Fri September 30, 2011
A Singular Guitarist Emerges From John Fahey's Shadow
There's a restless quality to Glenn Jones' music that starts with the guitarist himself. Jones doesn't just write songs; he makes up a new way of tuning the guitar for each one.
"For me, inventing a new tuning goes with inventing a new song," Jones says. "The song is a way to navigate a tuning that I'm not yet familiar with. It kind of forces me to explore or dig into a tuning in ways that are atypical — kind of forces me to think."
Jones has long been a fan of music that can make you think. While his friends in high school were listening to Led Zeppelin, Jones was listening to the free jazz of Sun Ra and corresponding with the avant-garde composer and inventor Harry Partch. But the musician who struck an emotional chord with Jones was guitarist John Fahey. Jones heard Fahey's music for the first time at college.
"[It] was kind of a thunderbolt for me," he says. "I'd never heard anything like it before. It made me feel in a way that I've never felt with anyone else's music. And I've spent years trying to articulate it and understand it myself."
Jones went to hear Fahey play a show in Boston in the mid-1970s, and they got to be friends. By the late '90s, Fahey was sick and broke, and he turned to Jones for help.
"John was a guy who would often write you and ask for a little financial assistance or a place to stay, a meal," says Byron Coley, a poet and music journalist who knew Fahey and who has known Jones for decades. "So Glenn was very supportive of him, always lending him a hand."
Moving Beyond Idol Worship
Jones finally got a chance to record with Fahey in 1996, playing electric guitar in the band Cul de Sac. But the experience of backing up his idol didn't go as he'd hoped.
"We were in Warren, R.I., in the beginning of winter, Thanksgiving. We ran out of heat, ran out of electricity. It was like a sensory-deprivation experiment that you're trying to make a record in the middle of," he says. "When I listen to that record, I don't hear the takes, or how good the performances are, or how it was mixed or mastered. What I hear is the experience of making it, and just the heartbreak, and just kind of the emotional anguish that went into it, you know?"
Jones made extensive plans for what they would record together and how, but Fahey rejected them. Jones was crushed and wrote about his disappointment for a magazine. To be polite, he showed a draft to Fahey — but instead of getting offended, the older guitarist decided to publish Jones' article as liner notes. To top it off, he titled the album The Epiphany of Glenn Jones.
"It's just about beating down the worshiping of idols and things like that," Jones says. "After we made the record, he said now we could be better friends."
Fahey died in 2001. Two years later, Jones finally felt confident enough to start playing solo acoustic guitar in public, even though he'd been playing the instrument in his bedroom for decades.
"For me, it took a long time to get out from under the shadow of Fahey," Jones says. "I would say that ... the pieces I was writing [didn't feel like] my own until I was maybe in my mid-30s."
Finding A Groove
"The more that Glenn plays, the more that he draws in everything that he knows," Coley says. "When he first started playing acoustic live, he was drawing a lot from the old-timey tradition more. He's moving away from that. He's felt more free to bring more influences of 20th-century classical stuff."
But Jones can't escape the Fahey's shadow altogether. He recently finished researching and editing the liner notes for a five-CD Fahey compilation called Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You, which will be released on the Dust-to-Digital record label later this month. Lance Ledbetter, who runs Dust-to-Digital, has been working with Jones on the project on and off for 10 years.
"I remember one night, we were working on the notes," Ledbetter says. "I got up in the morning, and I don't think Glenn had been to sleep. I think he said later, he just stayed up all night, just writing and writing research. Glenn's not a party animal, so there were no artificial stimulants keeping him up. But, I mean, he got in a groove and just got going."
Jones finally finished an 88-page book to go along with the discs. He brings the same studious approach to his guitar playing, but he says there is such a thing as playing a song too much.
"The way that I title my pieces," he says, "or the events that were going on in my life when I wrote them, I try to keep those in my mind when I'm playing it live, when I'm recording it. And if I get to the point that I'm bored with my own material, I stop playing it."
That's when it's time to start back at the beginning: trying to find one more way of tuning his guitar.