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John Cordes

With the coronavirus quickly dominating the headlines and our daily conversations. One can’t help but create a checklist of daily “must-haves.” In what seemed like an instant, toilet tissue became the common denominator in our country, and store shelves were quickly cleared of bottled water.

While commuting to my new job in Sierra Vista through the mountains surrounding the artist town of Bisbee, it occurred to me that once the closets are stuffed with TP, canned food, wipes etc, and people are hunkered down in front of their phones, they might eventually miss something they couldn’t stuff in that closet: live music.

I’ve been playing music in and around the town of Bisbee since 2003. The music scene in Bisbee is rich with collaboration and impromptu jams. For example, you might see the same horn player, three different times in one weekend, playing with three different groups. Since many of the saloons offer afternoon and evening entertainment, enhancing the “bar hopping” experience, it’s a really great way to get familiar with the colorful characters that make up the musical family of the town.

In my opinion, the musical “family” of Bisbee is a little bit like Mexican food. Switch the same ingredients around in that taco combo, plus or minus a sauce or two, and you have something completely different! Unfortunately, with the latest advice from the White House asking people to not congregate in groups of more than 10, the familiar sounds from Bisbee saloons could be put on hold.

For the past eight years, one of the constants in the musical community of Bisbee has been master fiddler, John Cordes.

John migrated to the southwest’s warmer climate and drastically cheaper rents from New York City. Spend a few minutes around John and you might notice his playful demeanor and youthful zest for life, not quite matching his 74 years. Since he began playing at the age of 9, the violin seems like both an extension of his personality and body, “Simultaneously and at the same time!” as John would say.

“Actually, it’s kind of a pain in the (butt),” John says jokingly, when asked what he likes about the instrument.

Addressing John as a “fiddler” could be a mild understatement. He runs an electric violin through a wah-wah and other effects pedals, creating layers of sounds that one wouldn’t expect to hear in an old timey southwestern saloon.

At a celebration surrounded by his peers at St Elmo’s bar, he was inducted into the 2017 Bisbee Music Hall of Fame. Another noteworthy accomplishment is John’s bragging rights (along with The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads) of playing the legendary New York club, CBGB, during its early days. With a unique approach to his artform, he truly represents Bisbee. Especially with the colorful hand-painted jackets and hats he dons during performances.. You might say he looks how he sounds.

“A violin has strings and a fiddle has “strangs,” John jokingly responds when asked the difference between the two. John has developed a reputation for his wit on and off the stage. With so many different costume themed weekends in Bisbee throughout the year, John once declared (via Facebook) a “Normal Day.” Shortly after, He was spotted wearing the very “normal” (for John) ensemble of a plaid shirt with khakis and a baseball cap. His holiday didn’t quite catch on, but this is a good example of his unusual sense of humor.

John cites ‘70s electric violinist, Papa John Creach, as one of his biggest musical influences. Upon a few listens of Creach’s work, I can definitely hear similarities in both Johns’ unorthodox approaches to conventional musical styles. I’ve played many gigs with Cordes and have come to expect the unexpected from him. Watching John stretch sonic boundaries is something to behold. Since he plays a wireless violin, he makes frequent trips through the crowd, providing an interactive experience.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future,you can witness John’s “magic” around Bisbee with groups such as The Last Call Band or on Wednesday evenings with Los Amigos at the Copper Queen Hotel.

“That would be shameful if they closed the place down,” John states about the uncertain future of music in Bisbee. He said he thinks about a third of his income percentage of his income comes from his gigs

“Music is a way to break up the hum-drum,” John says “like when you’re not feeling so tip-top, playing music can help you forget about that for a little while.”

With the world not feeling so “tip-top” and the coronavirus being on repeat in our minds, an afternoon with John Cordes will be just what we need when this is over.

Mike Montoya has been a Bisbee musician for more than 15 years. He can be reached at mikemontoyamusic@gmail.com.

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