Roots Watch: Country Icons and Family Legacies
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.
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