Johnny Staats received an unusual amount of media attention leading up to the March release of Wires & Wood, his Giant Records debut. Much of the focus in reports by such high-profile sources as The New York Times, People and the CBS Evening News has been on Staats’ day job as a UPS driver, but what ultimately matters is his extraordinary music.
Staats grew up in Jackson County, where he still lives, listening to Bill Monroe. He started his first band, Bluegrass Heritage, when he was seven. After years on the festival circuit, Staats came to the attention of the right people when he won both the guitar and mandolin categories at the 1996 Vandalia Festival in Charleston, West Virginia. Andy Ridenour, producer of the syndicated radio program “Mountain Stage”, immediately put Staats on his show; band director Ron Sowell was, to put it simply, “blown away.”
“He’s an incredibly gifted player,” Sowell says, “being on ‘Mountain Stage’, I’ve heard the best in the world, and he’s one of the best.” Inspired, Sowell took Staats to Nashville and hooked him up with John Van Meter, who eventually co-produced (with Sowell) Wires & Wood.
While many a talented contest winner has failed to translate live energy into studio magic, Wires & Wood is a keeper, a joyous and heartfelt celebration that goes well beyond the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. “I like the term Americana,” Staats says. “It encompasses a lot of things — bluegrass, country, folk. Hopefully, we’re starting something that more people will follow.”
Any album that features the kind of guest list Staats attracted — Tim O’Brien, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Kathy Mattea, Sara Evans — is bound to have plenty of followers. But Wires & Wood is a distinctive, visionary album, not just a forum for celebrity cameos. In addition to the expected instrumental nuggets (which showcase Staats’ stunning range, from the breakneck “Mandolin Meltdown” to the lilting “Jessica’s Lullaby”), Staats honors his roots with a driving, passionate reading of Billy Ed Wheeler’s West Virginia classic, “Coal Tattoo”.
Staats’ singing, for those familiar only with his nimble chops, comes as a revelation. He finds a sweet yet dusty middle ground between the cool sophistication of Tony Rice and the backwoods soul of John Cowan, who Staats calls “my very favorite singer.”
In fact, the album’s high water mark occurs when Cowan, along with Tim O’Brien, offers high lonesome harmony on the title track, a deftly composed (by Van Meter, Sowell, Jon Ely and Tim Bays) and beautifully performed statement of purpose. Its gentle, loping melody is reminiscent of “Satisfied Mind”, and the lyrics strike a deep, immediate chord. It’s the kind of song destined to become a festival classic, both onstage and around the campfire: “If I had the money, if I had my say/I’d just sit right here/and make music all day/It lifts up my mind/runs deep in my blood/When I lay my hands on wires and wood.”