It’s looking like Utah’s drought may finally be over — in more ways than one.
While the heavy winter snows and equally heavy spring rains have prompted Utah water officials to cautiously declare an end to the state’s precipitation woes, a drought of another kind is passing into history this spring.
Chris Jones and The Night Drivers are finally returning to Utah.
“We haven’t played Utah in a really long time,” Jones said in a telephone interview last week from his Alberta, Canada, home. “We played a small concert in Salt Lake City, it had to be a good 10 years ago — maybe 12 years ago. So yes, it’s been a drought.”
Jones and his Drivers will close this weekend’s Ogden Music Festival with a performance at 6 p.m. Sunday. They’ll also perform at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the festival. Then, on Monday evening, they’ll offer a free concert in the Ogden Amphitheater.
That’s three shows in three days. When it rains, it pours.
Jones formed the band in the mid-1990s in Nashville, and today it features Jones on lead vocals and guitar, Mark Stoffel on mandolin, Jon Weisberger on bass, and Gina Clowes on banjo. The band, which recently returned from a European tour, has had nine chart-topping songs and have won six awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
“We’re not exactly a straight-down-the-line bluegrass band,” Jones said. “Our sound is a little different — aside from it being low-pitched.”
Jones is referring to his smooth baritone vocals, which aren’t the norm in a genre that has become known for its “high lonesome” sounds.
“I’ve heard people call this “low lonesome,” Jones said.
The singer-songwriter said how their music is viewed within the bluegrass genre is often determined by the audience. When they perform for traditional bluegrass fans, they’re seen as a progressive band. But for fans at large, they’re seen as a traditionally-based bluegrass band.
“One thing I’ll say about the band and our sound: Even though my name is in front of it and we’re doing lots of songs I wrote, arranged and produced, what I’ve always liked is a band sound. And this really is a band feel. Everybody’s contributions are important — it’s not just me and some people backing me up. … I do some solo things, but it’s very fulfilling to play in a band.”
Of course, playing in a band is just the tip of the iceberg for Jones, who in addition to being a talented singer, songwriter and musician is an on-air personality for SiriusXM’s “Bluegrass Junction.” He’s also a regular humor columnist for the website Bluegrass Today.
Oh, and on his rare days off? Jones is a curler. He’s fairly modest when it comes to his abilities at the winter sport.
“I started late in life, and it’s taken me awhile to get to the mediocre level,” he says. “My wife’s family was big into the sport, so I took it up in self-defense.”
Despite all of his wide-ranging abilities, Jones insists “there are a whole lot of things I don’t do well.”
“I’m a terrible mechanic,” he confesses.
And apparently, Jones could use some work promoting his own music. When he first started with SiriusXM, there were parts of the country he hadn’t played as a musician — so a lot of bluegrass fans only knew him as an on-air personality for a bluegrass station.
“I’ve taken great pains not to plug my own music career on the air, and maybe I’ve done it too well,” he says. “Because there were a lot of people who didn’t know I was THAT Chris Jones.”
Jones’ path to bluegrass wasn’t your typical one. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Albuquerque, N.M., and credits his stepmother with his beginning to play bluegrass music seriously in his early teens.
“She was from Detroit, and Detroit in its own way is a bluegrass hotbed,” Jones said. “Her musical background — from hanging out with auto workers — was bluegrass and country music and Motown. Through her, I listened to a lot of that. But rather than the Motown direction, I went with bluegrass and country.”
This spring, Chris Jones and The Night Drivers released “The Choosing Road,” their third album for the North Carolina label Mountain Home Records.
“They’re a record company that encourages us to be original; they don’t interfere a lot,” Jones said. “And original material has been more and more a part of what we’ve done.”
The songs are all originals written by members of the band, with one exception: a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again.”
Writing original music can be a minefield in the bluegrass genre. Jones said it’s a balancing act between that certain percentage of people who want the sound to stay the same, and those who like to see bluegrass bands pushing boundaries.
“The thing that pleases one audience makes another audience mad,” Jones said. “I’m a big lover of traditional bluegrass, and I host a traditional bluegrass show on XM. But that music has already been done by the masters. We can’t do the same thing they’ve done.”
Besides, Jones believes, over time, if an artist shows that what they do is genuine, and they have a love and reverence for the traditional bluegrass style, fans will adjust.
“I’m happier with this than anything we’d done,” Jones says of the new album. “We weren’t thinking about who’s going to like it, or how to market it to a specific audience. We were just focusing on making music that was really us.”
Jones says he’s looking forward to being able to work with schoolchildren during their visit to Utah.
“The folks who put this festival on had an idea, and wondered if we were used to working with kids — which we are, we’ve done a lot of kids camps,” Jones said. “That’s very much in our comfort zone.”
Jones said they’ve got a group of children from Taylor Elementary School that will be performing with his band at a free concert Monday evening in the Ogden Amphitheater.
“We’re doing a traditional song together, and they’re going to sing one of our original songs,” he said.
Although they started out in Nashville, the frontman says the members of Chris Jones and The Night Drivers are “really scattered” these days — spread out from western Canada to Illinois, Nashville and Virginia.
“After shows, people ask us, ‘When do you rehearse?’” Jones said. “And we say, ‘You just heard it.’”