I started listening to country blues and delta blues in high school. Back then while kids were grinding to Destiny’s Child, J-Lo and Ja Rule I was in sculpture class spinning my Lead Belly “Alabama Bound” tape til it started fizzing out and one kid asked me, wincing, “You actually listen to this shit?” My fascination with the Lomaxes was just budding. Soon I was ripping the Library of Congress recordings from libraries in Memphis near the college I attended and then later in Boston as well. I fell in love with the out of whack teams of axes chopping behind burning black voices, the chain gangs, loners, drifters, singing farm hands and highway men. When I found out that I was chosen to be a writer for the American Music Project last spring I lit up. I knew this was my chance to not just listen to the Lomaxes but actually become one. I bought several DVD’s and books to add to my collection and consumed them. I adopted their ‘Cultural Equity’ approach and set out to explore the music I was covering not according to the music alone but according to the people it represented. My interest for the legacy peaked. So when I met Bill Wence at his SXSW promotional table and he gave me John Lomax III’s email, I was baffled. It felt serendipitous. A few months later I’m driving to his house, it felt momentous, like I had come full circle.
If you’ve lived in a complete music culture vacuum you may not know who the Lomax’s are. Maybe that’s unfair. I have to channel my inner abrasiveness though. The Lomaxes are direct, edgy, aggressive people, in the best way. John and Alan Lomax, father and son, scoured the south in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s with a portable tape recorder, exploring prisons, plantations, farms and levee camps and discovered original roots musicians Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell, Son House, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, among others -the true progenitors and now myths of the music. They even helped pardon Lead Belly, from his third prison sentence. Had this family not existed the after effect could have been devastating. Having found so much music crucial to our ground and core, who knows, groups that thrived off of roots music like the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, CCR might have been very different, if anything at all. The Lomaxes contribution is immense. They almost single handedly preserved the quintessentially American music that is the basis for everything we know and listen to today.
‘Great Black Shit’
John Lomax III is a little different from his predecessors though. He carries out all the same Lomax principles but he’s too skeptical, too curious, too heady to be totally under the thumb of somebody else. So he does things his own way, with his own resources. That’s what makes him a good character. He produced, managed, wrote for multiple magazines, he brought to light hugely important artists but he did it for him self, for what he loved and he did it all with his own glue and gumption.
We walk up his driveway, the garage door is open and breathing, the garage is lined with a few tables with thousands of CD’s. Lomax is a music collector and exporter and he runs an overseas distributor of obscure and niche music called Roots Music Exporters. He is an enigma of sorts. His disposition can be grey but his words are fierce and meaningful. He’s negative and cynical in speech and yet his actions are warm and sweet. He brings us down to his office in his finished basement. The green and yellow of summer blur through the bleached windows. Down here is also filled with more CD’s as well as huge cardboard boxes with records, books, family photos and scrapbook photos of blues and folk legends on the wall.
I sink into the small wool couch. Eric and James sit to the side. He is across from me in his office chair. I am nervous before he and the Lomax name. He is quiet but totally unflustered. I get the note pad out and turn on the iPhone recorder. I begin by asking him about his family, a question he probably dreads after a while. In his groggy southern voice he speaks slowly -everything is matter of fact with a tinge of bitterness- but it and his face burst up and move in great moments of mockery and humor.
Lomax arose in a crucial, momentous, changing time in music history. While he was surrounded by his father’s Houston Folklore society which met in public parks and people’s houses, where “everyone got to sing, no matter how wrecked they were”, you can imagine little John III sitting, picking the grass, waiting for the tipsy adults to head home, waiting for something real that sparks him, draws him in, gives him purpose. Black music was that bug. “Transistor radio came along about that time. Rock n’ Roll, the commercialization of what became known as Rock ‘n Roll roll -white people playing black music with a new name on it”, he clarifies, “came along in ’55 or ’56 and I fell in love.” Though his family were the champions and crusaders of folk music, that only made it stale to him. The late 50’s and 60’s had more in store for itself than railroad ballads and farm hymns. John latched on to the radical music that was climbing out of the roots form. We call it rock and roll. To him, it’s the white interpretations of ‘great black shit’.
“I remember very distinctly when I first got completely turned on to rock, it was about 1955 and I was in a summer camp and they had a P.A. playing a local radio station for the pool and all the kids were out swimming in the middle of summer in Houston, hot as it could be. They were playing hits of the day and back before Bill Haley what you’d hear on pop radio was just boring saccharine. “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” -kind of junk stuff that was not about to connect with adolescents. We were all there swimming and playing and then “Rock Around The Clock” came on and then for two minutes and twelve seconds every kid that went off the diving board danced. Every single one, instead of just running and jumping, they danced their way off and I said, ‘Man, I know there must be something to this’. Anything that could do this had to be cool. It was just a visceral thing that was missing in music till then. That beat -it rocked!”, he holds his fist like a gavel in the air. “And we weren’t able to hear that before. Well, unless you were really into music and not many were at ten or eleven and went over to the radio and found black stuff. This was just an entire new universe to you when Bill Haley came along.”
With one Bill Haley song the Lomax path alters and one eleven year old boy is suddenly caught by a strange new flame, much different than anything his parents and grandparents prescribed. “From that point on I was more interested in rock so we had the transistor radio and listened to it all night. You could pick up stations all over the place. There wasn’t much out there compared to all the stations today but all these A.M. stations had monster signals and you could pickup Fort Worth, you could even pick up Nashville because they were 50,000 watt clear channel transmitters!”
“I just got into it and then I started going to shows a little bit. Once I got to be old enough to have a car I went wherever I wanted to go. I was fearless. I’d go over into the black part of town and hang out and be the only white person in there. You learn pretty quickly: you leave the women alone, of course, but see if you can figure out who the nastiest meanest mother fucker is and buy him a drink. Once they see you’re there for the music -I’ve never had any trouble being a white person at a black joint but I’ve been jumped being a white person in a white psychedelic nightclub.” He raises his voice spewing out the irony and then laughs long enough that me and the boys start looking at each other and smiling too. He’s not just interviewing, he’s reliving his childhood and it’s fun to watch.
“So I would just go around and hear music and dig it and listen to music at home. Everything I listened to back then was black stuff: James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, Bo Diddley, you know cause that stuff had real muscle and real clout. It was so vital. Bo Diddley rewrote the rules for electric guitar. He didn’t maybe come up with that lick that everyone says he did and is famous for but he certainly brought it to the mainstream -the ‘shave and a hair cut’ lick I guess they call it.” The language he uses to describe music, ‘Real muscle and real clout’, it’s strange to me and I’m drawn to it like it’s a time capsule I found under the wreckage of ‘rad sound’ and ‘killer solo’. ‘Shave and a hair cut lick’ -people don’t talk music like this anymore, like it’s so culturally relevant and precious, well maybe the blacks still do. I can see the same bulges of earth and stone that were around Alan’s eyes, around his. He may not have his family’s passion for fiddles and banjos but he has the Lomax fearlessness and the flair for nonchalantly crossing sensitive social and racial boundaries. The ‘Great Black Shit’ had so much more movement and freedom than the music that Lomax III grew up on and was tired of and yet it spawned from the very sounds and patterns his family had laid out for him.
Lightning and Mance
John III grew up with blues legends Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb around the house. “I had heard blues cause my dad worked for Lightning Hopkins for years as a manager”, he says flatly. “I got to hear Lightning and later my dad helped Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, track down Mance Lipscomb and record him for Arhoolie for his very first recordings. Lightning was around the house time to time and my dad would put him on the folk shows he put on. Some of them were in college auditoriums for a couple thousand people. Lightning would headline and they’d have other folk members too. They did Pete Seeger once.” There is a little tone of labor in his voice but my eyes are growing wider with each word.
My own discovery of Lightning and Mance, from an old black and white Goodwill VHS, was only a year prior. These two singers are in my ‘play everyday’ play list right now. They’re the last fables I’ve come upon since exploring Delta Blues years ago. I’m in worship mode and he’s just casually talking about the times Jesus was at his kitchen table.
So I ask him the question that I feel gets to the core of a performer. “What were they like in person?” “Well”, he looks down. “If you ever saw the Les Blank movies you’d know they were night and day. Lightning was sort of real flamboyant and real big city, gambled a lot, real friendly, drank a lot, usually had a flask with him and you know he would be the definition of urban blues, electric as you could get with an acoustic.” I nod and grin, my face starting to meld into the picture.
“Mance was more of a spiritual kind of presence, really quiet, very soft spoken, lived in the country and raised his own kids and a whole bunch of other people’s kids. He was a slave for part of his life, in effect, it was not actual slavery but slavery in reality in that part of TX, Navasota. Where he grew up, the first 50 to 60 years of his life he was basically an indentured servant working on Tom Moore’s farm, depending on Tom Moore to feed them all and take care of him. He owned them and so when he first got discovered he was just the one that played at sat night dances.” I smile and identify with Mance, the laborer singer.
“Lightning on the other hand had a recording career that went all the way back to 1940. He had recorded in Chicago and L.A., had a duo called Thunder and Lightning so he had been sort of discovered and lost, discovered and lost and rediscovered finally, whereas Mance got that one time where Chris found him and started putting records out and he started to be able to play at shows and festivals and tour. But very different people -they’re both sort of country blues artists but different styles, all the rest, totally different personalities.” John finishes quickly, unimpressed by his own story that I’m fully wrapped up in. This is what I came here for -to hear inside stories about legends, to dismantle even a lil mystery, to, sort of, meet them. John’s matter of fact delivery only makes it more real, as if cutting away any ridiculous preconceptions I might have had and letting their persona pour through him and down to me, Eric and James.
It becomes more clear to me why the enigma of John III has meaning. His indifference allows him to stare flatly back at standards, rules and racial stigmas and say, “meh”. The unsanctimonious way he describes these men, who are idols to me, is the same drive that tells him, ‘not a big deal’, shrug, ‘I’m going to the black show’ and he sees where it takes him. It took him to venues and shows that were raw, real, ‘visceral’ and more, shows that were right in the heat of the moment of the 50’s and 60’s, their emerging music scenes and racial tensions, where he’s the curious white dot in a sea of black turmoil, rhythm and bass. That indifference, it took him away from folk, away from blues, away from tradition and allowed him to follow what felt right, where ever new musical strands were laying paths.
The 13th Floor Elevators
Quickly, at the age of 18 his curiosity took him to Austin where he attended the University of Texas in 1966. “It was a fabulous, psychedelic era. Austin was smaller, there weren’t a lot of music venues or a lot of bands.” However it was here he found one of his favorite bands, one which stood at the crest of a music revolution at the time. “The 13th Floor Elevators supposedly coined the word psychedelic. They were one of the most exciting bands I’ve ever heard. Before them it was all covers: Beatles, Stones, Dylan, some would be adventurous and do James Brown but all covers, at polite volumes. The Elevators came around playing all this wild psychedelic shit they were creating. They only did one cover and it was an obscure Dylan song (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) and they had a sound totally unlike anything you’ve ever heard, with an electric fuckin’ jug in it!” he opens his hands up, eye brows raise, showing disbelief even now. “And they were singing songs about dropping acid, playing with amps up so high they had to have a roadie hold the tops of the cabinets on or they would vibrate off. It was like something from another planet!”, his voice flares up. “I mean they went out to San Francisco and shut down the Airplane and the Dead in the very beginning. And of course they got busted hundreds of times and cheated out of their money and everything else, never had management but they were doing their thing.” He tells me the lead singer’s name, Roky Erickson and about the documentary on him “You’re Gonna’ Miss Me”. It’s clear John has a versatile palate, sniffed out the open ground and had a special place in his musical heart for originality, rawness, and energy. This isn’t a man who got off on dad’s records. He followed his own beat, where ever the ground was shaking.
“It was mind blowing stuff. They’ve been written off as a garage band but not a garage band at all! They fucking created an entire form of music, changed the entire music culture! After they came along all the bands started writing their own songs, playing really loud, dressing weird, following in their footsteps. They tragically never…”, he trails off and thinks of something that humbles his little tribute. “The former lead singer is still rocking around. He puts out solo stuff but he had to spend something like several years in a mental institution to escape going to jail for drugs. His mother kept him on Thorazine for something like 15 years. He almost became a vegetable and his brother saved him, got him out from under her, got guardianship, got him off of Thorazine and now, the last 15 years, he’s been back performing. I saw them in their heyday four or five times. I know what they did. You really thought they were people from another planet. Of course everyone was taking drugs but they were just so much different from anything else around. It was really amazing. So that was Austin.” And in that strange and colorful place he started writing about music, covering live shows for the student paper and exploring all the different pockets of the 1960’s Austin, Texas music culture.
Townes Van Zandt
It was there John came upon another rare gem: Townes Van Zant, the man who wrote “Pancho and Lefty”, “To Live Is to Fly” and “If I Needed You”. “In Austin, we had folk music, at the Eleventh Door”, John remembers. ” That’s where I first saw Townes. Caddo Parish Studdard III was a frat brother of mine and he came over and said, ‘Hey you got to see this guy Townes!’ So I went over to this folk club called the 11th Door and it was incredible. I said, ‘Man, Bob Dylan’s got nothing on this guy! This is stunning!'”, he blinks his eyes on the last word to hold the impact.
“He had one album and he did a lot of talking blues. About a third of his set was talking blues, a couple covers but most of it was his own songs, songs on the first album that will have stood up almost 50 years now. So I was just blown away with this guy and fell in love with the music. Me and Caddo were hanging out in a room not much bigger than this, not much more than 20 people in the crowd. How would you know who he was? I don’t know how Caddo figured it out.” John tips his hat to his old buddy as he lives through the magic again. “I kept up with him over the next few years while I was in Austin and Houston and right up until I moved here in ’73. I just stayed in touch with him.”
In 1973 John III moved to Nashville. It worked out for Townes too. “After I moved here he had moved to Colorado, had gotten drunk, fallen off his horse and broken his arm. So he couldn’t play, he didn’t have a booking agent, by this point he had the first six albums but the label died and had gone bankrupt again. He had no record label, he had no booking agent, couldn’t play gigs and he was living in a tent somewhere in Colorado. I got a hold of him probably through Guy Clark,” a local folk songwriter, now Grammy winner. “I guess Guy and I started saying, ‘You’d be a good item, come over here, this is a songwriting place, you could probably get something cut.’ So he came here and I told him I wanted to manage him and I thought I could get him going. I didn’t have any experience managing. I had a lot of enthusiasm and I loved the music and knew a tiny bit about the business, enough to be dangerous. So I started managing him and I put a little three line classified ad in Rolling Stone soliciting people to join his fan club for the ‘World’s Greatest Songwriter’ and we got a shit load of response!”, John jerks his body forward. “Over 500 people signed up for it. We went to this label guy, made another deal and reissued five of the albums. We cut a new album and we were finally able to put out the Live at the Old Quarter album which had sat for over five years on the shelf for the lack of label and lack of interest.”
Eager to nurture this music he loved John got Townes revitalized and putting one foot in front of the other again. “In the end, Paul Kennerley saw Townes at a gig at the Bluebird, heard “Pancho and Lefty”, Emmylou recorded it and then he got the Emmylou and Don Williams duet and then the Merle and Willie duet that went on down the road to #1. I got him set up with a booking agent, his arm healed up. He did not have any difficulty getting back. He was sort of back in business so to speak.”
Then, without changing a tone in his voice he says “But then I was put out of business by the evil label people who up to that point had refused to provide any documentation of any kind of contracts, royalty statements, any publishing paperwork, anything. They just took the money, said, ‘It’s ours, tough’, got me fired and Kevin Eggers that ran the label installed his buddy Lamar Fike who had been one of Elvis’s flunkies back in the Memphis Mafia days and Lamar took over managing Townes. And those were my dates: ’76 to ’78 and then Lamar took over and there was a succession of other managers after that but I don’t think anyone ever took proper care of him. His ex-wife, who was not his widow but became the executor and spent years untangling all of the affairs, has finally gotten the evil Kevin Eggers out of the picture.” This is not a man who holds his tongue or moderates the way he feels about anything. It’s refreshing actually, his brutal honesty and bitterness. Plus, he genuinely loved the music and was a friend to people he’s in business with. Wouldn’t that be a strange new model for the music business world. He offered housing and support -pretty selfless by any standards. He doesn’t praise himself. His last complaint about getting dropped was that no one was taking proper care of Townes.
Again, I ask him the ‘important’ question: “what was his personality like?” “Well fun!”, he counters, his tone reassuring and offsetting all the images of Townes who, by most accounts, was always the depressed, drunk, genius and now is introduced in a new wave of a warmth and possibility. “Back then, this was well before he was a serious alcoholic and well before he had a bad drug problem. At that time, as far as I know, he was just a pot smoker and drinker. He kept it under control. We never had any problems when I worked with him. I went to a lot of shows just ’cause I enjoyed going and I thought someone needed to be there to sell merchandise. He had a sense of humor that people overlook.”
“He was always into gambling games like liars poker. Also, there was a hand slap game and he liked to pitch pennies. He was always playing shit like that. And the other part of it was he was a really terrible gambler!”, Lomax yells, laughing in awe. “And I never knew if he’d try to lose money or if he was just the world’s worst gambler. He would invariably lose and he and Guy would have these contests that would go on for weeks and get into the millions of dollars as they would all double up, ‘Double or nothing. Okay, 5 million. Okay, roll the dice’, throw knives or pitch pennies or something. It was just fun. He was fun to be around”, he says positively, nodding slowly. “Later when the drugs and alcohol took hold I think he lost a lot of that humor.”
“I was just starting to write about music back then. He was great about telling you things, the most outrageous shit, completely deadpan. He told me once, ‘John I invented singing with your eyes closed.’ ‘Really?’, I just swallowed the whole thing and about a week later I was talking to Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and I said, ‘You know Billy, Townes invented singing with your eyes closed.’ Billy just cracked up completely. He was great.”, John says through a big smile a chuckle. “He was always doing shit like that, pulling people’s legs. He was always able to deliver those outrageous lines without cracking a smile. That piece of Townes sort of got lost.” Luckily Lomax is holding onto it. He’s not only a supporter of Townes but an interesting window into Townes at a young age, when he was different, casting a side of himself not everyone knows, a side unfiltered by drugs -more innocent, more real.
“He had a sad life. His childhood was taken from him. He chose to be a troubadour and have no roots and live that life -sacrifice everything for his art- and it’s a sad thing”, John reassures, “but that wasn’t the whole picture. The total of his life was more than that and he had jokes and he had fun and he wasn’t always so sad, despite him self.”
In Nashville John Lomax III came in touch with a musical derivative of Townes, the man who sang “Copperhead Road” and “The Devil’s Right Hand”, Texas man, Steve Earle. “Guy sent him over to my house in late ’74. He had come up to Nashville I guess cause Townes had. Steve was following Townes around like a little puppy dog back in those days. He claims that Townes was his mentor which is a crock of shit. Townes wasn’t capable of mentoring anybody, not even winos really.” John shows early skepticism of Steve and I wonder why. “Steve Earle came up to town and needed a place to crash and Guy sent him over to my place because I was fixing to go off to France for about 10 days for business and I wanted someone to stay in the house while I was gone. My loony ex-wife was a complete drug addict and I didn’t want to leave my son alone with her and I did not want to farm him out of the house. So Steve just moved up there with his wife Sandy. He came over and we chatted a while and he played some songs and I decided to let him to stay in the house for a couple weeks of being in Europe. He was a fabulous musician. He had the folk thing covered. He sang one song, ‘Ben McCullough’. It was kind of a rewrite of “The Buffalo Skinners” -one of the old songs my granddad collected.”
“I thought he was terrific. He was probably 19 then. His goal was to have an album out by the time he was 21. He was good enough but that wasn’t what Nashville was all about back then. Steve Earle had no chance in that environment to get anything going so I kept up with him over the years and Guy adopted him. Guy was his real mentor. He adopted him and put him in this band, bought him a bass, installed him as his bass player, got him a publishing deal, his first publishing deal. So he hung around and he had various jobs and got a couple of little cuts. He got a Johnny Lee cut that was a co-write with John Scott-Sherrill called “When You Fall in Love”. It went to #14 in 1982 and made him a little money, nothing like one of the big ones but reasonably good.”
Because he believed in the music John started running circles around this town trying to get Steve Earle established. “His publishers Pat Carter and Roy Dea wanted to record him so they made a little EP called Pink and Black that was Steve doing four songs with a little trio -a return to sort of the Memphis rockabilly sound. He did three or four songs on that and made just a really cool sound, totally spare, basic straight up rockabilly kind of thing and I just flipped out about that. I just fell in love with this little record and I got a copy over and laid it on Rick Blackburn’s desk. He was the head at CBS which had two labels, Columbia and Epic and of course we now know them as Sony/BMG records. I put it on his desk and I went off to Florida on vacation. He called me the next day when I was down on the beach. He was just raving, especially about the first cut “Nothing But You”, he couldn’t get enough of it. He wanted to know how to find Steve and he was ready to sign him. Eventually he signed him and they both said they wanted me to manage.”
John, reluctant to agree after the Townes debacle, decided to manage Steve anyway. Pat and Roy cut six more sides and Epic put out the singles. When radio responded saying, “It sounds great but it doesn’t sound good up against these hugely produced, big sound Nashville records” John got in touch with Emory Gordy Jr, a producer and musician who was well connected and had worked with Emmylou Harris. With the help of Emory and his people Steve cut four ‘big sound’ tracks for Epic which “cost as much as the ten rockabilly cuts”, John laughs. They did only as well on the charts too. Soon, Rick Blackburn at CBS lost interest and redirected his attention to a band Exile who were “slumming in country putting out radio fodder but never sold squat for records”, John says. The album was put off for years and Pat and Roy dumped Steve from their publishing company.
“I don’t know what the story there with Steve is”, says John pausing for a moment looking at the carpet, bracing. “He can be pretty abrasive. He’s always right and you’re not and he doesn’t really want to hear what you have to say because he’s so busy talking. He’s great at transmitting but he doesn’t have much of a receiver.” This time I don’t have to ask. He’s giving me the straight shot, low down on Steve Earle. It feels good. He continues, “So he got it in the ass with Pat and Roy and they said, ‘Fuck you, get out of here, you are done with us.’ He was an act with a major label deal but he had no publisher which was a fabulous situation”, he resolves.
So John did the smart thing and used the fallout as momentum, kept grinding away and kept pushing the songs for the cocky young Steve Earle. “I was shopping around town and people were turning me down”, John says with no surprise, “and I found out later it was because Steve had burned a lot of bridges for being a fucking ass hole for eight years and acting like a superstar when he didn’t even have a deal -being a jerk.”
Finally, despite Steve’s interpersonal qualities, John met with Merlin Littlefield, an executive at ASCAP who pointed him towards Noel Fox who ran a company with the Oak Ridge Boys. “He got Steve right away. I knew he would get Steve and I also knew his best friend was Tony Brown who was running MCA with Bruce Hinton“, says John, the mastermind behind the connections, whose intuition placed Steve’s ego in the right place, time after time. “I knew that if I could get him off of Epic I could get him onto MCA so we decided we didn’t want to jump until we knew for sure that Epic was not going to do anything.”
Steve overhauled the band entirely added a keyboard player and another guitar player and they decided to do a show for the Epic label and re-introduce them to the artists as a trial. “Steve went out and they played virtually the entire Guitar Town album. It was great but it just went ‘whoosh’ right over their heads.”, John smiles. After the poor reception, which almost seems orchestrated it worked so nicely, John was able to get Steve released within two weeks. “Tony Brown signed him right away to MCA, convinced Jimmy Bowen, who was actually running the label, that Steve was the guy and they put out Guitar Town and off he went.” The Guitar Town album got rave reviews from everyone, even attracted Bruce Springsteen’s attention, the title song went to number seven on country singles charts and that year Earle was nominated for two Grammy’s. John brought him a long way from the kid on the couch doing his best Townes impersonation.
“I got fired during the sessions because I started saying, ‘Well you’re going to get some money here, maybe I could get some of the deferred commissions and some of the other money that I put down because I’ve been supporting you for the last two years.’ So he fired me because he didn’t want to pay so I sued him and eventually collected out of court most of what I should have but I had to pay a lawyer. Guitar Town came out but he didn’t have a manager for two and a half years because everyone knew what a dog he was, what he had done to me and what he had done to people around town. Finally he got a manager in New York, Will Botwin. He’s had a pretty decent career but he still hasn’t made an album as good as Guitar Town”, says John still willing to feel a little pride in his former battles with Steve Earle.
Again, I ask my question. I already know part of the answer but there’s usually more. Maybe there’s an ‘apology’ somewhere in Steve. “What was his personality like?”, I ask. Without thinking John replies, “Hyper, incredibly hyper. In fact Guy Clark was convinced that all the time Steve was on toot because he was so hyper, constantly standing. He couldn’t sit still. When you talked to him it would be like tennis because he would be pacing back and forth, back and forth, talking a mile a minute. And, like I say, he was good at talking but he was not good at listening and he knew everything about everything no matter what and that amuses some people but also pisses others off.”
“Also he was a completely disorganized person and I quickly learned to let him get out of the room first so I could pick up whatever he had forgotten. I got ASCAP to give him a $10,000 advance because he had a cut coming out and he managed to lose the check between the time he picked the check up at ASCAP and got to the bank. I had to call them back and say, ‘Void that check and get another one.’ It took a while to do this. Here is a guy that’s fucking broke and he can’t get to the bank with a check for ten grand? What an idiot!”
“During that entire period not only did I not get paid but I didn’t get thanked -just a jerk but great music, super music, strange guy. He left home before he learned all his lessons about manners and stuff.” John says ‘stuff’ as if to undermine polite manners all together and mock Steve’s very behavior. Though he’s still negative, I love that he has the ability to separate himself from it all. John isn’t ridiculing the man from a place of pain he’s just describing him how he knew him. What’s better is he has the heart and humility to completely separate Steve the man from Steve the craftsman and tip his hat to the music.
Misconceptions and Nashville
It’s no surprise that after developing two singers who became folk and country music royalty and getting ripped off and dropped for it in return, one might be left feeling a little fiery. John’s personality is salty, bitter, skeptical, cynical, funny and honest. It’s hardly a mystery why. He was stabbed in the back by the music business after bringing people into his home for shelter and practically pampering them. That develops sharpness and an ability to find humor in it all, if by necessity alone. What he is left with, amidst all his grumbling and scrutiny is a great ability to cut through the grey, the pain, the cloud, the smoke, the mystery, glamour and see plain truth. John, in all his matter of fact mannerisms and critiques is one of the funniest people I’ve interviewed because he so leisurely exploits all the misconceptions about the music world and things that are generally believed to be true. He adds information that complicates the picture if not, refutes it all together.
Austin, for example, left me feeling sorry for the musicians but ultimately still awed by the music tradition there. “Houston’s music history totally eclipses Austin’s”, he says knowing, “but Austin has managed to market itself as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, the repository of all things great in music, whereas Houston had a fabulous blues scene as far back as the twenties. All Austin’s shit happened after the 60’s. Houston had a scene for 40 years by that point. It’s become Yankee-ized. No offense.” We just shake our heads and keep smiling. “Too many people have moved in out of town. People that moved in to the high rises near Whole Foods are bitching about the sound.”
Now we get to this place where John III is most comfortable and isn’t really answering questions anymore. We get to this place of utterly remorseless honesty and fire and character. Music is under his microscope. Nashville lives under his microscope.
I ask John about The Bluebird, the seemingly amazing open mic house in South Nashville that hundreds of people from all over line up for every night. It was recently made famous by the TV series ‘Nashville’. I ask because he scoffed at the name when I mentioned it earlier.”Well there’s several reasons”, he explains. I gear up. “Part of it is the attitude of the Bluebird is the songwriter is God. And you’re expected to go and it’s like you’re going to church in the Bluebird and you’re not supposed to talk”, he holds out his ‘aw’ sound in talk and waits. “And some songwriters don’t merit your rapt attention for an hour and a half”, he laughs. “It’s the feeling of some people that a musician should command an audience to be quiet by their ability to perform songs and play their instruments so well that people don’t want to do anything other than zone in on it. The Bluebird enforces this Gestapo like ‘You will not talk’ thing and a lot of the songwriters here are just mediocre and the idea that you’re supposed to go and almost worship these mediocre songwriters is kind of appalling to me.”
John lives in music city but he hardly goes out anymore by his own admission. “Since that fucking TV show, you can’t even get in there. Monday when the tickets go on sale they’re snapped up for every show of the week no matter who is playing, for people who just want to go to the Bluebird because the TV show convinced them that the Bluebird is the center of the Nashville music universe which hasn’t been true for 20 years.” At once he demystifies all of Nashville but in his own subtle way gives it ideas for renewal.
I thought I had Nashville figured out. I thought, ‘Well at least the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s had the golden years’. “They were into what’s today called classic country, trad-country, up there with Nudie suits, they sing in the studio, go in there and crank it out in a few days with the A-Team and send them back on the road. They sang what they were told, no one wrote their own stuff. It was pretty god-awful.”
Then he points to what was better. “It was all about being able to have your band play your own records, picking your songs and having control of your music rather than a producer or label. In some cases, like with Chet Atkins or Owen Bradley, one man is both. Brenda Lee told me one time that she did 18 songs in a three-hour session. She came in off the road and Owen handed her 18 songs, she looked at them and banged them out. Six an hour -she might have gotten two takes. ‘Right. Next.'”, he mocks the producer. “Of course they were overdubbing a lot back then too.” Except for maybe Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson, Cash and Haggard, my perception of early Nashville is much shakier than it was an hour ago.
He keeps moving forward, “Labels started sending their own people down here and gradually took over. It made the industry bigger and for a while it all worked. In the 80’s there was one point where country music represented something like almost 6% of the music industry in the entire world, passed two billion in sales while the global music industry was 34 billion and that’s pretty fucking big.”
“But then it all started to go downhill and the city kind of lost the plot. It became all about money and not about music and now we have a system with radio where there’s no old-time blues thanks to the Clinton administration allowing the Telecommunications Act of ’96 which basically took restrictions off ownership of radio and TV stations and made it possible for conglomerates to gobble it all up and produce the kind of music that conglomerates produce and squeeze the soul out of all things.” The conversation is redirecting now and growing. Now, we’re on politics, music politics and an emerging super commercialized market. “But in return, now what do we have?”, he wonders.
“We have what, Three major labels? A whole lot less music gets made. What is made gets shoved down people’s throats through bought radio play, through what they call euphemistically ‘marketing co-promotions’, which we grew up knowing as payola. So they pay radio to play this wretched shit. And some of it sells and some of it doesn’t. What sells sells in huge numbers because they’re getting concentrated airplay at the expense of most everything else.”
“It’s my uncle Alan’s worst nightmare. His dream of ‘Giving a voice to the voiceless’ has been obliterated by the mega monopoly of the the giant companies and giant radio stations and TV networks blasting out the same shit. You know there used to be regional hits. There used to be instrumental hits. There used to be novelty records. It used to be you could get a record on the radio and in some little market and gradually you built it out until it became a national hit. Now it’s all gone. If you’re not on a major you’re not going to get played on a big station, end of story, no matter how good you are. So it’s become homogenized and it’s become pretty wretched actually. Nashville A & R (‘artist and repertoire’, talent scouting) now consists of watching TV shows and trying to sign winners of reality talent show’s -kind of pitiful but that’s what it’s devolved down into.”
He’s talking about all of Pop music but he focuses on the role of Nashville and he is perceptive. “Well I mean country music has changed for one thing. Country moved to the city so you don’t have this mass of people growing up on farms and working in the fields and living in rural America. We have a majority of people living in cities so music is changing because of that.”
“And because the major labels figured out that if they tarted up country and take the steel and fiddle out and put in rock ‘n roll and make it sound like ’80s soft rock then people will gobble it up. Some do and some don’t. Between cheesing out the music and the digital revolution it’s resulted in the market declining in record sales. When country was at its height there were three acts that would sell ten million records at a whack: Garth Brooks, Shania and the Dixie Chicks. Now we have one act that isn’t even country but they call her country, Taylor Swift, who sells three or four or five million records. Carrie Underwood maybe sells two and everyone else struggles to make one million and very few don’t even make that anymore. It used to be a platinum record was barely grounds for a party because so many people were having them in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Now the prosecution expands from Austin to Nashville, from Nashville to pop, from pop to music world wide and John is spewing. “They’ve dumbed down the music and then Steve Jobs came along and basically ate the record companies lunch and handed them empty paper sacks and said, ‘Thank you very much!’ You know? What were these fucking idiots thinking?”, he stresses. “Sitting there with this Napster and everything happening and all this shit going on and scratching their heads trying to figure out, ‘Well how do we figure this out? Golly, well I don’t know'”, John III scratches his head like an ape, embellishing the density. “Labels were run by men who had secretaries print out their emails because they were too fucking busy to bother to learn how to use computers much less do what they could to save the industry and much less get in touch with what was happening with their audience. God, where would we be if the label… “, he trails off, caught up in the whirlwind of the fantastic rant. As if unwilling to say the unspeakable he says it in different terms, “You know the guy who ran the entire Sony Corporation one time was quoted as saying, ‘They ought to give music away for a few pennies.’ He said, ‘We ought to sell it for a few pennies. We have no transportation costs. We have no art cost.’ You’re selling something that you transmit over electronic lines”, he moans.
“You’re selling, for me, I call it counterfeit or faux music. It’s fucking shit compressed down to where everything is a one or a zero and bounced out of the cloud to somebody’s computer or device of some sort and they’re not hearing the full range of the sound the musicians and engineers work their fucking hands to bloody nubs to create. They make this great sound and then it’s shoved down into an MP3 which was designed for spoken word not for music in the first place. It’s pitiful. People are willing to sacrifice convenience for quality. That’s all you can say and they don’t care that they’re not hearing the full glory of music.”
“It’s like you go to a banquet and there’s every kind of great food or drink available but they’re saying, ‘Oh, you can’t have any of this beautiful garden but go over here and you can have crackers and water’ -just horrible. But then, that’s the world.”, he says, as if making it better somehow, as if apologizing or understanding in a roundabout way. “I don’t know. That’s where we are. That’s how music is, in the cloud now, we have to compress it to get it out of us.” Somehow I think he’s not just talking about music anymore, but everything. With internet and immediate infinite knowledge at our fingertips, yeah, we do compress before we communicate sometimes. Much of industry: food, automotive, housing, has become compressed to cram in next to our shrinking space for real, whole, raw, art and experience. Not all do but its certainly at stake. As I contemplate Lomax I keep thinking about Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’ and how the names sound eerily similar. The calculated music industry, the ‘Once-ler’, cuts the branches and roots of music down into Sneed. Lomax “speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
Disillusioned by Nashville now and questioning myself I ask him what advice he has for us as documenters. He ponders for a lot longer than he has for any of the other questions. “Go with your heart”, he lends finally. “Go where your instincts lead you, not where you think you ought to go or where someone else thinks you should go or where the crowds are going. You know what you like and what appeals to you. Just follow that and see where it takes you as opposed to trying to apply logic and pragmatism. Music isn’t about that. It’s a mystical thing. It affects different people different ways and you just have to find what you really know.”
“Every act I’ve ever worked with that I’ve really managed -and there’s only been maybe five or six- it’s been people who’s music I can take home at the end of the day and play it again and re-energize, just play it over and over and over and just get ‘Oh yes, this is so fucking good!’ and jump around and scream and shout.”, he grinds his voice purposefully to show primal enthusiasm and I get the humorous full picture of just how passionately this guy, despite his introversions and reservations, channels music.
“I’ll still hear stuff like that every now and again and I’ll get excited about it but I don’t want to manage them anymore. I retired and re-retired from management, retired, un-retired and re-retired”, he specifies. “I’ve only been able to really accomplish things when I’ve been leading with my heart than with my mind or my wallet and just letting my instincts lead me along instead of too much conscious analysis. You just have to let it go. What you really hear inside you, follow that.” I nod and I think about the lone white boy wandering into the ‘hood at night after some soul music, guitar and mystery and I know that what he’s saying now isn’t candid, it’s something he’s been doing all his life.
“And then just document it honestly”, he offers his final piece of advice. “Don’t try to make it something it isn’t. At the end of the day music is entertainment and it’s there to make people feel good. Enjoy it and don’t worry too much about a lot of the other things. It’s not going to… “, he trails off one final time, contemplating music as a whole. “It would be great if it could save the world but I kind of don’t think it’s going to. I don’t know the answer to that question though. Follow what you hear inside you.”