FolkWorld #76 11/2021
© Mountain Home Music Company

Across the Western Ocean

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers’ “Riding The Chief”: Featuring some tastefully glistening instrumental work from bandmembers Mark Stoffel (mandolins and harmony vocals), Grace van’t Hof (baritone ukelele, accordion and harmony vocals) and Marshall Wilborn (upright bass), “Riding The Chief” checks all the swing boxes, from Stoffel’s tuneful twin mandolin opening to Jones’ closed chord, “sock” guitar rhythm, to the way Wilborn locks in to guest drummer Tony Creasman’s easy lope, to the smooth, western-flavored harmonies of the song’s laid-back yet catchy chorus. For bluegrass fans, it’s an irresistible change of pace, served up by a familiar voice.

“This was my first co-writing effort after the start of the pandemic,” Jones reveals. “Thomm Jutz and I wrote this while over 2000 miles apart via FaceTime, after I told him the story. I thought the western swing-feel suited the geography of the journey. It’s an autobiographical song. “When I was a kid, my parents lived at other ends of the country, and starting in my early teens, I took the train to New Mexico to spend summers and sometimes Christmas holidays with my dad and family. I loved everything about these trips and they made a huge and lifelong impression on me. Between Chicago and Albuquerque, the train was the old Santa Fe Super Chief, which by then was operated by Amtrak, now called the Southwest Chief. Though I got off in Albuquerque, the train continued to LA and had been the main train route between those cities since the 1930s, originally operated by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad. It’s still running.”

A Singer-Songwriter to Front a Bluegrass Band

Make Each Second Last

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers "Make Each Second Last", Mountain Home Music Company, 2021

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers release new and original album, Make Each Second Last.

He’s been called a singer-songwriter who happens to front a bluegrass band, and though the choice is a little more deliberate than that phrase might suggest, there’s still a nugget of truth in the observation, and it arguably applies more than ever to the music on Make Each Second Last, the newest full-length release from Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, out now from Mountain Home Music Company. Filled entirely with material written by Jones and a handful of collaborators that includes both former and current Night Drivers, it’s the veteran artist’s most original and most varied outing yet — and one that, for good measure, introduces two new members of the ensemble.

Given Jones’ hit making track record, it’s no surprise that the first five singles from the album have already reached #1 on Bluegrass Today’s airplay chart. The title comes from “We Needed This Ride,” the first of those to introduce new members Grace van’t Hof (banjo, ukuleles, accordion, vocals) and Marshall Wilborn (bass, vocals) and, with its thrumming baritone ukulele-driven rhythm, a sign that the band would be serving up a broader range of tones and textures than before. Sure enough, the group’s latest single, “Riding The Chief,” goes still further, with its western swing foundation — right down to the twin mandolins, “sock” style guitar and tasteful fiddle from ace session player David Johnson — reintroducing a sound Jones hadn’t brought into the studio in decades.

Chris Jones and the Night Drivers

Yet while the Night Drivers’ tonal palette might have expanded, there’s no doubt that Make Each Second Last is a Chris Jones album, focusing prodigious songwriting talent on enduring Jones themes that encompass more than the usual bluegrass subjects. There are takes on travel, from “We Needed This Ride” to “Whither You Roam” to “Riding The Chief,” lost love (“Quiet Click”) and life at home (“Leave It At The Gate”) and abroad (“Silver City”), but there are also meditations on less intimate matters, whether it’s the encouragement to speak one’s mind in “We Need To Hear From You,” the compelling observation of “Everybody’s Got A Line” or the compassionate consideration of common humanity in “They’re Lost Too” and cautious, almost wistful hopefulness of “Bed Of Snow.” Whether written with GRAMMY-nominee Thomm Jutz, frequent collaborator Jon Weisberger, new colleague van’t Hof, veteran mandolinist Mark Stoffel — that would be the album’s lone instrumental, “Groundhog’s Retreat” — or by Jones himself, there’s not a song or performance in the collection that doesn’t bear Jones’ indelibly distinctive stamp.

With each of the albums he and the Night Drivers have made for Mountain Home — Run Away Tonight (2015), Made To Move (2017), and The Choosing Road (2019) — Chris Jones has dug deeper into a deeply personal synthesis of unique sounds, compelling themes and world-class songcraft, all embedded in a recognizably bluegrass setting, creating a sound whose appeal reaches far beyond the world of bluegrass while remaining firmly grounded within it. On Make Each Second Last, he serves notice that the journey continues.

“Make Each Second Last isn’t so much a departure for us, but a stretching of boundaries, and a fuller embrace of what makes us unique as a band, including some of the instrumental and vocal versatility brought in by new band members Grace van’t Hof and Marshall Wilborn. Mark Stoffel’s instrumental presence and creativity, always important to the Night Drivers’ sound, is also given an even bigger spotlight than on past releases,” says Jones. “This is our first record in which I’ve written or co-written all of the songs. The majority of the songs were solo writing efforts, or co-written within the band. I also wrote two with Thomm Jutz, which was really rewarding, and I’m also very glad to maintain my long co-writing relationship with former band mate Jon Weisberger, who co-wrote two of the songs.”

Mark Stoffel

“The phrase ‘make each second last’ from the opening track ‘We Needed This Ride’ is all about savoring and being grateful for our experiences,” Jones continues, “especially those involving human contact, now that we know how much of that we had been taking for granted.”

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers bring signature style to Christmas

The last time Chris Jones & The Night Drivers recorded a Christmas song, the year was 2010 and Jones’ co-writers on the downhome original, “Kentucky Noel,” were his long-time friends, the legendary Tom T. and Miss Dixie Hall. Now, at a time when the feeling of community that family and old songs alike can create seems more important than ever, it’s no surprise that Jones brings his singer/songwriter wife, Sally, into the studio to join him in new versions of two traditional songs to herald the season. “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” offer luminous readings delivered in Jones’ restrained yet evocative style, backed by Night Drivers Mark Stoffel (mandolin), Grace van’t Hof (ukulele) and Marshall Wilborn (upright bass), along with guests Tony Creasman (percussion) and long-time friend and musical associate April Verch (fiddle, “In the Bleak Midwinter”). Each selection, whether it’s the poetic, contemplative former “Midwinter” or the gently swinging “Rise Up Shepherd,” gets a classic Night Drivers treatment — tasteful, yet infused with a quiet energy that demands the listener’s attention from the first note to the last.

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers

“This is a song I’ve been listening to and singing along with since I was a kid,” Jones says of “Rise Up Shepherd.” “I first heard it on a record by Odetta; I was probably five years old at the time. In spite of that long history with the song, I’d never performed it until a couple of Christmases ago. Marshall Wilborn is well-known for his traditional bluegrass bass playing but he doesn’t always get credit for his versatility as a bass player. He shows that versatility in his lead work on this recording.” And of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” he notes: “This is a 19th century poem by Christina Rossetti set to a traditional melody. I learned a harmony part to it while caroling when I was 11 years old. I’ve always loved it and had so much fun recording it.”

About Chris Jones & The Night Drivers: Whether it’s in the studio or on stage, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers are making some of the most distinctively elegant yet driving music to be heard anywhere today, and they’re delivering it with a unique blend of dry wit, emotional authenticity and broad humor that’s won the loyalty of a growing number of fans across the country, from MerleFest in North Carolina to California’s Huck Finn Jubilee, and around the world. Steve Martin referred to the Night Drivers as “. . . some of the best players in bluegrass! Chris Jones’ voice is there with the great masters.” Americana artist Jim Lauderdale said of Chris, “He continues to have one of the most distinctive and best voices in music, period.” The band — which is Mark Stoffel on mandolin, Grace van’t Hof on banjo and ukelele and Marshall Wilborn on bass — is led by Chris’ soulful lead-singing, songwriting, and solid rhythm and lead guitar. Chris boasts extensive performance credits as a sideman with artists like Lynn Morris, Vassar Clements, Special Consensus, Dave Evans, Earl Scruggs, and the acclaimed Irish band The Chieftains. Altogether, members of Chris Jones & The Night Drivers have won more than a dozen IBMA awards and have recorded more than ten #1 songs. The Night Drivers also bring name recognition in related fields, as bluegrass fans are well-familiar with Jones for his award-winning work as a SiriusXM DJ, on both Bluegrass Junction and Willie’s Roadhouse.

About Mountain Home Music Company Mountain Home Music Company, a division of Crossroads Label Group is a premier Bluegrass label with global distribution, representing such elite artists as Balsam Range, The Grascals, Lonesome River Band, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, The Gina Furtado Project, Kristin Scott Benson, The Cleverlys, Danny Roberts, Sideline, Unspoken Tradition, Fireside Collective, The Alex Leach Band, Carley Arrowood, Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford, Mark Stoffel, Jaelee Roberts, Tray Wellington, Andy Leftwich and Phil Leadbetter. Established in 1993, Crossroads is a market leader in the Bluegrass, Americana, and Christian Music fields.

Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, (4) Mark Stoffel (unknown/website).

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