrelson has logged countless hours in front of audiences around the country, and abroad (while researching in London, he opened for folk legend Davey Graham). He racked up a lot a stage time throughout the 90's playing with the blues band Blue H'wy, but his history as a showman dates back to the mid-sixties, when he first performed "Long Tall Shorty" in front of an audience.

In the ensuing decades, he rocked house after house. Fact is, few musicians have opened for as many major acts as Harrelson. The list includes: The Leaves, The Flaming Groovies, The Animals, Janis Joplin, Zeppelin, CCR, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, John Mayall, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Doug Kershaw, The Fabulous T-birds, and Peter Case. And recently, he was offered slots with John Mayer and Norah Jones.

While all that was going on, he was not deterred from earning his BA and then PhD (his thesis is a 300-page overview of music in America)-not even by a heart attack in 1988, which set him up for quadruple by-pass surgery soon after. Still (some ways) in recovery, he rocks on, his passion for the music stronger than ever. Playing, teaching, producing, and now writing a book (excerpted throughout this site), John Harrelson is letting it roll, further complicating his bio and the lives of those faced with the daunting tasked of writing it.