Ryan Morrill for The Sandpaper

Makin Waves with Jackson Pines: ‘Ghosts Still Laugh’

My favorite Jersey band are Jackson Pines because they embody so much of what I love about music. They’re rootsy, but they jam. They’re poetic, but they rock. They’re so Jersey, but their energetic brand of folk music has garnered national attention. 

To touch on all those points, they are actually two bands. One is a very traditional folk outfit that plays strictly curated folk festivals, as well as libraries and other musicological settings. The other is a roots-rockin’ bar band who can rattle the collective spine of a place like The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, Jackson Pines’ longtime stomping grounds alongside the namesake native ground of co-founding singer-songwriter-guitarist-harmonicist Joseph Thomas Makoviecki and upright bassist James Black. 

Always a duo at their core, Jackson Pines also work as a trio with drummer-mandolinist Cranston Dean, one of Jersey’s best singer-songwriters in his own right; a quartet with banjoist-flutist Max Carmichael, winner of the 2023 Makin Waves Award for Best Instrumentalist, and a quintet with fiddler-ukulelist James Herdman.

Jackson Pines also won Makin Waves Awards for 2023’s Album of the Year for Pine Barrens Volume One a fantastic collection of folk songs native to the Jersey Pinelands, as well as last year’s Best Live Band, plus 2019’s Song of the Year for “Radio Kid” from their second EP, Gas Station Blues & Diamond Rings. The band recently recorded two forthcoming albums, Pine Barrens Volume Two, which continues to mine the musical treasure of the Jersey Pinelands, and Wheel, their third original LP since 2017, featuring latest single, “Control Burn.” A metaphor for the loss of Joe’s mom five years ago, the powerful, poignant song released on the day of the recent earthquake.

Before Jackson Pines, Joe and James were in the prolific roots-rock band Thomas Wesley Stern, which released four albums in as many years from 2011 to 2015. After nearly more than a decade making waves with some of the best folk music Garden State ears could hope to hear, Joe and James finally were invited to play New Jersey Folk Festival last year thanks largely in part to the strength of Pine Barrens Volume One.

I talked with Joe about all that Jackson Pines have accomplished and have planned, along with his personal accomplishments of being a new father and a newly published poet. His first book of poetry, Hornpipe & Other Poems, was published in August, a couple of months before his wife Andrea gave birth to their first child, Thomas Robert.

With two albums and a bunch of tasty shows coming up, neither Joe nor Jackson Pines have slowed down a bit. On May 16, Philadelphia Folk Festival will present Jackson Pines with The Jersey Corn Pickers at The Fallser Club in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. The band will perform two shows on May 18. At 6:00 p.m., they’ll participate in a Pete Seeger tribute concert at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation in White Plains, New York, which also will feature Guthrie’s Ghost, Aras, and David Bernz, two-time Grammy-winning Seeger producer, as well has his most recent biographer. Then at 9:00 p.m., Jackson Pines will play Jersey Fest at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City with Natalie Farrell, Surfing for Daisy, Reese Van Riper, and The Vaughns. 

Their schedule also includes June 1, Revilla Grooves and Gear in Milltown for a matinee with Kate Dressed Up, followed by an evening show the same day at Low Dive in Asbury Park; June 16, Ardmore Music Hall in Pennsylvania.; July 20 at Albert Music Hall in Waretown, and August 29 at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park with Hunter Root as part of Nectar’s Asbury Jams series. In the meantime, enjoy the following chat with the Makin Waves April Artist of the Month. 

How did Pine Barrens Volume One impact Jackson Pines?

It showed us there really is an interest and want for regional music beyond the most lauded regions in American folk music. Those musics are all amazing, but they get most of the attention, and the fact that radio stations in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Plains, the South, and NYC/Philly were interested in spinning a track like “Mt. Holly Jail” showed us something important. 

We were recently featured on NPR Music performing that song live on WXPN’s The Folk Show. That was a bucket list milestone for us – something we’ve dreamed of since we were teenagers. The fact we got to do it, while interpreting a folk song related by Oliver Minney to Herbert Halpert in Wrightstown, New Jersey, in 1936 makes everything feel full circle.

How will Pine Barrens Volume Two will impact the band?

I can’t say. Some may like it; others will probably scratch their heads, but that’s the point. This music existed and still does. Anywhere folks live, there’s folk music to be had.

You know, we didn’t talk about this last year, but Volume One was considered by one of our dream record labels, and eventually they passed on it. It was a big deal. We found out they said no the day we were in the studio recording the song “Wheel.” We were really proud of that rejection. The fact that this label (that we still dream of working with one day) listened hard, said they liked it, but ultimately couldn’t put it out, meant we were doing something worth continuing. We never made that record to get signed or do a big release anyway – I mean, it’s so specific to Ocean and Burlington counties, but the fact they even considered it for a day or two? If there had been any doubt whether we would continue to make volumes two and three, they were permanently gone… even though they said no.

And then we recorded “Wheel” moments after that. I think it came out better for it.

What inspired the new single, “Control Burn”?

My mom died five years ago. Last year, I drove by her old house where someone else lives now and smelled the burning of the Pines, the prescribed burning that destroys the underbrush to clear a path for new life, and the song was born when I got home. 

We recorded it in James’ house on a quiet night this February after practice. It was mixed by Tyler Sarfert and mastered by Dana Yurcisin of Yawn Mower and Dana Why. We’re so happy with how it sounds. It’s my favorite vocal sound on a song of ours in years.

Any other recordings on which Jackson Pines are working?

We just finished recording Pine Barrens Volume Two a couple of weeks ago, so that’s in post-production. We recorded it live at James’ Boghouse in Jackson over two days. We recorded between three and nine takes each, so now we’re picking ones we like best and mixing them. It’ll be out this summer.

Besides that, we are finishing our next full-length album of original songs called Wheel, which “Control Burn” is the latest single from. We usually record albums in one session and love that, but this album is different because we’re recording every song one at a time. We’ve never done that before as this band, and it’s been great for us and the songs this time around.

Do you have any special guests on either forthcoming album?

Yeah, we always have some friends and folks sit in. Simone and James Felice on “Purgatory Road,” are Erik Romero, Mike Linardi, and Santo Rizzolo on the EPs. Santo and Ro Karunaratne are on “Close to Home”’ James Herdman and Max Carmichael on Volume One? We’ll have those two on Volume Two as well. And our previous single, “Hammer,” features an arresting saxophone performance by Scott Grimaldi. There will probably be some more. Ya’ never know who may join us next time!

Your New Jersey Folk Festival debut last year was a gig long time coming and long overdue. What did you like most about playing the New Jersey Folk Festival last year for the first time and why?

Meeting the people. Talking to everyone. It’s such an honor. It’s a wonder it exists at all, and we’re glad it does. Playing it and headlining were added bonuses. 

Angus Gillespie started it almost 50 years ago, and if not for him, we would never know about the traditions that we now take part in when we play these songs around and out of the country. He recorded Merce Ridgway Jr.’s band in the eighties and we learned most of these old Pine Barrens songs from that tape, so it’s all one big confluence of people who care about making sure these things aren’t forgotten, and we’re just one link in that chain, extending another hand toward the future. When we played last year, we were on the Angus Gillespie Stage. That was special.

This year’s NJFF is April 27 at Rutgers U. We urge everyone to go! We’ll won’t be there this year, but will be in the future. 

What has been Jackson Pines’ greatest accomplishment and why?

Doing things our own way and never letting pressures determine what we’re going to do with our music and our creative decisions. That and still doing this, 20 years post-garage bands and childhood dreams, and loving it now more than I ever have. We have one rule: Family first, music just behind. Everything else comes after that.

Jackson Pines are primarily a duo – singer-songwriter Joe Makoviecki and upright bassist James Black – but the band also can be a four-piece with drummer-mandolinist Cranston Dean, who is one of New Jersey’s best singer-songwriters in his own right, and guitarist-banjoist-flautist Max Carmichael. What is the difference between the duo and the quartet and why?

Just who is playing on a given night. It’ll always be James and me, the songs don’t change very much, and the sets are almost the same, except sometimes when I’m solo and pull out some wildcards. It depends on what the concert is able to offer, and sometimes how many of us they request. We are at heart a duo – that’s the core of the band, how it began. However, we’re almost always at least a trio now, and if I could have it my way, I’d have the whole five-piece with James Herdman on fiddle and uke at every show, and at least the four-piece if not. Concerts are still recovering from the last four years. Things have improved in the last two years, though, and you’ll see the four-piece a lot more often this year.

Compare Jackson Pines, the educational folk act who play folk festivals and libraries to the folk-rock group who play the Pony.

The only thing that really changes is the percentage of songs from our catalog and the folk repertoire. At some shows, we’ll play 60% original and 40% of the Pine Barrens folk material, but at a specific gig – say the Pine Barrens Short Course at Stockton U or headlining the New Jersey Folk Festival. At a concert like that, usually with a set from 90 to 120 minutes, we’ll do more 50/50, with talk between some of the songs about their origins.

At the Pony or opening for a big band like Old Crow Medicine Show at Starland [Ballroom], you’ll probably get more of a 60/40 breakdown with Cranston on drums/vox and a lot less talking between. We’ll also carry some electric instruments that we sometimes forgo in different spaces, but other than that, we don’t change our approach or what we play.

Why is American roots music and the opportunity to share it important to you?

We grew up loving The Band and [Bob] Dylan and Joan Baez and wondered, “How did they come up with the music they played?” It leads you down a road to Elizabeth Cotten and Bessie Smith, to Woody Guthrie and then The Carter Family and then to even older songs. To find a history of real folk music from our home county of Ocean, New Jersey, and to learn these songs and record them again – some for the first time – it’s just a lucky twist of fate, really. Merce Jr.’s wife and widow, Arlene, gave us her blessing, and so we just feel so blessed, you know?

How and why is Woody Guthrie important to Jackson Pines?

He cared about telling stories, specifically the stories of everyday people. His songs were hard to commercialize. We play his songs often, but one we play live more than any other is “I Ain’t Got No Home.” It’s not that we feel that way, but because we’ve seen, met, and gotten to know many people along the road who feel that way every day. We sing it for them, like Woody wrote it for them. I think of John from Mike’s Grill in Columbus, Ohio. The guy with the bandages on his hands in London. Michael in Manayunk. Friends we lost along the way, too.

Because as an American, “I Ain’t Got No Home” is an unofficial anthem. He connects the Carter Family to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, to Justin Townes Earle, and now to Adia Victoria, Tyler Childers, and beyond.

Is Bruce Springsteen an influence on Jackson Pines?

We were raised up in the “Jackson Cage.” I ponder that song monthly. What does it really mean? We spent more than one summer hanging out in the woods at night on the dark side of Route 88, which is in Lakewood. How could we not be [fans of Springsteen]? He’s our Virgil, leading us down into the depths of Hell, so that we may come out clean on the other side in Purgatory, so that by the very grace of that odyssey we may one day dream of a heaven we can attain. He sings about that! He’s also our Dylan, our [Kurt] Cobain, our [Walt] Whitman – someone from the old homeland who proved it could be done the hard way, with dignity.

I know, I know… but it’s how I really feel! It may sound stereotypical, but there’s no higher priest of songcraft, soul, nor artistic integrity than The Boss. Someone told me he’s heard my voice. I hope it’s not true. I wouldn’t be able to sing under that kind of pressure, but you gotta believe that whether we’re driving to Montreal on the Adirondack Northway, sailing on the Irish Sea, or just cruising on 195 East from Jackson to play in Asbury, we’re putting on “Devils and Dust,” “Darkness,” or “Tunnel of Love.” It’s a holy ritual.

The sax on “Hammer,” and the way some of the songs swing, it’s in there whether we intended it or not, such is the genetic memory of growing up where we did when we did, caring about things like songs, guitars, and dreams. Yrah, we’re under the influence of Bruce. There’s no denying.

How did growing up there in Jackson influence the musical direction of your bands?

We grew up in a cluster of towns that had a massive local scene. I’m talking hundreds of bands in the aughts or 2000s. I remember hearing Lucked Out’s song “Tractor Boy” on mp3.com for the first time when I was like 13. “So… we can record, too?” I’ve never stopped since. From bedroom albums on a Fostex MR-8 to big studios, and back into the home. 

There were shows at the Lutheran Church Hall, Prince of Peace, in Howell, the Italian-American Club in Jackson, Clarksburg Inn in Millstone, Blackbeard’s Cave in Bayville, and even a show at the Pizza Hut on Route 9. (That was an epic one.) Brick, New Egypt, Freehold, Toms River, Red Bank, Manchester, everywhere had shows, and it ran the gamut from punk, emo, metal, rock, hip-hop, folk, indie, to whatever kids were doing at the time.

More than anything, growing up there instilled us with a belief we could be musicians if we just practiced and got out there and played some damn shows. So many musicians in NJ, Philly, and NYC started in that scene, and not surprisingly many of the ones who never gave up do really cool things now all over the country and world. 

If you’ve never heard of it, check out the NJ Pop Punk Archive on Soundcloud to hear dozens and dozens of the bands from NJ that populated that era of early, pre-social media, DIY culture.

How and why has WXPN been good to Jackson Pines?

I guess they see something in us. I’m not sure. The legendary DJ Helen Leicht discovered us when we put our first album out and spun ‘Purgatory Road’ years ago. She really went to bat for us and helped us get shows at World Cafe and featured us at the Philadelphia Folk Festival when she got to run a stage. It started there and has grown into friendships with DJs John Vettese and Ian Zolitor, the latter of whom hosts the aforementioned Folk Show. They’re a mighty station, and we appreciate everything they do to get our music out there.

Why is Albert Hall important to Jackson Pines, all of New Jersey, and folk / old-time music?

Every culture needs a repository for its crafts. Whether its shipbuilding, carpentry, horticulture, or music. Albert Music Hall in Waretown is part museum, part live music venue, where the history and artifacts of Pine Barrens folk, country, and bluegrass music lives. We started playing there as Thomas Wesley Stern in 2011 when Ray Everett, the building’s architect, invited us, and we’ve played a few times a year since. May he rest in peace. Now the stage is named after him. They’re family, and it’s become our Grand Ole Opry, just like The Stone Pony is our mini Madison Square Garden. They both feel like home court. Last year we made a PBS documentary about our band, Albert Hall’s history, and how we intertwine.

We’ll be back at Albert Music Hall on July 20, and in the Autumn at their 50th Celebration.

Hornpipe & Other Poems is your first book of poetry. What is theme of the book?

It consists of one long poem – about 75 pages – and 20 shorter, more traditional length poems. It kind of asks, “What if you could see multiple time periods at once and experience them all as if you were a timeless particle? Would your whole life and family history make more or less sense?” And then a handful of short poems as one would expect.

How is your poetry similar to your songwriting? How and why is it different?

Both have something to do with my underlining beliefs, loves, and inspirations, but they are not very similar. Lyrics can be poetic and poetry can be lyrical, but the two are as different as a novel and a car manual. In my poetry there are almost no rhymes, and the rhythms are far more complex and can meander in and out of time. In our music, lyrics are pretty regular rhythmically, mainly because of our influences. Many songwriters write poetry. Whether it’s like their lyrics, depends on the artist; Leonard Cohen, Jewel… I’m not the judge.

Will you be publishing a second book of poetry?

It’s possible. Open to agents and publishers of integrity and wit – preferably from Carbondale or Paramus.

Has fatherhood changed your approach to songwriting?

Somehow, but I don’t know how yet. That may become more clear as I look back on songs I write now, like with other ones from years ago. I did write and record two instrumental albums of acoustic guitar duets the month before he was born. One called “Somersault” is secretly out now everywhere under walnford on Tidalwave and Stainify. The other is one of lullabies I made just for him.  I’ll probably never show those to anyone, so he can have something that is his and his alone when he grows up.

Are there any shows Jackson Pines are doing not yet listed on your website?

No. Well… maybe. Everything is always at jacksonpines.com. We prefer people go there, because everything we do from recordings to special podcasts and videos, news, dates, booking – it’s all there, and it’s easier to find than using a social media app. Add us on Instagram, too, to help us book shows and woo bizbros, of course.

Do you have any solo shows or poetry readings coming up?

I’ll be at Fergie’s in Philadelphia soon – keep an eye on our website. I just played a few solo shows, but for the rest of spring, it’s band shows, whether it’s the trio or the full band. We can’t wait.