Photography by: Sam Hanson
The Bones of J.R. Jones
By: Zeke Hanson
The road is a romanticized place.
A figment of early morning sunlight glinting through the windshield, all smiles, as you make your last climb over the mountain pass for a view that gives your soul meaning.
It’s a view cherished as much by the young as it is by those who’ve never traveled it.
The road is a grind; constant…where the destination isn’t a location, it’s a chase.
It isn’t that those who travel it don’t appreciate the journey.
It isn’t that they are jaded.
It’s work. And while you can enjoy parts along the way, family and friends don’t travel with you for work any more than they go hang out with you in your office at whatever job you gave up your dream for. You miss things. You miss people. You surf couches and walk down foreign hotel hallways.
That’s life on the road.
Those who do it well make it look like an adventure. But they still have a home and arms they look forward to returning to…as soon as possible.
If the name isn’t enough to get your attention, the sound will make your toes start to move. His initials are J.R., and growing up that’s what he went by. “My dad used to call me J.R. growing up,” says Jonathan, “so that’s where the J.R. comes from. The Bones of J.R. Jones for me, is a nod to…I fell in love with the blues, and the mysticism around that, and the names that they developed, these fantastical origins, Lead Belly and things like that or Sound House. I guess it’s my nod to that darker side of those story tellers. The Bones of J.R. Jones is just where I landed.” Histories strike a deep tone in this type of music. Many things feed into that, names, locations, and instruments, “I do have a soft spot for things that have a little more history to them. I mainly play a Dean, which is not a very nice guitar, but the one that I covet (cherish) that I have is an old Kalamazoo from 1938, and that’s the one I really do enjoy.”
From the outside, The Bones of J.R. Jones is one of those guys that makes life on the road look like everything you’ve ever dreamt of. In part because he’s had a little more practice than most. “I’ve been playing music all my life,” says J.R. “But, doing this is an incarnation of what I do. I was living up in the Catskills, and I’d been playing music for a couple years before that and I moved up there for graduate school and I didn’t know many people. I’d fallen in love with blues about the same time, and at that point I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know a drummer, I didn’t know a bass player, and living up in the mountains you kinda just take it upon yourself to do what you need to do. That’s how I ended up here.”
He’s been doing it long enough now, that he approaches every gig as an opportunity, not just for his music but for his life. “My wife, she stays home quite a bit, I would love for her to be here with me, but I travel as economically as possible…so it’s usually just me and a small economy rental car, and if I’m lucky, my equipment fits.” Bones says, “what I try to do, is I try to find 4 days off in an attractive city, whether it’s Los Angeles to Nashville, some sort of destination, she’ll fly out and we’ll have a long weekend or something, just to try to have some sense of normalcy for that moment. Then I hit the road again and she goes home. Also, the other key is not to be on the road…the world is getting smaller and it’s intertwined, so it’s a lot easier to stay connected, I don’t need to be on the road as much…I don’t need to go on the road for 4 months at a time. I can go out for 2 weeks or 3 weeks and go home and still have a presence in all these areas.” After a moment, Bones continues, “ I think it’s very easy to romanticize it, but the road is my least favorite.”
That part of it, especially for a writer, is pivotal. “I love driving, and I love seeing the country, it’s part of the charm to it.” J.R. says, “I would definitely say, those random days…those special days, that I have a day off…I had a day off a few days ago in Reading California, and I Airbnb’d a little cabin out near Mt Shasta. It was very exciting, I was able to sit down and do some writing. That’s rare, that I get the time to do that. Usually, I bottle it up and wait until I get home, and write then.” Most people don’t get to choose when to write. 70 miles an hour down a back road something will pop to mind, triggered by a feeling, a view, a regret. “I wish it was something as easy as turning it on and off,” says J.R., “but sometimes there’s a dry spell for months and then weeks of writing.
J.R. is on the road more now than he has been in the past. “Which is good, it’s business. I try to limit it to 2-3 week runs, and then go home for an equal amount or 10 days or something like that to readjust, and then head back out. The nice thing is, there is an ebb and flow to it, and there’s definitely a high season and a low season.” J.R. explains that winter is always the slow season, then when the country starts to thaw out, his travels start to pick up. “Summertime is always Festival season, so it makes it a little more difficult to drive because festivals are always in random cities across the country. So if I want to do one festival one week, and then another the next, I generally have to fly, but I like to drive as much as possible.”
Growing up in Central New York, J.R played a lot of Punk Rock, until in his early 20s, he stumbled across Blind Lemon Jefferson… “A Blues player from Texas back in the late 20’s.” J.R. says, “I just had never heard anything like it, and it just rocked my world. As silly as it sounds, it just leveled me. I’ve been chasing it since. At that point, my dad gave me the great gift of an Alan Lomax pit recording collection. It was 4 discs, and it was all I listened to for years. It was gospel, Zydeco, blues, old time country, things like that. I’ve been feeding off that since.”
If you aren’t a fan of Bones yet, you’ve probably heard his work without realizing it already. On the large, he’s had his songs featured on shows like Elementary and Longmire a couple times. In the middle, he has composed the music on a dark comedy called Chasing the Blues. On the small, there’s also a 3 day festival held on one stage in a barn out in Athens, Georgia that J.R. played last year, called Wild Wood Revival. It all feeds into that grass roots growth as an artist. “I think it does.” J.R. explains, “it’s funny…I’ve been very fortunate on the licensing front of things, I’ve had a couple hits with some commercials, some TV shows, I’m sure it all feeds each other, but what I actually see an uptick in is Spotify plays. I was just licensed for this commercial recently for Ethically Driven Diamond Company, and that I saw a notifiable spike in Spotify because of that. I’m sure it does translate to festivals because it’s all word of mouth and things like that, but it’s easier to see that correlation.”
Between writing and playing, J.R. is still evolving. Those long stretches of road with a wide open sky in front of him, the kind of travel that just strikes a long chord as you visualize your journey as a third person. J.R. is a sound collector. “Being on the road more, I think, especially festival season, you get to see the same acts a little bit and you become friends and you get to see what they’re playing and what they’re cooking with.” J.R. continues, “It’s definitely an inspiration to see somebody, and then I gotta explore this and tip your toe into that genre. You get to see the influences that they have. It definitely broadens my horizons quite a bit.” Getting to see so many talented people, in the same grind, enables collaborations to spring up in the best audible ways. “Yeah, for sure!” J.R. lays it out like a word problem, “it depends though. If I’m coming into town like LA, I have a good group of people out here that I like to play with.” Last fall J.R. played at Bootleg with his good friend Melaena Cadiz also on the bill, “she’s phenomenal and any time I get to play with her is a good night for sure.”
The Bones of J.R. Jones, may be a one man show, but he’s not a one trick pony. He went to school for printmaking at Pratt Institute. “Two professions that don’t make any money, printmaking and music…but yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I do enjoy it,” J.R. laughs, “my graduate work was done up at the Catskills up at New Pals.” His talents overlapped on his first album, “I did Dark Was the Yearling, and I try to do as much of the artwork as I can, but timing is difficult, so I actually contacted a phenomenal street artist based out of San Francisco, Cannon Dill. So The Spirit’s Furnace is one of his designs.”
Jones is an artist that you don’t want to miss. He is unrelenting in his both his approach and his style. No matter what you’re going through. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish. Know you’ve got a kindred spirit in The Bones of J.R. Jones...and even in this moment right now as you read this, he’s out there somewhere, hell bent for leather.
Bleeds: Desert Island…You’re stranded on a desert island…and you can bring three things. Through a process of stressful answers, people can come with you…
J.R.: I was gonna say…Yeah. Am I by myself or can one of those three things be a person?
Bleeds: You can bring a people.
J.R.: I don’t need to bring a tent and water do I?
Bleeds: If you have knowledge, you can figure it out there. The rules are flexible.
J.R.: I try not to take things too literally. I definitely need a guitar, obviously, to pass the time more than anything else, I don’t know man. I’ve never thought about what I’d bring. I wouldn’t need much. If I had the capability to survive when I was out there, just a guitar and I will say a record player and records for that record player as well.
Bleeds: If they’re in a box, they count as one.
J.R.: They’re in tandem. One doesn’t survive without the other. Then, lastly, my wife, Lisa.
Catch him down the road. See him in person.
You can follow him on Instagram @thebonesofjrjones
His new album Ones to Keep Close drops May 11.