Q&A with veteran musician/producer Jim Rooney -- a pioneer in the genre that would come as "Americana"

"I think that in the modern urban digital world that we need more than ever to remember our human qualities. We need to laugh. We need to cry. We need direct contact with each other."

Jim Rooney: A Musical Odyssey in Roots

Jim Rooney has been involved in music ever since he first appeared on the WCOP “Hayloft Jamboree” as a teenager in Boston in 1954. He has been a musical partner of banjoist Bill Keith for over fifty years and played an important part in the folk revival of the ‘60’s, managing the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass, and then becoming a Director of and the talent coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival. Jim also worked as a tour manager and stage manager for the Newport Jazz Festival and produced the first New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1968. In 1970 Jim moved to Woodstock, NY, where he managed the Bearsville Sound Studios for Albert Grossman and was a member of The Woodstock Mountains Revue. Since 1976 Jim has worked in Nashville, TN as a musician, songwriter, recording engineer, Grammy-winning record producer and partner in a successful music publishing company, Forerunner Music. Jim is best known for his record production with Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Iris DeMent, Hal Ketchum, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, and Peter Rowan.                                     Photo © by Jim McGuire

In 2009 he received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Americana Music Association for his work as an engineer/producer. Jim has written two books about music: “BOSSMEN: BILL MONROE & MUDDY WATERS” (JRP Books) and “BABY LET ME FOLLOW YOU DOWN: THE ILLUSTRATED STORY OF THE CAMBRIDGE FOLK YEARS,” co-written with Eric Von Schmidt (University of Massachusetts Press). The year 2014 will see the release of Jim’s memoir “IN IT FOR THE LONG RUN” (University of Illinois Press), which will provide details of the folk music boom of the latter half of the 20th Century - its milestones, personalities, and aftermath - from one who has lived to tell the tale.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The first blues singer I heard was not black, but the white "hillbilly" singer, Hank Williams. He grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and definitely heard black street singers and black gospel music. One of his hits, "The Lovesick Blues," was originally recorded by Emmett Miller, a black bluesman. Although I was only 14 years old when I first heard Hank Williams in 1952, something about the blues spoke to my heart. I can't explain it really except that I loved to sing those songs that Hank sang.

How do you describe Jim Rooney sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I started out singing "hillbilly" music, copying artists like Hank Williams and Hank Snow. Later I got into "bluegrass" music and was very influenced by the singing of Lester Flatt. So I guess my style is based on those two singers. I also listened to a wide range of singers, mainly from the Southern states, both black and white--people like Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rodgers, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe. Later on I followed modern country singers like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Don Williams. The music I liked was simple and direct. I learned to sing and play guitar and came up with a style which suited me. Eventually I wrote my own songs.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?              Photo © by Jim McGuire

A major figure in my life was "Cowboy" Jack Clement. I met him in April of 1976 and as a result moved to Nashville. Like many others, I had recorded some of my songs and went to Nashville to try my luck. Through a friend, I met Jack. He especially liked one of my songs "Only The Best", and that was a big thrill for me. Jack had started at Sun Records in Memphis where he recorded and wrote songs for Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. He moved to Nashville where he produced 13 albums for Charlie Pride, the first black country music star. Jack gave me many opportunities, the biggest being that he encouraged me to learn the recording process. I was his main recording engineer for several years, which led me into producing records for many artists who we now include in the "Americana" category--John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent. One of Jack Clement's favorite sayings was, "If you're not having fun, you're not doing your job right!" We worked hard to make sure we were having fun.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I like about all of the music which has influenced me--Hillbilly, Blues, Country, Folk, Old Time, Jazz--is that it affects me directly and speaks to my heart and stirs my emotions. I think that in the modern urban digital world that we need more than ever to remember our human qualities. We need to laugh. We need to cry. We need direct contact with each other. This is the appeal of roots music especially to young people today. 

Playing and making music for a living can sometimes be quite challenging. You have to really love it to do it for a lifetime. I have spent my last dollar more than once, but I never gave up. Music meant that I could express my emotions. I've gotten some good songs out of having my heart broken. Music helps us get through hard times and makes the good times even better.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Folk with Blues and continue to Jazz and Americana?

Music has enabled me to travel to many different countries and has enabled me to have many friends for life. People who play music are very generous and have big hearts. We all help and support each other. I feel very lucky to have chosen this path in life.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the famous Newport Folk Festival?               Photo © by Jim McGuire

I have been very fortunate to get to know such musical giants as Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters. From each of them I learned about how to listen and incorporate different sounds into your own style. I learned about the discipline and hard work it takes to be the best.

They worked hard for what they achieved and created music which has gone all over the world.

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I am now 77 years old and have been following a musical path since I was 14. The artists I admire played music for their whole life. That is what I want to do and will continue to do as long as I am able. It's been a very rewarding life.

Jim Rooney - Official website

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