Melancholy runs like a strong current through Glenn Jones’ fingerstyle instrumentals, but there’s also a streak of blissful optimism.
On the prelude of “Anchor Chain Blues,” the first track of Even to Win is to Fail, a limited-release EP Thrill Jockey Records put out in observance of Record Store Day, a B-flat rings out on the lowest of Jones’ 12 strings, as he brushes a rippling chromatic pattern, the type that’s suitable for a turnaround at the end of a blues chorus, higher up on the neck. Jones moves to a ragtime shuffle. The first chord change arrives nearly two minutes in, and the drone disappears. It’s a seismic shift, jarring not because of the harmonic choice but for the drama of the setup.
Even to Win is To Fail, Jones says by phone from his home in Boston, is “basically half an album.” He’s busy preparing for a 10-stop tour with U.K. singer-songwriter Sharron Kraus that will take the duo — performing separately — from Pennsylvania up to a festival in Montreal before a return to New England, where they will stop at Popeye’s Garage in New Haven on June 9.
The album’s other half, EastMont Syrup, is a collaboration with Virginia’s Black Twig Pickers. “Both of us worked with the late [guitarist] Jack Rose,” Jones says. (Rose, also a member of the noise-rock band Pelt, passed away at age 38 in 2009.) “He was my best friend. He was probably the best guitar player of his generation.”
Jones, who never had any formal training on the guitar, is a veteran of the Boston avant-garage Cul de Sac, who put out nine albums of post-rock instrumentals for various indie labels, including a soundtrack for director Roger Corman and a 1997 collaboration with legendary and eccentric guitarist John Fahey, an important figure in Jones’ life up until his death in 2001.
“I figure I knew him for around 20 years,” Jones says. “I met him at a show in Boston. He would stay at my house whenever he was in town.” Jones produced a couple of Fahey releases, including some of the Takoma-Fantasy reissues, a feat he refers to as “one of the major accomplishments of my pathetic career.”
Fahey’s unique style, sometimes referred to as American Primitivism, was as much a product of Ravi Shankar’s first tour of the U.S. in 1967 as it was the guitarist’s assimilation of 78s of Charlie Patton, Jones says. “It was a watershed for a lot of people playing instrumental music. It showed that music could be a lot deeper than, say, the Kingston Trio. And also, the pieces could be longer and more exploratory in nature. Infused with the fact that John has so much information at his fingertips. It wasn’t just blues and ragas played on the guitar as these were things that influenced him.”
Jones has spent much of the last 11 years working on a five-CD box set of rare Fahey recordings for Dust-to-Digital, a small Atlanta-based label that won a Grammy award for Best Historical Album in 2008 for Art of Field Recording Volume I. Jones’ project is scheduled to be released on Oct. 25.
“I started working on that the summer before John died,” Jones says. “It’s got, like, a hundred-page hardback book of essays by Fahey scholars from around the world. I expect it to be nominated for a Grammy.”
Over the years Jones spent with Fahey, playing music and otherwise, Jones says he only learned one or two of Fahey’s songs. Thrill Jockey will release Jones’ The Wanting, a full-length solo album, at the end of September. Jones believes it’s his best record to date.
“I hope my music sounds more like me than what I think people hear in his music,” he says. “I certainly play in a syncopated style. That’s the most overt Fahey influence. But in my writing there isn’t much of a connection. I learned more by example. He taught me not be afraid to play really simply at times and just to learn to follow your own muse.”