Interview with Tony Furtado

This week, Art of the Song is pleased to host Tony Furtado, an American banjo player, slide guitar player and singer/songwriter of Portuguese and Italian heritage who was born in Oakland, California.

Furtado became a banjo player in sixth grade after doing a report on the instrument, making a rough banjo out of household items and studying the history of it. At a young age he won a pair of National Bluegrass Banjo Championships.

As a young banjo player, Furtado found himself playing the genre of music most represented by the instrument – bluegrass. But all along, he was listening to everything from Celtic music, Jazz, American Folk as well as artists like Tom Petty and Jackson Browne. At the same time, he was delving into his parents collection of classic rock records (The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, etc…). At the ripe age of 19, Furtado had already earned himself a reputation as a young banjo prodigy. Yet Furtado decided that one genre wasn’t enough for him; creatively, he had something more to express.

Furtado then picked up the slide guitar and soon established that his dexterity transitioned with ease. Using fingers and a bottleneck, he absorbed everything he could from albums by Ry Cooder, Fred McDowell, David Lindley and Blind Willie Johnson. He was soon writing music with the slide guitar and featured it on his 1996 Rounder Records release, “Roll My Blues Away”. After a move to Colorado, where he based his band, “Tony Furtado Band” as well as “Tony Furtado and The American Gypsies”, Furtado started his “road-dog” life, playing as many as 250 days on the road. The music was mostly instrumental based, high energy folk-rock, but it wasn’t long before Furtado began writing songs. Though his previously released banjo albums featured the vocals of talents such as Allison Krauss, Tim O’Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps, this driven artist chose to add singer to his songwriter and instrumental titles.

Furtado’s 1987 win at the National Banjo Competition (a feat he would repeat in 1991) led to a touring sideman stint with bluegrass musician (fiddle) Laurie Lewis (Laurie Lewis and Grant Street) and the launch of his professional career. But, bluegrass was only one style of music that interested Mr. Furtado. He has spent his decades in the music business fusing bluegrass, country, rock, blues, jazz, and folk (both American and European) on his expanding instrument arsenal of banjo, guitar, slide guitar and voice.

He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.


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