At 13, CJ Neary has explored more genres of music than many musicians do in a lifetime of playing.
He started out at 5 learning the Suzuki Method on violin, and for a while, classical violin was all he listened to.
“And then, I realized that I didn’t really like it; I didn’t really feel like it had any rhythm or anything,” Neary said recently while sitting down with mom Tammy Roark at the downtown library.
By age 6, he discovered bluegrass and Texas-style fiddling competitions through YouTube videos and his teacher at the time, Miya Saito-Beckman. He won his first competition in Red Bluff, California, and continued on to win more titles at state and national competitions in Idaho, Texas and beyond. In 2015 and 2016, he branched out into the jazz competition in the under-18 category at the National Fiddle Competition in Weiser, Idaho, winning second place in his first year and taking the top prize his second year.
But after that, Neary wanted to move in a new direction.
“He was kind of like, ‘Oh, all right, I think I’m done with this,’” Roark said. “And we said OK, and it was kind of just figuring out what he wanted to do next.”
During his time on the competition circuit, Neary met Texas-style fiddler Luke Price, who remains one of his musical heroes. Neary recalled a conversation with Price that ended up pointing the way for what would become The CJ Neary Band, which will release its debut album, “A Groovy Kinda Music,” at a show at The Commons on Friday.
“You know when you’re asking a question, but you’re hoping for one answer?” Neary said. “So I was asking (Price) what his favorite type of music is, hoping that he would say Texas-style, and he said soul. I was just like, what? There’s no way that this guy can like — and I was almost kind of sad. But then, I realized — I started listening to some of the soul stuff that he was listening to because at that time, he was probably my biggest influence; I wanted to be just like him and still do.”
Neary, a seventh grader at Realms Middle School, is well-known on the Bend music scene and beyond for his virtuoso performances with groups such as Georges Bouhey’s Jazz Bros; sit-ins with touring artists such as Regina Carter and Shook Twins; and multiple TEDxBend talks and performances. Recently, he performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland as part of Michael Allen Harrison’s Ten Grands, a touring music education fundraiser that features 10 pianists performing on 10 grand pianos. And Neary is also a veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, having played the legendary venue in 2016, when he was 9.
“I didn’t even know what the Grand Ole Opry was,” he said. “My mom’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you just got invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry,’ and I’m like, ‘What’s the Grand Ole Opry?’” Neary said.
But The CJ Neary Band represents new territory for the young violinist and songwriter. The band formed in October around guitarist Richard Taelour, whose résumé includes shows with The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa; bassist Aaron Moore; and 18-year-old drummer Logan Anderson.
Neary’s appearance with jazz violinist Carter at the Riverhouse Jazz series at Riverhouse on the Deschutes in February 2018 inspired him to form his own band. He looked to influences including James Brown, Herbie Hancock and Kool & The Gang to come up with the band’s sound.
“I’ve been trying to form my own little funk-fusion-jazz kind of vibe,” Neary said. “Almost like an innovative, new kind of music is what my band is trying to do. We’re trying to create a new kind of music altogether and inspire other bands to pursue that style.”
Produced by local songwriter Travis Ehrenstrom at his home studio, “A Groovy Kinda Music” puts an emphasis on, well, groove, with Taelour’s guitar licks or Neary’s searing fiddle lines occasionally surfacing throughout. Bendites who have watched Neary grow as a musician over the years may be surprised to hear him singing on songs such as “Why Do We Have To?” and “Hard Way,” which Neary said was one of his first compositions.
“I wrote that at a camp here in Salem called YMA (Young Musicians & Artists),” Neary said. “YMA is basically just an area where young artists get together and learn from instructors and get lectures on all different types of stuff, so it’s not all music stuff; it’s also art and dancing and all this stuff. So I was in the songwriting class for that, and we had a week to come up with a song and then, we had to perform it in front of the whole camp. And this is a pretty big camp; it’s maybe 2,000 kids, and I was — that made me go crazy. That definitely gave me the incentive to write a good song.”
Beyond the album release show, Neary hopes to bring his band out on tour. He’s slated to be an “artist-at-large” at this year’s 4 Peaks Music Festival in June, which will involve him sitting in with other musicians at the festival. He also plays with another trio, Short People, featuring California-based musicians, 14-year-old guitarist Anna Daisy and standup bassist Rick Chelew.
“Hopefully, we’ll pick up, go on tour, live the musician life,” he said, “because that’s my career goal: live like a musician.”