Frank McDermot

Blue Eagle Music owner Frank McDermot sits on the bench he often occupied with local musician J.D. Hutchison. Fans and friends have been leaving memorials on the bench since Hutchison's death Nov. 2.

The tight-knit Athens music community took a major hit Tuesday, Nov. 2, when singer/songwriter/picker/raconteur/bandleader J.D. Hutchison succumbed to cancer. In late October as word spread that Hutchison’s time was short, tributes flooded social media from near and far. They haven’t stopped since his passing.

Like so many others, I had tremendous respect and admiration for John, both as a person and a musician. He was among the most interesting, funny, iconoclastic and massively talented individuals I’ve ever known. He couldn’t speak a line of song or sentence without injecting a dollop of his singular perspective and wit into it.

I first experienced J.D. Hutchison around 1977 when his bluegrass band, the Hutchison Brothers, played at Swanky’s, the popular college dive-bar on South Court Street. The Hutchison Brothers performed their hardcore bluegrass (none of that hippie stuff!) to a packed audience of Rolling Rock-swilling Ohio University students. The show sizzled, with J.D.’s dynamic singing and playing complemented by his tight and talented band.

Years later, in 1985, after moving from southwest Colorado to Wheeling, W.Va., my wife and I attended a raucous outdoor show in nearby Belmont County, Ohio (“all the roast pig you can eat for $5” and plenty of beer and whisky), featuring J.D. Hutchison playing solo. The event took place in a field near Barnesville, the hometown of John and his brother and bandmate Bob (aka Zeke or Sour Bob), who himself passed away on Aug. 2 in Belmont County). John played his well-used acoustic guitar with aggressive control, plucking out crystalline bell-clear notes and runs that neither I nor anyone else ever saw coming. When he sang, often a certain word at the end of a line would contain two or three more syllables than I thought it had.

An article in the April 1977 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine captured some of what anyone attending a J.D. Hutchison or Hutchison Brothers’ show would have heard at the time or later. “Although you might expect one of John’s temperament to be the most obviously involved, tense and nervous,” article author Marty Godbey wrote, “onstage John becomes half madman, half showman, with intense mournful ballads of his own construction followed by manic doubletalk and some very funny craziness.”

An article in Bluegrass Unlimited this past summer (“Walking the Same Path,” July 1) contains ample information about ’70s era J.D., Bob, the Hutchison Brothers Band, and their dad, John W., aka The Seed.)

Around 1985, we attended the Nashville wedding of two old friends from out West, with one of their friends, Robert Earl Keen, performing at the reception. Robert, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who later made it big in Americana/folk music, was thrilled to hear that we knew of his friend J.D. Hutchison. They became pals when both performed in a cowboy theatrical project in Austin, Texas, in the early ’80s. Keen thought enough of John to ask him to write the liner notes for Keen’s first album, “No Kinda Dancer.” Small world indeed. Keen covered the J.D. Hutchison song, “Coming Home of the Son and Brother,” on his 1997 album, “Picnic.”

I’M NOT SURE WHEN JOHN/J.D. settled down in Athens, but it seems like he was here for the vast majority of my tenure as editor of The Athens NEWS, from spring 1986 to my retirement 34 years later. For many years, John was a frequent occupant of the bench in front of Blue Eagle Music on North Court Street, as well as the outdoor tables at Donkey Coffee in Athens. According to Bluegrass Unlimited articles, Hutchison spent ample time in Athens in the ’60s and ’70s as well.

The first time I remember meeting John was in the ’90s when I allowed a misspelling of his name (“Hutchinson”) to slip into The Athens NEWS. He came into the newsroom and politely but firmly requested a correction. H-U-T-C-H-I-S-O-N. I heard later that he had a pet peeve about folks getting his name wrong. (I recently noticed an errant “Hutchinson” in a local article that mentioned J.D. Tsk tsk.)

Over the years in Athens, I witnessed dozens of performances by J.D. Hutchison, either solo, with his band Realbilly Jive, or as a guest with other performers. He never failed to entertain with his singing and playing, and not to be missed, his offbeat jokes and stories. His banter often had a political edge, skewering the rich and powerful.

I still own and treasure J.D.’s first two Realbilly Jive albums, recorded around the turn of the century, plus digital files of the two Hutchison Brothers’ albums from the ’70s. Another of John’s many talents was being able to gather stellar musicians around him throughout his career – including the finest players in the Athens area.

A COUPLE YEARS AGO, I INTERVIEWED J.D. and his friend and former protege Tim O’Brien. The bluegrass music legend grew up in Wheeling, and he and Hutchison met there in the early ’70s. In April 2019, O’Brien came to Athens (actually Peach Fork Studios in nearby Meigs County) to help J.D. and Realbilly Jive record a third album, “You and the World Outside.” O’Brien, whose innovative Colorado-based band Hot Rize rose to the top of the bluegrass world in the late ’70s and ’80s (and recorded three of J.D.’s songs), produced the album and played and sang on some cuts. That interview retraced many details of Hutchison’s early musical career in the Ohio Valley.

In the interview, O’Brien summarized J.D.’s approach to songwriting. Hutchison, O’Brien said, was “a contemporary songwriter who found a way to write new bluegrass material that sat right in the tradition, at a time when the norm was to go into a more progressive direction.

“He came from the roots naturally, having parents who played and sang traditional music, and he honored that but didn't let it limit him,” O’Brien said.

The album was financed through a crowd-sourcing campaign, which J.D. was happy to employ even if he wasn’t sure what that meant. “I’m so retro, man, being born right before they invented water,” he said in the April 2019 interview. “I started thinking people are talking about Kickstarter, and I’m thinking who would want to kick-start an old geezer for anything unless it’s getting him away from the dinner table.”

In that interview, Hutchison talked about playing in the Hutchison Brothers back in the day.

“We had some fun,” Hutchison recalled. “Our little band we had, we had a full complement of players. We were rocking around just trying to stay alive without having somebody having to go into some factory or something. You know we weren’t making enough money hardly to get by. In a good week you’d make $125 or $150.”

The 1977 Bluegrass Unlimited article described the joys of attending a Hutchison Brothers show: “Even a crowd that is ignorant of the superlative musicianship of the group can be whipped into a frenzy by the extraordinary sense of pace that balances John’s duets with Peach or Zeke against an occasional trio and infrequent but earth-shattering gospel quartets.”

The clearer recollections, however, are the many shows I witnessed of J.D. solo or with Realbilly Jive in Athens, or just running into John on Court Street and engaging in a quick but memorable back and forth. His sharp and singular wit carried the same sort of striking resonance as one of his pinging guitar fills.

J.D. Hutchison is gone now but he’s not lost and he won’t be forgotten for a very long time. Rest in peace, John.

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