How I Met Jordan Tice at the Crossroads of American Music
By T. DeWayne Moore
Authenticity is a Janus-faced, polyvalent term that can possess a different meaning for every person asked about it. In regard to Old Time musical traditions, the numerous claims to authenticity in Nashville offers a host of artists who deliver music that sounds very much influenced by the roots of country and bluegrass. It can be dizzying at times scrolling down the frontpage of the The Bluegrass Station website, listening to one amazing instrumentalist after another, while the occasional wide vocal range of an amazing vocalist peppers the aural background. But not everyone is the “real deal,” a term abhorred by some. Not everyone has an old soul. So how can we tell the difference between substance and hollow plasticity in a world in which technical skill and image can be blinding?
It might help to look outside the mainstream touring circuit. It might help to ask someone without an investment in the culture of the mainstream in Nashville--someone who neither knows the kids on the block or hears their publicized claims in homage to the roots. Talk can be cheapened and distributed en masse. Actions can also be co-opted by forces that dilute its substance and minimize its meaning. A great many performing and recording artists have taken pilgrimages to the deep South that have been less informed by a desire for inspiration than a need to have street cred, or take advantage of a photo opportunity. While I will always mention the sincerity of interest and the unyielding integrity of such individuals as Chris Johnson, the proprietor of Bayport BBQ in Minnesota, who I believe many of us may look towards as an example of honesty and that American spirit that is often lost on a society ever-pressing forward in the onrush of modernity, we can at last identify a "singular voice" in Nashville that is not clouded with pride and overly adorned with pomp glamour, that is, other than Jack Pearson and a handful of others much too humble to be named.
In fact, little is known to this author about the man of whom I write other than he arrived in Oxford, Mississippi one morning in January ready to go wherever it was I took him. We were headed to the vast flatness of the former annual floodplain and cultural crucible of American music that has inspired an unending list of authors, musicians, and visual artists since engineers discovered ways of controlling the Mighty Mississippi River at the close of the nineteenth century, a place that is seemingly as unspoiled as it is drenched in the blood of the American past. The ghosts of the Mississippi Delta are very much alive and screaming to all those who possess the courage and vision to visit the very rural expanse, and it must have invoked quite a refreshing anxiety in Jordan Tice that morning as he drove us from the hill country down into the Delta.
You see, I am the director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, an embattled non-profit that has been outside of the state's tourism apparatus since before it ever began. We have memorialized the contributions of numerous musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers and served as a conduit to provide financial support to black church communities and cemeteries in the Mississippi Delta. "Our work isn’t some hollow gesture to honor the blues. The music is very important, to be sure, but it's only the soundtrack...We save rural cemeteries by any means necessary--whether its erecting memorials to musicians, engaging legal remedies, or filling the vast silences in important historical landscapes." Our work, in essence, is "about saving the soul of Mississippi." It takes a person of substance to get in that car and confront uncomfortable realities about our world. The abandoned cemeteries in which the musicians who represent the roots of American music reside can have enlightening as well as disturbing effects. It takes a musician who acknowledges that roots go deeper than grooves on a 78 rpm disc to immerse themselves in all that the region offers up.
Jordan Tice, according to one promotional writer, is "a singular voice on the American roots music scene," who, "over the last ten years...has developed a reputation as a unique and versatile guitarist and prolific composer of some of the most thoughtful and well-crafted tunes of his generation." While "filtering the sounds and conventions of American Music" through a "voice and sonic aesthetic" unique to the amalgam of his new group Hawktail--which includes the searing and driving fiddle of Brittany Haas, the smiling mandolin of Dominick Leslie, and the guttural rumble of Paul Kowart and his bass viol--Jordan Tice sat with his back to the camera for this recording session at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville this past summer. Some folks might advise that he embrace the camera, throw off this reflexive fear of vanity, and face the people whom he seeks to entrance. He might give lip service to a focus on the music, not the personalities of the people behind its tight rhythm. This author might suggest that the driving force behind the search for authenticity is respect, which is a prerequisite of truth, and the foundations on which all division ends. The term "roots" obfuscates more specific explications of country, jazz, blues, and bluegrass--none of which can alone define the "roots." Indeed, only by coming together can they be understood as the foundations of American music. Only by going to the very places folks advise against can we sometimes find the truth.
Perhaps, then, only by revealing truth through music can we all find a common definition of authenticity. It certainly takes a rare artist to convey all that is truth in a series of notes, let alone a few lyrics. It may be that the warm embrace of a cohesive identity has transformed a “singular voice” into a new originality, allowing truth to be reborn through honor and respect in the inventive compositions of four individuals. It is not easy to turn what could annihilate us into a fuel that drives us far beyond our expectations, but I think that is exactly what is happening in Nashville with Hawktail. Maybe you owe it to yourself to find out if you agree. I’m sure that none of us are planning to check out anytime soon, and if you fail to find what you seek, maybe you can figure out the mystery of Abbzug. Then again, maybe the mystery is the whole point…