If you know of him at all, you probably know Jack Rose as an expert contemporary guitarist in the Takoma school of folk music, who knew how to turn 10-plus minutes of acoustic solos into something at once ethereal and earthy. But Rose was also a talented character actor, and he knew how to play his role well. This is how it was when he first debuted with the noise group Pelt, in the ’90s and early 2000s, how it was when he collaborated with other groups along the way, and how it is here, with D. Charles Speer and Helix.
Rose passed away from a heart attack in December, at the age of 38. That fact lays an eerie sheen over this whole album and makes it tempting to view the music as more meaningful than it is. On first listen, I expected Ragged and Right to be some post-mortem call for redemption from beyond the grave. The title, of course, only adds to that expectation.
But that’s not what it is. Rather than a solemn portrait of a single talented artist, Ragged and Right is good, old-timey hoedown music that’s as much Rose as it is his partners, including Dave Shuford, better known as one of the guys behind No-Neck Blues Band. D. Charles Speer, it should be noted, is not a person, but rather a group that came together around listening to folk and bluegrass tunes on music historian David Freeman’s County record label.
Across these four songs Rose and company play a contemporary honky-tonk more in line with Waylon Jennings (the title seems to reference his “Somewhere Between Ragged and Right”) than either his or Shuford’s other outlets. Like all of Rose’s material, this album was recorded live in the summer of 2008, after these guys toured together that spring. And the recordings express that sense of lively raucousness across both covers and original material. Rose plays electric and lap-steel guitars here, instead of the acoustic, for which he’s more famous, and it’s easy to forget that you’re listening to one of the most talented guitarists in recent memory. All in all, it makes for an enjoyable, foot-stomping listen, perfect for barroom brawls and back-porch barbecues alike.
It’s too bad, perhaps, that Ragged and Right comes out now, as what seems like an epilogue to Rose’s life (another posthumous album, Luck in the Valley, was released in February to critical acclaim). This is not meant to be a sober introduction to his work (for those looking for one, I suggest the Peel sessions or Kensington Blues) but rather a couple of fun tracks recorded by a few dudes that liked to get together, drink some whiskey and play some tunes. Hell, the cover art is taken from a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so that ought to tell you something about the intended audience’s state of mind.
Jack Rose will long be remembered for the delicate way he played guitar, which followed in the tradition of John Fahey, Harris Newman and Robbie Basho yet was made all his own. Ultimately, the main feature of Ragged and Right is not his guitar, but that doesn’t make the album any less fun to listen to. Actually, it makes it more so.