Chris Jones: Bluegrass Music’s Renaissance Man
Whenever you round a corner in the bluegrass world, you’re liable run into Chris Jones. Co-writer, with John Pennell of the 2007 IBMA Song of the Year, “Fork in the Road,” columnist for Bluegrass Today, a host on Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Junction, and front man of The Night Drivers, Jones is one of bluegrass’s most beloved personalities.
In the mid-1990s, guitarist and singer Jones formed The Night Drivers—Jon Weisberger on bass, Ned Luberecki on banjo, and Mark Stoffel (who joined about six years ago) on mandolin—and in recent years the group has enjoyed growing acclaim not only for its deft musicianship and love of traditional music but also to its musical inventiveness and the songwriting genius of the group’s various members. Their new album, Lonely Comes Easy, showcases the group’s innovation, its humor, its tight and dead-on delivery, and its songwriting. Engine 145 caught up with Jones a couple of weeks ago at Tom T. Hall’s Fox Hollow Farm, during one of his visits to Nashville.
This is your first all-new collaboration since 2009’s Cloud of Dust. When did you start working on this album, and when did you finish it?
We started working on this one last winter, and we finished it up fairly quickly. Since none of us lives in the same place, it’s hard for us to get together to record, so when we’re in the same place for a couple of weeks, we’re very intentional about getting into the studio to record. But, we’re so used to playing with one another that there’s a good vibe every time we get together.
How do you go about writing a song? What’s your writing process like?
Well, I didn’t set out to be a songwriter. I’ve always been interested in arranging songs, so some of my ability grows out of that love. I don’t have a particular method for writing songs. I have a lot of ideas that strike me at different times, but they’re not necessarily related to a tune I have running through my head or to any musical fragment I might have sat down to play. I’m not so good at making an appointment to sit down with someone, or with my guitar, to write a song, except when I have an idea I really think might be a good song. Jon Weisberger and I did all of our co-writing by email.
Speaking of co-writing, you penned “Where I Am” with Dixie and Tom T. Hall; what was it like to write with them?
Well, this is Tom T. Hall’s land line we’re talking on right now; we’re longtime friends and neighbors, and I often stay with them when I’m in Nashville. They’re warm folks, so personal, and folks I feel close to, though this was the first time we sat down in the same room to write a song.
[Tom T. Hall joined the conversation for a few minutes.]
Hey, this is Tom T. Hall
How are you, Mr. Hall?
Well, I’m just fixin’ breakfast here this morning?
Are you cooking up some hot bologna, eggs, and gravy?
[Laughs] I just had to jump in here to tell you about that song “Lonely Comes Easy,” ’cause Chris might not tell you. I told him to put that song on this album because I thought it was a great song; now it’s #1. Okay, got to go finish cooking breakfast; the pancakes are starting to burn.
What kinds of music did you grow up listening to, and when did you start playing music? Who are some of your musical influences?
I credit my dad with exposing me to many different kinds of music; I listened to all kinds of music growing up. In the 1970s, I developed a love of bluegrass. I mostly taught myself to play the guitar, but Trish Eaves, a woman who lived down the street from my mom, gave me a month’s worth of lessons that really helped me develop my abilities and deepen my knowledge. Bill Monroe and Doc Watson were big influences, but I really absorbed a lot from the Stanley Brothers’ music. Tom T. Hall and Carter Stanley have been the greatest influences on my songwriting.
Do you have a favorite song on this new album?
Of course I like all of them (chuckles). There are a couple of songs that I was very pleased with, for different reasons. I was very happy with the way that “Lonely Comes Easy” came out in the studio. The song had a good feel, and it sounded like us. I’ve always loved Doc Watson’s singing, in addition to his guitar playing, so “Wake Up Little Maggie” is a tribute to him. This is one of those ideas that came out of left field, so I played around with the arrangement—he originally sang the song a cappella but we added instruments, including Buddy Greene on harmonica—and I love the way it works. When we decided to record “Wolf Creek Pass,” a C.W. McCall record from the ’70s, I was worried that I couldn’t memorize so many words. I was glad to include this full-length “trucker-jam mix” of the song on the album, with full bass, mandolin, and banjo breaks, and with Claire Lynch and Sierra Hull providing the chorus as “Wolf Creekettes.” I was really happy to include Ralph Stanley’s “A Few More Years” on this album. I recorded and released this on my previous Rebel Records album, Just a Drifter, which is now available only in digital form. I wanted to be sure folks could find this on a CD. My wife Sally and my brother-in-law Ron Block—we’re married to sisters—sing harmony on this song; in fact, around Christmas we all get together and sing Stanley Brothers’ songs. I’ve dedicated this one to Bob Mavian, the banjo player for the Sykes Boys, who passed away earlier this year. I got my start playing guitar and singing in Bob’s band, Horse Country. This was one of his favorite Stanley Brothers’ songs, and I’m glad we could include it on the album.
What’s different about this album from your earlier ones?
There’s more original content, I think, including two original instrumentals. Our banjo player, Ned Luberecki, wrote “Don’t Blink,” a title he liked much better than my suggested title, “Razor Rhubarb.” Our mandolin player, Mark Stoffel wrote “Swine Flu in Union County.” We have such a talented group of songwriters, and everybody contributed something to this album. Jon and I have written more songs together for this one. I think maybe there’s more humor on this album than previous ones. This album is a very good reflection of our lives and our music right now.
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