Mandolin Whiz Johnny Staats Survives Label Setback

Acclaimed West Virginia United Parcel Service driver holds on to his day job.

Last year, USA Today, the "CBS Evening News" and The New York Times showered 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 Wires & Wood, his incandescent 2000 debut, shut down a few months ago.

John Van Meter, who co-produced Wires & Wood with Ron Sowell, estimates the album has sold about 30,000 copies. That's a huge number by bluegrass standards but miniscule for a country title. Van Meter blames poor distribution for the modest sales.

Despite the setback, Staats continues to perform and enlarge his reputation as one of the most inventive and fluid mandolin players since Sam Bush. July, a particularly high-profile month, began with Staats performing selections from his works on a four-city tour with the Wheeling [West Virginia] Symphony. 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," reported Staats' manager, Scott Hill. "We do so many gospel songs in our set that we're getting request after request for that. Johnny also plans to do some workshops starting next spring."

Refusing to be blinded by his own publicity, Staats has wisely kept his day job driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. His band, the Delivery Boys, includes three-time National Flatpicking Champion guitarist Robert Shafer, who accompanied Staats at Lyon.

Staats' priority, Hill said, is finding a record label. "Another label is a necessary thing, but we don't have anything to report.

"We'll entertain any offers," he added with a chuckle.