Roots Watch: Nashville’s Eddie; Nashville’s Jack
Back a lifetime or two ago when I was an undergraduate at George Washington University in DC, I was a regular deejay on the campus radio station, with a show called “Heartbreak Hotel” that featured roots rock, country music and what would have been called “Americana” if there’d been a term for it; this was circa 1970, and there wasn’t. Also an American Lit major, intending to write, I was toying with an idea for a novel centering on a country music D.J. as a mystical core of a community, more a romantic figment of my imagination of the time than a character based on any particular On-Air-Personality I was hearing. (My writing advisor, hearing this idea, responded “Country music? So you mean to satirize it!” And I responded, “No, I mean to celebrate it.” He was astonished; I soon turned in other directions.)
Eddie Stubbs is the savvy, courtly, mellow-voiced, record-presenting embodiment of the hero of the airwaves I might have attempted to make up if I’d stuck with it. His unique role and manifold contributions to country music were acknowledged on January 14th in the legend-studded broadcast celebration of his thirty years in radio you may have heard on his WSM-AM home live—and can still, here. There were standout traditional country performances in his honor by Del McCoury, Dailey & Vincent, Riders in the Sky, Jean Shepard, Gene Watson, Ricky Skaggs and Josh Turner, among others, and live salute greetings that included Ray Price, who drove up from Texas just to say his piece.
Mr. Stubbs is regularly referred to as a “walking encyclopedia” by performers and others amazed that anyone could have so much detailed history in mind. But there’s no mystery to it; Eddie knows all of those session details and stories behind the records because he’s been paying attention, because he plain cares. He reminds us listeners around the world of these details, not for love for discography trivia, but so we’ll all pay more attention to the people who made the music, the community and individual talents who should get more credit. Whether introducing unwisely forgotten hard country records, interviewing stars and semi-stars of yesteryear or today, or introducing acts on the Opry, the mellifluous Stubbs tone cutting out across the night are there to remind us, gently but forcefully, that we can and should know the stories and hearts of the people who’ve made the music.
Lanky, a little wan, somewhat inclined toward a shy, rueful countenance, and generally observed dressed in one of what are probably a lot of dark suits (as seen onscreen on The Marty Stuart Show), Eddie’s also often referred to as “resembling a mortician.” He’s well aware of this, smiles through it, even works on it a little, having, as he does, a ready wit most often let loose privately. If he’s clearly pulled toward the more spiritual and emotionally-stung side of country music, plays records that reflect it, and can be caricatured that way, anyone who follows his shows will know that he likes a good Saturday night, hard-driving, danceable shuffle about as well as the tear and not-too-much beer songs. And you’re nearly as likely to hear him play a new, contemporary artist who demonstrates the soulful qualities he goes for as some similarly disposed musician of the 1940s or ‘60s. What Eddie Stubbs really does for us all, for the community of listeners he keeps the faith are out there and can continue to be, is connect the dots for us all, between our ear and the music, between each other, too. Characteristically though, at the end of the salute, he responded quietly, “All I ever wanted to be is a good hillbilly disc jockey.”
Next week, on January 30th at the storied War Memorial Auditorium, Music City will salute another unique character and talent, one who, might seem to be Eddie’s polar opposite—the rascally, irreverent, endlessly sporty Cowboy Jack Clement. Bobby Bare, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Charley Pride, Jakob Dylan and John Prine are among those listed as slated to appear at the tribute, and you can still, I’m told, get in if you can make it—which would be an excellent idea.
From the 1950s when he was producing Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis for Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis, to the ‘60s, when he jumped to the prescient conclusion that country music might be ready, or could be readied, for Charley Pride, to the ‘70s when he ran studios that were the real home to country’s Outlaw movement (if that wasn’t simply Jack’s house), and to this day, Jack’s been first a spiritual brother, then uncle to the oddballs, misfits, misbehaved men and women of country. He’s connected the dots for and to the disconnected—while finding time to produce film and write a few little songs such as “Guess Things Happen That Way,” “It’ll Be Me,” “Just Someone I Used to Know” and “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.” He’s also a terrific, winning singer; he’s often referred to as this town’s “Pied Piper,” or, waxing Shakespearean, as he sometimes does himself, our Falstaff.
Tending toward the rotund, ruddy, endlessly and willfully jaunty, Jack’s been the personification of the unusual idea that music making and life itself are, and ought to be, fun, not painful obligations. He’s worked at this; and he’s generally seen dressed in festive Hawaiian shirts just to make sure we get the point; you just never know when a luau’s about to break out. The one-time Arthur Murray dance instructor has been on the digital airwaves too lately, a master of ceremonies for all that’s jaunty, on Sirius/XM radio’s Outlaw channel. Nobody should mistake Cowboy Jack’s playful style for anything shallow; there’s always been a quietly soulful, deep side lurking behind all that playfulness, and a touch, too, of the blues. Like Eddie Stubbs, perhaps not by coincidence, he began as a working bluegrass musician.
More than a loved then forgotten Falstaff, Jack’s been the working Friar Tuck to the merry men hidden in the Nashville forest. He’s been through a lot; when his house (welcoming, and also the model of all home studios) burned in 2011, legions expressed their support, but he’s since gotten that home of 40 years back together. Characteristically, when a salute show was suggested, he wanted any funds raised to go to working music makers in need of assistance with medical care—and so next week’s salute will be just that.
If anybody tries to tell you that all Music City has, or wants, or appreciates, is corralled, predictable talents and cookie cutter personalities, mention Nashville’s Eddie and Nashville’s Jack. Nobody could make them up; I certainly couldn’t. And nobody could replace either one.
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