On Vade Mecum, the guitar maestro and John Fahey disciple perfects a style: his own
Glenn Jones is a guitar renegade.
Call the majestically cinematic solo guitar vistas that Jones strums, plucks, weaves and picks with singular abandon, folk, freak-folk, Americana or the requisite American Primitive. But at this juncture as he approaches his seventh decade, Jones has put his indelible stamp on an arresting style that is all his own.
As far as Jones is concerned, he shares a similar mindset that his friend, bandmate and guitar guru John Fahey opined about the American Primitive label. When asked if it’s become an overbaked term to describe solo guitar, Jones harkens back to how Fahey waxed poetic about it.
“Maybe so,” says Jones about ‘American Primitive’ being an exhausted and lazy go-to descriptor. “I’ve certainly seen articles where it’s ‘American Primitive guitarist this’ and it’s like ‘American Primitive? This doesn’t feel like it has a lot in common with American Primitive. It has something more in common with the Ventures or something.’ Now if it’s like if anyone is playing the guitar, ‘American Primitive’ gets used and as a term. “I suppose like Fahey said, ‘Well, it’s as good as anything if you have to call it something but why do you have to call it anything, ya know?’
The Massachusetts-based acoustic guitarist and banjo picker’s most recent album, Vade Mecum, is positively Jones’ian, a forward-looking style that he’s pioneered over the course of his ever-inventive output as a solo artist and one that extends to the strings work he explored with his long-defunct band Cul De Sac. The explorative meditations found on Vade Mecum prove to be a mind-blow due to the fact that the layers upon layers of revelatory finger-pickage is served up by a single player; it sounds as if a guitar army was assembled. Jones’ seemingly effortless mastery of churning out constellations of blues and folk structures with traditional techniques then adding experimental touches is on a whole other level of deep.
The Globe had the pleasure of speaking to Jones from his Massachusetts home to talk his new record, Fahey, John Jackson, American Primitive, contemporary guitarists he listens to and more.
I could be pronouncing the title of your new record incorrectly, Vade Mecum, which I’m digging a lot.
(Laughs) Well, actually, there’s no way you can mispronounce it because nobody knows how Latin was actually spoken. It was a dead language when it was discovered – there were only written texts. “Vade Mecum” is even pronounced differently in England than in the United States. I’ve been saying “Vah-Day Me-Come,” which combines the UK and U.S. pronunciations.
The music on the record, and your music as a whole, certainly fits in with the translation of Vade Mecum which means “go with me” and that “it’s an invitation.” Do you see that as sort of your raison d’être?
It is intended to be an invitation, yeah. Not all music is meant to be shared, but this album is. Listeners are needed in order to complete an experience that began with the composition of these pieces. The pieces mean something to me, but naturally people will draw their own meanings from the music.
I may make a point of talking about my use of alternate tunings and partial capos and what-not. But that’s not what I want people to hear when they listen to my music — how it works technically. More important to me is how it works emotionally, whatever feeling or soul it may possess — or whatever you want to call it.
I’m suspicious of people that are technically accomplished on the guitar because I find that technique is often a way of disguising the fact you don’t have much to say, you know? Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of players who have great technique AND have plenty to say. But technique is something one can acquire, whereas figuring out what you have to add to the equation is hard. What do you have to say that’s different than what’s been said by other people; that’s unique to your own experience, or your own relationship to your instrument? It’s very hard to find your own voice.
For me, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I felt like I could point to a piece of music and say, “Okay, this is mine. This belongs to me.”
That’s something I was going to ask you. You were tight with John Fahey so I’m wondering how you broke away from being in his enormous shadow and found your own voice. It wasn’t until you hit your thirties? Was it a specific album or song you had written?
Well, I didn’t start making albums, or at least guitar albums, until much later than that. It’s a hard process — and it should be hard — it’s part of how we mature. As a teenager you hear something that makes a profound impression on you. If it’s more than just a superficial thing, you get deeper into it, and the process of understanding it. “What makes this tick? How does it work?” When we start playing music, we often start by imitating the things we love. We tend to gravitate towards the things that excite us or turn us on in some way.
For me, hearing Fahey as teenager, discovering open tunings from Elizabeth Cotten’s first record, these were doorways into a style of music that appealed to me very much.
But influences can also be a debilitating thing — ultimately you have to escape them in order to find yourself. Fahey was (and is) such a powerful presence, such a powerful creator, that absorbing his style can be almost an impediment to escaping the shadow that he casts, which is such a huge shadow.
That’s likely to be true no matter who you’re listening to as you’re growing up, David Bowie or Michael Jackson or Captain Beefheart or Prince or whoever. It’s like, “How do you get beyond your influences? What’s your message? How do you find your own audience?”
Did you try to intentionally reinvent your style of play, be it experimenting with alternate tunings and open tunings in order to separate yourself from the Fahey style and find your very own methods and techniques?
Well, I was always inventing new tunings. At this point, I’ve invented about a hundred or so. Making partial capos was another thing. But these are just ways of challenging myself. It’s the “not knowing” that is the spur to creativity, not the “knowing.”
If I get hung up, I’ll look for a new tuning or something – something to confuse me, something that isn’t predictable, something where I can’t fall back on old tropes, or muscle memory or things like that. I look for a new way of navigating what is suddenly new terrain, where the notes, the chord shapes, the relationships between strings, are different then they were in some other tuning. Often, the search for a pathway through a new tuning becomes a new piece of music.
You seem to come out with a new album every few years or so. Are you constantly playing, writing songs and tweaking your material?
I’m always working on new material. Some of it I end up rejecting. Between the time that I was originally going to record what became Vade Mecum and the time I actually recorded it (due to COVID lockdowns) I ended up abandoning a couple of pieces that would have been on the first version of the album. New pieces took their place, either ones that just excited me more or I felt better about.
Is there a moment when you know a piece is completed? For example, like a song on the new album, that you’re finished experimenting with the tune and it’s done.
Generally, I know. I prefer to keep pieces simple, to not to overcomplicate them with a lot of sections. “Forsythia” took about a year and a half to get to where it felt like it said all that I wanted it to say. That one has a lot of changes in it — I almost feel like maybe it’s a little too complex. But if I play it right, I can find its emotional center.
So, it’s not just discovering a piece of music; it’s finding out how a piece of music wants to be played.
Listening back to something I’ve recorded seems to engage a different part of my brain than actually playing the piece does. I’m able to be more critical. I’ll think, “Why is that fourth section even there? It doesn’t really relate to the rest of the song.” Yet, I’d been playing that fourth section for a year (laughs) and it never occurred to me! But generally, I can tell when a piece has reached its logical conclusion and doesn’t need to go on anymore.
How much of a role, if any, does improvisation have in your playing, either on record or live in concert?
Improvisation is not a strength of mine. So many musicians I admire are great “being in the moment,” which I think is an important part of what improvisation is about. You may or may not have a sense of where things are going, but you aren’t in a hurry to get there. Most of my pieces come out of exploration, which I suppose is a kind of improvisation. But I’m always looking for someplace to land. I’m looking for a germ of an idea, something that I can hang a structured piece on. Improvisation, to the extent that it takes place at all, happens in that initial spurt. “Here’s a new tuning, how does it work?,” that kind of thing.
The closest I’ve come to improvisation is the record I made with my friends, David Greenberger, who published a magazine called The Duplex Planet, which consists of interviews he did with the elderly, in nursing homes, homeless centers, places like that (he’s been doing this for some forty-five years and he and I have known each other almost that long) and drummer / percussionist Chris Corsano, who I’ve known since the early 2000s. I’ve shared the stage with Chris a few times, and he played on my album, The Wanting.
Anyway, the three of us got together to make this record, the two of us accompanying some of David’s stories from his conversations with old people. I didn’t improvise — but I wrote really fast! No one came into the sessions with anything prepared. I’d make up a new tuning on the spot, on guitar or banjo; David would trawl through dozens and dozens of sheets of paper to find something that seemed to resonate with whatever I was playing; then Chris would glue it all together, and we would record.
Corsano is an incredible improviser.
He’s one of the best. I love that guy! We recorded some thirty pieces over three days. It was issued as a CD and a double ten-inch record called An Idea In Everything. I’m so proud of that record! None of the pieces took more than ten, twelve minutes to put together. We landed on something; we recorded it; we went on to something else. Of the thirty pieces that we recorded there was only one we agreed didn’t work. The rest are all on the record.
Is stepping out of your comfort zone like you did on that record something you want to delve further into? Is there anything like that on Vade Mecum?
Comfort zone? Well, there’s a piece called “Bass Harbor Head,” for banjo and a field recording made by Matthew Azevedo, my recording engineer and mastering guy. He recorded it while walking around Mount Desert Island in Maine, where we made the album. The piece itself came about when my girlfriend Nora went out to get coffee and I said, “When you come back, I’ll have a new banjo piece.” Twenty minutes later, that piece was done — kind of like the pieces that I did with David and Chris.
Forcing myself to write really fast is not my typical way at all. Normally, I fuss over things for a long time.
Vade Mecum was recorded on Mount Desert Island in Maine. It seems like it’s a recurring theme in your records where location and surroundings are crucial to your aesthetic.
I make my records for me as much as I do for my audience. When I listen to my records, I want to feel a sense of what it was like where and when we made it, the time of year, what the weather was like, even if it’s only in my imagination or memory. My records are like postcards to myself.
I’ve never liked working in a studio environment. I don’t like the clock on the wall; I don’t like that antiseptic feeling. It feels like you go into a studio in order to cut yourself off from the outside word. I like the outside world – that sense of environment — and I’ll happily sacrifice the “sonic perfection” studios supposedly provide for the animal sounds, nature sounds, traffic sounds, whatever — that creep into a recording. I like hearing the birds in the background or the crickets.
I don’t know how much you can hear it over the guitar or banjo, but there’s a world out there!
One of the songs on Vade Mecum is “John Jackson of Fairfax, Virginia.” He’s a legendary American Piedmont blues guitarist who you actually produced a couple of his records for when you were just in your twenties. How did that come about? That must have been a trip for you to make that connection being so young.
(Laughing) I look pretty young in that picture, don’t I? When I was I was in college in 1971 in Richmond, Virginia, I was also beginning to discover pre-war country blues and old-timey music. Richmond was a good place to be, because you could readily find a lot of those records down there at the time – County, Yazoo, Origin Jazz Library, Herwin – all were putting out reissues of this wonderful stuff and I was enchanted by it, and obsessed.
That music from the twenties and thirties, to my 19-year-old self, was like something from another planet, another century — ancient and old and obscure. Things that are ancient, old and obscure have a very romantic aura to them — you can’t touch it now, you can’t go back there anymore. It’s the past.
Only, that wasn’t true. A couple of college friends said, “You’re into this music. Well, there’s this guy John Jackson in Fairfax, Virginia, and we go to his house occasionally and hang out, and he plays music. He has these records on Arhoolie — you should check him out.” I did, and I was knocked out by ‘em.
So, on one of our mid-term college breaks my friends invited me to go with them to visit John. I ended up going several times and made cassette recordings of these evenings.
It’s funny. At the time, it was something we took for granted. But looking back on it, how amazing that this guy had us in his home to play music for us, to tell stories – for hours. After a while, his wife Cora would bring us in plates of food. We were so lucky.
How did you then end up co-producing two of John’s records later on?
I dropped out of college in ’73, and by 1977 was living in Boston and working for a record distributor up here. Listening to the tapes we’d made of John Jackson, my friend Wendy Ritger and I proposed making a new album by John to Rounder Records. It had been a while since his last Arhoolie album and we knew he had lots of terrific songs he’d never recorded. We selected the tracks for the album from among our tapes, brought John up to Boston and recorded Step It Up and Go.
Was John’s style of playing an influence on you?
That Piedmont guitar style — I loved it then and love it now! Before I got into open tunings I mostly played in standard — though I haven’t touched standard tuning in probably forty years or more. I was playing Mississippi John Hurt songs, Sam McGee, Reverend Gary Davis, a couple of John Jackson’s songs, Blind Boy Fuller, people like that.
But as much as I loved it, it wasn’t music that belonged to me. I was still in the process of trying to find my own voice.
The music was influential in the sense that it hit something in my ear that was coherent and made sense to me and excited me and had that “romantic aura” I mentioned before. And playing that music strengthened my right hand; I learned how to do the alternating bass and how to fingerpick. Then the open tunings gave me an opportunity to write stuff myself rather than copy the work of others.
On “John Jackson of Fairfax, Virginia,” do you incorporate that Piedmont guitar style as a tribute to him or is the tune in your own language?
I’d say the song is in my own voice. It’s a somewhat conventional blues structure but with the tuning I’m in, it’s played in anything but a conventional blues way (laughs). It doesn’t take anything in particular from John. I mean, you could probably find bits and pieces of it in traditional blues pieces. I feel like it’s mine, but it certainly draws from a tradition.
With guitar music, it’s very easy to play “pretty”; but I don’t really like “pretty.” I mean, OK, I like some “pretty”! But prettiness for its own sake definitely doesn’t interest me. I’m looking for a certain tension-and-release, a certain explorative quality, and a certain dark or mysterious quality.
There are ways that you can avoid playing prettily, if it’s your intention to do so. One of them is to play bluesy; another is to bring in a certain amount of dissonance, as Fahey did so beautifully; another is make the music abstract or disjointed; another is to introduce extra-musical elements, collage elements and such; another is play with aggressively.
With some of the so-called New Age guitarists, the music was, as beautifully played as it was, felt somewhat lightweight or hollow at the core to me.
Fahey again is the example — I felt like he was a scow or something, trawling up all the gunk and sludge and muck from the bottom of the harbor.
The New Age guitarists were like pleasure boats, skimming along the surface of the water on a pleasant, sunny day. I can see why that music was attractive to people. Who wants to paw through sludge? But for Fahey, that murk was the unknown, his subconscious.
Fahey and Robbie Basho don’t have a lot in common as players, as you probably know, but what they do have in common is that they both viewed music as a way to get to a place beyond music. Music was not a be-all / end-all.
They were exploring something that had to do with their pasts, or their feelings, or their spiritual beliefs or their childhoods — whatever it was. They were looking for something deeper and more meaningful than just playing music.
I remember seeing Fahey one time when one of these New Age guitarists opened for him. John had never had anything good to say about those players, so I was surprised when at the end of the night he said something like, “Oh, I wish I could do what that guy was doing.” I said, “What?” He impressed you?!” John quickly said, “No, no, no. I would never want to play what he’s playing. I just wish I had his technique. I could do something interesting with it.”
He admired the technique, not the message.
Speaking of Fahey, I saw you perform several years back in NYC for a book event celebrating Steve Lowenthal’s Fahey tome, “Dance of Death.” I know you and Fahey were friends and collaborators but did you learn any new revelatory nuggets about John in Steve’s book?
Certainly some of the people he interviewed are ones that I’d never talked to, and so there are a number of good stories in there that I’d never heard before. But Fahey is such a complex and difficult character. To write about him with real critical insight is going to be a very tough job for anyone. Steve said, “It wasn’t my intention to psychoanalyze John,” and that’s fair. Steve’s book is a very good first step.
In terms of getting all the pieces of the puzzle in place, the history, the wheres and whens, Steve has done an admirable job and made a great contribution to our understanding of John. It lays the groundwork for a deeper or more penetrating study of Fahey, exploring the sorts of things John wrestled with all his life, some having to do with racism and misogyny and such.
Whatever his trials, troubles tribulations, John was never dishonest about his failings, or shortcomings. He was one of the least rationalizing people I ever met, and I feel certain he’d want a book about him to deal with “the hard stuff.”
The ultimate book on John has yet to be written. Maybe it’ll never be written; maybe it can’t be written. But such is John’s importance that someone should try. Steve’s bio is the jumping off point.
Fahey was boxed into so many different styles.
For Fahey, the whole thing was like, he hated being lumped in folk music. He said, “How can I be folk? I’m from the suburbs.” He played with so many folk musicians who’s music he hated and who he hated personally that he hated being lumped into it. You go in record stores, even now, Fahey is in the folk thing. He was looking for any way that wasn’t folk. Later on he got lumped under new age and he was just furious that that what he was not playing at all. Then Byron Coley, when he was writing that SPIN article about John in the late eighties that kind of revived John’s career, Byron introduced him to “alternative” as a category and John was like, “That’s what I’m playing! That’s what I’ve been playing all along! Alternative music! That’s what I do!” So John was ready to clamp on to anything that wasn’t folk music but still to this day that’s where his music is filed.
Part of the Fahey legend is the record you made with him when you were in Cul De Sac.
That was a very tough album to make, but one I’m inordinately proud of. It’s nothing like the record that John imagined, or the band imagined, or I imagined we were going to make. I learned a lot away from that experience. What it means to put someone on a pedestal, to admire them uncritically, how it’s unfair to them and to yourself.
I don’t know that I idolized John — I suppose at one time I did. But from making that album (The Epiphany of Glenn Jones – titled by Fahey) I learned that you need to see your heroes “whole and naked,” if you will, in the sense that you are no longer blinded by your admiration for someone that you fail to see them for all their qualities – good and bad — as you would a friend or a member of your family. Making that album changed me.
As far as the American Primitive style goes, who do you think is carrying the torch? Which guitarists do you listen to?
The American Primitive torch…there’s a number of people who’s playing I love. I love the guitar so it isn’t even so much American Primitive thing. Keith Rowe and that whole kind of tabletop guitar thing, threading utensils through the strings—that experimental approach. That excites me. I love Bola Sete, the Brazilian guitarist. I listen to the classical guitarist Agustín Barrios—he’s a tremendous composer for guitar. I listen to all kinds of stuff: Sonny Sharrock. In terms of contemporary people: the problem with naming people is I’ll forget people and I’ll hurt some feelings but I always love seeing Bill Orcutt—he’s always exciting. There’s a guy named Joseph Allred who is living in the Boston area now. I don’t want to say he’s in a Basho bag at all but he comes from a more spiritual point of view. He was born and raised in the South but he’s come up here to go to school so I’ve got to know him from his begin local and I’ve seen him play a number of times and he always gets my blood flowing. I love what he’s doing. There’s a guy named Lloyd Thayer who has a new record out called Twenty20 on the Feeding Tube label. He’s done a bunch of records but this one might be his best. I love Daniel Bachman’s playing.
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