PICTURED: Patrick Sauber, Mark Fain, John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen of the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band. Photo by Mike Melnyk

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

If 2020 had been a typical year, the 26th Annual Ventura Music Festival would have been kicking off this weekend. This summer is unlike any other, of course, and so VMF has moved its programming online with the Music Connects digital concert series. The festival did manage to put together one live show, however, thanks to the Ventura County Fairgrounds and its drive-in entertainment technology.

VMF in partnership with Concerts in Your Car will present the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band aka J2B2 on Thursday, July 16, and its multitalented founder can’t wait.

“To get a call saying, ‘we want you to play,’ that’s phenomenal,” says Jorgenson, whose last gig was in March. “My friends around the country are jealous!”

Jorgenson, who lives in Ventura, has seen plenty of phenomenal things in his time. He founded the country rock Desert Rose Band with Herb Pedersen and Chris Hillman (legends in their own right), shredded with session guitarists as a member of the Hellecasters, and has played on stage or in the studio with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Elton John, even Luciano Pavarotti (among many others). 

With folk, bluegrass, country, pop, rock, jazz and classical in his repertoire, mastery of nine instruments under his belt and five different bands with which he performs, there are few musicians who can match Jorgenson’s versatility.

“I’ve always had multiple musical personalities,” he says. Jorgenson was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but grew up in Redlands in a classical music family. He started studying piano at the age of 4 and clarinet at 8. His degree from University of Redlands is in woodwind performance (bassoon, clarinet and saxophone), but he also played in rock bands.  

His first professional gig was, oddly enough, at Disneyland.

“I had just graduated high school, and I was supposed to go to Florida to work at Disney World,” Jorgenson recalls. “But at 17, I was too young to cross state lines.” So he began working as a musician at the Anaheim park, performing clarinet with the Main Street Maniacs. “Once I met people in the entertainment department, I got on their radar.”

Summer jobs and short-term gigs followed, with Jorgenson playing Dixieland, bluegrass and swing throughout the park. He was part of a group hired to perform bluegrass music at the brand-new Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1979.

“It started as a temp position,” he says. “Originally, it was just six weeks, entertaining people in line for a new ride. They ended up keeping us on for eight-nine years.”

While Jorgenson looks on that time fondly, acknowledging the benefits of steady work and the opportunity to “learn as you earn,” he had other ambitions. Days at Disneyland were often followed by nights playing in Hollywood clubs. 

He eventually crossed paths with renowned mandolin player David Grisman. The two of them were jamming together at a NAMM Show (one of the world’s largest trade shows, put on by the National Association of Music Merchants) when Chris Hillman (of the Byrds) came by.

John Jorgenson performs at the Ventura County Fairgrounds with his bluegrass band J2B2 on July 16. Photo by Mike Melnyk

Talent calls to talent, and before long, Hillman and Jorgenson formed the Desert Rose Band with Herb Pedersen. The band enjoyed success — particularly on the country charts — throughout the 1980s, and Jorgenson was named Guitarist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1990 and 1991.

Always seeking new sounds and experiences, however, Jorgenson left the Desert Rose Band to form the Hellecasters, and later spent six years touring and recording with Elton John.

“I’ve been able to be with him around a couple of his peak periods,” Jorgenson says. “Through him I ended up playing with Sting and Billy Joel, Luciano Pavarotti even. One meeting and one opportunity leads to the next.”

Through the years, Jorgenson has followed the various muses that call to him. In addition to J2B2, he has his electric band and two separate trios. With his John Jorgenson Quintet, he’s been able to pay homage to one of his favorite musicians: Django Reinhardt.

“When I was playing guitar early on, it was mostly electric,” Jorgenson says. “Then I got interested in acoustic. I was looking for an acoustic guitarist that had the same excitement as Jimi Hendrix.” 

He found it with Reinhardt: “He was just as exciting and fiery and emotional and driving. It was very powerful . . . That showed me what was possible on acoustic guitar.” 

But for the July 16 show with J2B2, it will be all bluegrass, with expert picking and multi-part harmonies courtesy of Jorgenson on mandolin, Pedersen on banjo, Patrick Sauber on acoustic guitar and bassist Simon Planting (of the quintet) stepping in for Mark Fain.

“I’m really glad to be able to play in my hometown,” Jorgenson says, but admits feeling a little intimidated by the drive-in format. “I’m anxious and I’m a little nervous, too. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

But if this is the new normal, he’s up for it — and hopes the audience is, too.

“It will be a different sort of big deal for everyone.”

See the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band on Thursday, July 16, at 8 p.m. at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For tickets and more information, visit venturamusicfestival.org/special-events/vmf-at-the-drive-in.