PICKING AT THE ROOTS. Tony Furtado began playing guitar and piano in sixth grade, following the learning machine that had been in place for generations. But when a music teacher had him build a banjo of his own, he fell in love with the plucky-sounding instrument.

"I was interested in the inner workings and that led me to the creative process," says the multi-instrumentalist who plays a grab bag of folk, blues and jazz improvisations, re-mixes of old time Appalachian and prison work songs, Celtic, swing, Jamband, Cajun and Latin. Call it New American Roots music--that's as close as you get to a single moniker. Think Ry Cooder, David Grisman and Jerry Garcia rolled into one.

By his teens, Furtado had won a pair of National Bluegrass Banjo championships. His career began touring and recording with String Cheese Incident, Alison Krauss, David Lindley and Leftover Salmon.

A whiz on stringed instruments--mandolin, banjo, guitar--Furtado's prowess is evident, either using a flat-pick or finger-pick approach.

"But the slide guitar--now that's completely different. I remember my first slide. I went out and bought it and right away, I dropped the thing and it broke. So I decided it'd be easier and cheaper to just make one.

"You take a glass cutter, put it around the neck of a nice long bottle, long enough for your fingers to fit through. You score it, then put it over a flame. Once you break it, you stick it in ice water. Then you rub the rough edge on the sidewalk and smooth it out."

To hear that slippery, slidey, twang on "Oh Berta, Berta," off of his latest album American Gypsy, you have to realize that Furtado taught himself how to play slide guitar just eight or nine years ago. It was a pretty obvious draw.

"What is it that old slide players say? It has to do with its lyrical sound, like a voice."

Furtado's been performing for 15 years. Seven years ago, he started headlining his own bands. The incarnation of Tony Furtado and the American Gypsies formed in early 2002. Their newest CD, to be released in September, takes on more of the same nomadic music. Titled simply Live Gypsy, it captures the Furtado mishmash on the road.

"I love playing live. Every year I do something different to keep it growing. Now you'll hear lots more lyrics."

He's not just singing traditional songs.

"I'm writing to the guitar--electric but of course, also the slide guitar. The other guitarist in my band recommended that I sit down with a bass and I may write better, it may help with the creative process."

The mix of American roots is a springboard, explains Furtado.

"The strongest songs come to me all at once. I can be sitting around messing with a melody and the words follow. Recently, I've been writing the lyrics first--that's fun. I'm finding my own way. This next album is all stuff I've written.

"Y'know, I'm a child of the '80s," he adds. "I grew up listening to whatever had a banjo in it, but also I was watching MTV and listening to pop music on the radio. I was a weird kid, practicing my banjo all day, listening to old jazz, be-bop, Irish and Cajun music. It's not like I was living in the South, either. I grew up in Pleasanton in the Bay Area. Here I was this strange, banjo-picking loner. The cool thing is, you can hear American Roots anywhere."

That's what Furtado says is the amazing thing about Roots music, no matter what roots you're pulling.

"Everything's seriously influenced by it. Go back before regular blues, stuff that came out of Appalachia or Ireland or Celtic music. Most of the time people are just responding to the old time stuff. The deep, deep Mississippi blues music. Like Muddy Waters. It's such a tradition.

So what nerve is it hitting?

"That's a great question. It's a very primal thing. It's not terribly cerebral. Like the old prison work songs. It's just about staying alive, full of guts and feelings. Maybe there's a cryptic or symbolic line in it. You think they're talking about a woman, a lover, and really they're referring to the prison guard. The rhythm is so soulful."

Furtado takes those old songs and modernizes them.

"Our band is kind of a rock-and-roll band with roots. Listen deeper and you hear the old songs. The original 'Oh Berta, Berta' is vastly different from ours. The prisoners singing it might have been slamming out the rhythms with hammers. I replace it with drums. I've got the instruments to alter the tradition. It's an influence, not recreation," says Furtado of the pomo stylizing.

"It's about keeping a language alive."

Tony Furtado and the American Gypsies show up in Tucson on Saturday, Aug. 23, at 8 p.m., for the Tucson Museum of Art courtyard concert series at 140 N. Main Ave. The local Bluegrass Flat Picking Champion Greg Morton brings his trio to open the show. Tickets cost $15 at the door or $12 in advance at Antigone Books, Brew & Vine, CD City and Enchanted Earthworks or online at www.dotucson.com. Call the folks at Rhythm & Roots at 297-9133 for all your questions.

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