Graded on a Curve:
Glenn Jones,
Vade Mecum

With his latest album, the unfettered brilliance of guitarist-banjoist Glenn Jones perseveres unabated. Long established as one of the prime extenders of the American Primitive guitar style, Jones is a nimble-fingered rememberer, but he is also a builder. Never one to retreat into the comfort zones of nostalgia, his playing is as progressive as it is invested in history. And further testifying to his consistency is the allegiance of his label; Vade Mecum, available now on translucent red vinyl, compact disc, and digital is once again released by Thrill Jockey of Chicago.

Spanning back almost a decade now, I’ve reviewed every full-length record Glenn Jones has made since My Garden State, his second for Thrill Jockey, came out in 2013; and as his solo LPs go, he’s only been on one other label, Strange Attractors Audio House, that Washington State-based enterprise the issuer of his first three loner efforts after they put out a string of records by Jones’ experimental rock band of the 1990s, Cul de Sac.

I mention my dedication to Jones’ efforts not as a brag, but rather, to set up the observation that many will no doubt have, and that admittedly entered my own mind when contemplating a review of Vade Mecum; that is, specifically, the possibility of running dry of new things to say about the work of a solo instrumentalist, and one with such a clear disinterest in any pretense to “originality.”

Much has been made of Jones’ relationship with John Fahey, which extended beyond influence to friendship and then to collaboration, as Cul de Sac cut a record with Fahey, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, in 1997 (that one came out on Thirsty Ear). Interestingly, Fahey’s creative trajectory began in what many unfamiliar with the American Primitive guitar movement would simply assess as a folk-blues place and ended up in the midst of the ’90s avant-underground, which is where Jones came to prominence before intersecting with Fahey and then going solo in distinctly American Primitive mode.

Some might consider Jones’ inverse journey to be a mark of originality, but it’s similar to the path taken by the late Jack Rose (who was part of the avant-rock outfit Pelt before going solo in a manner comparable to Jones). But ultimately, none of this really matters, as Jones seemingly has no worries about repeating himself.

And so, Jones doesn’t repeat himself, instead making records that are an accurate representation of who he is (or better said, who he was at the time of a specific record’s recording) while keeping the American Primitive tradition alive, not with the adherence to routine of a custodian but with the relish of an undying fan.

By extension, I’ll set aside any hesitation over nothing new to say and engage with Vade Mecum in a similar spirit. There are of course a few sweet twists on the album, none bigger than “Ruthie’s Farewell,” a duet with Ruthie Dornfeld, his friend and collaborator (on Cul de Sac’s 1991 debut Ecim) on fiddle. Notably, it was Dornfeld who gave Jones his first banjo, as Jones plays banjo twice on Vade Mecum, the tracks “Bass Harbor Head” and “Ruthie’s Farewell.”

For me, the highlight of the record is “John Jackson of Fairfax, Virginia,” which is simultaneously a memory stirrer and a locus of learning, the track sparking remembrance of the great songster of the Piedmont style playing my high school with his son, and also providing me with the knowledge that Jones produced Jackson’s two albums for Rounder, 1979’s Step It Up and Go, and ‘83’s Deep in the Bottom, LPs I’d bought so long ago (shortly after that high school show) that I’d never made the Jones-Jackson connection (not being introduced to Cul de Sac until 4-5 years later).

Getting hip to Glenn Jones’ closeness to John Jackson is a swell bit of unexpected goodness, but the impact of the surprise is considerably intensified by Vade Mecum’s reality as another fantastic record by its maker, the playing typically superb, the emotions warm, and the architecture as fascinating as ever. Like I said, Jones is a builder.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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