Features, Print July 14, 2022

The Bones of J.R. Jones: Desert Rhythms and Dancing Through the Blues

by Gabe Allen

To Jonathon Robert Linaberry, AKA The Bones of J.R. Jones, “Dance Yrself Clean” is more than the cryptic title of an LCD Soundsystem hit. It is an instruction. One that he followed, with both excitement and some trepidation, while filming the music video for “Stay Wild,” the lead song on his 2021 EP A Celebration. In the video, J.R. skids his truck to a halt on the side of a country road. Leaving a bottle of whiskey behind on the dash, J.R. basks in the glow of headlights and dances like no one is watching. 

“The movement that I was trying to capture is, like, having a knot in your stomach that needs to be released,” J.R. tells BandWagon. “I love to dance, even though I’m not any good at it. To me, it’s the purest form of expression because it’s just your body and you can let everything out.”

The song comes even further to life at J.R.’s live shows. He hits play on a hooky drum machine and bass loop, jangles a lazy slide guitar riff over top and starts singing. His shoulders heave forward and back as the melody slips between his lips like a branch in a river.

The Bones of J.R. Jones – photo by Laura Dart

In June, J.R. will traverse Colorado from South to North starting with a July 19 show in Telluride and ending with shows at the Moxi in Greeley on July 22 and Schmiggity’s in Steamboat on the 23. Though the bluesman has spent nearly his entire life in New York state, he has a soulful connection to the West. He wrote A Celebration (his latest release) during his honeymoon. Eschewing an archetypal tropical vacation, J.R. and his wife, writer Lisa Przystup, embarked on an unhurried romp through the desert.

The opening loop of “Stay Wild” is both the first thing a listener hears on A Celebration and the first fragment of music that J.R. created for the album. One night, in a lone house in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, the riff bubbled up from J.R.’s subconscious.

“There was nothing around for miles. You opened up the sliding door and it was just desert — not even a fence,” he remembered. “It struck a chord with me. I’m still trying to figure out why.”

The rest of the album followed suit. When J.R. returned home from his honeymoon, he set about organizing a collection of half-written songs, synthetic drum and bass loops and acoustic riffs into a cohesive collection. The result is an album that mixes programmed downtempo beats with soulful acoustic blues compositions. It’s just the right blend of tradition and the unexpected.

BandWagon Presents The Bones of J.R. Jones in Colorado July 20, 21 and 22 – click here for tickets – Photo by Christian Harder

J.R.’s life as a touring bluesman came later than some. In his late 20’s, he was living in Brooklyn, bartending and teaching at a pre-school. He had a masters degree in printmaking, but the medium was quickly being usurped by digital alternatives. Still, he needed a creative outlet. 

A few years before, J.R.’s college roommate had introduced him to a song that made him fall in love with the blues. It was Blind Lemon Jefferson, a 1920’s singer and guitarist who is sometimes credited as the “Father of the Texas Blues.”

“I had never heard that raw, gritty passion in anything else,” he said. “It just kind of leveled me.”

From then on, J.R. spent his in-between time — in between work, school, relationships and everything else — playing the blues. By the early 2010’s, he was a regular at Brooklyn open mics and bar gigs. 

“There were a lot of DIY venues that popped up in loft spaces or garages. They were perfect for the type of music I was playing,” he explained. “All you needed was a condenser microphone, a picnic table and a cooler of PBR.”

Music as a career felt like a far off dream, but a local recording engineer took an interest in the backroom troubadour and produced his first album. Word began to spread, and soon he was touring all over the country.

Flip through the full July issue of BandWagon Magazine – click here.

A decade later, J.R.’s career in music still feels precarious at times. His lead songs may have millions of streams on Spotify, but gone is the album era when artists could make good money off of records. For now, J.R. is thankful to have enough financial backing to tour with a drummer this summer.

“You never know when the bottom is gonna drop out. I could be back to bartending or teaching at any moment,” he said. “Sometimes I struggle to accept it, but this is what I love. It’s going to make me happy even though it’s going to be 1,000 times harder and may not even work out in the end.”

Penniless or prosperous, J.R. will play the blues. And he’ll keep dancing too. That’s what “Stay Wild” is really about. It’s easy to dance when you’re happy, but just as important to dance when you’re struggling with life’s most irksome questions.

“It’s about being open to what is happening in the world around you, even the shitty or terrifying things,” J.R. said. “Just don’t overthink it.”

BandWagon Presents The Bones of J.R. Jones Wednesday, July 20 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs, Thursday July 21 at The Black Buzzard in Denver and Friday, July 22 at the Moxi Theater in Greeley. Tickets on sale now at BandWagonPresents.com