I’ve been listening to Chris Jones & the Night Drivers quite frequently the past two weeks.
Chris Jones is a bluegrass and Americana artist who should be better known than he is, in my opinion. For a number of reasons, he doesn’t maintain the profile of more acclaimed bluegrass performers. However, having recorded numerous albums and appeared as a member of a number of significant bluegrass bands- The Special Consensus, The Weary Hearts, The Lynn Morris Band- Jones has established himself as an upper echelon songwriter and vocalist. Of course, he is also well known from his daily hosting duties on SiriusXM.
While always worthy of a listen, the reason I have been delving into Jones’s catalog recently is because the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society- an Alberta club I’ve been a member of since its inception more than a decade ago- is presenting Jones & the Night Drivers January 29. By habit, I tend to listen to artists we’re presenting just before I book them and then again just before they appear. Therefore, as the year turned, I found myself again pulling all of the Chris Jones albums off the bluegrass shelf.
From Blinded by the Rose, (which, for some reason, I haven’t been able to lay hands on this month…where is it?) Jones’s debut release featuring the Union Station line-up of the day through to his non-bluegrass album of a couple years back (Too Far Down the Road), Jones hasn’t taken a wrong step. The albums are solid, interesting, and enjoyable collections of superior bluegrass songwriting and performance. Whether revisiting a folk standard such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” or a county standard like “My Baby’s Just Like Money,” Jones is able to interpret the words and music of others with rare intensity. Similarly, he brings a formidable vision to more recent songs from the likes of John Pennell and most notably, Tom T. and Dixie Hall: his rendition of “The Man on the Side of the Road” was one of the most played bluegrass songs of 2001.
But what has always identified Jones more than his interpretations of others is the power of his own compositions. One only needs to hear a song like “Just a Town” (co-written with his wife Sally) once to understand that they are listening to someone who is a master of words and melody. When he sings, “But somehow it brings me down, now it’s just a town,” anyone who has ever returned to a place of significance only to find the allure- the connection- missing can relate to that which Jones writes about. And when he sings of the café on the corner being “full of strangers, nobody knows my name,” a piece of one’s own heart aches for the remembrance of the time a place, a people, moved on without him.
His version of “Fork in the Road”- a song on which he shared IBMA song of the year honors with John Pennell when The Infamous Stringdusters released it in 2007- is as stunning a bluegrass performance as is contained on the compilation disc A Few Words.
His most recent album, Cloud of Dust, came out more than a year ago and is the first to feature the current Night Drivers line-up. The album includes a re-recording of a song that Jones previously recorded- “The Last Nail”- as well as the bonus inclusion of a couple songs from Just A Drifter – but the vast majority of the music is new. The material is uniformly of an unusually high standard, and Jones is in great voice throughout. Recently I’ve noticed the phrase “low lonesome sound” associated with Jones, and I understand this usage. He has a gentle, deep voice that one doesn’t necessarily associate with great bluegrass vocalists. But there is no mistaking the intensity and focus with which Jones relates his tales of misery and woe. It is a very strong album, one of the most enjoyable I’ve heard in the past several weeks.
Further endearing him, Jones provides the album liner notes on his website for those of us who purchase his music via download.
One of the reasons I was so eager to book Jones for the WBMS this winter was that Jones spends his winters in Northern Alberta, near his wife’s family and her work at a regional college. With such a talent spending so much time in the province, it is near criminal that we haven’t previously featured Jones in our concert season.
As I repeatedly listen to Cloud of Dust this month, I have found something as appealing about the album as Jones’ voice, songwriting, and approach to bluegrass and that is the bass-playing of long-time Night Driver Jon Weisberger.
Weisberger is well-known as a features writer for publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, No Depression, and Nashville Scene. He has also become a presence in the bluegrass songwriting world with cuts having appeared on albums from Blue Highway, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, The Chapmans and others, and serves on the IBMA’s Board of Directors. Weisberger has a pair of co-writes on Cloud of Dust: “Cold Lonesome Night” and “ Silent Goodbye.”
As I listen to the album, I find myself unconsciously playing air-bass along with Weisberger. Now, those who are most familiar with my lack of rhythm and musical intellect realize I don’t hardly know a I from a V when it comes to bass playing, and I only have a nagging suspicion that there is a IV floating around those other notes. My air-bass playing is only slightly more advanced than the air-guitar I previously played listening to Born to Run or Who’s Next. What is different is the musical maturity I bring to my bluegrass listening today, a clarity developed by years of focused concentration. And what I hear holding down the bottom end on Cloud of Dust is terribly impressive.
Playing bass is frequently viewed as the easiest way into bluegrass jamming: master a couple notes and have a decent sense of time, and one is on their way. Of course, in bluegrass nothing- harmony singing, rhythm guitar, the mandolin chop- is as simple as it seems on first impression and bluegrass bass is no exception. While not as immediately noticeable as other bluegrass elements, bluegrass bass isn’t exactly easy to do right. And throughout Cloud of Dust, Weisberger demonstrates his art in admirable fashion.
My music vocabulary isn’t developed enough to identify exactly what it is Weisberger does on Cloud of Dust to make his playing stand out so markedly to me. Part of what is apparent to me is that the album is presented to allow all musicians their space within the arrangements. No one appears to be stepping into another’s aural space. While Ned Luberecki’s banjo in may shine for a lead break on the title cut, one feels the throbbing rhythm of Weisberger’s contributions maintaining the balance of the tune.
Elsewhere, on the reflective “What You Do,” Weisberger’s playing adds atmosphere to Jones’s matter-of-fact lyrics. A very different mood is captured within “Cold Lonesome Night,” and again the fingers start strumming an imaginary upright bass, so starkly do the notes Weisberger lays down appear within the well-constructed instrumentation. And don’t get me started on “One Door Man,” the mid-album cut on which I first noticed my fingers moving in rhythm to Weisberger’s playing.
I always find it interesting to realize what ‘grabs’ me about an album. Sometimes the packaging is what draws me in, an appreciation for the care that was put into making a purchase worthwhile. Once in a while, it will be a tone of an instrument or a vocal inflection that I’ll notice. More often it is the use of words that draws me in. I’m pretty certain that I’ve never consciously been pulled into a bluegrass album because of the sound a bass player has achieved, although I am aware of particular songs that have impacted me as a result of the bass.
I’m fairly certain Chris Jones didn’t design Cloud of Dust around Weisberger’s bass-playing. Similarly, I doubt the Night Drivers felt they had captured anything more special on this recording than other times they had recorded- either together or apart- tracks for an album. But for some reason, while listening to Cloud of Dust this past week, my fingers wouldn’t stay still- moving in and out, up and down- a four-stringed fingerboard only I could feel.
And I have an additional reason to look forward to an evening of bluegrass in Red Deer on January 29.
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers appear in Blythe, CA January 14-15 and Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, AB January 28-30.
As always, buy some music! And if you’re up to it, share your thoughts about Cloud of Dust.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald