If you ever have to explain the “American primitive” guitar style to someone, just pop Glenn Jones’ The Giant Who Ate Himself into the CD player. With buzzing drones that conjure up the spirits of country bluesmen like Skip James, custom tunings that are song-specific and may never be used again, and partial capos that serve as shortcuts to tonal colors, Jones spins wordless stories and evokes conflicting emotions with his rolling, cross-stitching steel string Alvarez and trio of Guilds. Ranging from boisterous struts to pensive mood pieces—often within the same tune—Jones’ eighth full-length album is fluid, familiar, deeply personal, and impossible to pin down; the American primitive style in a nutshell.
With sashaying bent-string rhythms, spiraling melodies, and percussive strums, the collection’s title track pays tribute to American primitive pioneer John Fahey. Fahey’s influence looms large over this set: he was one of Jones’ inspirations, and before Fahey’s death the two guitarists collaborated on The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, a 1997 release by Jones’ now-dormant avant-garde rock group Cul de Sac. But the primary thrust of this collection is the stories Jones chooses to tell, and the emotions they elicit.
With rattling flourishes that resemble the tumbling rasgueado technique of flamenco guitar, and fluttering cross-picking that suggests flocks of birds darkening the sky, “The Last Passenger Pigeon” pays tribute to the first documented species to be wiped out by mankind.
“The Was and the Is,” a mournful country blues punctuated with twanging sharp notes and snapping strings, is Jones’ wary reaction to the 2016 presidential election. Jangling strums, ringing harmonics, and coiling razor wire stings collide and coalesce on “The Sunken Amusement Park,” which evokes eerie images of New Jersey coast boardwalks and attractions inundated by Hurricane Sandy.
With gently woven threads of melody ringing with zither-like clarity and sustain, “A Different Kind of Christmas Carol” offers a sunny contrast to Jones’ more pensive pieces. The song was intended as a curmudgeonly put-down of that most avaricious of holidays, but Jones changed his tune when he encountered a seven-year-old girl beaming with enthusiasm for the yuletide season. Similarly, “From Frederick to Fredericksburg” recalls a convivial gathering, with a gamboling folk melody interlaced with quicksilver bluegrass-style runs.
A sense of place is crucial to Jones’ narratives, so much so that he recorded this and his past few albums at a series of private homes to avoid the sterility of a studio and to allow his compositions to breathe. The Giant Who Ate Himself was tracked at a house in Jones’ native New Jersey, and the location steps into the spotlight on “River in the Sky.” Here, creaking crickets, chirping birds, and the drone of a distant engine lay down a blanket of found sound while Jones elicits warped and bowing tones from his slide guitar. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how the guitarist can stretch the boundaries of genre and redefine what instrumental guitar music can achieve.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.