As a solo artist, guitarist Glenn Jones hasn’t set out to reinvent any wheels in the world of American primitive. There were a few times when he expanded his little corner of the genre if not the entire genre altogether, like writing and improvising his take on John Fahey‘s “Dry Bones in the Valley” in the form of “The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville” from The Wanting. This album featured several lengthy compositions. He’ll sometimes record windchimes, waterfalls, and anything else he finds aesthetically intriguing to crossfade into his songs. Apart from that, Jones is content to play with alternate tunings on his guitar, slap on partial capos, and see what tunes emerge.
“Many of the pieces that I write are just a way of navigating a new and unfamiliar terrain,” he told me in 2016. “It’s never a preconceived thing; the songs always come out of the tuning and whatever scale the strings have.” That fatalistically musical approach holds true for Vade Mecum, the latest record of instrumental compositions from the former guitarist for Cul de Sac. Through ten songs, Jones takes you on a tour of his “ongoing musical diary”, bringing forth new tracks that imbue us with the same comfort and fascination brought about by his musical ancestors.
Vade Mecum, which translates to either “go with me” or “a book for ready reference” depending on your source, was produced by Matthew Azevado, one of Jones’ frequent collaborators. When the two worked together on the live album Waterworks, Azevado enhanced Jones’ compositions with ambient sounds and digital effects. No such experimentation occurs on Vade Mecum, though you hear seals barking at the start of a 90-second banjo piece titled “Bass Harbor Head”.
Apart from one song, Vade Mecum is Jones all by himself. “Ruthie’s Farewell” is a duet with Jones on banjo and Ruthie Dornfeld on the fiddle. Jones tells a story in the liner notes of Dornfeld giving him his first banjo back in the ’90s. As Dornfeld was packing to leave town, she found that she couldn’t fit all her belongings in one car. So the banjo was bequeathed to Jones, allowing the story to come full circle on this short tune that could have originated from 19th century Shenandoah valley. The aforementioned “Bass Harbor Head” is even shorter, sending a muffled banjo to frolic through fields where high lonesome Americana meets up with its Celtic roots.
To say that the rest of Vade Mecum offers up more of what Jones does on the regular is a compliment. Like his musical heroes Fahey, Jack Rose, and Robbie Basho, Jones uses the guitar to play simple melodies and accompaniment without any flash. For every happy bounce of musical comfort food like the title track or “Black & White and Gray”, there can be a dark, bluesy turn of mind as on “Forsythia” and “Kathy Maltese”. If there is a thematic thread on Vade Mecum, it’s one’s mortality. “It’s a fact of life that as we age, we’ll lose people we love,” Jones says of the songs’ subjects. That isn’t to say Vade Mecum is sorrowful. “John Jackson of Fairfax, Virginia” bids a belated but fond farewell to the Piedmont blues musician with plenty of major key sunshine and just enough groovy descending bass notes to cast some shade.
By sticking to his stock-in-trade, Vade Mecum will take its place as another bountiful release alongside Glenn Jones’ other records. Then again, whenever this renowned guitarist started to stray a little outside the confines established by early American primitive, he has still achieved artistic success. By letting the music guide him, Jones has yet to go wrong. Whether the next release goes down the same path or veers off into leftfield, we know it will be worth it.