Within the songs of Justin Jones are stories from a life lived long enough to know heartache, loneliness, addiction, and lost love. But the 29-year-old Virginia native has not lost touch with a youthful spirit that imbues his music: raw excitement, romance, and optimism.
"Even the sad songs," he says, "have a sort of romantic hope in them."
None of it is out of character for a man who’s blazing a path for himself in a business where a passable road is hard to come by. Justin Jones’ career began with the musical gifts he inherited from his parents growing up in Rawley Springs, Va. His mother was a singer and actress, and his stepfather was leader of the acclaimed local blues band Tough Luck. By 14, Jones was writing his own songs on acoustic guitar. After a few years playing for drunks in dive bars of North Carolina, Jones migrated to Washington, D.C., in 2002, where he began playing small clubs with just a guitar and a harmonica. At one such show, he dazzled local producer Larry Packer, who invited Jones to record at his studio for free because he so impressed with the songs. Jones released "Blue Dreams," the result of that one-day, stripped-down session, in 2004. Its first pressing was financed by $1,000 from good friend Jackie Grimmer, who, like Larry Packer, also firmly believed in Jones’ talent.
As Jones played around Washington and other East Coast cities on the I-95 circuit, he graduated to bigger and bigger venues, and his following grew. Listeners who heard Jones’ music were touched on a deeper level. Jones tells of one very special moment in 2005 when a young woman approached him after a show to tell him about a phone call she'd just made after hearing him sing "You Ain't Around," a song about his deceased stepfather. Through tears, she explained she hadn't spoken to her own father in six years but decided to break the silence that night because she'd been so moved by Jones' song. It's Jones' favorite story from his 15 years in music and the sort of revelation that keeps him going.
"Anytime you connect emotionally with someone through a song, that's what it's all about," he says. "That's the thing that's greatest about music. "
As Jones became more known in Washington music circles, he hooked up with other talented musicians and by 2006 eventually had enough cohorts to field a full band, complete with a drums, bass, a horn section, keyboards, a female vocalist, and occasionally banjo. Justin Jones & the Driving Rain was fully introduced through his 2006 album, “Love Versus Heroin.” The project increased Jones’ fan base exponentially and enabled the frontman to stretch out in new ways musically. A follow-up in 2008, “… And I Am the Song of the Drunkards,” cemented the band’s reputation. Critics were wowed, and the band was nominated for two Washington Area Music Awards.
While most of Jones’ style is rooted in traditional country, some songs veer toward folk, bluegrass, rock, and hillbilly soul. Influences range from George Jones and Townes Van Zandt to Van Morrison and D’Angelo. Critics are eager to liken him to contemporaries like Ryan Adams, Jakob Dylan, and early Wilco.
Jones has yet another album in the works and is ready to make this one with a major producer. New ideas for lyrics and melodies are constantly swirling around in his head. His songwriting has matured as his life has moved more solidly into adulthood as he navigates the challenges of supporting his wife and daughter as a professional musician. Despite the ups and downs of a musical career, Jones still hangs on to that romantic hope.