Jackson Pines have lived up to their name with some of the best folk-rock ever to come out of Jersey, especially since the duo of singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Makoviecki and stand-up bassist James Black have expanded into an energetic combo that live often includes Max Carmichael on banjo, mandolin and flute and the great Cranston Dean on drums and mandolin, plus fiddler James Herdman in the studio.
But with their latest album, “Pine Barrens Volume One,” Jackson Pines roll back the rock to concentrate on the traditional music of the Jersey Pinelands dating as far back as 1700. Yet, the full-on live energy remains intact, largely because the music, as well as the precious, fragile eco-system of the Pine Barrens, so greatly cherished by Jackson-raised Joe Makoviecki and James Black.
The seven-song collection opens with Merce Ridgway Sr.’s “Depression Song,” which lyrically recalls Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Times” and other Dust Bowl Ballads, as well as Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” while musically is inspired by the country blues of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt, Joe’s greatest guitar influence. With his 1940s band, The Pinehawkers, Ridgway celebrated how folks of the Pines survived pretty well during the Depression due to their subsistence skills from centuries of living off the land and not working wage or salaried jobs. His son, Merce Ridgway Jr., kept both the song and the band alive throughout the first quarter century of Waretown-based Albert Music Hall, the Grand Ole Opry of South Jersey, where members of Jackson Pines have been performing since 2011, and the band will return on Feb. 25.
“Mt. Holly Jail,” the album’s first single, is the kind of mid-1800s prison song that inspired influential folks like country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. Always proud to preserve its rich history, Mount Holly has another nugget of cultural gold thanks to the musical mining of Jackson Pines.
The band next mine Ridgway Sr. again with his Hank Williams-inspired country song “Love Is a Gamble,” a touching tale of unrequited love not so much about loss but more a chance never taken. Joe adds just enough drawl in the vocal to make the tune ring true, yet the band make it their own with their energetic flair.
The album showcases how much traditional Pine Barrens and Appalachian music have in common, especially instrumentally with fiddle, banjo and mandolin, as well as shared Scotch-Irish-English roots. This is especially true of “The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad No. 78),” one of 304 ballads collected by Francis James Child in the 1800s. The lament of a young man who mourns his dead love so intensely that he disrupts her resting in peace dates back to the 1400s. The song survived the voyage to the Colonies, was passed down, and then was found by songcatchers in only three places in North America: Newfoundland, Kentucky, and Jackson, N.J. at Colliers Mills, which is featured on the cover of “Pine Barrens, Volume One.” Jackson Pines mixed the melody sung in 1930s Ocean County with a 1700s variant of the lyrics, and an arrangement of their own that gives a nod to Irish roots.
“Herdsman Hymn,” a fiddle & banjo duet written by James H. while he was in the late, great roots band Thomas Wesley Stern with Joe and James B., is the only original song on the album. Performed with Max, the arrangement is a tribute to The Pine Hawkers of the 1940s and what Ridgway Sr. called "kitchen table music,” said Joe, who was given written permission by Ridgway Jr.'s widow, Arlene Martin Ridgway, to record, perform, and speak about the Ridgway family music archive. In addition to Colliers Mill, which now is a part of the 1.14 million-acre New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, the album’s cover — well designed by Steve Omark — features a photo of the Ridgways and their friends the Brittons included in Dorothea Dix Lawrence’s 1959 “Folklore Songs of The United States.”
With an energetic full-band take, “Herdman Hymn” is reprised to close “Pine Barrens,” but first, Jackson Pines unearth a bit of fascinating Jersey Shore music history. “Beulah Land,” a hymn given a spiritual blues treatment by Mississippi John Hurt during the 1960s folk revival, actually was written in Ocean Grove in 1876 by a Philadelphia Methodist named Edgar Page Stites who was inspired by Isaiah 62:4 — “No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married.”
The hymn made its way from Methodist church to Methodist church until it found a home in the Black AME church where a young Mississippi John Hurt first heard it. Decades later, he recorded his unique version for his landmark 1966 album "Today!" Jackson Pines have brought the song back to Jersey, performing it live next door to Ocean Grove in Asbury Park at Sea.Hear.Now Festival and at Albert Music Hall in the Pine Barrens, through which Stites would travel from Philadelphia to Ocean Grove. Joe simultaneously pays tribute to Hurt on “Beulah Land” with an inspired country-blues guitar intro.
Recorded late last year at The BogHouse in Jackson, “Volume One” is an indication that there’ll be a “Volume Two.” I’ll feel like a kid at Christmas waiting for the follow-up. In the meantime, Jackson Pines have plenty of great gigs coming up.
Because of their rockin’ ways, the band sometimes had trouble getting booked into traditional folk festivals. But since the album’s release, they’ve landed their debut appearance at the New Jersey Folk Festival on April 29 at Rutgers University’s Douglass Campus in New Brunswick. Jackson Pines long have coveted a spot and finally have had their dream come true due to the impeccable work they’ve put into “Pine Barrens.”
They’ll also perform Feb. 16 at a SoFar Sounds show in Philadelphia; March 5, Beach Haus, Bradley Beach; March 11 at a Pine Barrens symposium at Stockton University, Galloway; March 22, Low Dive (formerly Asbury Park Yacht Club) with Little Hag; March 23, Georgian Court College’s Geis Art Gallery, Lakewood, and March 31, The Grape Room, Philadelphia.
For more about Jackson Pines, visit https://www.jacksonpines.com.