Jonathan Warren and the Billy Goats - Not Your Ordinary Backwoods Story
If I were to tell you three things about Boise-based Americana band Jonathan Warren and the Billy Goats, you'd probably think I was simply tossing around some of the same old clichés we often hear about country, folk, or bluegrass music. Consider: The band only exists because someone's dog died, because Mel Bay wrote some very useful guitar books, and because a local Western-themed buffet restaurant provides good food at a reasonable price. Sound like some familiar themes?
I thought so.
But life and music ain't that simple, as you find out when you scratch the veneer off this band's story, listen to their tunes, and see them at work. That's when you find that Mr. Warren and his Billy Goats are anything but ordinary, and that they've got an honest, soulful sound that is well beyond their years.
A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Jonathan Warren has an enviable beard, a dog named Cletus, and a predilection for "foot stompin' music that makes you want to eat a biscuit." There's nothing really unique about that, considering the description could fit a lot of folks in the part of the country where he grew up. But there's something different about this guy.
For starters, if you talk with him awhile, you might notice that he lacks the heavy, distinct Tennessee accent you might expect. It's debatable whether this is by conscious choice or by his ongoing exposure to the civilized parts of Idaho, although every once in a while the Knoxville in him creeps back out, such as when he fails to give Ada County the long A sound and pronounces it Adda instead.
He also has a degree in therapeutic recreation from Georgia Southern. Yes, therapeutic recreation. I looked it up on the Interwebs and it does actually exist. Here's the curriculum sheet.
After graduating from Georgia Southern with such an estimable degree, Jonathan led backpacking trips in Northern Minnesota and Southwest New Mexico, after which he came to Idaho to serve as a wilderness guide for at-risk kids. As he puts it, his time in the boonies was a semi-futile attempt to put his college degree to use, which is enviable considering how so many people paid a lot of money for college degrees that have nothing to do with their occupations. His attempt to spread his therapeutic recreation expertise in Idaho only lasted a year, however, because he found the growing urge to play music just a little too great to be satisfied in the mountains of Idaho. Despite taking his Martin Backpacker guitar on the trips and coaxing the teenage campers into teaming up with him to sing the periodic radio reports he was required to provide to his program directors in Shoshone, Jonathan soon left the wilderness behind and found his way over to Boise, where he started looking for a band.
This is pretty remarkable, audacious even, when you learn that he didn't begin plucking a guitar and writing songs until just a few years earlier. Unlike most musicians, he didn't play in his childhood or even in his teens. Then in his early twenties he found himself quite beset by grief from the passing of his first dog. One of his friends, hoping to break Jonathan out of a prolonged funk, gave him a guitar for his college graduation and said that because he now had a guitar, he had to learn how to play it. So he did, he says, practicing "nearly every damn day," with a lot of help from those legendary Mel Bay instructional books and videos you used to see advertised on The Nashville Network in between Crook & Chase and Dukes of Hazzard reruns. He was 23, a late bloomer in the music world, as he says, but in the end the guitar did more than just soothe the pain of a departed canine; it got under his skin.
It was that itch he hoped to scratch when he escaped the wilderness and rolled into the more civilized parts of Idaho.
After playing a lot of solo gigs in coffee houses and wherever else he could find a microphone, he eventually met enough other musicians to form himself a little band. At first he had quite a problem figuring out what to name this new band, which is understandable since all the good names like the Oak Ridge Boys and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were already taken. But a chemical-fueled moment of genius solved this problem.
"When I started the band, the bass player's name was Billy," says Jonathan. "It was kind of a joke. I was in a bar and it was actually the night before I was going out into the desert for two weeks, and I had a few adult beverages. And I just thought, how about Jonathan Warren and the Billy Goats? Billy was stoked, and the name's appropriate. Billy didn't stick, but the name did."
That was around 2 1/2 years ago, and as was the case with Billy, a lot of musicians have come and gone from the Billy Goat world.
Part of the reason for that is the natural feeling-out process of new members and the fact that people move away, they lose interest, or they join up with someone else. But, as Jonathan admits, he's also rather particular about who he takes the stage with.
"I'm a bit of a muleskinner when it comes to my band," says Jonathan, talking about a musician or two who didn't represent the band very well and were shown the door. "It was a revolving lineup for awhile," he adds, "but this is the most stable it's been."
Part of the reason for this stability is Dave Sather-Smith, a smooth-voiced cellist from Jackson, Mississippi who has an affinity for the fedora. Like Warren, Sather-Smith migrated to Boise after graduating from college. Unlike Warren, Sather-Smith dared to venture across the Mason-Dixon line for his college experience, ending up at Western Illinois University. After getting a degree in vocal performance, Boise seemed to be a good option for where to go next.
"I wanted to move out West and I had some family in the area, and I'd heard that there was a good music scene, so I made my way out here," says Dave. He eventually met Jonathan at open mic night at Pengilly's, and not too long after that he became a Billy Goat.
If Warren is the heart and soul of the band, Sather-Smith is a big chunk of the backbone. His cello fills out the band's sound, and he writes his share of songs and puts his vocal talents to use as well. His affair with the cello started early.
"I started playing at six years old," he says. "I really liked the instrument, it sounded cool, and it was bigger than my sister's violin. I studied the Suzuki method, and I took it until I was seventeen years old. Then I stopped and set it down for about five years. I picked it back up when I moved to Boise."
The end result of those years of practice is an easygoing virtuosity that helps give the Billy Goats instant stage presence.
Mandolin/guitar player Ty Clayton and violinist Austin Clark round out the band. Ty met Jonathan when they were both serving as wilderness guides. He's currently in his second stint with the band, having spent the time away radio tagging deer and performing other wildlife-related tomfoolery. He says he still pays the bills by working in the botany field.
"Ty has come and gone, but he's back now," says Jonathan.
"I've played pretty solid for almost a year now," adds Ty.
Austin is the youngest member of the crew. He was introduced to the band by a banjo player named Tim Pennington, who played as a guest on the first Billy Goats album, You Just Relax Now, Honey.
You might not make a habit of looking very closely at violin players when you take in a musical show, but in this case it's highly recommended. Not just because he's a fine, strapping young lad, mind you. No, it's because he has one of the most beautiful instruments you've ever seen, and pictures hardly do it justice.
"It's actually a locally-made instrument," Austin says, showing off the beautiful wood coloration on the back of the violin. "Right off Rose Hill, a guy has a little violin shop. I met him at Sizzler. He goes there seven days a week. He's 73 years old, and he's been a carpenter his whole life. And one day he decided to start making violins. So I was in Sizzler one day eating and he was there with his violins showing them off, and I had him come over to the table and I played one there inside Sizzler. And then I got myself a job there, so I got to see him more often."
It was only a matter of time before Austin had to have a custom violin of his own.
"He names every violin he makes," says Austin. "He named this one the Austin City Limits, and I hope to one day bring it there."
Considering how good these guys sound together on stage, that's not out of the realm of possibility.
For now, life is good for Jonathan and his Billy Goats. They've got a regular Wednesday night gig at Pengilly's Saloon, and they're playing regular gigs around town at places like the Sockeye Brewery, Neurolux, Liquid, and Tom Grainey's. They're also hitting the road a couple times this winter. After playing a couple shows in McCall during the Winter Carnival, they'll be spending a good chunk of March doing the Western Oregon tour in towns like Bend, Eugene, and Ashland. Our advice is to catch them while you can. Goats this good will be climbing out of this here valley before you know it.
To check out more more music from Jonathan Warren and the Billy Goats, visit any of the following websites: