Jackson Emmer was having a conversation with a fellow local musician recently on a topic that every musician who plays in bars confronts — the drunk who insists on getting a turn at the mike. Emmer’s colleague took the customary position, that such interlopers are to be dispatched as quickly, and if necessary, rudely. Emmer, who has been playing frequently at local bars since moving to Aspen in November — he plays Justice Snow’s at 7 p.m. Wednesday — might be the only picker on the planet who takes the other side of the issue. Emmer sees the boozehound with the harmonica in his pocket as one more person to welcome on board for whatever is going on in the room.
“It’s never ruined a set. It’s an opportunity to connect and learn from someone else,” Emmer said on a downtown bench Monday afternoon. “People want to be heard and I try not to shy away from anything they have to say. That’s a huge thing that informs my songs and my musicality: Shut people out and you lose some of your ability to connect. That’s one less person you know how to connect with.”
The 26-year-old Emmer sings and plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and piano. He brings a wide array of styles to the stage — Chicago-style electric blues, old folk tunes played on acoustic instruments. Ross Kribbs, a fiddler who plays often with Emmer, believes Emmer is at his best when playing his original songs. (The seven-song “Mother’s Milk EP,” released earlier this month, features four songs written by Emmer, including “Sippin’ Something” and “Oogie Boogie.”) But what has most pushed Emmer toward prominence is his way of connecting, of bringing an audience inside his realm.
I witnessed this ability a few weeks ago, when Emmer sang a Tom Waits song at the Woody Creek Community Center. Playing an upright piano pushed against the wall, Emmer didn’t even have the advantage of being able to make eye contact with the handful of listeners. Still, the place hung on every verse.
“I practice and study how music connects with people more than I do the riffs,” Emmer said. “The really great people cast a spell. It’s not about how they shred. It’s the magic. And the magic needs practice. Not like a scale, not put your fingers here and do it a thousand times and you get it.”
For Emmer, the magic comes from almost the opposite place. His local gigs, which can feature as many as six players crammed into a corner of a bar, are notoriously under-rehearsed. But Emmer thrives on the kind of communication required to pull off such informal gigs, and the spontaneity that comes with it. His songs often seem to come out of the ether, out of an old American language of hollow logs, southbound trains and cotton fields.
“It keeps the other players on their toes. It keeps me on my toes,” he said. “On one level, I have to know the songs. But if we don’t really know the structure, if we’re flexible, that brings something to it. It’s like we’re all playing it for the first time.”
After finding little interest in early-childhood piano lessons, Emmer had his ears opened by one of the ultimate shredders. At a school meeting when he was 14, he heard Jimi Hendrix in the background.
“I’d never heard that sound before. I had to ask someone what it was,” he said. “That tone moved me so deeply. It wasn’t about virtuosity or the story of being a rock icon. This sound touched me, and it was very human.”
His life took on focus. Emmer played guitar obsessively. He left an unsatisfying public school existence in Palo Alto — “Teachers didn’t care about teaching and students didn’t care about learning, I had this grungy fantasy to live in a dumpster and work at McDonald’s,” he said — and enrolled at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, which he considers a godsend.
“Because I had been to public high school, I knew how lucky I was to go there and have a family that could help me do that,” Emmer, whose father, Maurice, ran for mayor of Aspen this year, said. “I took as much advantage of the place as I could. Played as much music as possible.”
But at Vermont’s Bennington College, he studied visual arts. “The teachers noticed I was distracted, not digging that deep,” he said. “Eventually they parsed out of me that I was obsessed with music. I’m grateful they said, If that’s what you’re obsessed with, go do it.”
Emmer switched majors and found a guiding spirit in his teacher John Kirk. “His class had a sunny, glowing vibe. It encourages you to feel capable, not worry about the details, just go with it,” Emmer said. He spent a few months doing an internship at the famed Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he had lived the first two years of his life. After graduating from Bennington, he stayed in Vermont, working in a homeless shelter and founding a nonprofit, Free Is Art, that offered free music and art lessons.
Emmer’s primary passion is folk music; at the Old Town School of Folk, he took a class in jug band music. He approaches music at a folk level. When asked to name some of his inspirations, it was people like the Memphis Jug Band, who were active in the first half of the 20th century; the North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who was born in 1901; and Sam Moss, a friend from Vermont who played on “Mother’s Milk EP.”
But Emmer also idolizes Prince, and Dirty Projectors, a modern Brooklyn band with elements of New Wave and contemporary electronica in their sound.
“Dirty Projectors are intricate and beautiful. I wish I could perform songs with such intricate details,” he said. But Emmer is running into a reality of a small-town music scene, even one as elevated as Aspen’s. The pool of players is small, and few of those musicians will have the time or financial motivation to pursue the rehearsed and studied elements Emmer has in mind. “I want to have a project that consumes my life. I haven’t figured out how to design that,” he said.
Emmer is about to take a step into the bigger music world. This weekend he heads out on a tour that will take him to North Carolina; he’s also got dates in Red Cliff, Boulder, St. Louis and at the Woody Guthrie Center in Pampa, at the top of the Texas panhandle. (A tour kickoff party, with a talk on music and a jam session, is set for Friday at the Woody Creek Community Center.) Accompanying him on the tour will be his frequent bassist, Natalie Spears, and his dog, Willoughby. The last time Emmer went on tour, he traveled solo, and didn’t enjoy the experience much.
“Too lonely,” he said.