Editor's note: This show has been canceled according to midtownbend.com. "It's with sadness and disappointment that I inform you that our Friday show in Bend, OR has been cancelled," Chris Jones posted on his Facebook page. "I'm told that refunds have already been given to anyone who purchased an advance ticket. We're sorry for any inconvenience and/or disappointment."
Chris Jones could be singing about himself with the opening line of “Who You Want Me to Be,” off his band The Night Drivers’ latest album, “The Choosing Road.”
“Somewhere in some other life I’ve mastered almost everything I’ve tried,” he sings in his trademark baritone over energetic bluegrass/folk riffs. Besides the “other life” line, it checks out: Jones is a bluegrass triple threat as frontman/guitarist for The Night Drivers, a humor columnist with online magazine Bluegrass Today and a radio host on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction station.
But Jones didn’t write that line. The Night Drivers’ former banjoist, Grace Furtado, did.
“I like that line,” Jones said recently from a tour stop in Franklin, Tennessee. “I don’t know if I would’ve written that myself. I don’t feel like I’ve mastered all this. I’ve certainly tried quite a few things, though, so there we go.”
Many fans — and the bluegrass world in general — might disagree. Jones has won multiple International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards for all facets of his work, including Song of the Year (2007), Broadcaster of the Year (2007 and 2015) and Print/Media Person of the Year (2015). He’s shared stages with Earl Scruggs and had his songs recorded by The Infamous Stringdusters and The Gibson Brothers, among many others.
Jones and the band — featuring, for the current tour, mandolinist Ashby Frank, banjo and ukulele player Grace Van’t Hof and bassist Marshall Wilburn — will make their Bend debut at the Domino Room on Friday. That might be surprising due to Bend’s strong bluegrass streak, but even closer to home, Jones endorsed Sisters-based Preston Thompson Guitars a couple of years ago.
“The Thompson guitar that I have that I’ll be playing on the tour, I’ve been playing it since a year ago in November,” he said. “I had some friends in the business playing them, and I had never played one of them before. I met them at the International Bluegrass Music Association annual event, which happens in Raleigh, North Carolina. I met them and played some of their guitars. I was looking in particular for a mahogany guitar, and I just loved what they had.”
He said he’s looking forward to possibly seeing the workshop and meeting folks at the company, although Thompson died last year. He’s also looking forward to visiting with his uncle, Bob Henderson, a Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo player who now lives in Southern Oregon and was one of Jones’ earliest musical influences.
“He was the first banjo player that I saw in person playing that instrument, so he was certainly an influence,” Jones said. “I grew up in the state of New York, where (bluegrass) was not hugely popular or accessible, but there was a scene there, and so I was exposed to it.”
He would gain more exposure to bluegrass musicians in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he moved with his father and stepmother when he was young. After getting an acoustic guitar for Christmas one year, he started playing and soon became obsessed.
“But something about bluegrass music — I think the rhythm of it, the sound of the banjo, the harmony vocals and things like that — just really captured me,” Jones said. “I started listening to some of the guitar players, and Doc Watson was certainly somebody who was a big influence and somebody I listened to a lot of. I finally realized, ‘Hey, I could maybe try to play that guitar style.’”
When he was about 15, Jones saw another young guitarist, Bobby Henry, play in Watson’s flatpicking style with a bluegrass band in western New York, where his uncle was living at the time. That inspired Jones, and he soon wound up playing in groups such as The Special Consensus and later, The Weary Hearts, which also featured future Alison Krauss & Union Station member Ron Block.
“I ended up meeting (Henry) years later after I had been playing professionally for a number of years,” Jones said. “He came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my name is Bobby Henry.’ He said, ‘I really like your playing and I read your column’ — I used to write a little column for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. And I said, ‘You can’t imagine how exciting it is for me to have you say that to me, because you’re one of the reasons that I play.’”
Jones has led The Night Drivers since 1995, seeing the group through multiple lineup changes — as well as the rise of modern newgrass/jamgrass with bands such as The Infamous Stringdusters, The Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band and many others. As a performer as well as a radio DJ, he’s had a front seat to witness the changes not just in bluegrass, but the music industry as a whole.
“In bluegrass music there’s an older core audience, and then there’s a much younger audience for different kinds of bluegrass music that have lots of influences from other genres,” he said. “And this has always been the case — the music has always had young input and different sorts of changes going on. … It’s just been interesting to watch how this is developing. The scene as we knew it 20 years ago has changed a lot. The traditional bluegrass festival is suffering somewhat, and so events and artists and people putting on shows are just trying to adjust to new realities of things. CD sales have dropped right off, and for a lot of traveling artists, this is an important income source, and so we’re trying to adjust to that as well. But the state of the music is really healthy; there’s so many good, young players out there.”
The increased visibility of jamgrass, newgrass and other bluegrass-inspired, offshoot genres has helped Jones and The Night Drivers in some ways, too. While albums such as last year’s “The Choosing Road” stick to a traditional, acoustic sound, the group has steadily increased its focus on original music.
“I think there was a time when, for a more traditional audience — and it’s still the case for a more traditional audience — we’re considered really contemporary and a little bit different because we’re not exactly a … traditional band,” Jones said. “And yet, for people who are less familiar with the music or just discovering it, we sound like a traditional bluegrass band.”