MCF Preview: Fingerpickin’ good – Glenn Jones and the American Primitive

Glenn Jones

Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Fri., Apr. 8 at 9 p.m.

Glenn Jones at Mission Creek
Glenn Jones plays the Trumpet Blossom Cafe as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Photo courtesy of Mission Creek.

Glenn Jones is a renowned blues musician with a robust career and unique guitar style known as “American Primitive,” which is categorized by fingerpicking guitar and banjo. He grew up playing with similar musicians and began his own band in the late eighties. He now plays as a solo musician and is touring the U.S. Jones will be playing a solo set at the Trumpet Blossom Cafe on Apr. 8, 2016 for the Mission Creek Festival. Tickets are $10–12.

You’re doing a solo show at the Trumpet Blossom for Mission Creek. Have you done many solo tours?

Well, my former band Cul-De-Sac (CDS) started in 1989, and at the beginning of 2009 I suddenly released with horror we were about to celebrate our 20th anniversary (laughs). I didn’t want to celebrate a 20th anniversary; I felt like we’d done whatever we were gonna do. Around the same time, the last record that CDS did was an album called *Death of the Sun*. It’s a very processed and electronic album, and I’d discovered that the things that contrasted the most with all these electronic sounds were acoustic instruments. So I got back into playing acoustic guitar then, which kind of led to the next thing, which is what I’m doing now. Playing solo guitar and banjo, touring fairly extensively.

So you’re well into this stage of touring and playing solo.

Oh yeah definitely. And the one time I played in Iowa, I was with Jack Rose. He was a very close friend and great guitar player. Jack kind of kicked me in the ass in terms of getting out on the road playing solo. He was a great player in the style of what some people call “American Primitive,” which is kind of the style I’m lumped into. So Jack completely embraced that style and took me on my first tour of the U.S. and U.K. I really got my feet wet in a big way in terms of playing solo. We were on the road for a month playing every night. I’ve been doing it since then, around 2003.

Like you said, you’re into the style “American Primitivism” since getting away from the electronic.

Yeah there was an element of that in CDS as well. When I formed the band, I wanted to put together elements of old-school electronic music … with American Primitive or finger-style playing, but on electric guitar … I didn’t want the band to be dependent on singers for success, even though we’ve worked with them a lot. We worked with John Fahey in 1996 on a studio album which John titled The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. So there were definitely elements of the American Primitive style in what CDS was doing; it wasn’t a complete change of course. I wrote all the material for CDS and write all the material for my solo work. There are some overlapping aspects of the two that are somewhat complementary.

A lot of your solo stuff is reminiscent of Delta blues. Is that where you picked up your style?

I got my first guitar when I was for fourteen. Jimi Hendrix’s second album had just come out and I loved it so much I started bugging my dad to give me a guitar and [he] finally gave in. It was about three or four years later that I heard my first John Fahey record, and, at the time, as a teenager you know, I was listening to a lot of the rock music of my time. And I had this idea that to play music you needed guitars and basses and drums and somebody to sing and somebody to write lyrics and all this stuff; and it was really hearing John Fahey’s solo steel string guitar music that was kind of the lightning bolt that landed at my feet. You know, one person with an acoustic instrument and no vocals could really draw a dramatic narrative or paint a picture with his music. So John was definitely my biggest influence as a guitarist.

I met John in 1978 and was friends with him for about twenty-five years. I’ve produced and written the liner notes for, I don’t know, half a dozen or more albums. Anyway I have a big debt to the so-called “American Primitive” style. All that said, being influenced by John meant I kind of set the bar so high for myself that it became very difficult to feel like I was writing in my own voice. You know if you’re so influenced by someone … it’s hard to escape that and until you do, you’re never really your own person. For me I felt like it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I was writing material that belong to me that wasn’t beholden to the guitarists that I kind of cut my teeth listening to.

Do you ever try to play with non-standard tuning styles, or even a completely reconstructed instrument?

I basically invent all my own tunings. Most of the tunings I play in are tunings I made myself. I also I also cut up capos as with a hacksaw so they only capo certain strings and not others. And I throw those on to different places on the neck. I haven’t played in standard tuning in like forty years or something like that. And for me it’s something that I accidentally got into, but it’s become a way of breaking up the log jam. When I feel like I’m repeating myself too much, this is what I do to make things difficult for myself again. So it’s less a modification than just kind of a device for confusing myself. And then trying to figure out how do you how to get out of the mess … but it’s a way of keeping my ideas fresh to myself.

You mentioned that you grew up idolizing and wanting to make music with John Fahey and you actually realized that dream early in your career; do you see that with any younger musicians, where you have helped them get their footing in the field?

Actually, Jack Rose, the guitarist I toured with in Iowa, I first heard at a festival. As soon as I heard him play I was like, “Man, this guy has been listening to the same records I have that were so important to me as a kid and growing up,” and Jack was 18 years younger than me. It was meeting Jack that made me realize that there was a whole generation of younger musicians that were influenced by what I was influenced by. They were making interesting music on their own. Since then, I try to meet these people when I play live, it’s almost intimidating how good they are,at such a young age.

Is there a concise way of describing this genre?

Well the term “American Primitivism” was coined by someone trying to describe what Fahey was doing. It applied to small amount of people then, but it’s gotten so broad and so general it’s almost meaningless. I have a hard time coming up with a definition because no one definition really applies to all of the players that really are American Primitive players. So my answer is usually, “I don’t know, but I know it when I hear it” (laughs). Like all terms people use to pigeon-hole music, it eventually outlives its usefulness. It’s a convenience for writers and good shorthand reference for people who are looking for an easy way to understand where the music comes from.

It can be really hard to categorize music by genre; so much of it is blended and borrowed.

Exactly. I think all good music does transcend its genre. The genre is almost beside the point — music is really hard to describe, you know? If we could describe music exactly accurate, we wouldn’t need music. It’s really something that is indescribable, which is why it has it’s own attraction or allure.

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