“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he might have been talking about Nashville guitarist and songwriter Jordan Tice. Over 15 years, the 33-year-old has released six albums as a solo artist or bandleader, and if you’re looking for predictable sounds, you’ve come to the wrong catalog. It’s all generally in acoustic roots, but the widely varied expressions suggest a restless mind.
“I would say that is constantly changing and expected to keep changing,” Tice told me in a December interview you can hear in full below. “I mean, it really comes down to radically changing interests and listening habits.”
As his newest, the Fall 2020 release Motivational Speakeasy came together, Tice’s ears were tuned to the greats of the solo acoustic guitar, from the early bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt to English mystics such as Bert Jansch to Americana folk pioneers like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. He had been planning another string band record, a minor variation on the ideas laid down in 2016’s Horse County. But as he workshopped new songs, his producer, Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, suggested something more terse and self-contained.
“He pointed out that if I could really kind of tighten (my guitar parts) up and lean on those, they're actually quite full, you know, quite complete. And he really encouraged me to see what I could do solo. We went to see Leo Kottke together at the City Winery. And he was like, ‘You could do that, or your own version of that.’”
For the unfamiliar, we’re talking about an approach to the guitar that brings technically complicated right and left hand technique to the emotional terrain of blues and folk. The picking thumb keeps a bass line moving, while the other fingers stay even busier, making spider webs of counterpoint, clutching and grabbing strings in percussive clusters, brushing strings with fingernails for shimmering sounds, and more. Tice says this school grew out of old ragtime approaches to the blues and into “lead line type things, like a lot of musical moves derived from piano. I would say maybe that's the type of playing that that I really appreciate.”
On Motivational Speakeasy, this six-string finger dance stands out on “Walkin’,” which ripples along at more of a jogging pace, while Tice chants a talking blues bearing witness to change, large and small. “It seems the whole world was created by a ramblin’ mind,” he observes, following a tour-de-force guitar solo. The instrumental “Ghost Story” has outstanding harmonic motion, floating in its approach between formal classical guitar and Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen. “Bad Little Idea” has a floating, cheerful quality that belies the sardonic, tongue-challenging verbiage about a relationship falling apart.
Tice grew up in Annapolis, MD with parents who were both bluegrass musicians. After dabbling in some rock bands, he got captivated by the acoustic scene at the festivals his folks attended, both the intensity of musicianship and the community that supported it. That context easily explains the Tony Rice-inspired flatpicking and newgrass tone of his first two discs in 2006 and 2008 respectively. At the same time, Tice studied jazz guitar and then majored in composition at Towson State University. That background is what led to the intimate, spell-casting neo-classical sound of his album The Secret History in 2011, an instrumental trio album featuring guitar, bass and hammered dulcimer. He’s also been an active sideman, supporting bluegrass searchers like Frank Wakefield and Tony Trischka and Americana stars including The Duhks and the Dave Rawlings Machine.
A move to Nashville in 2015 synched up with his growing partnership with that very bass player, Paul Kowert (of Punch Brothers), and fiddler Brittany Haas, which grew into the acclaimed instrumental quartet Hawktail, which has released two LPs and had a touring head of steam before Covid. While the solo Speakeasy release suggests the limits of self-quarantine in 2020, it was actually conceived and recorded in 2019, merely the next idea among many. We get into all this in the conversation below.