One of the most enjoyable things about my job is swapping stories with other music writers about the nature of our various interviews.
It’s a fascinating thing, talking to famous people. My own experience is that the things they say to reporters can be predicated on the level of fame they’ve achieved. In other words, if they’re up-and-comers with a new label deal, their responses sound like dictation handed to them by a record label focus group. If they’re former bestsellers attempting a comeback, they like to talk about their glory days. And if they’ve achieved a certain level of Teflon fame, they say whatever the hell they please, because their legacy is cemented, their contributions well documented and, short of racist or sexist tirades that reveal a heretofore undiscovered layer of ugliness, they’re pretty much guaranteed to sell out whatever venue they play.
One of my favorite stories comes from Wayne Bledsoe, the former longtime music journalist from the Knoxville paper, who once asked the legendary Ray Charles, back during the 1980s, what he thought of the growing-in-popularity-at-the-time sound known as hip-hop. Ray’s response isn’t printable in a family publication; let’s just say he felt it left much to be desired.
Along a similar vein: When I interviewed Merle Haggard in 2006 and asked him his opinions of contemporary country music, he didn’t pull any punches: “It seems like some of them, you can put on their music and go off in another room and what you hear is screaming every 10 seconds. What in the hell? Somebody’s actually buying that? … I mean, who’s this kid? Kenny Chesney? I can’t imagine what’s going on there — that’s got to be something to do with the females, but it doesn’t appeal to me. And that hat! If that’s the real deal, then I say deal around me.”
Such fondness for storytelling probably explains a lot about my friendship with Lee Zimmerman. You probably recognize the name from stories in this very section; he’s a music journalist whose works also have graced the pages of No Depression, Goldmine, Blurt, Country Standard Time, Bluegrass Situation and American Songwriter, to name a few. He moved to Blount County in 2015, and in the four years he’s been here, he’s continued to freelance for those publications (and The Daily Times), become a welcome addition of hangers-on who help promote local artists and somehow found time to write a book.
“Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound” is the title, and throughout its pages (332 of them, featuring a number of photos by his wife, photographer Alisa Cherry), Lee does his best to lay out exactly what Americana entails. Given that the descriptor has become something of a catch-all in recent years for anything that sounds remotely roots oriented, that’s no easy task.
When it was first coined, it was interchangeable with the term alternative-country (alt-country, for short) and applied to bands that drew on roots traditions but refused to engage in major label chicanery to get heard. The Jayhawks, The Old 97’s, Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo … unless you were listening to college radio or were hip to underground publications, those names probably escaped your radar.
As Lee points out in his book, however, over time the term “Americana” has grown tendrils stretching from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans to the Piedmont to Memphis to the prairies of Texas and the American West: “In its strictest sense, it is a blanket term for bluegrass, country, mountain music, rockabilly and the blues. By a broader definition, it can encompass roots rock, country rock, singer/songwriters, R&B, and their various combinations. Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, and Tom Petty can all lay valid claims as purveyors of Americana, but so can Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, and Jason Isbell. Americana is new and old, classic and contemporary, trendy and traditional,” according to the official description on Amazon.
The thing about Lee’s book is that he doesn’t opine or wax philosophical. Like all good music writers, he lets the subjects themselves tell the story. “Americana Music” is built off of interviews with a number of titular personalities, from bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley to John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Chris Hillman of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers to members of Poco, up through contemporary torch-bearers like the Avett Brothers and Amanda Shires.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, Lee will be the man of the hour at a book-signing and celebration over at The Bird and the Book, 1509 E. Broadway Ave. in Maryville (adjacent to Southland Books). Not only can you pick up a copy and get his John Hancock on the inside cover, you can hear him read excerpts from it, and check out some of his pals that’ll play a tune or two, because what’s a book-reading/signing featuring a tome about music without some music? Mic Harrison, Pistol Creek Catch of the Day, Y’uns and Connie and the Boyz will play a song or two, Cat and Lisa (Bird and Book owners) will be selling chow, and Lee, no doubt, will be aw-shucksing his way through congratulations and effusive praise.
He’s a heck of a nice dude, a decent writer and most important for this particular soiree, he’s a great storyteller. Drop by on Saturday and enjoy yourself — and the goofy man of the hour. He’s a good pal, and I’m glad he’s a part of Blount County and our local music scene.