Strings attached

For 51-year-old Jonathan Yudkin, being Music City’s premier stringed-instrument studio musician is serious business.

Yudkin 311 (photo credit: marc israel selem)
Yudkin 311
(photo credit: marc israel selem)
An expert player not only on violin but banjo, dobro, cello, mandolin, guitar, bass and even bouzouki, Jonathan Yudkin has established himself as the ‘go to’ musician when a Nashville producer is entering the studio with his prized artist.
“Once a producer knows that you’ll do what they want, or better yet, can read their minds and do something they didn’t think of that will make them and the artist look good, they’ll always want you back,” said the gregarious Yudkin, sitting in a Jerusalem cafe last month.
They’ve all wanted Yudkin back, which may explain why it’s taken so long for him to make his first jaunt to Israel. Even though he was in town as a tourist for only a week, Yudkin couldn’t stay away from the possibility of a jam session. So, in addition to touring the sites of the Holy City, the celebrated Nashville all-star studio musician and self-professed music addict also found the time to join local pickers in an acoustic open-mike session at a small downtown club.
Earlier that day at the cafe, Yudkin expansively and humorously recounted the unlikely path that led the Philadelphia-bred, Conservative Jewish son of a classical music conductor and an opera singer to the redneck honky tonks of the South where neither Jews nor opera were commonplace.
“My father led the synagogue choir for 35 years at the Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center. And Mom was the featured soloist – imagine that!” laughed Yudkin at the glaring example of benevolent nepotism.
The young Yudkin followed in their classical path, studying violin for many years and considering a career with an orchestra, but something held him back.
“Either you’re sensational and become an acclaimed soloist or you join an orchestra and teach on the side.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I looked at my teachers, I couldn’t say they were ecstatic with a passion for music,” he said.
“I studied privately for almost 14 years, and at one of the last sessions, I said to the teacher, ‘let’s jam.’ Here’s a guy who had memorized a thousand pieces of complex music, but he couldn’t improvise on the blues. That was wrong, and it prompted me to join a country rock band.”
Yudkin had picked up the country music bug in high school from listening to the music of David Bromberg, whom he credits with changing his attitude about music in general.
“Here was this blatantly Jewish guy from New York, who was one of the top session guitar players, had toured with Jerry Jeff Walker and had put together a band that blew my mind,” he said.
“Not only would they play dirt blues with a threepiece horn section, but they would put down those instruments and pick up fiddles and mandolins and not play bluegrass, but Celtic Irish music, the real stuff. I always thought that bluegrass was glossing over the real elements, but when I heard Bromberg, I realized that it could be done with finesse and taste.”
WHILE HIS parents weren’t overly pleased by Yudkin’s defection away from the fine arts, his older brother had taken the brunt of their disappointment by being the first in the family to leave the fold and join a rock band the year before.
“I always give him the extra kudos for taking that first hit, it made it much easier for me. But I was 18 and had a full time job, so my parents really couldn’t complain,” said Yudkin.
The band Yudkin joined, RD1, became the house band in the late 1970s at the New York City country and blues haven, the Lone Star Café, which proved to be the institution of education for the young musician.
“My band was opening up for people I had never heard of, like Albert Collins and Lonnie Brooks. It provided an incredible education. After soundcheck, we’d sit down and drink whiskey from the bag and talk, and I realized that there’s a world out there and I could learn so much from them.”
By the early 1980s, Yudkin left the fold after getting offered a job in Nashville by one of the acts he backed at the Lone Star. But upon arrival, it failed to materialize and luckily, he immediately hooked up with a music legend, Leon Russell.
“Leon is a musical genius,” said Yudkin.
“He had formed the Paradise Band, a 13-piece rock orchestra with four female singers, two Nigerian percussionists, myself, a trombone player, pedal steel and blues harp – it was a circus and Leon was the ringleader.”
“I would have left Nashville if it wasn’t for Leon.
When I moved down there in 1981, the old boy syndrome was still there. The month I got to Nashville, the FBI had just foiled a plot by the Klan to blow up a synagogue. I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ and then one good gig changed everything.”
Throughout the decade, Yudkin moved on to touring and recording with a who’s who of musical talent including Dicky Betts, Robert Earle Keene, and John Hartford, with whom he won two Grammys. But he knew the future for him wasn’t on the road, it was in the recording studio.
“For years, I was trying to break into the session world, but it was tough – nobody wanted to give up their seat. In the industry, it’s known as the best place to be, but it’s almost impossible to land it when you’re young,” he said.
“It also has something to do with amassing enough music in your brain to be able to walk into a studio and pull something out of your pocket at a moment’s notice, and that only comes from acquiring musical knowledge over a long period of time.”
Eventually, Yudkin did begin to be invited to sessions, right around the same time he hooked up with singer/songwriter Kathy Mattea, resulting in a few years of juggling touring and recording with her and playing on sessions back in Nasvhille.
“When you work for an artist, you have to give them priority booking and then you squeeze your sessions in between the tours,” he said, adding that during the seven years he was with Mattea, he stood by one steadfast rule: “Never miss a session that you booked even if you have to fly home from a tour at your own expense.”
HAVING AMASSED a long list of satisfied clientele, Yudkin finally said goodbye to the road after 20 years of touring and began concentrating strictly on studio work a decade ago. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.
“I highly recommend touring for every young musician. Get a band get a bus, tour the country and meet people. The relationships you’ll make as a young touring musician will last the rest of your life,” he said.
“But then you have to know when to get out. When you’re looking at 40, unless you’re the featured artist, you should be considering what to do next. Living on a bus is hard and shlepping on a bus will beat you up.”
Studio work, on the other hand, provides Yudkin with the buzz of making live music without the hassle of traveling. And it’s provide opportunities for him to play behind some of the legendary musicians of his generation.
“Working with Neil Diamond was incredible. And so was Tom Waits. You have to remember that it’s a privilege to walk into the room and play with them – and with the other session players who are also legends,” said Yudkin.
“Rarely do you walk out of a session feeling cheated or unfulfilled. Nashvhille is the last bastion of live recording – everyone sets and plays and it’s incredibly satisfying. Once you get into that, you realize you don’t have to perform on stage anymore. Your live performances are now in a controlled environment – no rain, wind, you can work to the best of your ability and when you get a take that everyone’s jazzed about, you can feel the rush. The spontaneity is still there, and so addictive.”
Known as the all-purpose studio musician, Yudkin put together a cartage rig of close to 30 instruments he’s adept at, in an effort to make himself more marketable.
“Around 2000, everyone in Nashville was looking for something different, and I wanted to give that to them. I would originally show up with just my violin, but began adding mandolin, cello, viola, standup bass, banjo and dobro. You don’t have to be a virtuoso at all of them. Female singers love the cello, for example. You give them one note in the right place and you’re golden. My secret has always been that I’ll take you on a journey and give you something you won’t expect.”
Being able to pick and choose with whom he plays with, Yudkin is willing to try just about anything, but has drawn the line on contemporary Christian country music.
“What bothers me is the self righteous judgmental stuff,” he said.
“I don’t want to seem holier than thou, and if it’s just a spiritual, beautiful song, then I’m there. But if you’re casting judgment or making a warmongering song, then I don’t want to be part of it.”
“There was a time when I didn’t even listen to lyrics, then you get older and go, ‘oh.’ When you have children, you don’t want them to find out you were associated with songs like that.”
Yudkin, his wife and 11-year-old son live in a Nashville today vastly different than the one he moved to in 1981. The family lives its Jewish life under the auspices of the Orthodox Sherith Israel congregation, where Yudkin has formed the city’s only klezmer band.
“I don’t experience any anti-Semitism, maybe it’s because I’m 6’ 2,” he laughed.
“The hard-core born again Christians and southern Baptists are fascinated by Judaism and I’ve gotten into long, philosophical discussions with them. Of course, you still run into tons of people who have never met a Jew before.”
Ultimately, Yudkin chalks up his musical and personal success to never denying who he is – a Jewish city boy playing country music in Nashville.
“When it comes down to it, everybody wants to be what they’re not, but I say, embrace who you are,” he said.
“That’s why I never tried to be a bluegrass player. I grew up in the city, where it was always called a violin, not a fiddle.”
Violin or fiddle, one thing is certain. Jonathan Yudkin isn’t any punch line to a joke.