Bergen County Breakdown
Glenn Jones brings Jersey sensibility and John Fahey’s “Primitive” guitar licks to the Windup Space
Published: June 26, 2013
Fans of John Fahey’s bucolic instrumental “Sligo River Blues” who visit the guitarist’s native Montgomery County today may be surprised to find the title waterway (actually Sligo Creek) is a suburban rivulet surrounded by thrumming commuter sprawl. Anyone searching for the “Revelation on the Banks of the Pawtuxent” [sic] that Fahey references in another piece is as likely to find discarded soda bottles as enlightenment.
Acoustic guitarist and Fahey fan/collaborator Glenn Jones introduces a new set of mundane locations with psycho-geographic resonances on his new album, My Garden State (Thrill Jockey). The Cambridge, Mass.-based Jones wrote much of the album while back home in his native New Jersey, caring for his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. From the quietly joyful banjo-driven hoedown of “Across the Tappan Zee” to the elegiac, bittersweet “Bergen County Farewell,” Jones’ finest solo album to date imbues workaday Jersey with the kind of deep, rustic beauty and poignancy that Fahey once bestowed on suburban D.C.
“The fact that I was back in a town that I hadn’t spent any appreciable time in since I was in high school, that can’t help but cause some feelings or memories to come up,” Jones says by phone. “So rather than pretend to something else, I decided to title those pieces with references to where I was. It’s letting my listeners in on it a little bit, but it’s also a way to let the pieces influence the way I feel when I play that live. When I do ‘Bergen County Farewell,’ it’s in my mind that I’m kind of saying goodbye to the house we’ve lived in since 1966.”
Jones’ status as one of the foremost inheritors/practitioners of the “American Primitive” instrumental steel-string guitar style that Fahey and peers such as Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke pioneered has its roots in those Jersey years. Jones discovered Fahey and Basho’s ’60s albums while a teenager and absorbed their probing, personalized amalgamation of American blues and hillbilly music, Indian ragas, and avant experimentation alongside a mix of the usual suburban “classic” rock and recordings by 20th-century composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch.
By the time Jones formed Boston-based Cul de Sac in the late ’80s, his eclectic musical interests put him in the vanguard of nominal indie-rock musicians who subverted the usual guitar/bass/drums tropes to create what critics soon labeled “post-rock.” But even amid the band’s woolly improvisations, Jones was among the first wave of a new generation of young musicians to spread the gospel of Fahey, then a somewhat forgotten figure haunting welfare hotels and thrift stores in the Pacific Northwest. Cul de Sac covered Fahey’s majestic epic “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” on its 1991 debut, ECIM, and later recorded an entire album in collaboration with the guitarist, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. (Fahey died in 2001; Jones has curated and contributed notes to several Fahey-related projects since.)
But Cul de Sac never won the fame of, say, a Tortoise. Booking tours in the late ’00s, Jones couldn’t believe that “we were still getting the same $200 offers [to play] we were getting when we first started out.” When he realized that 2009 would mark the beginning of the band’s third decade in existence, he says, “I felt like, you know what, that’s enough. I didn’t even want to celebrate a 20th anniversary.”
During the recording of what turned out to be the final Cul de Sac studio album, 2002’s Death of the Sun, Jones had found himself fighting to cut through its psychedelic haze of samples. “In the recording of that album, what stood out was acoustic instruments, not electric instruments,” he says. “And that’s kind of what got me back into acoustic [guitar] again.”
He returned to it at an opportune time. Attending the first Free Folk Festival in Brattleboro, Vt., showed him he was far from alone. “It was the first time that I heard Jack Rose, Chris Corsano, and all these younger people that, as soon as I heard them, I knew they’d been listening to the same records I grew up with,” he says. Rose, in particular, seized Jones’ ear by blending the same familiar Fahey and Basho sounds with his own idiosyncratic contemporary flavor. “When he came off-stage I practically wanted to kiss him on the lips,” Jones says of Rose.
Rose quickly become a close friend and frequent collaborator; Jones credits him with giving him the inspiration and confidence to launch his own solo acoustic career. They toured together and recorded together, even as Jones stepped out solo with 2004’s This Is the Wind That Blows It Out. But remember: He was not alone. In addition to Rose, who died in 2009 at age 38, an explosion of solo guitarists have spent the past decade extending Fahey’s exploratory path: James Blackshaw, Matt Baldwin, Steve Gunn, Daniel Bachman, and more—some of them a generation younger than Jones, who is 59.
“A lot of them are really formidable players and are more surefooted than I was at the same age,” he marvels. At the same time, he adds, a number of the younger players “got the ‘how’ figured out, but to me they don’t have the ‘why’ yet. Why do you want to play this music? What do you want to say? What do you have to bring to the table that hasn’t been brought to the table before?”
Late-bloomer Jones brings a lot on My Garden State, his sixth solo-billed album to date. He traveled to Allentown, N.J., to record with musician/producer Laura Baird, an experience Jones describes as “very relaxed, very laid-back. She was completely indulgent in terms of suggestions that we go outside and record the environment and walk around.” These low-key experiments led to two centerpieces: the expansive “Vernal Pool,” in which Jones improvised to a field recording the pair made while strolling around, then stripped the environmental aspect out of the final mix, and the gorgeous “Alcouer Gardens,” for which he improvises along with Baird’s recording of a thunderstorm (the latter left audible this time).
But the heart of the album remain his more considered compositions, steeped in American roots idioms but given vibrant melodic and harmonic life by Jones’ alternative tunings and his use of pitch-changing capos, even self-manufactured partial capos that dampen only a few strings. “I haven’t played in standard tuning in 30 years or more,” he says. “Without the capos I don’t have a set.”
On the phone, Jones comes across neither as a brooder nor an oversharer. Volatile, vulnerable, troubled Fahey he is not, it appears. Still, the numinous beauty of compositions such as “Bergen County Farewell” telegraphs deeply felt emotional states, the kind you might well derive from bittersweet time spent in your old hometown. The album remains resolutely lovely and distinct, even without any hints at programmatic information about what lies at its roots.
Jones, like many musicians, usually finds listening to his own recordings uncomfortable. “All I can hear is That should have been a little bit slower, niggling things that you wish you’d done differently or didn’t hear at the time,” he says. But with My Garden State, he adds, “I keep thinking, Well, now I’m going to listen to this and start hearing things that I wish I did differently, and I haven’t yet, you know? I listen back, and it’s like, man, that’s as good as I can do it, and that says everything I wanted the song to say.”
Glenn Jones performs at the Windup Space July 3 with Nathan Bell.
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