“Clayton was the best guitar picker in our town . . .”
--Tom T. Hall, “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died”
As for highlights present and future, Jones’ first solo album, backed by his new band The Bucks, is entitled Revolver. The songs are not only well crafted from his strong literary standpoint, but are fused with the Appalachian styles from his childhood, nuances of reggae, resonating vocals, and country blues. The songs are gritty and beautifull. Rugged and polished. There is Jones’ unique guitar style, and there are also subtle world rhythms found within these songs. The songs are much like a cycle of short stories--there are wayfaring preachers on meth, drug dealers, Chinese workers committing suicide,soldiers--people scared by the town they've grown up in but in the end, they find redemption in Revolver. There are gospel songs in here. There are love songs. Yes, thematically, the songs touch on the complexities of love, being from a small town, and—sort of like the songs from The Groundhawgs’ self-titled release (2004)—cosmic forces and outer space. Of Jones' songs, critic Cuba Rhodes proclaimed, "When I think of Jones' solid song writing and musicianship, I can’t help wondering if a song about Earthlings (“The Planet Alabamie Rag”) might be exactly what Gram Parsons intended when proposed his dream of Cosmic American Music.”
The Bucks in the studio are as follows: Joe First on accordian, Shad Cobb on fiddle, and Cheyenne Medders on Hammond Organ. However, Jones likes to take a bassist and drummer on the road. "I like picking up musicians wherever I go. I've got a lot musician-friends, so keeping the core band with the basics--drums, bass, and guitar--is the way to go."
Born in Northwest Georgia in 1975, J. Clayton L. Jones is a songwriter. He is named after two politicians and a country music song—comes from a very musical family: his Uncle Claude—like Bill Monroe’s Uncle Penn—was a an old time and bluegrass musician who greatly influenced him, and taught him; his father wrote songs as a hobby, was a speech writer for people such as Burt Lance, Jimmy Carter, and Zell Miller. Music was always present in his youth: both of his grandfathers played instruments. “My Papaw Jones played banjo claw-hammer style but with two fingers,” Jones said. “Papaw Solomon played guitar and sang.” And Jones sang with him too at church when he was five, but took the guitar up seriously when he was thirteen, although he’d had one since was seven.
Jones doesn’t like to talk about his musical influences that much, but he does love Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Robert Plant. “I love the Bobs,” he says. “All three of them.” You can hear this in his songs because you could say he has a folk singers attitude, but a wild poets heart. “It must have been those political functions they took me to as a baby,” Jones said. “Even though I don’t write a whole lot about current events—well, I could be lying here—I know that music can change the world for the better, and that’s what I intend to do because I believe in people. I believe in community, and I believe in music.”
Jones wrote his first song when he was in 9th grade. “I remember my girlfriend dumped me, so I got over it by writing a funny song about it. I told Dad I was upset, but then I wasn’t anymore. He looked at me and said, ‘Good.’ I wrote some stuff for real later on in high school, and by the time graduation came around I had my mind made up,” he said. “Besides, it made it easier to pick up girls when you had a guitar on.”
Jones’ essence as a songwriter is illustrative of his musical background, but also his literary background. Jones is Associate Poetry Editor for FutureCycle Press; owner and editor Robert S. King is working with him on his first full-length manuscript in hopes of publishing it later this year. Nonetheless, Jones found out early on that he could write all kinds of things. In 8th grade, he won a poetry contest; he was editor of his high school’s literary magazine for three years, and he even published newspaper articles before he was in high school, yet music was what he wanted to focus on. Consider the following:
I knew I was going to go to college, but I didn’t go to get an English degree so I could become a professor. I sort of fell into that. I wanted to study great poets so I could be come a better songwriter. So really, I went [to college] to find people to play music with. (Jones)
In 1995, Jones moved to Athens, Georgia; he answered an ad in the newspaper—a band was looking for a guitarist; thus, he had a band before he had a place to live. “The band’s name was Kilgore Trout in reference to the Kurt Vonnegut novels. We were pretty popular and I didn’t even know at the time about the literary reference,” he said. A week after arriving in Athens, Jones played his first gig at the famous 40 Watt opening up for Allman Brothers side project band, Government Mule; the following week, Jones shared the stage with Derrick Trucks, nephew of Allman Brother drummer Butch Trucks, at The Georgia Theater. Even though Jones loved playing Southern rock, Kilgore Trout’s members also knew he had other things to do. “I wasn’t focusing as much on my writing, so I left and started my own band,” he said. “That’s when I began to gravitate back to my roots: acoustic music, country and blues.”
Flash forward to Jones’ senior year at the University of Georgia when he Jones studied creative writing and poetry with Coleman Barks, the famous translator of Rumi: “Dr. Barks and I used to go out drinking a lot. He didn’t have a clue what I was about until I told him that I wanted to be a professor,” said Jones. “I guess I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I remember Coleman being surprised. He knew I was a musician, and what he’d read of my ‘poetry’—it was pretty bad, though written deliberately—he liked. He said he liked the music of it.”
In turn, Barks encouraged Jones to enroll in the M.F.A. program for poets in poetry writing at Georgia State University. During this time, Jones got away from electrified instruments, and went back to writing and playing the bluegrass that his Uncle Claude taught him as a kid. As it turns out, Jones studied with Georgia Poet Laureate, David Bottoms who is also a bluegrass musician. “Yeah, David and I have a lot of similar interests, but the only thing we really talk about is music. I mean, why not? I’m no where near the poet he is, and I gotta say he’s a pretty good picker too.”
Along the way to becoming a full-time professor of English, Jones has continually written songs and performed them. His band, The Groundhawgs, formed with his brother/co-writer/vocalist in 2001, has racked up quite a resume through the years. “Me and my brother Clark have gotten to play with some real super stars,” said Jones. “Looking back on it, I think opening up for John Prine has been the highlight of my music career,” he said. “That and selling my banjo.”
That’s right: Jones is also a multi-instrumentalist, and a good one. At one time, he was the banjoist for The Groundhawgs. He has played mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and guitar on countless recordings for acts such as The Little Country Giants, mandolin virtuoso Mike Compton, and fiddle great Shad Cobb. “It’s funny: most people don’t know me as a guitar player anymore,” he said. And, put frankly, Clayton really is the best guitar picker from Calhoun, Georgia.