Jones & Leva – “All the songs start out with just the two of us”
“Well, we play the fiddle and the banjo and we sing hillbilly harmony,” James Leva says as he and Carol Elizabeth Jones reflect on the “which browser bin?” dilemma. Actually, there’s a lot more going on here. Jones & Leva are accomplished old-time musicians whose love for mountain music led each through a series of bands before they married and began performing together. They are also skilled writers whose songs survey a broad landscape of country music.
In late spring, Jones & Leva opened at Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater for Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. Bassist extraordinaire Dave Grant accompanied, although they usually perform as a duo. Their appearance coincided with that day’s release of their second Rounder Records disc, Journey Home.
The fullness of their live sound was impressive, even on songs where supporting musicians had seemed so integral to the recordings. “The reason I think that it must work is that all the songs start out with just the two of us in the first place,” Jones explains, “and then when we go in the studio, we figure out what we think would sound good. But we have to work them up for just the two of us to start with.”
The flow of their set, with its careful attention to song pacing, contrasted fascinatingly to Welch & Rawlings’ more stream-of-consciousness approach. Leva speculates, “One thing that I very much admired was they’re absolutely fearless onstage, and they don’t worry about playing a bunch of slow numbers in a row. And we, of course…I wonder how much of that is because they’re still in their twenties [ed.: Welch is actually 30; we’re not sure about Rawlings] and they’ve made a huge success, and…we’re quite a bit older than that, and all these years since then we’ve played Moose lodges and stuff where you had to grab an audience and try and keep ’em happy. And I was just wondering how much is just the survival methods we learned over the years of playing some really tough audiences.”
Whether live or on record, Jones & Leva embrace a broader slice of country music than their old-time format might suggest. Granted, much of what they write uncannily re-creates older music styles. Listening to an unmarked tape of Journey Home, I found myself wondering if their edgily harmonized “Drunkard’s Lantern” might be some newly discovered 1947 Stanley Brothers song. Leva’s bluesy “Satan I Won’t Be Your Servant No More” evokes the Carter Family, and accurately blurs the distinctions between black and white rural music of that era.
Still, some of the duo’s strongest work falls into a more mainstream country vein. Much of this seems to be the contribution of Jones, a gifted writer and singer. Songs such as “She Could Have Loved Him” and “Loving On Borrowed Time” would sound at home alongside the best that find their way to country radio in any decade. Her voice — soft-spoken, with a hint of vulnerability and a good measure of Kentucky matter-of-factness — is a powerful instrument.
Leva, whose writing and fiddle and banjo work contribute so much to their old-time sound, is also responsible for much of the duo’s more exploratory side. The world-music inclinations that once made him a member of the Freewill Savages probably explain the Balkan 7/4 time verse of “Nothing But Gold” and the jaunty accordion-fiddle-guitar riff of “Hosanna”, which seems to resolve the Biblical paradoxes of joy and tragedy that the lyrics contemplate. Joy wins.
Drums, pedal steels, mandolins and accordions come and go, and some genre-bending takes place. But have Jones & Leva managed to escape the artistic death trap of eclecticism and maintain a unified musical identity? Yes, but why? A lot of it has to do with their ethic of making things work as a duo, the telepathic harmonies that you hear in just about everything they do, and the love and respect for country music that is central to their work.