Fans of John Fahey’s bucolic instrumental “Sligo River Blues” who visit the guitarist’s native Montgomery County, Md., today may be surprised to find the title waterway (actually Sligo Creek) is a suburban rivulet surrounded by 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 My Garden State, his new album on 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.
By the time Jones formed Boston-based Cul de Sac in the late ’80s, his eclectic musical interests put him in the vanguard of 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. Cul de Sac covered Fahey’s majestic “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” on its 1991 debut, ECIM, and later recorded an entire album in collaboration with the guitarist. (Fahey died in 2001; Jones has curated and contributed notes to several Fahey-related projects since.)
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, who died in 2009 at the age of 38. Jones credits him with the inspiration and confidence to launch his own solo acoustic career with 2004’s This Is the Wind That Blows It Out.
For My Garden State, his sixth solo-billed album to date, Jones traveled to Allentown, N.J., to record with musician/producer Laura Baird, an experience Jones describes as “very relaxed, very laid-back.” Their 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).
On the phone, Jones comes across neither as a brooder nor an over-sharer. 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.”