Inspired by the Hank Williams and Leadbelly recordings he heard as a teenager growing up outside of Boston, Jim Rooney began a musical journey that intersected with some of the biggest names in American music including Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, and Alison Krauss. In It for the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey is Rooney's kaleidoscopic first-hand account of more than five decades of success as a performer, concert promoter, songwriter, music publisher, engineer, and record producer.
As witness to and participant in over a half century of music history, Rooney provides a sophisticated window into American vernacular music. Following his stint as a "Hayloft Jamboree" hillbilly singer in the mid-1950s, Rooney managed Cambridge's Club 47, a catalyst of the ‘60’s folk music boom. He soon moved to the Newport Folk Festival as talent coordinator and director where he had a front row seat to Dylan "going electric."
In the 1970s Rooney's odyssey continued in Nashville where he began engineering and producing records. His work helped alternative country music gain a foothold in Music City and culminated in Grammy nominations for singer-songwriters John Prine, Iris Dement, and Nanci Griffith. Later in his career he was a key link connecting Nashville to Ireland's folk music scene.
Writing songs or writing his memoir, Jim Rooney is the consummate storyteller. In It for the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey is his singular chronicle from the heart of Americana.
About the Author
Jim Rooney is a songwriter and Grammy winning record producer, and author of Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters and coauthor of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down. In 2009 he received a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Americana Music Association.
Read an Excerpt
IN IT FOR THE LONG RUN
A MUSICAL ODYSSEY
By JAMES K. ROONEY
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2014 James K. Rooney
All rights reserved.
TEX AND ABE
They tell us that we carry all kinds of information in us, locked in our genes, passed down through the generations. So when I first heard the sound of the fiddle and banjo coming out of the radio as I tuned in one night, I'm convinced that my Irish genes woke from their slumber and started jangling. Nothing had prepared me for this. It was 1951. I was thirteen years old, living outside of Boston in Dedham, Massachusetts, far from the mountains of Appalachia, farther still from the Emerald Isle, definitely not a musical hotbed.
My parents had moved there to raise their family away from the Irish-Catholic enclaves in Boston. They were raising us to be open to all kinds of people. The focus was on education, and like my brother John before me, I was going to the Roxbury Latin School. After the Ames School in Dedham, where I had been quite the little genius, it was like walking into a stone wall. This was a "classical" education and I was taking Latin, Math, English, History, and Geography for starters. French, Greek and Physics would come later. I begged my parents to take me out, but they kept telling me that I could do it. Education was it. It was not negotiable.
At school I had become buddies with a live wire named Dick Curley. One day Dick told me to turn the radio on to WCOP at 7:45 that night. This band was playing "hillbilly" music. It was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. Songs like "Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping" It was a riot. I went home that night, took Dick's advice and tuned in. I heard this amazing sound—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar coupled with a high wailing kind of singing. They called themselves The Confederate Mountaineers, and they were really from the South. Unlike Dick Curley, I wasn't laughing. Something about that sound was familiar; something about it was "right" Was it my Irish genes aroused by this music? Who knows? All I know is that I kept coming back again and again. I was hooked.
But there was more! Right after the Confederate Mountaineers a disc jockey named Nelson Bragg came on with a show called the Hayloft Jamboree. He was a great character—"The Merry Mayor of Milo, Maine." He definitely wasn't from the south, but he knew that there were lots of rural New Englanders and people from Quebec and The Maritimes who'd moved to the cities for work and who loved this simple, heartfelt music. Hank Williams sang "Honky Tonk Blues," Lefty Frizzell had "If You've Got the Money, Honey (I've Got the Time)," Hank Snow did "A Fool Such as I," Webb Pierce sang about a "Back Street Affair" This was a life I knew nothing about. If Dedham had any honky-tonks or back streets I certainly didn't know where they were, but these singers and these songs were reaching something deep inside of me, stirring emotions I didn't even know I had. They were taking me out of the life I knew. I was setting out on the journey of a lifetime.
Once a month the Hayloft Jamboree did a big show at Symphony Hall, so Dick Curley and I decided to go. The star was going to be Slim Whitman, who sang in a high, yodelly style and had had big hits with "Indian Love Call" and "Rose Marie" Symphony Hall was full and buzzing. I had been there once before on a school trip to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, something I would never forget, but Nelson Bragg lost no time in letting everyone know that there'd be no longhair music being played that night, and we were all invited to let our hair down and whoop it up. All the performers were dressed in western outfits except the Confederate Mountaineers who wore riding pants, high boots, and Confederate officers' hats. Slim Whitman was a star. When he came out in his black-and-white suit, his black-and-white guitar, and his Clark Gable looks, and hit his first high note the place went wild. I'd never experienced anything like it. It was worlds away from Dedham, from Roxbury Latin. I felt like I had taken a trip to an exotic land, but it was only a bus and trolley ride away.
One day Curley talked me into going into the radio station to see the Confederate Mountaineers play. WCOP took up a good part of the first floor of the New England Mutual Life Building in Copley Square. We entered a large lobby painted with a big mural of "hillbillys" having fun in the style of Al Capp's popular comic strip "Lil' Abner." There was a maze of studios and control rooms beyond the lobby, and as we rounded a corner there in one of the studios we could see the Confederate Mountaineers getting ready to go on the air!
Dick and I stood there in a classic pose, with our noses literally pressed against the glass, watching our heroes. Everett Lilly did all the talking in his high-pitched West Virginia accent. "Thank you just a whole lot there, Nelson Bragg. We'd like to say a great big howdy to all the friends and neighbors! We're going to kindly start off with a good Bill Monroe number, "'Footprints in the Snow.'" And off they went, gathered around the microphone—Tex Logan shouldering his way in with his fiddle, Don Stover driving with his banjo, Everett holding his mandolin up and singing high and clear, and his brother Bea, constantly smiling, steady on his guitar. After a couple of songs, they'd do an instrumental and let Tex and Don loose. Then they'd do a gospel number like "Sinner You Better Get Ready," something my Catholic ears had never heard before and sure wasn't in the hymnal at Roxbury Latin! This was passionate, heartfelt music.
All too soon the fifteen minutes was over. They packed up their instruments, came out, and said hello. They were leaving, so we left with them. Soon we were out in Copley Square, walking along with the four of them in their full Confederate regalia. I'm sure heads must have been turning, but we were oblivious, just happy to be allowed to walk along like we belonged! We crossed Boston Common to The Plaza Bar, and they invited us in to hear a set. It was early, and there was a thin crowd of sailors and other people who definitely didn't live in Dedham, but Curley and I were thrilled. There we were—friends of the people on stage, in a real honky-tonk, like the ones in the songs. Little did I know then how many nights of my life were to be spent this way! The thrill would never leave me.
We spent the summers near the sea in a place called Green Harbor in a cottage my folks had built. One night I found something called Saturday Night Country Style on the CBS station. Every week they would broadcast two half-hour live shows from various country music shows around the country. My Uncle Jim Flaherty, God bless him, was visiting and saw me sitting by the radio, strumming along on an old tennis racquet. He must have thought, "That boy needs something else to strum on," and on his next visit he gave me a Roy Smeck ukulele! He also gave me a chord book and showed me how most songs had three or four chords. The book had some songs in it like "Red River Valley," so I just started strumming and trying to change chords where they sounded right. One small detail I didn't notice: I had picked up the ukulele left-handed—upside down. It just felt natural; I wrote with my left hand. No one was around to correct me. I did it "my own ignorant way."
I subscribed to a magazine called Country Song Roundup. Every month I got the lyrics to all the songs I was hearing on the radio. By the end of the summer I was singing songs like "Back Street Affair" and "Your Cheating Heart" I had three older girl cousins—the Walsh girls—living down the road. They seemed to think that listening to little Jimmy sing these songs about back street affairs and cheating hearts was the cutest thing they'd ever heard. That was okay with me.
As I listened to the radio every night that fall, my heart was getting touched most of all by the singing of Hank Williams. In addition to "Your Cheating Heart," I started singing "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The lyric to the last verse was so beautiful to me:
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry.
The sadness in his voice went straight to my teenage heart. I wanted to sing like him. I wanted to be that sad. That Christmas of 1952 my brother Johnny gave me the greatest present—two albums of 78s by Hank Williams: Moanin the Blues and Luke the Drifter. I'd camp out in front of our record player listening to these records over and over, probably driving everyone else crazy. I took to practicing in front of the mirror in the front room, trying to figure out how to break my voice like Hank did when he sang "Lovesick Blues" or "Honky Tonk Blues." I guess I figured if I could watch myself stretch my neck somehow, my voice would break easier.
Then came the news. Hank was dead. January 1, 1953. It was so confusing. I had just fallen deeply in love, and now he was gone. Almost immediately there was a memorial album, with a picture of Hank against a purple background, edged in black, complete with a letter to Hank in Heaven from Frank Walker of MGM Records. Hank's sister Irene started a column in Country Song Roundup about Hank. I wrote her a letter saying I wanted to write a book about Hank and could she give me any inside information. She never answered.
Over the summer there were changes at WCOP. Nelson Bragg went to the big pop station WBZ and The Confederate Mountaineers lost their daily radio show. The live Jamboree show moved to John Hancock Hall every Friday night with a new lineup. Elton Britt became a resident "star" He was a fine yodeler and had had a huge hit during the Second World War with a song called "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" Among the new cast members was a group called "Buzz, Jack & Scotty; The Bayou Boys" featuring a wild mandolinist and singer, Buzz Busby; a show-stopping fiddler, Scotty Stoneman; and Jack Clement, who sang and played guitar. It was my first time to lay eyes on Jack, but it definitely wasn't going to be my last.
Another of my classmates at school, Bob Holland, sold me a little plywood guitar with a canvas case for $12. It came with a fingerpick, which I thought you put on over your fingernail. I took it home and got out one of my Hank Williams songbooks. "Darlin' Let's Turn Back the Years" had only two chords so I gave that a try. It was excruciating. It felt like the wire was carving into my fingers. It was. Since I was playing left-handed, I thought it might be a good idea to change the strings around and play it properly, but the thin strings in the fat grooves just rattled and buzzed, so I switched the strings back. I wasn't trying to be Chet Atkins anyway. I wanted to be Hank Williams and just strum along while I sang about my broken heart.
One day I heard two girls on the Jamboree who sounded like two cats on a fence. I said to myself, "I'm as good as they are," screwed up my courage, and headed into the station the next week. All the local "stars" were sitting around the lobby, dressed up in their spangles, hats, and boots (even though they were on the radio). I spotted a guy who seemed to be in charge and asked him if I could audition. His name was Aubrey Mayhew. He was the first kind of music business sharpie I'd ever met. He had slicked back hair, a jacket with pointy shoulders, and kind of a sly smile. He took me into the big studio and told me to play something. So I put on my little plywood guitar upside down, put the fingerpick over my fingernail and launched into Hank Snow's "Music Makin' Mama from Memphis." He told me to do another, so I did Hank Williams's "Honky Tonk Blues" Aubrey Mayhew smiled and said, "Do you want to be on the radio?" I said, "Sure!" So he told me to hang around. Oh my goodness! I had to find a phone. I called my folks and Dick Curley and announced, "I'm gonna be on the radio!!!"
There was a band on the show called Cappy Paxton & The Trailsmen. Aubrey Mayhew told them what I was going to sing, and they'd back me up. They loaned me a good guitar to play. The whole experience was like being in a dream. Instead of being on the outside looking in, here I was inside the studio with a band all around me singing on the radio! When it was over, everybody was very friendly, telling me that I did great, and Aubrey Mayhew told me to come back the next week. After the next time he invited me to come play on the Jamboree the following Friday. I was going to be a "star"! Which meant that I had to get some stage clothes.
I went to my mother and broke the good news. She might have been hoping that this phase I was going through would pass, but she went along with me to a store where we would not be normally shopping. I picked out some powder blue, pleated, slightly pegged pants, which were just coming into style at the time. I also got a checkered shirt and, somehow or another, got my hands on a clip-on red string tie. I was nearly 6'2" and weighed about 125 pounds. I must have cut quite a figure. A dressed-up stick.
I went into the show on Friday. It was sponsored by the Viva Spaghetti Company. They had "Vivaettes" for ushers—girls dressed up in cowgirl outfits with short skirts, which got my attention. The audience was mostly sailors and their girlfriends and guys in leather jackets with D.A. haircuts. Backstage I now blended in with everyone else in my new clothes. Cappy Paxton was a good front man and did a bit of comedy. They had a singer, Jackie Russell, "the boy with the golden voice," who sang smooth Eddy Arnold songs. After a while, Cappy brought me on and I launched into "Music Makin' Mama" and "Honky Tonk Blues." I was too excited to be nervous and gave it all I had, hunched over the microphone just like Hank Williams. The band was right there with me, with the wild, new sound of Ronnie Lee, "King of the Pedal Steel Guitar." When the people cheered at the end I could have gone to heaven right then.
Suddenly my life was very different. At school everybody started calling me "Tex" I would do the Jamboree every Friday night, do the live radio show Saturday afternoon, and often we would then go to a school or a small hall for a show. We'd all pile into Cappy's fastback Hudson, with the bass on top and the instruments in the trunk. After the show they'd leave me at a bus or trolley stop, and I'd go back home to my other life. The bass player was a kid about my age. We were talking one day, and he said, "You're good. Why don't you come with us all the time?" I said, "I can't. I'm in school." He looked at me as if that was no good reason, but I just repeated my mantra, "I can't, I'm in school" It was absolutely inconceivable that I could even consider leaving school to go play music in a hillbilly band!
As it was, I was pushing the limits. One Friday I was up in my room putting my powder blue pants on, and my mother said, "What do you think you're doing? Where are you going?" "I'm going to the Jamboree. It's Friday" "It's GOOD FRIDAY!" "Well" I said, "we've got a show" The next week my parents decided they'd better come in and see what this "show" was all about. My father was also about 6'2" and always wore a suit and tie. My mother was a very nice looking lady. So they weren't hard to spot sitting in a sea of navy blue and leather among the Vivaettes and their fans. After the show I was signing autographs and acting like a "star" My parents took it all in, but they evidently decided that there was no serious harm being done to my immortal soul, and they let me go on.
At the end of the spring there was a big show at Boston's Mechanics Hall, which seated four or five thousand people. In addition to Elton Britt, the star of the show was Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys—a full-blown western swing band complete with electric fiddles, trumpet, piano, steel guitar, and electric guitars. Hank Thompson was huge at the time, with his big hit, "I Didn't Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels," and he had two more singers with him—Billy Gray, who was a smooth Texas-style singer, and Wanda Jackson, who was a belter and just about my age. The whole show took my breath away. For my part, Aubrey had me buy a pair of overalls and sit on a bale of hay at the edge of the stage singing "Honky Tonk Blues" while Cappy and some girl did a comedy skit. I didn't care what I had to do. I was in show business!
That was the last show of the year, and soon my family headed off to Green Harbor where I got a job on a nearby farm picking berries and selling vegetables by the side of the road. I was saving up to buy a Martin guitar just like Hank's. However, when we got back to Dedham in the fall, the Jamboree was gone! WCOP had totally changed its format, and the whole thing evaporated. I went ahead with my plan anyway and went into the Boston Music Company with my hard earned money and bought a brand new Martin D-18 guitar for $135. What a day in my life! I can remember the smell of that guitar when I took it out of the case. I remember the feel of it in my hands. It was so smooth, so easy to play. The chords sounded so rich and rang so long. When I got it home, I put it on and stood in front of the mirror looking at myself with my Martin guitar. It was definitely a dream come true. But there I was, all dressed up and nowhere to go!
Excerpted from IN IT FOR THE LONG RUN by JAMES K. ROONEY. Copyright © 2014 James K. Rooney. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Music Publishing Credits xv
Introduction: "Do It Your Own Ignorant Way!" 1
Part I Going My Own Way in the World
Tex and Abe 5
Beats and Bluegrass at Amherst 16
Into the Folic and Bluegrass Pool 20
The Light of Greece 35
Ireland of the Welcomes 41
The Club 47 45
Festival Time 56
Part II Finding My Own Voice
Time Out: Bossmen 77
Ramblin' Man 100
Sitting in Limbo 119
Enter: "Cowboy" 123
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down 135
The Dead Cowboys 146
Part III Following My Own Pith
At Home in the Studio 153
Coming into My Own 161
The Texas Connection 180
Bringing It All Back Home 184
Forerunner: Onward and Upward 188
Infamous Angel 197
Old Friends 200
Carol Again 204
Other Voices 211
Growing Pains 222
Out West 226
Changing Times 229
Part IV The Long Run
A New Life 237
Bluegrass and Folic Voices 242
Prine Country Time I 251
Ireland Calls 256
Back to Business 267
All This Way for the Short Ride 270
Herbal and Me 273
Prine Country Time II 276
Life after Forerunner 280