Credit Chris Jones and the Night Drivers for doing their part to expand the traditional tableau of bluegrass. While Jones has always offered his reverence for the roots, on his own, with his earlier outfits Special Consensus, Whetstone Run, the Lynn Morris Band, the Weary Hearts and with his own group, he’s also built a growing reputation as an astute songwriter who’s unafraid of making melody a prime concern. Nevertheless, his steady string of awards from the IBMA — accorded for his recordings, his songs, his radio broadcasts, his album designs and, notably, the weekly column he writes for Bluegrass Today — have earned him a level of distinction that’s especially notable these days.
The Choosing Road, Jones’ new album with the Night Drivers — Gina Furtado (banjo, harmony vocals), Mark Stoffel (mandolin, harmony vocals), Jon Weisberger (bass, harmony vocals) and Jones himself (guitar, lead and baritone vocals) — provides further proof of their dexterity, and more reason why they are considered one of the most forward looking bands in bluegrass today.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with our esteemed colleague and learn more about his past, and what has brought him to where he is today.
You’ve played a critical role in bending some boundaries with bluegrass, staying true to the template while expanding it to achieve contemporary credence. Have you ever gotten pushback from fans that might complain you’ve taken it too far and gotten away from the roots?
I thought about it more a few years ago than I do now. I’ve learned not to worry about it too much and just take things naturally. I’ve always been a huge, huge fan of traditional bluegrass, and its what I started out playing. It was my original orientation, so I don’t have to over think that. It’s always going to be a part of anything I do anyway. There will always be people who object if it’s not straight down the line of what they’re looking for. But you can worry about that too much, especially if what they’re looking for is an exact duplication of what was being done in the ‘50s. That’s not what I want to do right now. A lot of that music is so good that it’s really hard to duplicate. I just sort of take that as a big component of its musical nature. So I feel free to work my own angle on it.
Were you always more motivated to make your music more song oriented as opposed to sticking to the tried and true?
I think so. The songwriting has always been a big element in what I wanted to do. I think of the kind of music that I like in bluegrass and other kinds of music and it has to do with good material, So that’s part and parcel of what we do. I like things to be melodically strong. I like melodies to be distinctive and we’ve worked really hard on that over the last several years. Also, arrangements have always been interesting to me. When I started playing bluegrass professionally, I was always interested in how to arrange things. We’ve gotten more interested in having additional melodies worked into the song that may not be part of the original song itself. We use the term “signature licks.” We have been writing them right into the songs themselves lately. We started doing that a few years ago and I realized that not a lot of people are doing that. Plus, I’m a fiddle tunes person, so I sometimes like to add that element, too.
A lot of emerging artists seem to have gained increasing popularity on the festival circuit these days. Do you see that as a sign of what’s to come and how bluegrass might expand its reach beyond its traditional audiences?
I think so. There’s a broad audience out there of people that have embraced it. The term “bluegrass” wasn’t always a popular one. To the people who say they like bluegrass, it can mean a variety of things, and I think that audiences who may not have the same bluegrass background can still appreciate elements of it. It has a lot to do with how its presented. Many times it’s the humor that’s added to it, and so for us its really important how we present ourselves onstage. We’ve found that that’s the key to appealing to a pretty wide audience. At a bluegrass festival, they can appreciate the music that they know and love, and when there’s a more diverse line-up, they can sort of zero in on the songs and arrangements and the stage presentation. It’s a good time for the music in a lot of ways. While some are concerned about the decline of the traditional bluegrass festival, other events are taking their place. There are a lot of healthy trends out there.
What kind of reaction do you typically get?
We have people coming up to us who are hearing us for the first time and they tell us, “We don’t really don’t like bluegrass, but you guys are great.” I don’t really try to analyze what the reason for that is but I accept it.
Who were your early influences?
A lot of different artists initially. Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers. Ralph Stanley in particular got me really excited. There was Larry Sparks and a lot of the bluegrass guitar players. That was the musical angle that left its impression on me early on. Plus, I always appreciated the harmony singing of people like the Osborne Brothers, and like a lot of those artists of my generation, I listened to J.D. Crowe and the New South, Ricky Skaggs… but prior to that I was a Stanley Brothers nut. That was our point of reference and that’s what clicked for us originally when Ron Block and I first got together in the band Weary Hearts.
Where were you raised?
I’m from New York originally. I was born in Brooklyn. My parents were divorced and when my dad moved to New Mexico, I’d visit him for extensive periods of time and that’s where I actually started playing bluegrass music. I started taking bluegrass music in Albuquerque and I was recently reunited with my original — and my only — music teacher, Tricia Eaves, when she came to a bluegrass festival that we were playing. She’s the one that really set me on my path and was really helpful to me in those days when I was in my teens. She inspired me and helped me. I also credit my uncle who who was a banjo player, and my stepmother in New Mexico who was a really big country and bluegrass fan. Country music also had a big influence on me as well. Even so, New York and New Mexico were not exactly conducive to playing bluegrass.
So while your peers were listening to rock and roll, you were on a distinctly different path.
You do have to learn to go it alone in high school age. I had to learn to enjoy it on my own, and play it on my own. I would order the records because you couldn’t even hear it on the radio. But you would run into communities of people with the same interests. I ended up joining my first bluegrass band, Horse Country, in a little community north of New York. I got to know some pickers up there, and also in New Mexico. I became part of a little close-knit community, and so all that was really important. These people who were playing professionally were willing to help an aspiring youngster. That’s really important no matter where you live.
It also seems like you came up the ranks pretty quickly.
I was devoted to it and decided to pursue it full time. When I was 21, I joined Special Consensus. It was a Chicago-based band and they auditioned me on a train layover in Chicago on my way from New York to New Mexico. They picked me up at the station, bought me lunch and put me back on the train. You had to be 21 to join that band because of all the clubs they were playing. That was great training and they were great to play with. I was with them for four years, and then I moved on to play with Whetstone Run, the Lynn Morris Band, and the Weary Hearts, and after that I never looked back.
Still, making music can be a risky venture. Were your parents supportive?
My parents were really good about it actually. I was lucky in that respect. My dad had such a passion for music, so he was excited about it and he was supportive. He had carved his own path in life, and hadn’t finished college himself. But he had done well in everything he chose to do. My mother was an entertainment professional. She had been an actress. She would have preferred that I finish college to have what they call a strong back-up plan, but she was accepting regardless. Nowadays there are all kinds of bluegrass classes in college to help ease people into it. We didn’t have them back then but my parents were very supportive regardless, and I didn’t have to deal with that pressure in that way. I tended not to look really hard down the road. I felt like this is what I wanted to do and I seemed to be able to make a living at it. I never said, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ I never viewed it like that.
You could have made a very comfortable living as a side man or playing with other people’s bands. What made you decide to venture out on your own?
That’s a good question. I had played with a bunch of different people before making that decision. I wasn’t particularly anxious to be a band leader. It’s a tremendous responsibility. But what I had found when I was a side man or a member of a band was that I was the lead singer and usually coming up with the bulk of the material and the arrangements and things like that. I was doing all the things that were part of the band leader and frontman role. So after the break up of Weary Hearts, and the work that went into that band, I found that I had to start all over. I didn’t want to start over. I write and arrange material and I have a bead on that, So I wanted to put all that into a longterm project. That’s why I decided to attach my name to it. I would be able to have that longevity attached to it, and if there were personnel changes, I wouldn’t have to start all over again.
That’s very practical, but at the same time, your name is on it and all the responsibility comes back to you.
Yes, it was a big step and it wasn’t easy. You have to believe in what you’re doing. I think what I have done musically has always been on the subtle side. That’s a slow sell and and not a get rich plan. But at the core of it, I tried to remain true to my musical vision. I feel like I’ve been building something all this time and it keeps getting better and better… as opposed to trying get a record deal in Nashville, or coming up with some special project that gets people excited right away but might not have a longterm vision. So looking back on it, I’m glad I did it this way. I’ve always have always been working towards something.
So how would you describe the trajectory of this band?
I’ve released quite a few records through the years, but it’s never gone better than the way it is right now. I’ve never felt better about the music than I do right now. I’ve never felt better about where I am professionally than I do right now. You’re always learning things, and as a band leader, you learn things the hard way… how to hire the best people, how to keep the best people around… things like that, and even though my name is attached, I’ve always let the band share in the musical cooperation, and allowed the members to bring their own styles to what we do. So working with them in the framework of my ideas, but allowing people to be themselves makes that more satisfying to the band, and it keeps them around longer.
Musically, how have you seen the trajectory progress?
I feel like my songwriting has continued to grow and become more important. This new album has more songs I’ve written without co-writers, and more songs of mine in general than any other project up until now. That hasn’t been a specific goal, but it just turned out that way. I’ve also worried less about the reaction of traditional bluegrass fans who want it a certain way. We’ll always be a bluegrass band. That’s who we are, but along the way, I’ve embraced what we do. The lowness of my voice is kind of different, and early on it was all about singing as high as I possibly could. I learned that I didn’t need to do that. I have embraced the qualities of my voice, so as a result, I have more range than I used to. I’m not afraid of going down low. If you don’t use parts of your range, you can kind of lose it.
You’ve gotten a lot of shout outs from some very special people, Steve Martin among them. So when you’ve been placed on this plateau, do you feel like you have to achieve the same high bar time after time? And can it be intimidating?
I don’t worry about that too much. The pressure is something I put on myself, to do my best, whether I’m in the studio or onstage. I don’t worry too much about what people say. I hope that whatever I do resonates with somebody, but I don’t let it go to my head or let it put pressure on me.
Of course you also do a weekly column for Bluegrass Today, and I know as a columnist myself, it can be tough to come up with topics every week. Give us some insight as to where you get your inspiration on that score?
It almost becomes a personal challenge. The first time I tried my hand at being a columnist was for Guitar Magazine, and that was once a month or once every other month and even that seemed like a challenge and difficult task. I wanted to make these columns rather humorous so that was how I proposed the idea. There was never any clear concept to it except using the perspective of a professional musician, There are a lot of tales to be told from that perspective that people don’t hear very much. And of course I delve into the lighter side of it, a little bit of tongue in cheek.
I appreciate our editor John Lawless being very supportive and giving me a free hand, but still, when it gets to be Tuesday, sometimes I think, ‘Oh no, what have I got?’ So I just try to clear my head and wait for something to pop in there. If anything comes into my head at any time or when I’m on tour, I write it down. It’s like a song idea, if I don’t write it down, I generally regret it.