CHRIS JONES (& THE NIGHT DRIVERS)

ChrisJones_2014_ByMikeWitcherCHRIS JONES
(& THE NIGHT DRIVERS)
By Casey L. Penn

Chris Jones is one of the busiest people in bluegrass. Lucky for him, he’s pretty laid-back about it. The broadcaster of SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction and classic bluegrass show Truegrass doubles as the lead singer, guitarist, and head “Driver” of his band, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers. Perhaps to maintain his sanity, Jones also writes a humor column for Bluegrass Today, where his wry perspective serves as a weekly reminder to readers—and himself—to relax. “We all take different aspects of the business a bit too seriously,” he says. “There is a time for that, sure, but I like to make time for us to laugh at ourselves too.”

Meanwhile, Jones and his band continue to drive home some serious bluegrass success. Their 2013 Rebel Records release, Lonely Comes Easy, achieved three #1 and two #2 bluegrass radio hits. Currently climbing the charts is “Like A Hawk,” the second single from 2014’s self-produced album, Live At The Old Feed Store. Also in 2014, the band signed a two-project release with a new label, North Carolina’s Mountain Home Music Company.

A sought-after songwriter and sideman, Jones has toured or performed with The Chieftains, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Tom T. Hall, and others. His songs have provided fodder for his own group and have been recorded by the Gibson Brothers, Lou Reid & Carolina, The Chapmans, and others. He has earned numerous industry awards, including, most recently, the 2014 IBMA Print Media Person Of The Year. Also at IBMA last year, Jones received, alongside designer Lou Everhart and Rebel Records, the IBMA award for Best Graphic Design for Lonely Comes Easy.

His writing was first published in 2008 in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. “It was instructional and came with music and tablature,” recalls Jones. “I decided to lighten it up, so I added some humor into this guitar column—kind of a strange place to do that.”

The Backstory

   Jones hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., where his mother was a singer and actress and his uncle was a master at Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo. His first bluegrass memories date back to the few years he lived in Albuquerque with his father and stepmother. They introduced him to the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Osborne Brothers. “I was exposed to a range of music—country, bluegrass, even Motown—but it was the bluegrass music that captivated me,” recalls Jones, who went on to discover the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, and many other favorites.

As a teenager, Jones began meeting local pickers and set out to be a guitar man. Taking inspiration from Doc Watson, Larry Sparks, and Keith Whitley, he learned fast. “My first paying gigs in music happened in Vermont, where I went to college for a few years, playing rhythm guitar with some French-Canadian musicians at local dances, and with a banjo and hammered dulcimer player, Tom MacKenzie,” he says.

Inevitably, Jones found his home in the vocal workings of bluegrass. He has long admired great singers like Carter Stanley and Roy Lee Centers as well as voices more kindred to his own such as Charley Pride and Don Williams. At first a “closet lead singer, reluctant to get out in public,” he could not hide his voice for long. After getting his start at 18 as lead singer and guitarist for upstate New York band Horse Country (led by late banjoist and bandleader Bob Mavian), Jones filled the same role for Special Consensus during its early years.

It was a big step for the 21-year-old. “Greg Cahill is the band leader for Special Consensus, but back then he was a partner in the band. We actually connected through a Bluegrass Unlimited classified ad,” he recalls. “I owe Bob and Greg a lot for giving me a break and for teaching me a lot about the music and the business.”

Following a four-year stint with Special Consensus, Jones played with Whetstone Run, Lynn Morris Band, The McCarters, Dave Evans, and Weary Hearts. All were noteworthy for Jones, particularly Weary Hearts, whose former members included Jones, Ron Block, Mike Bub, and the late Butch Baldassari. Jones met his wife, Sally, through Block, who is married to Sally’s sister, Sandra. (Fun fact: the two couples actually took their vows on the same family farm almost exactly one year apart.) A celebrated musician and singer herself, Sally is a frequent contributor to Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, most recently as a guest on Live At The Old Feed Store.

The Band

   When Weary Hearts disbanded, Jones grew weary, too, at the thought of starting over yet again. This time, he formed his own band and attached it to his own name. “My thinking,” he says dryly, “was that if things go wrong with personnel, at least I’ve got that consistency and can stick with it.” To his own name, Jones added Night Drivers, a name that has turned into something of a conversation piece. “When I founded Chris Jones & the Night Drivers in 1995, I had no idea how easy it is to mess up a band name,” he jokes. “We get called the ‘Night Riders’ so often that I no longer even worry about it. But that’s an important lesson in naming a band: How easy is it to get wrong?”

The band—and its name—have endured nearly twenty years with few personnel changes. The current lineup includes Jones, Jon Weisberger on bass, Ned Luberecki on banjo, and Mark Stoffel on mandolin. The group’s sound has evolved, but not to a radical degree. Sets continue to feature original songs, traditional favorites, and bluegrass treatments of band or fan favorites. The Chris Jones treatment of “I Cried Myself Awake” is a great example. “That song goes back to my Special Consensus days, but is still often requested,” says Jones of the classic tune made famous by the great George Jones.

Traditional bluegrass, CJND style, is, by its very nature, unique. “I’m naturally going to sound different,” says Jones, a baritone whose high and lonesome is, in reality, low and soothing. With his signature voice and arrangement style as a foundation, Jones has allowed the band’s sound to grow from members’ personalities. As he explains, “I like those guys to be able to shine. I’m not a musical dictator in that way, and I’ve never wanted to tread over the same ground. I like to bring something new to the table, but within a traditional bluegrass context.

“We have been in a role in the last year—it’s a role that we like—of being the most traditional band at festivals that are more on the fringe (such as DelFest and Big Sky). Our music is presented in such a way that we’ve been able to appeal to that wider audience. We’re not doing anything different musically. There are traditional and nontraditional elements, but we’re being received well by traditional audiences, too. I think it’s because we never seek to hit anybody over the head with our music. As opposed to trying to stick to some formula, I like people to be able to listen to the song and have it touch them.”

Weisberger adds, “We’re not an edgy band. Our songs are straightforward bluegrass songs, and we know our bluegrass well, but it’s also an interesting mix of thoughtful and conscious thinking, and we’ve developed an onstage presentation—we don’t tell jokes or do silly things, but there’s more than a little humor—that is unique to us and that people seem to enjoy.”

Jones, Luberecki, and Weisberger are all broadcasters (among other projects), and Stoffel is a music producer and engineer. This makes for more good conversation. “Lester Flatt used to call Earl Scruggs the ‘banjo playingest fella in the country,’” says Jones. “Now, with three deejays in the band, we’ve evolved into the ‘deejayingest bluegrass band in the country.’ Stoffel is the exception, but he’s busy with his role as ‘international ambassador and German interpreter’ for the band.”

The band’s collective personality comes through well in 2014’s live album. “We just really wanted to do a live album,” says Jones. “There’s a certain tightness that comes with playing together as long as we have. We know each other’s rhythms, and we’re able to work on subtlety of arrangements. It’s good to try and capture that if you can.”

To capture Live, the band set up and ran tape during a show in one of its favorite venues, the Old Feed Store in Cobden, Ill. The album includes a balance of humor (“Cabin Of Death”), warmth, and pure, hard-driving bluegrass fire. (“Edelweiss”/“Forked Deer” is a medley that nicely covers the latter two.)

The Muse

   Songwriting was a gradual interest for Jones, who was playing, singing, and arranging songs long before writing them. “It wasn’t anybody’s suggestion or any particular sudden inspiration,” he recalls. “I just had some ideas I worked on. Once you get going with that, if it’s something that clicks with you, you can’t stop.”

Predominantly a solo writer, Jones has collaborated with Weisberger and others over the years. “Both are good,” he reflects. “Some you can’t write with co-writers and vice versa. There are songs that would not happen by yourself.” A case in point is “Fork In The Road,” which Jones co-wrote with the band’s original bass player, John Pennell (formerly of Alison Krauss + Union Station). “We sat down one day and wrote this bluesy song,” he recalls. “Years later, the Infamous Stringdusters made the song the title track of their debut album. Ultimately, it won IBMA Song Of The Year in 2007. To get that kind of recognition as a writer was very gratifying.”

“Chris has long been a great songwriter,” says Weisberger, who has enjoyed pulling his bandleader into a handful of co-writes over his 12 years with the band. Known for his prolific songwriting, Weisberger has co-written with Tim Stafford, Donna Ulisse, Shawn Camp, and many others. He is a past winner of the IBMA Songwriter Of The Year and currently serves as IBMA Board of Directors Chairman. About the Jones-Weisberger collaboration, “Final Farewell,” from Lost Souls & Free Spirits: “It’s a song about cherishing time with those we love, since we never know how long that time might be. The idea came to me just before going to visit my father, knowing that it could be for the last time,” says Jones. “It was.”

Stoffel and Luberecki are writers, too, more of tunes than of lyrical songs. However, Luberecki’s tongue-in-cheek attempt at the perfect bluegrass song, “Cabin Of Death,” is one of the group’s most requested songs.

The Road Ahead

   Chris and his Night Drivers kept the roads and skies warm in 2014, with appearances at major festivals such as Bourbon & Bluegrass Steamboat Tours, Targhee Bluegrass Festival, Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Bluegrass on the Plains, Huck Finn Jubilee, MerleFest, and IBMA’s World of Bluegrass. This year is off to a busy start, too, with key dates on the books that include Bean Blossom, Festival of the Bluegrass, Podunk Bluegrass Festival and more. “We expect 2015 to be an important year for us,” Jones confides. “We are excited about our first record for our new record label, Mountain Home. Scheduled for a late summer release, Run Away Tonight will feature new original material and guest appearances by former Night Driver Casey Driessen, Buddy Melton, and others. Beyond that, we’re looking to expand on what was a very successful 2014 for us, which saw us playing in front of larger and more diverse audiences.”

Whether listening from a festival front row or from your car stereo, expect to hear much more from Chris Jones & The Night Drivers. Listen for them on SiriusXM radio. Also, catch Jones’ weekly advice column at Bluegrass Today, though he warns that advice is used loosely in this context. “My column has sort of evolved into a parody of advice,” Jones smiles. “And yet, some people take me seriously. Please…don’t take me seriously.”