Guitarist CJ Cain on Rocking, Picking, and Grooving

Jun 8, 2012

CJ Cain picked up the guitar at age 14 to learn to play rock. At 16, he went to a bluegrass festival and has been picking ever since. Today he plays for the Lexington bluegrass band NewTown- which will be playing at ROMP in Owensboro this month.

CJ Cain will be giving a guitar workshop on Saturday, June 30th at ROMP in Owensboro. Rose Krzton-Presson spoke with Cain about musical genres, festivals, and powerhouses.

Who were some of the people that influenced you?

The first people I saw play was The Seldom Scene that really interested me. Chris Eldridge was playing lead guitar. Typically The Scene, traditionally, didn’t have much of a lead guitar presence. But he still, today, is one of my top three favorite guitar players. I got into Tony Rice. I saw him a few months after The Seldom Scene. It was kind of all she wrote after that, you know. I was just really eaten up with a lot of different guitar players: Brian Sutton, Dan Tyminski, Tim Stafford, Jim Hurst, all those big players (in the bluegrass world, anyways).

Whenever you decided you wanted to play, did you think you’d become part of a bluegrass band, or were you just wanting to play?

Once I saw The Scene and Tony and all those guys, I was kind of over the rock-n-roll scene. I got really infatuated with acoustic and bluegrass. At that time, that was almost all I listened to. Now, not so much. I don’t really listen to bluegrass very often.

What do you listen to?

I listen to The Band and Levon Helm. I just really got into the idea that there wasn’t a whole lot of flashy solos. Mainly it was just like a collective sound. I think that gets lost sometimes in bluegrass. There are so many guys that can just wail on their instrument, but just putting five awesome musicians together doesn’t always mean that you’re going to get a good band out of it. I just really liked the way they looked at music. Like Levon Helm- mainly in his groove, like his rhythm and timing that he did, that he established for his group; I really likened it to Tony Rice in the bluegrass world. Tony’s main stamp on the guitar, to me, is what he did rhythmically, how he drove the band, and the groove of it. Levon was kind of the same way.

I looked at NewTown’s calendar for the summer. It looks like you're doing a lot of festivals. Do you guys normally do that in the summertime?

Yeah. That’s a big staple as of right now. We’re really trying to get to more places like ROMP where it’s not just a bluegrass festival. I think ROMP has a traditional base, but you’ve got all kinds of bands there: Punch Brothers and the [Carolina] Chocolate Drops. I always enjoy it when we are the most traditional band at a bluegrass festival as opposed to the most out-there kind of band. I think it’s fun to reverse the role.

What I really like about festivals is that you get to see the community within the genre. Not just festival-goers, but performers sitting around and picking and jamming. Do you see that as a performer yourself?

One of the first festivals the I actually saw that was a place out in Colorado called Rockygrass. They have an academy there. The teachers are typically the performers on the weekend. So they’re hanging out all week. Everybody gets an opportunity to get an up-close jam experience with some of the top players. I know I met Sarah Jarosz and Sam Grisman and Dominick Leslie. There’s been so many good players at the top of the game. To see what they’ve done since then is pretty amazing.

If you could jam or pick with anyone, who would it be?

Especially since I’ve gotten into songwriting. I would probably consider like… maybe John Prine. Even though he’s not really a known guitar player, I’d just like to try to write a tune. I’ve always been a big fan of him.