Interview With Jack Rose

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Jack Rose 

Written By:

David Morris

12th July 2009
At 22:18 GMT

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Jack Rose is a native of Virginia, but has been a resident of Philadelphia for a few years. He once told me that he prefers the city, with its factories and its arteries, to the pastoral landscapes that I had always assumed he was hearkening to with his acoustic guitar playing.

The meandering river and rocky mountain trail that many would pick out of a line up, if played one of the man’s records and asked “whodunit?”…. A question which crops up regularly in the novels of one of Rose’s favourite authors, crime writer Jim Thompson.

At his best Rose forges a link between the gut and the imagination. He is engaged with the task of finding forgotten riverbeds that link brain with body which he floods with blood, spit and springwater; seeding the valleys with winds which carry the scent of the settlers and the pilgrims, the mystics and the drunks….But I doubt he would put it that way himself. His music is visceral, chock full of imagery and registers not all over the emotions, but with refined accuracy at certain points. Recently he’s been captured in a dignified but jaunty repose on the recent ‘Dr Ragtime and Pals’ LP, but still cranks out a few Eastern leaning reveries and tense tectonic rumblings at live shows. In my opinion his best work evokes a place betwixt all three of those, like his incomparably beautiful composition ‘Cathedral et Chartres’.

He plays steel twelve string guitar, a Weissenborn lap steel and straightforward six string and you get the impression that he always will. He has two releases coming out this year, a collaborative LP with The Black Twig Pickers re-uniting him with Mike Gangloff of Pelt (review here) and ‘The Black Dirt Sessions’. They represent two very different things. The former is one of the best recordings of American folk music that I have ever heard. It has unpicked the knot that Oh Brother Where Art Thou tied in my guts, flushing out the picture postcard Bluegrass-Appalachia with a heady dose of vibrant and heartbending melody. It feels like they’ve smashed a hole in the pipeline and called everyone over to gather the fuel gushing out of the rupture. There is a heady feeling listening to it, as if you’re stealing the raw stuff before they refine it in the factory and sell it on for thrice the price.

‘The Black Dirt Sessions’ just came out on Three Lobed and is more concise yet still broader in scope than recent releases like ‘Dr Ragtime..’ and the live LP ‘I Do Play Rock and Roll’. Both of those are interesting, but to me they aren’t essential. I’m not a collector, I’ll only buy what I think would merit taking up room in the car if I had somewhere to go and didn’t plan on coming back. This LP has some of the jaunty, some of the death and some of the dreams and is named after Jason Meagher’s Black Dirt Studio where one of my favourite releases of 2008 was recorded, D Charles Speer & The Helix’s ‘After Hours’.

I’m still making my mind up about it, I’ll review it soon enough, but these aren’t the kind of records you can rush, just like the man who made them. It’s definitely an older man than the one who made ‘Red Horse, White Mule’ whose just born styles were wondering in the sun. The re-recording of ‘Cross the North Fork’ is longer and more lucid than the version on ‘Kensington Blues’ which I am listening to now (my housemate has a copy of the first vinyl pressing, the bastard!). Like a storyteller he has added flourishes, and knows the story so well that he can relax. He knows what will unfold and he knows what it will speak to those who listen, so he is sitting back and honing those phrases and details. It might be better, but maybe I’m just jealous of this black on black sexy beast that’s spinning on my turntable.

I caught up with Jack Rose via email over the course of the past few weeks:

Strange Glue: For people who haven’t yet heard your music, or heard you compared to acoustic guitarists who have come before you, where would you say your music comes from, and where is it going?

Jack Rose: Well the 1st music I went nuts for was pre and post-WWII, American blues. I later got into old time string band music, cajun, jug band music and early jazz, also a good dose of classic rock and Link Wray.  I came up musically with my former band Pelt listening to sounds emanating from the forced exposure catalog, early New Zealand out sounds, Indian music and minimalism. Fahey and Basho of course. So I guess my solo guitar playing is informed by all of that. It's very hard to refer to my style of music without referring back to the early American primitive guitarists.

SG: You taught yourself the guitar, is that right? Are you teaching anyone the things you know?

JR: Yep I'm mostly self-taught. I'm a horrible guitar teacher though. If anyone asks what I'm playing, I'll happily share my secrets.

SG: I'm a pretty narrow player when it comes to fingerpicking, but I have been trying to work out how to play Kensington Blues lately! Have you ever heard any notable/surprising covers of your work?

JR: There are a couple cover versions of "Kensington Blues" on YouTube that are quite nice and I'm obviously flattered. Recently someone from France got in touch with me about the tunings for "Linden Ave Stomp". I guess he and and his pal will be working up a version, hope I get to hear it.

SG: You have been touring pretty hard these past few years, do you earn enough to get by?

JR: Yeah I do all right. My wife and I live frugally, so we don't need a whole lot of money to be happy.

SG: Where are your favourite places out on the road? And who has made the most interesting touring partner?

JR: I like Portugal and Belgium a lot. The alcohol and food are great and I've made a lot good friends in both places. I've had good times with all of my touring partners (I've toured with a lot of good folks). I like a tour to be as uninteresting as possible, lots of things can go wrong. If I can meet some nice folks, eat and drink well, make it home in one piece and I'm not broke at the end, then it's a success. 

SG: I saw Peter Walker play the other day, and I couldn’t tell what all the fuss was about…

JR: Peter's great LP, "Rainy Day Raga", from 1967 was a major influence on my music. I think he's a wonderful player and I like what he's doing now, but I can understand if one doesn't have that context of his earlier work and not be a flamenco fan in general, then his music might seem one dimensional to some.

SG: One guitar player in the audience was fuming that he’d paid to see someone advertised as a “great player”, and said that if he had called what he played “Flamenco” in Seville they would have thrown the furniture at him. Do you encounter any competitive guitarists in the audience, people who have an axe to grind with what you do with those pre WWII influences?

JR: Well the guitar scene is very competitive and I've been a target a number of times, usually concerning Fahey. I've been called a Fahey clone a number of times, so I just ignore it. As long as my good friends dig what I'm doing, then I know I'm doing something right.

SG: I know you’re a man of culinary opinions, weren’t you a chef for a while? What three dishes would you say are must tries before you die?

JR: Yep I cooked for over 10 years and it's a pretty hard living to make. Hopefully I'll never have to set foot in a restaurant kitchen ever again.

1. Mama'zu in richmond, VA-best Italian food ever. Just as good as Italy and I've sampled my fair share in that country. It's also where I learned how to cook

2. Mexican food in the Western U.S., Texas and Chicago.

3. Bbq in St Louis, Tennesee, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia-all the styles in each of these areas are different and most people have a preference. I like them all though. 

4. Difara's in Brooklyn - best pizza in the world. 

SG: The Jack Rose & The Black Twig Pickers album has re-invigorated my interest in your solo work. Maybe hearing you do this magnificent thing with these other people has eased the burden I’d started putting on the solo records. What has it done for you?

JR: When I'm working on my solo material I obsess over every little detail and it basically takes over my life. I'll wake up in the middle of the night sometimes thinking of melodies and rhythmic structures; I get kinda nuts. When playing with Twigs and the Speer folks (D.Charles Speer & The Helix, record reviewed here), it's loose and I don't focus on little details so much. With those folks the most important thing is getting a good feel with the music. Generally the beers are flowing and we're all having a really good time, so recording and playing is just really fun and there isn't any pressure. Those experiences influence my solo work for the better.

SG: Do you ever play electric instruments?

JR: I played electric guitar on the D Charles collaboration that was recorded last summer. That was a lot of fun to do, but it hasn't ignited any desire in me to plug back in. I haven't owned any electric gear since 2001.

SG: How different is it working with Mike Gangloff in BTP compared to your previous work together in Pelt?

JR: Mike and I for many years have played guitar and banjo duets casually. Improvised music is a totally different thing because there a lot of clashing ideas and egos. Mike and I are in total agreement with the music we're making now, as we are both early American music obsessives. 

In Pelt time always seemed to be working against us, so the atmosphere could be tense because of pressure to get material recorded for the next release.

SG: How do your labels react when you tell them that your new record will have re-recordings of songs from much loved albums that most of your fans will own already?

JR: Labels don't have a problem with me re-recording material, it's the writers that seem to have the problem. Nearly all artists recycle themes and re-visit older material. Why am I singled out for this practice? Songs change over time and sometimes radically, so why not re-visit past themes and songs. Fahey did this all the time, so did the Dead C, Harry Pussy, ad nauseum.

SG: I think that might be to do with the fact that you have had consistent attention (perhaps due to your time in Pelt) from areas of the music press whose outlook is dominated by the new and the current. They thrive on peoples temporarily fervent attention for the latest thing and a belief that music should satisfy listeners immediately, and with new songs. The fact that your work revolves around an intricate attention to melodies, built on ever shifting foundations, throws a spanner in the works of those who might try to contrive your career as something that should be constantly making breaks from the past. I sense that this attitude is not something you associate with artistic progression? 

JR: Songs change over time and especially songs that are open ended like my tunes like "Cross the North Fork", "Since I've Been a Man Full Grown" and "Red Horse". Those songs have changed so much over the years that they have almost become entirely new pieces. So why not have multiple versions. I like hearing multiple versions of songs from artists I like. 

SG: Any contemporary bands you think people who get on with your music should be looking out for?

JR: I dig the latest releases by Ignatz, D Charles Speer, Cian Nugent, Willie Lane, Kurt Vile, Glenn Jones, NNCK, Nick Shillace.

(review of NNCK's ‘Clomeim’

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