“I first heard him on the radio and got upset. Then I heard him in concert and got more upset. He thinks harmonically, improvises beautifully, and writes. If you're a guitar player, he's going to haunt you...” —Leo Kottke
“Our live 'Folkstage' performer was Pat Donohue who received a very rare standing ovation from our audience. His droll wit, great sense of humor, amazing guitar picking and perfectly constructed set really pleased our studio audience. He's been wasted all these years on APHC. He's a great solo artist.” —THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL with Rich Warren 2/16
“Great performance, everyone loved Pat. His humor, personality and occasional singing really set him apart from other guitar gods that lose audience interest.” —Mark Young - Full Moon Concert Series, MI 6/2015
“Pat performs with the wit and wisdom of A Prairie Home Companion legend. Never misses a lick and delivers the punchline.” — David Beaton Fogartyville - WSLR Sarasota, FL 3/16
Grammy winner Pat Donohue, who some might recognize from NPR's A Prairie Home Companion, must be among the best fingerpickers in the world. He also writes some screamingly funny songs, two of which we heard on Saturday: “Irish Blues” (a.k.a. a hangover), and ”Would You LIke to Play the Guitar?” to the tune of “Swinging On a Star,” which tickled the folk audience with lines like ”Would you rather play the guitar...or would you rather get a job?” – Elmore Magazine - NERFA 2015 Conference Review
“Behind the great chops and wide-ranging tastes stands another skill that gives Donohue his individual voice: arranging. He displays a smooth, swinging assurance. His arrangement of High Society is an encyclopedia of techniques and licks that will repay working through it.” —Fingerstyle Guitar
“His genre-blending approach fuses the right-hand Piedmont fingerstyle of Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller with the harmonic vocabulary and improvising spirit of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.” —Guitar Player
“If it were it easy, every fingerstyle guitarist would play as well as Pat Donohue. A Midwesterner with the rhythm of a drummer and the soul of a New Orleans saxophonist, Donohue has the fingers of the world’s finest guitarists.” —Dirty Linen
“Donohue is a clever songwriter who uses intelligent, creative rhymes and wastes few words. His instrumentals display his characteristic of clarity and ingenuity, combining the essential qualities of the originals with his own recognizable fresh sound. He brilliantly mixes register changes, picking variations and tricks, and bass line melodies. Even the simplest musical conventions take on a richness under his fingers.”—Acoustic Guitar Magazine
“A masterful guitarist and talented singer-songwriter of the blues, folk, and jazz... Donohue is a natural entertainer who possesses bundles of charm and wit.” —Los Angeles TImes
“It is clear that Kottke has not overestimated Donohue's ability.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Donohue's steel string solos swing and boogie like good bar room piano playing. The complexity of his arrangements is obscured by effortless chops...” —Acoustic Guitar Magazine
“His playing is rich with active, nimble bass lines that would in themselves seem to give a guitarist plenty to do. Laid against them are the complex chord work and elaborate, deftly-executed single-note runs. It's about as much harmonious sound as can be produced by two hands, wood, and strings...” —Los Angeles Times
by Tom Surowicz, Minneapolis Star Tribune
The new CD "Nobody's Fault" may be Pat Donohue's best, most well-rounded album. Certainly it's a terrific showcase for his many strengths: acoustic and electric blues guitar, finger-picking, reworked traditional material and splendid comic songs and parodies. His "Irish Blues" should become a St. Patrick's Day standard, "Exercise Blues" will appeal to La-Z-Boy owners everywhere, and his rewrite of "Swing on a Star" is as hip as the Johnny Burke original, no mean feat.
Good Chops, Good Taste, Good Times
excerpts by Russell Letson
Pat Donohue works a territory bounded (or maybe unbounded) by coffeehouse “folk music,” country blues and rags, and Tin Pan Alley pop, with a special affinity for rootsy jazz. When we talked, he was in the middle of a run of appearances on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” as a soloist and a member of the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, and stretching out even more. “Just on last week’s show,” he says, we played a bluegrass tune, a couple of waltzes, a swing number, my two tunes and an Irving Berlin. That’s a lot of variety in there.”
Like many jazz-loving guitarists, Donohue is inspired at least as much by piano and horn players as by guitarists–the music of not only Armstrong and Ellington, but Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Horace Silver has found its way into his repertory. But the taproot of his guitar style remains the blues: Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, and especially Blind Blake.
Asked how much influence the old blues masters have had on his style, he answers, “A lot. As recently as last night I was down in the basement poring over my Blind Blake tape and still trying to refresh myself with his right-hand technique. I was working on note-for-noting Too Tight Rag. Once I can perform that, the essence of it will seep into other things. I still think it’s fun to play something by Robert Johnson or Blind Blake as close to the original as possible, just to kinda quote the Bible for a while as opposed to spouting theology.”
Behind the great chops and wide-ranging tastes stands another skill that gives Donohue his individual voice: arranging. He sees the guitaristic possibilities of Tico Tico, Tequila, or Blue Tango, or takes on the challenge of fitting the whole of Duke Ellington’s The Mooche onto the fingerboard of his Somogyi. Of his approach to arranging, Donohue says, “I know a certain amount about music, but it’s all pretty much still intuition. I try to take the tools that I have and apply it to the intuition.”
A good example is how he came at The Mooche. “I listened to the Ellington version a zillion times to get the feel of it in my head. It became obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to note-for-note that big-band arrangement. But then I started playing with it, and realized that, while it wasn’t exactly what was going on in the record, it was still pleasing. So Duke’s version was in my head when I was arranging it, yet it was an overall feel, rather than the actual arrangement.
“It all got involved with the technique that I was working out at the time, playing tremolos while playing the melody with the thumb. It’s a way to have notes on a guitar sustain indefinitely, which is always a problem with acoustic guitars. That turned out to be a pretty good song to develop that technique on, because the bass line is so simple–just back and forth while you’re doing this.” Here he demonstrates the flamenco-like tremolo that also appears in the C section of High Society: the middle finger brush rapidly back and forth across the strings. “Then after I got that, I was able to take more liberties with the bass line while doing it on other songs.”
I ask about how this jibes with the conventional wisdom, among jazz players especially, that you really need a theoretical approach to get in control of jazz playing. “You end up doing the same thing,” he answers, “it’s just that the way you approach it is different. The more theoretical things I learn and absorb, the farther the intuition will go. Before I learned a lot of the things I know now, I’d get an inspiration, but could only take it so far because I just didn’t have the juice.
“Now that I know more things, I can take it a lot farther–I can actually see intuitive sparks through to the end. That’s really gratifying. There’s no substitute for knowing the instrument. Basically, if you’re improvising, you’re writing anyway, even if you’re improvising over a chord structure. The more you know about how to move the chords, the more wide open the field is for you to go places.”
Getting an arrangement down isn’t the end, either–there’s upkeep to consider. “If you just want to record them, it’s one thing, but if you’re planning on performing, you have to somehow make them so you can do them without having to prepare constantly for the performance. There are certain tunes that I do that are high maintenance. Tico Tico is one–either I’m practicing and I can manage it, or I don’t even attempt it. It’s a good piece and a good arrangement, but it’s not a clever arrangement because it takes so much work. It’s the ultimate in arranging to be able to do something that really sounds great and is not physically crippling to do. The classiest players manage to do that somehow, make them sound like they’re not that difficult. I think that’s the goal to strive for in arranging.”
I ask about some of the technical matters he considers when he starts to work out an arrangement–for example, deciding on what key to cast it in. “For solo arrangements, I generally gravitate toward the sharp keys. Sometimes keys suggest themselves. I hear a song that I want to arrange and I sometimes envision it in a key right away. A lot of times it’s just fishing around. I’ll make a sketch of it in some key that I think might work but I can usually tell early if there’s going to be an obstacle. At that point, I’ll switch to another key and keep trying until I find one that lends itself to the range. If there’s some sort of technique I want to use in the arrangement, the key might have a bearing on that too.
“There are also things you can do in strange keys–playing in B is just not done very much. It’s really a good key, because you go to the IV chord and it’s E. I haven’t plumbed the depths of it yet. There’s a surprising number of happy little accidents that occur in that key, so it’s worth dealing with it to get at all the other goodies. Plus hardly anybody does it. Of course then you play with a sax player and he’s going to kill you.”
Pat Donohue: Guitar on the Prairie
by Alan Norton
Not many guitarists do a live radio show that millions of listeners across the nation tune in to weekly. Pat Donohue, featured performer on A Prairie Home Companion, does just that, along with solo concerts and workshops. Pat is not only a very accomplished guitar player, he is also a songwriter and singer. While he characterizes himself as a folk guitarist, he plays jazz and blues with equal passion and proficiency. I found Pat to be very pleasant as he, his dog Boo, and I sat down in the living room of his home to talk about his music.
AN: Let’s start with A Prairie Home Companion. When do you find out what music will be played on the show? How do you prepare?
PD: It varies, but generally, our only rehearsals are on Friday afternoons for a couple of hours and also for most of Saturday afternoon until show time. A lot of my week is spent writing or arranging songs that I think would be good to do with the band. Well, I ran out of my good stuff a while ago (chuckle), so I’m either writing new stuff or finding songs almost every week. So that’s sometimes a challenge. I usually try to have two or three things to offer the show when Friday comes along. We’ll try them all and maybe one, sometimes two, will get on the air.
AN: Do you practice specific songs or techniques during the week?
PD: I spend a lot of my practice time working on right hand and left hand techniques that apply to various songs that I’m working on. These days I’m working more on material that I want to sound as though I were using a flatpick, even though I’m playing with fingerpicks.
AN: Speaking of practicing, you have recommended, “Doing your twenties.” That is, with a slow metronome setting, play the segment correctly twenty times. Then do something else for a while. Then, another twenty repetitions and so on. Considering your proficiency, do you often find yourself having to do “the 20s?”
PD: Oh yes, all the time. I run into all kinds of things that are problem areas and one way to clean them up is to put them under the microscope and do repetition. You have to do it daily for a while until it gets into your fingers, and that smoothes it out.
AN: I noticed that you had finger picks on your index and middle fingers. Do you ever use your ring finger?
PD: I use my finger when I’m playing without picks, which is a little less than half the time. And when I’m going with bare fingers, I’ll also use my fourth finger for different things. But when I’m playing with picks, I only use my thumb, index, and middle. I wouldn’t suggest fingerpicks to tell you the truth. I resisted getting my nails done for years and talked to Steve Bennett and I thought, “...I’m never going to do that to my fingers.” Now, I would never go back. I get three fingers and the thumb done at this manicurist, where they do this thing called “sculptured nails.”
AN: You were thrown a curve at the session I attended. You had your arch-top electric ready for a number that was apparently expected, but it became evident that Garrison Keillor had decided on another number and you had to switch guitars mid-stream. You seemed to take that in stride and handled it very skillfully. Does this sort of thing happen very often?
PD: Oh, all the time, it’s part of the show. There’s a rundown that the show usually follows that comes out a little before the show time. Garrison takes everything he’s got for that week, including his scripts and whoever the musical guests are for that week, and whatever the band has and just kind of puts down an order of how it should go. And then we get that and prepare for it, but usually there are several departures from the script during the course of the show. Fortunately, Rich Dworsky, the bandleader, piano player, and music director, is really tuned in to that, so I just follow him.
AN: Yes, I noticed you looking over his shoulder, waiting for a signal at one point. It was apparent that he was calling the shots. On the other hand, you were the more up-front performer.
PD: That’s more or less how it works out. Richie is the music director and he’s the guy we key on in the band. I bring in most of the features that the band does.
AN: That’s a good position to be in.
PD: Oh, it’s great!
AN: Have you had any situations arise during the show that you just couldn’t handle?
PD: I’ve forgotten lyrics in the past, but I don’t do that anymore because I take them on stage with me. Once, I got through the intro and got ready to sing, and the words just weren’t there and so I sang nonsense syllables until I could remember the lyrics. Hopefully, people thought that they just didn’t understand what I said (laughs). Sometimes, I’ll play something right after the monologue from Lake Wobegon--right after Garrison says “where all the women are strong” and so forth. But one time, I was still off stage at that point, so I leapt over several chairs to get on stage in order to be ready to play the next piece as he was just wrapping it up. That was kind of stressful” (laughs).
AN: When questioned by Garrison Keillor during the show, you mentioned that you used to play drums. Can you share a bit about your musical background?
PD: I started playing drums when I was about ten, playing in rock bands in grade school and high school. During that time, I started playing guitar because my older sister played. That’s when I started playing fingerstyle, but it was only a sideline. I switched entirely to guitar when I was in my mid-teens. Guitar is the only thing other than drums that I’ve ever played seriously, although now I’m a dilettante at piano, harmonica, and banjo, but I don’t perform on those.
AN: Did you take lessons or have instruction?
PD: I have not really taken lessons. When I was about 25, I took a couple of jazz lessons in Denver, and that started me on the study of jazz theory. But I had to relearn it for myself (chuckle) over the next ten years.
AN: How do you determine which aspects of your playing to improve, or correct?
PD: I’ll record and listen to a piece and sometimes use recording of live shows. It’s really challenging to record something and listen for places where you need to improve, but that really helps. I picture myself in my mind playing a certain way, but when I play the recording back, it’s often very different.
AN: What is your favorite guitar piece to play?
PD: That changes all the time, but I always like to keep “Arkansas Traveler” in playing condition; I like that song a lot-- both the song and the arrangement.
AN: Are there any pieces you particularly like that your audiences don’t seem to embrace?
PD: I try to get rid of them if audiences don’t seem to enjoy them. Once in a while, I may become self-indulgent and play things that are entertaining me at the moment, but I try to play things that the audience reacts to. And if they don’t, I don’t give it all that many chances.
AN: You consider yourself a guitar player, a singer, and a songwriter. Which is really at the core of who you are?
PD: Guitar player. I do write some and I sing, when I need to (laughs), and I like singing, but it’s not a passion, like guitar playing.
AN: When did you come to the conclusion, or just know, that you were going to be a guitar player-- that guitar was going to be your life?
PD: It was an on-and-off thing for a long time. I’m pretty comfortable with it right now, but I’ve always been a musician. In my early 20s, I pursued music in California and Colorado, and at thirty I got married and moved back here. I was going into a family business and at the same time, trying to get my music going, but it got to be two full-time jobs. So, I got back into music full-time. But there was no single point in time when I consciously decided.
AN: Was A Prairie Home Companion the big break, or would you cite some other event or turning point?
PD: Well,...it’s a great job, and it’s a nice break, for sure! It hasn’t made me a household name, though. I try real hard to get people to come to my concerts. But it is a very nice way to make a living, and it certainly helped my career.
It was great to win the National Fingerpicking Championship some years ago. It’s odd, because it was right at the time when I was getting out of music. I knew I was going into the family business, but I was there at Winfield, and I did it. That was enough to keep me going on guitar.
AN: I looked at the Winfield site and they characterized you as “playfulness with pure craftsmanship” and mentioned a “propensity for fun”. What does that mean to you?
PD: Well, I don’t know (laughs)! “Propensity for fun” sounds like a euphemism for several things, but I do have fun playing and I also sing a couple of song parodies that people seem to think are funny. Sushi-Yucky and Would You Like to Play the Guitar, for example. Maybe that’s what they are talking about.
Would you like to play the guitar?
Carry money home in a jar
You’d be better off than you are
Or would you rather get a job?
Alan Norton is a long-time member of the Minnesota Guitar Society who teaches guitar, does guitar restorations, and writes about guitar.
from Blues in Britian Magazine, November 2012
Butch Thompson & Pat Donohue – Vicksburg Blues
Red House Records RHR CD 257
In those wee midnight hours, long ‘fore the break of dawn, relaxing sloppy drunk with your mean mistreating mama – do you pine for those lowdown dog and tantalising blues of Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell and Little Brother Montgomery? If you do then your prayers answered with this superb set from Butch Thompson and Pat Donohue.
Thompson (piano/clarinet) and Donohue (vocals/guitar) recreate the plaintive and wistful feel of the aforementioned blues greats without resorting to mimicry – investing their blues with their own personalities without losing sight of their influential and inspirational roots.
from Maverick magazine (UK)
Butch Thompson & Pat Donohue
Red House Records
If, like me, you’re addicted to the A Prairie Home Companion world of Garrison Keillor then you’ll require no introduction to Butch Thompson (piano, clarinet) and Pat Donohue (vocals, guitar) and their 19-track release, VICKSBURG BLUES. They have long been musical pillars of this quirky retro-radio variety show; the latter, still a member of Guys All-Star Shoe Band. Donohue is a Grammy winner by virtue of his playing of “Peter Gunn” on PINK GUITAR (2004)—a celebration of the music of Henry Mancini. In 1983, in Winfield, Kansas, he won the National Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and his compositions have been covered by the late Chet Atkins, as well as Suzy Bogguss and Kenny Rogers. A liking for Delta blues guitarists, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson led this Minnesotan to the music of Blind Blake, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In 2008 the Martin Guitar Company released a signature Pat Donohue model. Fellow Minnesotan Thompson was house pianist and bandleader for A Prairie Home Companion from 1974 to 1986. The Butch Thompson Trio was created for the show in 1978, and continues to perform to this day. Butch has gone on to perform with the eight-piece New Orleans Jazz Originals, the Butch Thompson Big Three, and a chamber music duo with cellist Laura Sewell. He was development consultant on the Gregory Hines Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam and later joined the touring company of Jelly Roll! The Music And The Man. Butch and Pat have extensive back catalogues of recordings; VICKSBURG BLUES being their first outing as a duo. The fare on offer here, whether songs or instrumentals, is an eclectic mix of covers and original compositions that run the stylistic gamut of jazz, ragtime, swing, blues and folk. Nine of the former appear mainly in the opening half of the album, whilst the ten instrumentals mainly occupy the second half of this disc. Butch's mentor, and blues legend, Little Brother Montgomery penned the title song as well as “Blues For Little Brother,” whilst the instrumental “Sunday Rag” is collaborative effort with Butch. Pat reflects on his roots with a cover of Blind Blake’s “Poker Woman,” and has included a trio of self-penned instrumentals, including “A Minor Fantasy.” VICKSBURG BLUES ends with a couple of the aforementioned instrumentals, namely the Butch Thompson/Pat Donohue collaboration, “That D Strain” and the former’s “Yancey Blues.”
- Arthur Wood
from Vintage Guitar March 2013
Here's a glorious step back in time. Pianist/clarinetist Butch Thompson and guitar man Pat Donohue pay homage to the olden-day blues duos like Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. With stellar musicianship, warm sound, and beautiful recording quality, this is a small masterpiece.
The two are "A Prairie Home Companion" radio regulars. Donohue has one Grammy to his name and is a National FInger Picking Guitar Champion. Thompson is a recognized traditional jazz and ragtime master who played Preservation Hall at ae 18; he also boasts a Grammy of his own. On this album they pay due homage to their influences - and they do it right.
Excerpts from Dirty Linen
by Stephen Ide
If it were that easy, every fingerstyle guitarist would play as well as Pat Donohue. A Midwesterner with the rhythm of a drummer and the soul of a New Orleans saxophonist, Donohue has the fingers of one of the world’s finest guitarists. He brings his talent weekly to the radio stage of A Prairie Home Companion where he started regularly playing in its band in 1993. You’ll also catch him on concert stages nationwide and in the lesson room, where he teaches guitar playing.
Though he was named National Fingerpicking Guitar Champion in 1983, perhaps the greatest testament to the virtuosity of Donohue’s guitar playing is the kudos he receives from fellow musicians. Guitar great Leo Kottke calls Donohue’s playing “haunting.” And Chet Atkins jokes on Donohue’s album Backroads, that perhaps it’s time for him to steal from Pat.
Lending a warm baritone to original folk songs or jazz-blues numbers, Donohue presides knowingly over his audience. His wry smile breaks under his moustache as his fingers dance over a particularly enjoyable jazz chord progression. He adds a flourish here. A run there. His fingers flutter over the strings. A cascading melody. A sweet touch of harmony. Somehow, what would be daunting to most musicians becomes a composition with order and melodic flavor. Between songs, a short self-deprecating tale or a parody of a Hank Williams’ tune. Were it not for the audience in front of him, you’d be convinced he was playing simply for his own enjoyment. In fact, he is. “I always enjoy playing, performing. That’s where I’m at home,” Donohue admitted.
Donohue blends originals with songs by jazz and swing renowns: Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis. Remarkably, like Dave Van Ronk or Doc Watson, he manages to blend jazz and blues with folk. The mix is seamless. But Donohue considers himself a folk musician first. “I am really a folk guitarist but I’ve been influenced a lot by jazz repertoire and by jazz and blues performers.”
It’s not uncommon to hear him play music from Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or others. Asked to cite one of his biggest influences, Donohue immediately chose Blind Blake. “Blind Blake has always held a fascination for me. He just really had a style, especially in his right hand, that I never heard anybody come close to. It’s really in the rhythm. He did some cool stuff with his left hand too, but I think the big trick to his sound was in the right hand. A lot of the blind blues players are big with me. I really like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller. They had the Piedmont style. The 20s and 30s blues players that were from the Southeastern Seaboard area. It had a bit more melodic, rag-timey feel to it than say the people in Mississippi, like Robert Johnson or Son House. It was a rawer sound.”
Donohue’s stage show always includes music from the early part of this century. It’s what sets him apart from other fingerstyle guitarists of today. “It just seems so rich in melody and harmony and rhythm, and those are the three elements of music,” he said.
Donohue admits that he’s “stolen” something musically from nearly everyone he’s listened to over the years, but he has succeeded in playing and arranging the songs in his own unique way. “Writing songs is kind of like jogging,” he says. “I really love it when it’s over and really hate doing it. It seems for everything that I write that I keep, I probably write ten things that I throw away. The ultimate key is self-editing.”
For Donohue, meeting, performing and eventually recording with Chet Atkins was a “dream come true.” Atkins is one of Donohue’s idols and inspirations. He opened for Atkins in the early 80s at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and became reacquainted with him on the Prairie Home Companion, where Chet was a frequent guest.
“I kept thinking of ways that I could play with him on the air,” Donohue said, “So I made up a song called “Stealin’ from Chet, which was true enough. He liked it and actually wrote another verse that’s on the recorded version. Long before we ever recorded it, we got to play it on the show together. And if that wasn’t a cool-enough thing, it was actually at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where the Grand Ole Opry was from the early days. That was a high water mark.”
He jokes that while he never received any actual guitar lessons from Atkins, he obtained a touch of humility from one experience. “I remember we were playing Benny Goodman’s Stompin’ at the Savoy and I was showing him my arrangement of it and he was showing me his arrangement of it. The arrangements were fairly similar. They were both in C and had the alternating thumb thing going on. But there was one part where we had this disagreement about how you should play one of the chords. And I looked at the way he was doing it and I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. This works a lot better.’ And we went back and forth on it. About a month later, I was playing around with it, and I realized that, big surprise, Chet was right all along. I can’t believe I had the audacity to argue with him about that. I guess I got a lesson there. When it comes to the most economical, smartest way to move from chord to chord or from note to note, Chet probably has it down.”
One proud achievement that Donohue notes in his experience with Atkins is that he introduced Atkins to the music of Blind Blake. “He was knocked out by it,” said Donohue. “So I guess I filled my purpose on Earth. I turned Chet on to Blind Blake.”
Blue Skies Above
Twin Cities fingerpicker Pat Donohue finds his groove on stage and on the air
by Gary Joyner
Chet Atkins has described self confessed guitar addict Pat Donohue as “one of the finest fingerpickers in the world.” Donohue responds to that in his typical self-deprecating manner: “Chet’s an awful nice guy. There are other people he might have said that about. I do take comfort in it.”
Donohue is certainly one of the most listened to fingerpickers in the world. As the guitarist for Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, the house band of National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, he has the opportunity to show off his savvy licks and his distinctive original songs to a bigger audience on any one Saturday night than some guitarists can hope for in their careers. On top of the 37 new radio broadcasts recorded each year, Donohue teaches and plays about 30 solo concerts annually.
Live radio and live concerts involve conflicting disciplines. On the radio, a performer has to hit the ground running. The energy must be immediate and precise, and then it’s over. “You learn the licks you can depend on,” says Donohue.
“After having done it for a while, I feel more relaxed than I used to.” Extended club and concert gigs, on the other hand, allow a player to work up a head of steam over a longer period of time. But they are also more physically demanding. Donohue keeps up his stamina by playing an occasional Twin Cities coffeehouse gig under his pseudonym, Joe Fingers Patrick. Donohue grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from where he now lives with his wife and teenage daughter. Drums were his first musical passion. “I think I can cop a groove better because of it,” he says. In high school, while playing drums in a rock band with guitar iconoclast Dean Magraw, Donohue was exposed to blues and jazz guitarists of the ‘20s and ‘30s- Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, and others-- and his focus switched to guitar.
After college and a brief stint in the San Francisco Bay Area with a commercial rock band, Donohue returned to the Twin Cities, where he worked in the family brick business while continuing to play professionally as a solo act and in various trios. He won the National Fingerpicking Championship at Winfield, Kansas, in 1983 and eventually left the family business to focus on music.
In the early ‘90s he started his own record label, BlueSky, which benefited enormously from the radio exposure he received from A Prairie Home Companion starting in 1993. “It’s fairly easy to turn a profit if you have a good base of fans,” says Donohue. “If you sell a couple of thousand of just about anything, you can start making money-- at least the way I make records. The bugaboo is always distribution. It’s very hard to get your stuff out there where the masses can get at it. I’m now distributed nationally through Borders Books.”
Donohue is a clever songwriter who uses intelligent, creative rhymes and wastes few words. His original tunes as well as his comic song parodies are popular with audiences. Favorites include a song about the horrors of sushi sung to the melody of “Sukiyaki” and Donohue’s remake of Would You Like to Swing on a Star? (“Would you like to play the guitar?/ Take your money home in a jar/ From a coffeehouse or a bar/ Or would you rather get a job?”).
Donohue’s instrumental arrangements of cover tunes display his characteristic stamp of clarity and ingenuity, combining the essential qualities of the originals with his own recognizable fresh sound. He brilliantly mixes register changes, picking variations and tricks, and bass line melodies. Even the simplest musical conventions take on a richness under his fingers.
When it comes to composing instrumentals, Donohue uses “the cut-and-paste method. I often piece together different parts,” he says, “with varying degrees of success. The art is making two things sound like one piece or different parts of the same piece.” He also uses musical exercises to help trigger ideas. For example, he’ll play a series of chord inversions in diatonic scales, and this exercise, or even misfingerings, may suggest an idea that will fit into a piece. “Eventually a composition can unfold,” he says.
Chet Atkins has said that he always looks for the easiest way to play everything on the guitar, and years of experience have taught Donohue the wisdom of such an approach. He works to make his arrangements simpler than he once did. “A prime example of not doing that is Tico-Tico, which I recorded on Two Hand Band,” says Donohue. “A lot of people think it is a cool guitar arrangement. I know different. It’s too hard to physically keep it up. It doesn’t pay off to have a piece that you have to constantly be up keeping. It makes more sense to arrange things smarter.”
Donohue is matter-of-fact about his own limitations and the guitar’s. “There are a lot of piano voicings that you can’t really play one the guitar,” he says. “I try to find the essential notes-- the melody note of a given moment and maybe one or two harmony notes. If you’re really cooking, you can get a bass note in there, too. So, you can get three or four notes that imply a bigger voicing. And then there’s the fact that you can’t sustain notes the way you can on a trumpet. There are ways around that. Tremolo techniques give the illusion of a sustained note.”
Donohue uses a thumbpick and plastic fingerpicks on his index and middle fingers and sometimes plays with bare fingers. He has developed a tremolo technique that involves strumming up and down very quickly on the treble strings with his middle finger while playing melodies with his thumb. It’s an effective technique for imitating the Duke Ellington horn section in an arrangement of The Mooch. “A lot of people ask me about this in workshops,” says Donohue. “I got the idea from mandolin player Evan Marshall. He plays with a pick in an Italian duo style. He keeps a steady tremolo note going. Whatever note the melody lands on, that’s the only tremolo note that he skips. In the Ellington tune, I’m playing as fast as I can and playing the melody underneath it. In Freight Train I use it more rhythmically. My hand is tilted so that the side of the fingerpick is hitting the strings and skips across the tops rather than getting stuck.”
“Da Pinch” is another right-hand technique that is integral to Donohue’s sound. It involves inserting quick rhythmic notes into right-hand patterns. “Mississippi John Hurt and everybody else used it,” says Donohue. “The index finger plucks mostly on the third or second string, followed by the middle finger and thumb. There are a lot of index-finger grace notes in there.” He can also deliver a convincing imitation of flat-picking by alternating his thumb and index finger. He uses this technique to play in bluegrass contexts on A Prairie Home Companion.
A current obsession of Donohue’s is transferring boogie-woogie piano moves to guitar. “I try to figure out little piano things that guitarists never think to do,” says Donohue. “You can make it sound at home on the instrument. The phrasing of it and how you get the notes is the challenge. I got a Memphis Slim CD the other day, and I figured out the intro and first verse of a tune. All that cascading right-hand stuff will add dimension to my guitar playing. I’m convinced after doing this that Chuck Berry’s stuff was piano licks. It comes out of the same bag of licks.”
Some of the allure in Donohue’s playing comes from his ability to find new ways to express the basic elements of popular historic American music styles. “There are really only a few progressions, if you look at them broadly,” he asserts. “One is I-VI-II-V, another is I-I (7)-IV-iv (minor)-I, and there’s the circle of fifths. There are a few extras out there, but 90 percent of musical movement can be boiled down to one of those three progressions. If you know how to work those progressions, you can apply them to just about any song and you’ve come up with a new arrangement.”
One of the responsibilities for all of the members of the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band (Donohue, Andy Stein on violin, Rich Dworsky on piano, Arnie Kinsella on drums, and Gary Raynor on bass) is to contribute material that will be good for the show every week. “We all bring in stuff and play it on Friday afternoon,” Donohue explains. “It’s an amazingly good band that assimilates things very quickly.”
Donohue’s biggest challenge in the band is to play fewer notes than a soloist would. “Staying out of the way is what it’s all about,” he says. “When we play one of Andy’s 1920s tunes, I do short strokes that serve a rhythmic purpose while keeping the harmony going. That gives Rich room to do whatever he wants on the piano. When we are doing my stuff, which is fingerpicking, Rich takes a support role, keeping a rhythm thing going in the left hand and maybe some right-hand frills.”
The band recently played their first ever club date. They were in Berlin to do a special broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. “We did a concert at a nice little jazz club called the A Train on the Sunday night after the Saturday live broadcast. We were playing a Louis Jordan tune, I Want You To Be My Baby. All of a sudden, four horn players materialized out of the audience playing perfect harmonies. They came up on stage. It was Wynton Marsalis with members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, in town to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. They tore the roof off!”