If you have to get some distance from your influences to avoid mimicking them, Glenn Jones has certainly made life hard for himself. The Boston-based guitarist is an authority on his main artistic hero, the late, legendary acoustic guitar pioneer John Fahey. Jones knew Fahey for a quarter of a century, has studied his life and work extensively and just recently co-produced a five-disc set of Fahey's recordings from the '50s and '60s, titled Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.
But over the course of four solo acoustic guitar albums, Jones has become anything but a Fahey clone. His latest, The Wanting, is his most cohesive and recognizable effort yet, featuring lonely blues wanderings, looping fingerpicked figures and short, sharp statements (the latter played mostly on banjo, not guitar). As Jones says in press notes for the LP, "No matter how much one loves a particular player, or how long one studies their work, it's all but impossible to beat them at their own game." He's half right: Jones is certainly playing his own game now, but the same metrics apply. And on scales of creativity and beauty, his work is gaining on that of his forefather.
Jones has managed to carve out his own path, in part by owning up to Fahey's influence. On The Wanting, that honesty comes across in song titles, Fahey-esque scene-setters like "Menotomy River Blues," "The Great Pacific Northwest" and "The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville." Jones admits that "Orca Grande" pays homage to Fahey's "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California" with its title, but the differences between the two songs are more interesting than that surface similarity. Where Fahey's catchy four-minute tune alternates between plaintive strums and melodic picking, Jones' piece is more like a meditation, stretching repetitive plucks and rolling rhythms for nearly 18 minutes. What's more, the shimmering cymbal washes and spilling snare-slaps that drummer Chris Corsano added to the pre-recorded guitar tracks give the tune an atmosphere of infinity. In fact, when Jones first heard Corsano's embellishments via a late-night email, he cried.
Jones has known Corsano since he first saw him play at the 2003 Brattleboro Free Folk Festival in Vermont, a turning point for Jones and many musicians in the avant-folk underground. In the years since, a diverse group of Fahey descendents has emerged, ranging from youngsters like British picker James Blackshaw (who seems intent on creating symphonies from one guitar, as Fahey suggested) to elder statesman like Steffan Basho-Jungans (who actually changed his last name to reflect his particular debt to a Fahey contemporary, Robbie Basho). Jones also met his closest comrade in this tight-knit international clan at that Vermont Festival: guitarist Jack Rose, who died in 2009 at age 38. Fortunately, they recorded some duets before Rose's passing. Their collaborations are included on a DVD called The Things That We Used to Do, which features some of the best storytelling either has done, both through interviews and the wordless tales of their guitars.
Perhaps storytelling is the key to how Jones, Rose and their contemporaries have honored Fahey's legacy without copying it. After all, one of Fahey's major innovations was using a very technical instrumental style not to display prowess but to spin evocative yarns. Jones carries on that tradition with new narratives, like the faded memories of The Wanting's opener, "A Snapshot of Mom, Scotland, 1957," or "The Great Swamp Way Rout," named for a Civil War hideout that once took up the Cambridge street on which he now resides. Jones' musical vocabulary may fall squarely inside the language that Fahey invented, but the tales he's telling with it are his own.