It's often said that music keeps you young. Besides engaging your ears and exercising your emotions, music can massage your memory, transporting you back to the time you first heard a particular song or album, serving as a ready reminder of a specific period of your life. And, arguably, no one knows this secret of eternal youth better than those of us who are musicians ourselves—the big kids who've never had to grow up and get real jobs. Except, perhaps, for the subset who actually make music for kids. That particular breed of musician has it doubly good. For not only do they get to stave off that, as Ian MacKaye called it, adult crash by spending time making noise with their peers, their profession also gives them license to run wild within the playground of their own inner child.
"I've always loved hanging out with musicians—musicians like to play, after all," says singer-songwriter and musical polymath Dean Jones. "I can get really ridiculous when I'm making music. I'm not afraid of making an ass of myself. I enjoy it."
If you've lived in the Hudson Valley for the last decade or so and have been going to gigs or listening to locally recorded music, you've very likely seen or heard Jones at play. An indispensable component of the scene, Jones, who specializes in trombone, keyboards, and vocals but easily holds his own on whatever other instrument he happens to pick up, has performed with dozens of bands. "For a little while there I was in eight bands at once," he says. The best known by far of all Jones's projects is the kids' music crew Dog on Fleas, which has released six albums that get heavy play on "kindie" radio and remains a favorite at street fairs and other family-friendly events. But Jones's membership in bands is just one facet of what he does. This, if you will, dean of Upstate music, is also a busy session player and Grammy-winning producer/engineer who has overseen and appeared on literally hundreds of recordings, as well as a solo artist who recently released his fourth album, the charming In My Dreams.
Jones, 50, had a Hudson Valley connection before he ever got here. The youngest of three children whose father worked for a wire-manufacturing firm, he was born and raised in rural Simcoe, Ontario, the hometown of The Band's Rick Danko. "It's a dinky, little town," he says. "I could walk to school, and the county fair happens there." His sister was into Queen and other classic rockers and his brother, a Beatles fan, played piano; Dean started lessons on the ivories at age eight, taking up trombone soon after. "My brother was kind of a klepto, and this trombone was one of the instruments that just 'showed up' in the house one day, so that's how I started with it," says Jones with a laugh. "I never excelled at piano lessons, but I understood theory and I could play by ear. My parents had a lot of interesting stuff in their record collection—Bach, Harry Belafonte, calypso. And in Toronto [an hour-and-a-half away] there was always great music going on." When Jones was in middle school, his father took a job in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the family moved there. "There was a really great college radio station nearby, and I'd listen to it late at night when I was supposed to be asleep," he recalls. "I'd keep notebooks under the covers and write down the names of the bands I heard, which was a lot of pretty out stuff, like Can." He started writing punk rock songs and had bands in high school with names like the Blue Cheese Hats and Lobster Illusion. "Besides just writing and playing songs, I was really into sound," says the studio maven. "I remember figuring out how to use a walkie-talkie set to amplify my acoustic guitar."
Upon enrolling at SUNY New Paltz in 1988 to major in communications, Jones felt an instant affinity for the region. "I saw that there was a lot of music and dance going on, a lot of people doing creative stuff," he says. "Plus there's the mountains!" Deciding to stick around after college, he went on to perform with such busy local bands as the Fighting McKenzies, Earmite, Big Sky Ensemble, and Uncle Buckle. In 2000 he founded Dog on Fleas, whose present lineup also includes drummer Chris Cullo and bassist (and current Rosendale Town Council member) John Hughes, shortly after he'd begun working as the one-man-band accompanist for Saugerties's magical Arm-of-the-Sea Theater puppet-and-mask troupe, a position he still holds. "It's a challenge, which is always fun," says Jones, who can be seen seated stage-side at the company's performances, playing a minimal drum kit, trombone, and other instruments, creating sound effects, and at times even narrating. "[The organizers] usually write the script first and bring me in later. It's really loose and I get to improvise a lot."
Somewhere along the way, Jones turned his passion for tinkering around with his four-track into a professional recording facility: No Parking Studios, so named because it abutted the entryway of the Rosendale Police Department. "There was also a guy named Whitey who lived next door and would get pissed if we peed near his trailer," the producer reminisces. "But being next to the police station meant the security was good." Nevertheless, in 2011, so as to give Whitey, the cops, and the bands he was working with more space, Jones and a group of musician-carpenter buddies willing to barter their services in exchange for recording time built the studio's present home, a straw-bale-constructed building in his Tillson back yard. One of the new facility's first client acts was the Minneapolis-based children's Americana duo the Okee Dokee Brothers.
"We were looking for a producer to take us out of our comfort zone and rough things up a bit with our music," says the group's singer and guitarist, Joe Mailander. "We heard about Dean and we knew he was really unconventional, that he focuses on energy and mood. He can really get inside a song and a boil it down to the simplest thing, to figure out what will make it sound the best. Working with him, it felt like we were really going out on a limb—and it was totally worth it." No doubt: The resulting album, Can You Canoe?, won a Grammy for Best Children's Album in 2013. "The whole thing was shocking," says Jones about getting the news of the award. "I hadn't even been paying attention at all to the Grammys and then I saw that people were posting about it on Facebook." Did he go to the awards ceremony? "Nah, that would've meant buying a suit and all that stuff." In the wake of Can You Canoe?, Jones has received three additional Grammy nominations, one for his further involvement with the Okee Dokee Brothers on 2014's Through the Woods (he also produced 2016's Saddle Up) and two for twiddling the knobs on 2015's Dark Pie Concerns by Gustafer Yellowgold and Trees by Molly Ledford and Bill Kelly. He also worked on the forthcoming Let All the Children Boogie, an all-ages David Bowie tribute album that will benefit LGBT youth advocacy group It Gets Better (a record release concert at Lincoln Center is planned for this month).
"One of the coolest things that ever happened to me was at this one time when I was playing a show with Arm-of-the-Sea," recounts Jones, a married father of two. "This person from the audience came up to me and said 'Hey, aren't you the guy from Dog on Fleas? I really love this one song you guys play and I listen to it with my kid every night at bedtime.' I can't remember what song it was [laughs], but that really hit me, how cool it was that I did something that inspires somebody and triggers something in them."
For Jones, after nearly 30 years in the Hudson Valley, what's the best thing about making and recording music for and with music kids of all ages? "I love it when we're working and all of sudden there's that ecstatic feeling of 'Oh my God—that's something I've never heard before!'" he says.
In My Dreams is out now. Dogonfleas.com.