Something happens to J.R. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but when the musician takes the stage, surrounded by his many instruments, suddenly creating sound, projecting noise, drumming up long-gestating emotions, you know he’s transformed; a sense of purpose and poise envelops the air. “It’s very easy to be a different person when it comes to this project,” says J.R., who performs and completely inhabits the persona of the early-twentieth-century blues musician, The Bones of J.R. Jones. “For me it’s an outlet more than anything else.”
It’s via the live show that The Bones of J.R. Jones has established itself as a spellbinding musical force: there’s J.R., all by his lonesome, playing several instruments – guitar, banjo, bass drum, high-hat – all at once, transforming any setting, no matter how visibly modern, into an old-time roadside juke joint. Now, over several years performing, the traveling troubadour has refined his craft so poignantly as to craft a batch of highly refined, barn-burning blues and folk numbers. They take the form of Dark Was The Yearling, The Bones of J.R. Jones’ mesmerizing new LP.
The first full-length effort, both jarring and meditative in its juxtaposition of snarling electric guitar licks (“Fury of the Light”), banjo backbeats (“St. James’ Bed”) and acoustic charm (“The Plan”), is bookended by twin takes on the foot-stomping “Dreams to Tell.”
“That songs never gets old to me,” says J.R. “I felt like the album needed two versions of it… for better or worse.” The album’s highlight however, is undoubtedly “The Dark,” a somber ode to the musician’s late grandfather. The harmonic hymnal, written in the hours following the passing of a man whom J.R. describes as “very much the patriarch” of his family, ended up shaping the entirety of the album, “giving it a much more heavier sound near the end of it.
“That was one of those rare instances that a song did come out in 24 hours,” J.R. says of “The Dark.” “And it really hasn’t changed since then.”
Crafted by J.R. over the past year and half following the release of 2012’s The Wildness EP, Dark Was The Yearling, a 12-track collection, was born out of a gradual, introspective writing and recording process. Penning music, the musician explains, is a art form he finds is best never rushed by preconceived expectations or false expectations. “I’m not one of those artists who can sit down and write a song a day,” he says. “I wish it happened more but it can’t be forced.”
J.R. first developed a deep-seeded love for classic folk and blues — the sort best exemplified by early torchbearers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins — 15 years ago after being given a collection of albums entitled “American Roots Music” by his father. He subsequently fully immersed himself in it. “It reshaped my musical landscape,” says J.R., whose upstate New York upbringing upstate found him deeply entrenched in the local hardcore punk-rock scene. “What made me fall in love with the punk scene, I heard again in those records,” he offers. “And I haven’t turned back.”
The idea and promise of timeless music, the kind uncontaminated by passing trend, was greatly appealing to J.R. In old-time folk and blues he found “something so precious that you care for. I don’t know where it’s going,” he adds, but I will always be moving in this direction and falling in love with these songs and finding new artists that I can relate to.”
The Bones of J.R. Jones is an ever-evolving project — one that J.R. will continue to spread via his mesmerizing live shows. Don’t expect to see him with other musicians anytime soon. Performing solo, he says, “became a matter of necessity for me to reach what I felt was an accurate portrait of what I wanted to represent."
“For me my biggest fear with doing a one-man band is it would become a gimmick,” he offers. “Like ‘Oh, he’s the one-man band guy.’ I’ve put those reservations aside and fully embraced it."