Mandolin Whiz Johnny Staats Survives Giant Setback

Last year, USA Today, The CBS Evening News and The New York Times were showering superlatives on West Virginia mandolinist Johnny Staats . This year, Staats is readjusting to life without the support of a record label. Giant Records, which released his incandescent 2000 debut album, Wires & Wood, closed down a few months ago.

John Van Meter, who co-produced Wires & Wood with Ron Sowell, estimates that the album has sold around 30,000 copies (SoundScan has counted 17,600). That’s a respectable number by bluegrass standards, but minuscule for a country title. Van Meter blames poor distribution for the modest sales.

In spite of the setback, Staats is continuing to perform and enlarge his reputation as one of the most inventive and fluid mandolin players since Sam Bush. July was a particularly high-profile month. It began with Staats performing selections from his own works on a four-city tour with the Wheeling [West Virginia] Symphony. Then, on July 21, he played the Sur la Route de Tullins bluegrass festival in Lyon, France. Ahead lies a series of fair dates in West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. And maybe another album.

“We’re kicking around the idea of [recording] a gospel album,” reports Staats’ manager, Scott Hill. “We do so many gospel songs in our set that we’re getting request after request for that. Next year, Johnny’s also planning to do some workshops, starting in the spring.”

Refusing to be blinded by his own publicity, Staats has clung steadfastly to his day job, driving a truck for United Parcel Service. His band, the Delivery Boys, includes national flatpicking champion guitarist Robert Shafer, who served as his accompanist at Lyon.

A top priority now for Staats, Hill says, is finding a record label: “Another label is a necessary thing, but we don’t have anything to report at this time.” With a chuckle he adds, “We’ll entertain any offers.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to