“I was born a poor black child,” Jack Wolf began his interview playfully. Whereas most people try to sugarcoat a life of hardship, Jack embraces his matter-of-factly. Parental failures, bouncing around the country with different relatives, drugs, the Navy, sleeping in cars and closets, and playing music on the street has all been instrumental in making Jack Wolf the man and musician you see today. As I recount Jack’s early life, try your best to keep up.
He was born John Gurney Huecker Jr. in Yuma, Ariz. with his twin sister Jamie, where they lived until they were two, along with his older sister of five years, Jessie. “We had a turbulent childhood,” he admitted. “My dad went to prison for selling cocaine, so we went to an orphanage in Modesto. It was that and foster homes until we were 4. Then we went to live with my dad’s parents in Simi Valley, Calif., for a couple of years. When we turned 7, we went to Rutledge, Tenn. to live with our mom and her third husband, Curtis. It was a three-bedroom townhouse/shack looking thing. Wood stoves heated the house. There was a hundred acres of woods. We’d hunt for turtles and fireflies. It was tight.”
They stayed there for two years before packing up and heading to Waco, Texas, where Jack soon found himself with another little baby sister, Julia. “Julia’s dad liked to play guitar, and both my parents liked to sing,” he said. “I had music class in the third grade. I remember learning to play one of those little plastic recorders. That started me with the basics.”
They spent summers in California with their dad and his in-laws. “They had a piano and a book of how to teach yourself piano.” He was 11 when he learned “Ode to Joy.”
They moved to Loudon, Tenn., when he was in the fourth grade, where he remained until he graduated high school.
Then, again, at 17, he moved back to Anaheim this time to live with his dad for eight months before starting school at Fullerton College. “Majoring in Japanese and minoring in piano.”
“Basically, from the ages of 11-18 I raised myself and my siblings.”
So, Jack joined the Navy. “I had a perfect score on my ASFAB.” After an incident where he and some others were accused of hazing another recruit, he was prematurely let go. “It was for calling him a name, which I absolutely did not do. The Navy had a zero tolerance for that. I fought for over a year to get reinstated, but it didn’t happen.” That led to a lot of jumping around from place to place, thing to thing for the next two years. Back to California, San Diego, a train to Fullerton, sleeping in the park, back to working at Starbucks, working for Papa John’s, doing construction, doing some modeling for an art school. The whole time he was unapologetically living out of his car.
“When I was 19 I fell in love with our neighbor, but she friend-zoned me. One time she said, ‘I wish someone would learn some Radiohead. I bought a $50 guitar and learned Creep, Karma Police and Exit Music (for a Film), and sang her my stupid, shitty versions. And I still didn’t get the girl.”
Almost 20, he told Starbucks he’d be back in a week, and he drove back to Tennessee.
“I grew up an ugly duckling. I was a late bloomer and was bullied a lot. I didn’t get my first girlfriend until I was seventeen, at the Japanese high school.”
Jack began picking up shifts at a Tennessee Starbucks again. He had been taking karate lessons since he was 11, and his karate instructor, who also sold cars, convinced him that they should move in to together, and before long, Jack was selling cars as well at Jim Cogdill Dodge in Knoxville. “You had to become a slimeball, materialistic, with no moral compass. At 21, because of the car business, I had a breakdown. I dyed my hair blonde, then I dyed it blue, then I shaved my head, looking for my identity.”
It was then John Gurney Huecker Jr. found that identity when he changed his name to Jack Wolf, a name that could have come straight out of a romance novel. “I’d already been asking everyone to call me Jack for a few years.”
Living out of a truck parked in the Market Square garage in Knoxville, Jack began playing the streets. “I kept my clothes in a big green Tupperware tub. I had girlfriends so that I had a place to shower.” It was then that he began experimenting with psychedelics: molly, raves, festivals, couches. And then, an epiphany. “When I tripped the first time on mushrooms, I realized then that I needed to be a musician. I had to quit wasting my life. I started playing the street, learning songs. I keep a three-ring binder and now have hundreds of songs. I’d spend the afternoons committing them to mind, and then the nights I’d try to play them. At coffee shops, parties, just traveling around in the truck I wasn’t paying for.
“I told a friend of mine, Rob Cook (the washboard tie guy if you’re a local) that I wanted to go work on a cruise ship. He said, ‘no, let’s do a busking tour across the United States in my van.’ On Groundhog Day 2013, we went on the road. Someone in Knoxville told us about Key West during the winter. We were heading down the coast and on Super Bowl Sunday in Asheville we were playing outside in the snow, so Key West was sounding pretty good. We played Savannah, Ocala for 10 days at a pizza place where we actually made money, Tampa, and then arrived in Key West at 4 a.m. We stayed in a nursing home parking for a few days, then Fred Tillman (ex-husband of actress Kelly McGillis) allowed us to stay in our van in a much better spot right on a property he owned behind Smokin’ Tuna Saloon for three weeks until we could get our feet on the ground. Still had to shower at the MLK pool, though.”
They began playing the streets of Key West (sometimes with Tillman and McGillis’s daughter Kelsey, also a street musician). He rented out a 4-foot-by-5- foot closet for $100 a week for a while, then moved in with local musician Rock Solomon on Stock Island when things got a little bit better.
“My first real gig was at the Little Room Jazz Club, the first of three duo gigs. That’s where I met KMAC. Then at 2 Cents, then the grand opening of the World of Beer on St. Paddy’s Day. I got picked up at Willie T’s, and John Taglieri got me on at Irish Kevin’s. I always wanted to get gigs along with Rob since we came here together. He finally moved on to play with the Love Lane Gang. It’s funny, we had at least 30 shows together but we never really ever had a conversation.”
“I started making lots of money. So, I’m buying toys. Motorcycles, video games, fancy dinners, flying girls to come out and see me. I love playing video games and reading sci-fi novels. I have an old Nintendo system. I’ve got everything. The new Zelda game is my whole life.” He also enjoys riding bikes cross-country, once pedaling 1,300 miles from Charleston to New Orleans.
Influenced by the Doors, Beatles, Sublime, Radiohead, the Stones, and his number one favorite, Nirvana, you should come check out a Jack Wolf show. He plays every Wednesday with the MFN band at the Bull & Whistle from 9 p.m. until l a.m, Thursdays and Fridays at Willie T’s on Duval from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m, Saturdays at Tiki House from 3 to 7 p.m., and Sundays at Ricks down from 8 p.m. to midnight. He also occasionally fills in at Sloppy Joes, Irish Kevin’s Smokin’ Tuna and the Green Room. “It’s the MFN Band because I’m Jack ‘MFN’ Wolf.”
When asked what he enjoys most about living and working in Key West, Jack said, “Where do I start? The weather… in Tennessee it’s super rainy. I loved the beaches of California. I guess what I enjoy most is my commute to work. All my musician friends from up north come down and see my set up and say it’s just crazy. And then they move here.”
You can find Jack’s music on Spotify, including his first self-titled album (he’s working on his second) and other online music sources. Just Google Jack Wolf Music. ¦