Years ago, when driving the San Marcos Pass to Santa Barbara and back five days a week for his daughter’s medical appointments, Jonathan Firey remembers a melody came into his head, inspired by the stunning mountainous views, and he felt an impulse to make a song.
For the professional guitarist — whose 12-year career in Nashville has yielded an impressive catalog of original work that sits at the intersection of New Acoustic instrumental music, modern bluegrass, and folksy Americana — this is not unusual. Firey is used to creating music as part of daily life, funneling the world through his guitar. But the melody he heard at the top of the pass and the album it now anchors, A Taste of the Valley (available for streaming/download starting August 19), would come to document an important — and very personal — turn in the songwriter’s practice.
“The week after we moved from Nashville to Santa Ynez in 2016, our baby daughter was diagnosed with autism,” Firey says of what led to those long hours in the car. “We could see she would need special care, so I shut the door on my commercial music career to focus on that.”
Luckily for Firey’s fans, good melodies — like love — will always find a way: His daughter is doing great now, but, at the time, he explains, “It was a hard, dark season for our family. We were in a holding pattern of uncertainty and grief when these melodies were coming to mind. So, out of that season of not really trying to do music, music started to grow again, and that’s how the record was born.”
The son of a music store owner who also toured with a popular bluegrass band, Firey grew up playing guitar in a small rural church in Oklahoma, surrounded by musicians and destined to pursue a life in music. He cites influences beyond his gospel-inflected childhood, such as James Taylor, the Eagles, and classic country, but a formal music education isn’t among them. “I got kicked out of my high school orchestra because I played everything by ear and didn’t read music,” the musician says. “I would take the sheet music they gave me and turn it upside down on the stand. One afternoon, the horn players behind me noticed and started laughing, so I got in trouble for being too disruptive. By that point, I was already getting paid to play gigs on the weekends.”
Sign up for Indy Today to receive fresh news from Independent.com, in your inbox, every morning.
Decades later, Firey is still doing things his own way, this time with a self-produced release (he played, mixed, and mastered the album) that immortalizes the Santa Ynez Valley’s beauty and history. These nine tracks are rich with cinematic quality. A blend of traditional bluegrass chords, mostly major key signatures, ringing open notes, and bluesy licks gives the release an approachable, very contemporary New Acoustic sound, with diary-like texture playing a huge part.
“When I found out about Figueroa, I would drive up there and hike around until a melody popped into my head,” Firey says of the track named after those mountains, which is the only song on the album that’s in a minor key. “You hear the history of the Valley in that one — it’s a little ghost-y and haunting. There’s an energy, an ancient heart of the Valley that reaches back to the Native American culture here. If you slow down enough, you can pick up on it.”
Lover’s Loop hiking trail is another local destination that inspired a track on the album, as well as Cold Spring Tavern and the former Mattie’s Tavern, which get their due alongside the fabled San Marcos Pass. “When you reach the crest of the pass, headed toward Santa Ynez, that’s one of the best views you’ll ever see,” Firey says. “I’ve toured the country, seen the world, but that one is just incredible.”
What’s next for Firey? Getting back up on the stage to share his music with live audiences again after a long break to work on the album. Upcoming dates include August 20 at Silk Road’s Kitchen in Solvang, and September 12 in Montecito.