Solo guitarist and New Jersey native Glenn Jones isn’t interested in these or any other boilerplate clichés, describing his new instrumental LP, My Garden State, as “a corrective to Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey, which I sometimes don’t recognize.”
Having lived in Boston since 1978, Jones hadn’t planned to write his home state a love letter, but that changed three years ago.
“My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” explains the 59-year-old musician, “and because my older sister and I don’t work nine-to-five jobs — we’re bums, basically — we took turns looking after her, going down to New Jersey for months at a time.”
After getting past the initial shock of “being back in the town where I went to high school, and not just for a quick visit over the holidays,” a more scenic and serene Garden State began to take root — in Jones’ mind, and before his eyes.
While New Jersey “has a terrible reputation for crime, squalor and places where the air is green… up and down the coast, in the waterfront towns, there’s a lot of beauty. I wrote the album as an attempt to recognize the meaning of the state, and why it still resonates with me this many years later.”
For Jones, My Garden State — which includes songs titled “Across the Tappan Zee” (the New York bridge just north of the Jersey state line), “Bergen County Farewell” (the suburban area he grew up in) and “Alcoeur Gardens” (the 16-room boardinghouse where his mother now lives) — is autobiographical.
“You can call instrumental pieces anything,” he says, “but I tend to relate my music to where I was and what I was doing when I wrote it. Instead of ignoring these distinctions, I decided to celebrate what these songs were about by titling them things associated with my experiences there.”
A self-professed loner, Jones came of age “going to New York to hear John Cage concerts, and writing letters to Harry Partch and Sun Ra.”
In college, he discovered John Fahey, whose music changed his life.
“I met Fahey in Boston,” Jones remembers, “and his influence was profound. Watching bands play, there was this idea that you had to have expensive equipment and a four- or five-piece band, just as a prerequisite. Listening to Fahey, I realized you don’t have to sing or write lyrics… that one person with one instrument could tell tales.”
Inspired, Jones dove into American Primitive guitar music, an elliptical steel-string style Fahey pioneered after he dove into American roots music decades before.
Jones formed his first group, Cul de Sac, in 1990, and later began issuing records under his own name. My Garden State is his sixth.
In time, he and Fahey — 14 years his senior — became close, even releasing a split LP, 1997’s John Fahey and Cul de Sac.
Until his death in 2001, Fahey would stay with Jones “whenever he played the Boston area. We’d hang out, eat Chinese food and talk about music.”
Jones — who speaks as deliberately as he plays — looks back fondly on Fahey’s legacy.
“I still listen to him all the time, and definitely consider myself in that same strain. He only had as much technique as he needed to express what he was trying to express. It wasn’t about virtuosity, showing off or playing fast. Some of his most profound pieces were really slow, with a lot of space, and that fearlessness spoke to me.”
While the solo instrumental guitar scene is admittedly “a bit of a boy’s club,” exceptions exist — like Meg Baird of the band Espers, who duets with Jones on My Garden State A-side “Going Back to East Montgomery.” Baird’s older sister, Laura, recorded the album in her central Jersey farmhouse.
Some younger players, such as Philadelphia’s late Jack Rose — for whom Jones reserves his greatest praise for anyone not named Fahey — wear American Primitive as a badge of honor. Others — Ben Chasny of San Francisco’s Six Organs of Admittance, for one — resist the tag.
Chasny, Jones explains, released a “knockout” solo guitar record early in his career, “but it’s his only one. [In 1999], Jack was playing some shows with Ben on the West Coast, so I told him to ask what his deal was… if he was going to do any more albums like that. Apparently, he didn’t want to be associated with the whole Fahey, American Primitive genre. I can kind of appreciate that — I guess — but Jack was like, ‘not me, man… that’s exactly where I want to be pigeonholed!’”
Even via telephone, one can “hear” Jones smile as he remembers his friend, Jack, who passed away four years ago at age 39.
He “inspired me in so many ways. I just loved his embracing of this music wholeheartedly, and making no apologies for it.”
The prolific Rose recorded his final album, 2010’s Luck in the Valley, for Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label — home to artists diverse as The Boredoms, Tortoise and Trans Am.
“Getting on Thrill Jockey was certainly going to increase Jack’s exposure and audience,” Jones says. Sadly, “he didn’t live to see it happen.”
He did, however, leave behind a helpful contact: label head Bettina Richards, who signed Jones in 2010. My Garden State marks his third Thrill Jockey release. 2011’s The Wanting, and a 2010 split with Virginia’s Black Twig Pickers — also Rose collaborators — are the others.
Written in a host of alternate tunings conveying different feelings, the new album’s ten unadorned compositions emote deeply without breathing a word.
“I haven’t played with standard tuning in 30 years,” Jones says. “If I’m having trouble writing new material, I’ll make up a new tuning or put on a partial capo so that the terrain of the fretboard is suddenly not familiar again. Most tunings come with a built-in emotion, so it kind of gives me a leg up because there’s already a color or complexion to the piece before it’s even written.”
This summer, Jones plans to tour the East Coast and Midwest in support of My Garden State. Come fall, he’ll hit Europe and the West Coast.
As for his mom back home in New Jersey, she’s doing all right.
“Alzheimer’s is an unforgiving disease,” says Jones, “but she has our family’s love and support, so it’s not as depressing as it may seem. You take what laughs you can get, and though my mom can’t remember anything for five minutes, she’s still sharp in the present moment… her sarcasm and humor are very much evident.”