Roots Watch: Country Icons and Family Legacies

Barry Mazor | December 15th, 2011

Working as I do in both journalism and music history, from time to time I’ve had the opportunity (and also the working need, truthfully) to interview the immediate families of some of country and roots music’s most celebrated figures, sometimes getting to know them outside of that defined situation.  It occurs to me again and again that if the icon in the family looms large for so many of us, we can barely begin to know how that figure hangs over them—and never moreso than when these children or siblings or spouses are performers themselves. The less or more recently famed performer is generally busy carving out a separate musical identity, and yet, whether private family relations were good, bad or eventually reconciled, there’s the inevitability of comparisons, torch-bearing issues to take on or to avoid, and those same old questions everyone asks, as if they’d not been asked a thousand times before. Somebody (I’m busy) ought to do a book some time comparing the experiences, cross-genre, of say, Arlo and his relation to Woody Guthrie’s legacy, Liza and Judy Garland’s, Nancy and Frank Jr. and Frank Sinatra’s, Lisa Marie and Elvis Presley’s,  Julian and Sean and John Lennon’s, James and Bill Monroe’s,  Natalie and Nat King Cole’s, and so on.

A confluence of events here in Nashville this month have impressed on me again how much the issue of carrying a legend’s torch forward looms in country music, where, traditionally at least, a relation to the past matters to fans nearly as much as to the families—and how well indeed some kin step up to the situation.

Last week I was among a lucky forty or so on hand for what  a taping of a salute to Waylon Jennings that will be broadcast by SiriusXM radio some time in January, presided over by Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings and deejay/wrestler Hillbilly Jim. (The immediate occasion will be release of the second of the three volumes planned of the all-star salute collection Waylon: The Music Inside,  at around that time.) On hand performing Waylon songs and commenting on the man and his music were also Jamey Johnson, Josh Thompson (the pleasant surprise of the show), Waylon’s favorite guitarist Reggie Young, Billy Joe Shaver, Cowboy Jack Clement—and Hank Williams, Jr.—already memorable for the line-up alone.

There were great moments like Jessi and Hank Jr. dueting on “Storms Never Last,” and wild Waylon stories from multiple hands. But you had to be moved as Waylon’s widow and son, in their own quite distinctive ways, which seemed the right ways, talked and sang this material. Jessi said, “I hope these songs will make people want to know about Waylon for another 20-30 years, because there’s a whole lot to know about him.” Shooter said, “I, of course, was gonna be the one to go ‘I don’t know; do we really need another tribute record?’  I was the hardest nut to crack.” Having decided that those who recorded for the project were all connected to Waylon in ways that matter, and backing the effort, he then provided a sweet version of his dad’s favorite self-written song, “Belle of the Ball.”

Another telling moment in this radio salute:  Hank Jr. strongly recommending people go back and check out the posthumously released Waylon Sings Hank Williams CD—because, he suggested, it shows Waylon as the great interpretive artist he was, making those Hank, Senior songs “one hundred per cent” his own: “You’re not gonna think of Daddy.” He hardly could or does forget about his father himself. Mr. Bocephus sang a hell of a “Are Your Sure Hank Done It This Way”  and not more than an hour later appeared at the Country Hall of Fame for a small audience fundraising show for the Hall at $500 a head. (For all of his stadium-filling extravaganzas, these intimate shows, I’d have to say, are the best possible situation in which to see the strength of his own performing.) The occasion there was the upcoming closing, December 31, of the long running major exhibit “A Family Tradition,” which includes all of the generations and flavors of Williamses, and their musical and household downs and ups dealing with the Hank and family legacy. (The different positions still stagger ahead.  On this year’s The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams release, Holly Williams was right there, and her dad Hank Jr. singing behind her, out of the spotlight, and her brother, in his role as family punk, questioning the whole affair and not taking part.)

This same month, shockingly, we also lost Barbara Orbison at 60, who’d done as much as much as any of country or pop’s wives ever have to define and further her husband’s image and music, promulgating a barrage of Roy Orbison projects (DVDs, CDs, “Pretty Woman” perfume) all through the years since his death in 1989.  The fact was, the latter day Roy Orbison a generation or two now recall best—on the soundtrack of “Blue Velvet,” in the Traveling Wilburys, performing with his followers on the perennial pledge week “Black and White Night” show, and with a late ‘80s hits like “You Got It” and that whole cool, hip middle age demeanor—were about as much of her doing as Roy’s. And she went on to establish a considerable career as a song scout and publisher on her own.

A salute, too, to John Carter Cash, who has the unfathomable, and probably unavoidable job of regularly speaking about and for two huge legacies at once—of both the whole Carter Family and Johnny Cash. He’s not taken the easiest road, of simply pandering to existing public perceptions of his parents, but worked to establish a broader, more rounded picture of both.  His current book House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash, that plural “Legacies’ in the title says a lot—and it’s a volume strong enough to have been tough to get hold of just lately, but I’m told it’s headed for a second printing.

Tip for fledgling interviewers:  You may be surprised how forthcoming the performing children and siblings of stars, living or dead, can become if you simply don’t hurry right to those “Now about your father…” questions. And maybe not going there at all. They’ll be surprised. I may have been the first person to interview Justin Townes Earle without bringing up his relations with his father and with the elder Mr. Earle’s music—at all. It went well.

 

  1. luckyoldsun
    December 16, 2011 at 1:41 am

    I don’t know why the market completely turned against Waylon in the last decade of his life. Johnny Cash–who had really been thought of as washed up for many years–got to enjoy a commercial/cultural resurgence, with his albums receiving a lot of attention and respectable sales. Waylon put out some very good albums in the ’90s, and they mostly sunk without a trace.(And unlike Cash, Waylon’s ’90s albums consisted of mostly self-written material!)

    It was sad that Waylon seemed so bitter toward the end, but I guess he had good reasons to be.

  2. nm
    December 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    If by “the market” you mean “a new audience of younger listeners,” then I’d say that they embraced Cash because he was doing something new, including material chosen precisely in order to appeal to them. Whereas they didn’t embrace Jennings because he was continuing to do more or less the same sort of material, which wasn’t their thing.

    Both those approaches are legitimate, I think. But one of them is more likely than the other to bring in new listeners.

  3. luckyoldsun
    December 16, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    By “the market” I mean just about ANY audience. Waylon’s ’90s albums were DOA, commercially. I think it was sad–because Waylon obviously put a lot of effort into them and they were actually quite good.

    And I think Waylon tried to do just what Cash did. He used producers like Don Was and recorded songs by Paul Simon, Mick Jagger etc.–in addition to his own material.

  4. Jon
    December 17, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Look, you dished up a contrast between the way “the market” responded to Jennings and to Cash, and NM pointed out that the difference lay in that part of “the market” made up of a new audience of younger listeners.

    And saying that you believe that Jennings “tried to do just what Cash did” is the same as saying someone’s seriously imperceptive – either him or you. Because someone would have to be seriously imperceptive to think that Don Was is just the same as Rick Rubin, or that Paul Simon is just the same as Trent Reznor. Of course, someone would also have to be seriously imperceptive to argue in one breath that Jennings was doing “mostly self-written material” where Cash wasn’t and in the next that he “tried to do just what Cash did,” but there’s only one candidate for the title there.

    Hearing what people think about music – what they like, what they don’t like, why they like or don’t like it, what role it plays in their lives, and so on – is usually interesting. Hearing comments on the business, the creative process and the motivations of artists from anonymous commentators who obviously know nothing first-hand about any of those things, not so much.

  5. Barry Mazor
    December 17, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    We do know, for one self-evident thing, that neither Cash nor Jennings primarily sang songs they wrote themselves–ever. And there was nothing new about Waylon singing some pop/rock songs in his mix, at any point form the 50s on.

    In a sense, Waylon was re-posititoned as a different, black leather punkier sort of singer when the Outlaw trope happened in the 70s. I never believed that it was all that much more than a change in marketing and venue direction–with some, just some change in arrangements. And basically, that was what was done with Cash by Rubin in the 90s–at a different time, and with a different set of now chic writers and songs.

    As Jon and nm are suggesting, there never was that sort of concerted, audience targeting late stage marketing and positioning push with Waylon. But he’d already’d had several before. (Folk Country King anyone?)

  6. luckyoldsun
    December 17, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    I think there was a marketing push for Waylon in the ’90s. I remember when he returned to RCA and they put out Waymore’s Blues, Part 2–almost all original songs and most of them–like the title song, “Wild One” and “old Timer”–of high quality and sung with real passion. They placed articles and advertisements in Billboard. I’m pretty sure he went on Letterman. And then the album came out and it sank like an anvil. (And then RCA once again forgot that he existed.)

    I don’t know who suffered more in their final years–Cash or Waylon–but Cash at least seemed to be happy that he was experiencing a public resurgence. Waylon seemed to be angry and bitter at the end–which was especially sad, considering that with the “Highwaymen,” Waylon was the funny, light-hearted one who got the audience in a good mood.

  7. Barry Mazor
    December 18, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Billboard ads have very little to do with the image reshaping, audience retargeting, new sonic and sound choices that were applied to Cash in his last decade. It’s just not the same thing. Nor is a “push” for one album.

  8. luckyoldsun
    December 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Well, I don’t claim to know the secret. But I don’t think that lack of marketing effort can be blamed for what happened with Waylon at the end. Maybe it was the wrong effort.

    Funny thing is, the first few albums that Cash did with Rick Rubin did not actually sell very well nationally–even though they got a lot of national media attention– (especially the first one.). I remember reading an article that the third American album might be the last one, with Cash saying that he understands that and can’t blame anybody.

    Then, the whole thing clicked–to the point that it seems to me Cash is now up there with Crosby, Armstrong, Cole, Sinatra, Elvis as recognized icons of 20th-Century male popular singing–even if he was never quite at that level during his life.

  9. Jon
    December 18, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Someone’s got a bad case of don’t bother me with the facts.

  10. luckyoldsun
    December 19, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I think it’s great that someone of your great brilliance is looking to pick a fight with me. Maybe if we ever meet, you can take a swing at me. I’d be honored.

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