By: Kevin Crandall
In 2009, Alejandro Rose-Garcia—better known by his music alias Shakey Graves—was gifted a 1932 Gibson L-7 guitar by a man named Jason 71, who he had met before a show through a mutual friend. That meeting marked the beginning of a blossoming career for one of today’s great Americana artists. Rose-Garcia’s latest release is a double album called Roll the Bones X—a reissue of his debut album to celebrate its ten year anniversary. The reissue adds a second disc full of odds and ends that provide the listener with a behind-the-curtains look into the sound of Shakey Graves, and the story of how it all came to be.
The illuminating crown jewel within the sprawling contents of Roll The Bones X is the tale of the haunted guitar, and how it set a mystical stage for Rose-Garcia’s brand of lo-fi folksy Americana. He details this story through a series of four interludes interspersed throughout the second disc of the album, providing musical treats in between each segment consisting of early demos and songs from the Shakey Graves vault.
The tale of the haunted guitar begins on The Night (Interlude), via a conversation between Rose-Garcia and Jason 71. Over a musty, reverberating guitar melody, Rose-Garcia details the fateful night in 2009 when he got high on mushroom chocolates with his friend Tommy, was introduced to Jason 71, and then proceeded to play a show that he describes as “one of the first times that I really felt like I…I was playing the kind of music I was writing in front of a crowd.” For Rose-Garcia, that moment was a musical awakening. The melody backing their conversation becomes more exploratory as the conversation goes on, mimicking the advancing high of the shrooms and the auspicious nature of the night. The interlude ends with Rose-Garcia mentioning the 1932 Gibson L-7 guitar for the first time; he starts laughing about how, at the time, Jason had “laid the heaviest shit” on him by recounting the guitar’s mystical history, before ultimately gifting the instrument to Rose-Garcia.
The second disc then churns through another song and demo, both showcasing Shakey Graves’ blend of blues, rock and folk overlaid with Rose-Garcia’s breathtaking tenor, before continuing the guitar’s origin story on The Haunted Guitar (Interlude). The history of that 1932 Gibson L-7 is documented by Jason 71 over an upbeat mix of chords and melodies that give the story an old American folk-tale feel. He begins with the question: “who is Jay Manley?” then quickly proceeds to answer that, to him, “Jay Manley was this guitar…this haunted guitar.” Jason then goes on to recount the tale of this legendary figure from his childhood—a jazz musician and his grandmother’s boyfriend who was well known and well liked in the Kansas City jazz scene.
Jay Manley was enlisted into World War II and ended up storming the beaches at Normandy (the day after his birthday nonetheless, Jason notes). Manley ended up wounded in a hospital that subsequently caught fire, and while it burned to the ground he dragged soldiers out one by one, ultimately—and heroically—saving thirty soldiers from the fire. Jason describes how the fire ultimately burnt his hands so badly that “in order to even play again he had to break the cartilage in his fingers every day.” This revelation is punctuated by a change in the guitar melody underneath, turning more intense and darker as the war hero struggles to play the music he loves. Jason then details Manley’s “prized possession,” the 1932 Gibson L-7 guitar that ended up in his possession after Manley’s passing. As Jason laments the man’s sad fate, he also wonders what the guitar would sound like played by someone who could do it justice. The interlude’s backing chords reach a sonic climax as Jason recounts seeing Rose-Garcia play and having an epiphany: “that’s the guy. That’s the guy who’s supposed to play the guitar.” The strumming then stops and the melody fades away as the guitar’s origin story ends.
Rose-Garcia again interlays a few demos and cuts before delving into his time with the legendary guitar in The Teacher (Interlude). Speaking over a mellow picking pattern, he describes the struggles he had when first attempting to play the 1932 Gibson L-7: “that guitar did not want to be played by me initially…it would, like, dive out of tune.” He speaks of the guitar as a living, breathing thing—the continuation of the life of Jay Manley. Rose-Garcia goes on to discuss how he finally decided to let the guitar go free and fall into the tuning that it wanted to be in, rather than be constrained by a classic structure. Once he did that, he exclaimed that the guitar would never go out of the tuning it chose and that when he played it, “it sort of felt like my hand was being jerked around” by the strings. The spectral tune, supernaturally crafted, turned into the song Roll the Bones, the namesake of the original album and the reissue. Rose-Garcia claims that other songs on the double album, such as Built to Roam and Late July, were also written this way. These supernatural affairs and literal ghostwriters are part of what make Shakey Graves truly unique; after all, how many other artists can say they have been taught by a haunted guitar?
Keeping with the flow of the story, the track that follows is a demo version of Roll the Bones titled Saving Face. The haunted guitar and Rose-Garcia’s voice meld together perfectly to create a beautiful and soothing acoustic duet. The guitar picking here showcases the haunting melody that Jay Manley infused into the guitar, which allows Rose-Garcia to simply let the guitar play as it pleases.
On the final track, The Shepard (Interlude), Rose-Garcia zooms out and laments on creation, Jay Manley, the haunted guitar, and his career. Backing the ruminations with a soft drum beat under a classic Shakey Graves dusty guitar melody, he touches on how he approaches music, saying that “all the songs that I’ve written I feel like I’ve just captured out of the wild.” These songs, he believes, were meant to be, and without Jay Manley’s guitar he would not have been able to capture them. He then discusses how the flow of life led him to meet Jason 71, and that the same flow led Jay Manley to do all the things that he did within his incredible life. He muses on how, at the end of the day, there’s really no separation between the past and the present, at least not the way he sees it. The instrumentals then shift to a happier reminiscence as Rose-Garcia discusses how these wonderful, fortuitous moments have led to the writing of his music and to the creation of the quintessential Shakey Graves sound. He ends the track—and the album—with a sense of gratitude. Through laughter, he exclaims “it’s craziness! But it’s our craziness, and we all share that, and that may be my favorite thing of all, those echoing voices through time.”
Shakey Graves has mystified and entertained crowds with his Americana musical blend for over a decade. With the release of Roll the Bones X, the origin of his beautiful, haunting melodies has been unearthed and displayed for all to hear. The history behind that 1932 Gibson L-7 guitar, and the man whose lifeblood seems to continue to breathe within it, is remarkable. It’s a delight to be able to hear that history from the man who has been carrying on Jay Manley’s legacy.
Check out Roll the Bones X by Shakey Graves, out now on all major streaming platforms. Purchase on Bandcamp to directly support the artist.
*Photo credit: Cal Quinn