Snowblind Traveler resembles a lost classic of the early 1970s LA country rock scene. But it was recorded in 1979, 2,460 miles east, by a 26-year-old who’d never been to California, a man out of place and time. Jones self-produced LP expresses a deep desire to be anywhere but here.
The LP is rough around the edges, with an appealingly ragged, down-and-out vibe well-suited to Jones’ first-person accounts of small-town decay, confinement, longing, escape, failure, and survival. Jones takes production and engineering credits on the sessions, which took place at JRM Recording Studios in Salem, VA, and his inexperience shows. But what the record lacks in polish it more than makes up for in songwriting prowess. Like the best songwriters of the era, Jones conjures complexity and ambivalence with seemingly straightforward lyrics and arrangements. One moment he’s the reckless young man at the bar talking too loudly about getting out, now, tonight; next verse he’s the regretful old timer who knows all too well--the kid’s going nowhere.
The contradictions mirror those of his own life. Born in 1953 to the upwardly-mobile Charles and Betty Jones, Mark spent much of his childhood laying down and pulling up roots in different towns as Charles, a chemical engineer, worked his way up the corporate ladder. When Mark was in tenth grade, the family settled in Covington, VA, under the shadow of the WestVaCo Paper Mill. It was here that Mark’s interest in rock evolved into a desire to make music himself. He received guitar pointers from his younger sister Carol’s boyfriends, studied Neil Young records, and convinced his parents to spring for piano lessons. Though the family’s frequent moves had left Mark shy, he was undeniably charismatic and handsome, with bright blue eyes and long, wavy brown hair. The addition of a guitar only increased his appeal with women who saw the sensitivity behind the increasingly rebellious posturing.
After high school Jones’ teenage angst became a full-fledged rejection of middle-class conformity. He eloped and soon divorced. He enrolled at and soon dropped out of community college. Cashing in his college savings, he moved sixty miles south to Salem, where he took a job at the Timber Truss factory making parts for prefabricated homes. As he sings in “Lion Trap,” days in the factory were spent wishing he could awaken to discover this life was “all a bad dream, because it’s such a sad scene.” Jones resented the indignities of wage slavery, and would for the rest of his life, yet this was the life he chose. Jones had the intelligence and means to obtain a college education, and comfortable middle class existence. But this would have meant conforming to the expectations of his family and his class. Instead he chose downward mobility, and mined the suffering he observed and experienced in Salem’s factories and bars for his music.
When Jones wasn’t at Timber Truss he was hanging around at JRM, obtaining a hands-on education in recording techniques. He struck a deal to use the studio during off hours to record his songs. Rick Mullins, the son of owners Jack and Ruby and a friend of Jones, contributed drums and enlisted local sidemen for the sessions. Of these the standout is undoubtedly pedal steel guitarist Mike Calaway. Calaway is front and center in the mix, where his exuberant licks play the role of the loyal friend who believes every word Jones’ narrator says. Nowhere is this more the case than on “Player,” a song of parallels between the lives of the card hustler and the gigging musician. During the track’s first instrumental break Calaway and Jones play their solos with abandon, and veer dangerously close to the ditch. The effect is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the two never met in person, Calaway having overdubbed his parts after the other instrumental and vocal tracks were put to tape.
Snowblind Traveler was to be Jones’ ticket out of Timber Truss and the life of toil to which he had committed himself. Shortly after the record was pressed (with the help of Charles and Betty, who kicked in the cash to print its four-color sleeve) he loaded his guitars and boxes of LPs into his VW van to set out for LA, where Carol was then living. On the eve of his departure he stopped by JRM to say goodbye to Mullins, who teased Jones that his beat up van would never make it to the coast.
Jones did make it to California, and many other places, prior to his untimely death in 2003, but he never completed another record. After trying his hand at a music career in LA he returned to college, remarried, and took a good-paying white-collar job. But even as he achieved middle-class success, he continued to contend with that same old urge to run. He eventually succumbed to that urge, leaving his wife and career for an itinerant life dedicated to writing, music, and spiritual practice. At the time of his death he left behind dozens of later-day recordings, many of which revisited the themes first explored on Snowblind Traveler. On these tracks, he wrote from a new perspective: of a man who had finally realized that he had lived his entire life running from something from which he would never escape.
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