File under: Psychedelic Appalachian folk
For fans of: Dock Boggs, Jim White, Will Oldham
Someday, Stone Jack Jones will write an incredible memoir. Born in West Virginia, he’s the fourth generation of a family of coal miners, yet he decided to pursue his fate above ground. He was drafted during the Vietnam War and subsequently discharged for medical reasons. During the 1970s, he traveled the country as an itinerant artist, then procured a succession of odd jobs: carny, busker, escape artist, nightclub owner, lute player, ballet dancer.
In the 1990s, however, he settled in Nashville with his family and devoted himself full-time to music. Even then, it wasn’t until the mid ’00s that he released his debut album, Narcotic Lollipop, which was produced by his friend Roger Moutenot (Lambchop, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney). He quickly followed it up with 2006′s Bluefolk, featuring guest vocals by Patty Griffin.
It has taken Jones eight years to release his third album, the spectral Ancestor, and during that time he has refined his dark take on Appalachian folk music. He and Moutenot draw out banjo, guitar and the occasional keyboard into warped themes and dark, dreamy textures, creating an eerie backdrop for his floorboard-creak voice.
At his home in Nashville, sitting with his two dogs, Jones (who does not like to disclose his real name or his age) spoke to Stephen M. Deusner about his unusual life and musical career.
On picking a solid stage name:
I had Jack for a really long time, although I’m not sure where that came from. So it was Jack Jones, and of course, if you Google Jack Jones it’s going to come up the jazz singer — the poor man’s Frank Sinatra. People were always giving me his albums for fun. I was living up in the mountains on the West Virginia/Virginia border, and I started getting into the history of that area. That’s when I found out about Stonewall Jackson, who’s from western Virginia. He was a really boring guy. He taught at the Virginia Military Institute and his students would fall asleep in class. But when he went out, he was a different person. That inspired me, because I feel like I live this very mundane life, but I love to go out and play music. I’m the guy sitting at home walking the dog and chopping vegetables. And I like being that guy, but I also like going out and playing music for an audience.
On getting into music:
I don’t remember not playing music. We had a piano in the house and I would just play on that and make up things. I was never good at learning other songs, so I would take the basic chords of, say, “Summertime,” and make up my own thing. Around puberty I found a guitar in the closet. I guess it must have been my dad’s. That kept my hands busy. I got married as a teenager and moved to Boston, and I kept thinking, “What am I going to do with my life?” I’d sit down and play guitar, then I’d think, “What am I gonna do?” I’d stare out the window, play guitar, and think, “What the fuck am I going to do with my life?” My wife at the time finally said, “Why don’t you just play guitar?” Oh, OK.
On discovering punk rock:
For a long time I only played instrumental music and I hardly ever spoke until I was about 26 or 27. It was the advent of punk that made me open my mouth. I was living in a car for most of my 20s, doing theater and traveling around. My car broke down in Fort Worth, and I had to get a job to rebuild the engine. So I started going to these clubs and hearing this incredible music. It’s funny, because I thought these guys were writing all this incredible music. But they were cover bands! They were playing songs by Blondie and the Clash and the Ramones. But it was transformational for me.
On learning the art of escape:
I did street theater when I lived in New York. I played music, but I also did these stupid escape tricks. I wasn’t Houdini or anything. I would get into a garbage bag filled with water and get out of it. I would escape from a straightjacket. Or I would have people tie me up. I’d pick the two biggest guys in the audience, give them 50 feet of rope, and have them tie me up as tight as they could. Then my assistant would raise a blind, I’d escape, and the blind would drop. It was a little punk, I would say. But it was the ’70s and people were in that mood.
On running a nightclub in Atlanta:
In the ’70s, the city of Atlanta got religious and closed down all the strip clubs, so I rented one with a friend of mine. We just let people dance. There was a 40-foot-long neon runway, and regular people would get up there and dance. They weren’t stripping, but their inhibitions would go away. We called it TV Dinner, because we served TV dinners and had lots of junk TVs around. We had bands play, and Allen Ginsberg came there and spoke. We had a lot of gay people. A lot of straight people, too. It was a nice mix. But Atlanta didn’t want a bunch of artists and drug addicts and homosexuals around, so the city completely demolished the neighborhood — the club, the cafés where we hung out, the places where everyone lived — so there was a huge diaspora of Atlanta artists who moved to L.A. and New York and where else they went I don’t know. That ended the scene. And then AIDS, too. AIDS came through like a plague.
On recording with Roger Moutenot:
Roger will call me up at 9 in the evening and ask me what I’m doing. I’ll say, “Making grits.” “Well, come on over and let’s play,” [he'll say]. It comes out of the blue, and we’ll work until 3 in the morning sometimes. It could be a week or even months until we get together again. I prefer that to going in for long days and making a recording in a week. It’s much more relaxed. Roger is really good at helping people find a fingerprint — a unique sound that’s really recognizable. With me he took what I might call an Appalachian feel with melodies and words and made it psychedelic.
On taking eight years between albums:
Ancestor has been sitting around for a while. Bluefolk was well received, but nothing much happened with it. I’m not that good at the entrepreneurial side of music myself, so I really wanted to get a team together for this one. It’s just been a long time getting everything in place. And then I was taking care of my parents. My mom was taking care of my dad, and then she became ill. They’re in West Virginia, so I spent a lot of time going up there. My dad passed away, but my mom is doing well. I don’t have to go up there quite as much now. Also, I was putting my kids through high school. That was pretty time-consuming.
On working with Patty Griffin:
Patty and I both moved to Nashville around the same time. There was a place called Jack’s Guitar Bar, and we’d go there and play our songs. There would be maybe five people there. It’d be winter and freezing, and we’d be huddled up on the couch. Of course, Patty’s career just took off, but she was always so supportive. She stayed in touch. I love her performance on “Jackson.” It’s one of my favorite Patty performances. In the studio she can sing something very simple, just two or three notes, and it’s amazing.
On finding sympathy for a disgraced West Virginian:
I wrote “Gone Wrong” right after Abu Ghraib. I guess that was in 2007, before we changed presidents. That was a West Virginia girl who got busted for that. I felt sorry for her getting herself into that situation. She was just a young kid. How did she get herself into that place to think that way? It’s scary. Somebody should have been checking on that. I was drafted but given a deferment because of epilepsy, so somebody was watching out for me. They didn’t want epileptics flying airplanes or shooting guns. But nobody was watching out [at Abu Ghraib]. They turned a blind eye.
On writing a song called “Jackson” that is not necessarily a response to the Johnny Cash hit:
We went down to Jackson, Mississippi, on a tour, and it was one of the most bizarre places we ever played. It was a motel that had been gutted and turned into a performance place, but it still had some rooms in it. Some very strange characters were living there. That’s what inspired that song. I love Jackson. I love that area. And just singing the word “Jackson” is a lot of fun. You say that word and people expect a story: “We got married in a fever…” When I started playing in New York City, I did some Johnny Cash songs and people would go crazy. All you had to say was, “I’m gonna do a Johnny Cash song,” and they’d go crazy. I used to do [Cash's] “Jackson” with a female partner, and it was always fun.
On writing a song about a dog:
“Petey’s Song” is about a friend’s dog. He passed away, but I did get to play him that song. He was an amazing dog — very charismatic. He’s an English bulldog. My friend has a very nice study with a couch and a fireplace, and sometimes I would just sit in there by myself, especially if they were having a party and I was getting over-stimulated. Usually Petey was in there just hanging out in front of the fire. I wanted to make a video with him, but didn’t get around to it before he left us.