Jean Shepard–An appreciation

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard, who died Sept. 25 at 82, stood well apart from other female country artists.

“Jean Shepard was a great singer and entertainer whose career spanned from the era of honky-tonk music to the present,” says acclaimed country singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell. “She was a pioneering female artist, one of the first to be honored with membership in the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1950s, and as the widow of Hawkshaw Hawkins, she was a survivor of one of the most tragic losses in country music history.”

Shepard was married to country star Hawkins, who died in the 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.

“You can hear the strength of her character in her voice, which was bold and hard-edged like the honky-tonks she started performing in as a teenager, but could also be surprisingly tender and sweet,” notes Cantrell. “It was that range as a singer that drove her recording career, kept her a favorite on the Opry stage for almost 60 years, and ensured her inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame just a few years ago.”

Shepard’s career took off in 1953, when she was 18 and sang the refrain of Ferlin Husky’s heartbroken recitation “A Dear John Letter.”

Her solo 1950s hits included “A Satisfied Mind,” “Beautiful Lies” and “I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me,” and her 1954 LP Songs of a Love Affair was country music’s first female “concept” album. Throughout her career she remained a country music purist, eschewing the more refined “countrypolitan” pop sound of the ‘70s.

Her last Top 10 hit came in 1973 with “Slippin’ Away,” which reached No. 4. It was one of many Bill Anderson songs recorded by Shepard, and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame/Grand Ole Opry member Anderson, posting on his website, surmised that he had known her longer than he had any other country artist.

He recalled their initial “infamous” radio interview backstage in Athens, Ga., in 1956, as well as the night in 2015 when he introduced her on the occasion of her 60th anniversary as an Opry member; within that span “there wasn’t a time when Jean wasn’t a part of my life,” he wrote—“a big part.”

Indeed, when Anderson started a syndicated TV show in 1965, Shepard was his first featured female vocalist.

“When she was looking for a song with which to begin a new recording career at United Artists Records, she chose one of mine called ‘Slippin’ Away,’” he said. “Later, when she was looking for an idea from which to build a ‘concept’ album around, she chose to honor me with a 12-song collection of nothing but songs I had written–songs that have never been sung any better than Jean Shepard sang them.”

Anderson recalled touring with Shepard “in the days when we worked the old package shows inside the new sports arenas that were springing up around the country back in the ‘60s. Before the shows, we all dressed in the hockey players’ or the basketball players’ locker rooms with absolutely no privacy [and] you knew it was getting close to show time when Jean Shepard’s voice would echo across the room, ‘Turn your heads, boys, I’m a-changin’ clothes. And if you don’t turn your heads, I’m changin’ ’em anyway!’”

Shepard, he concluded, “was talented, funny, opinionated, passionate, and genuine to the core. You might not always agree with her, but you always knew where she stood. She loved traditional country music, and didn’t have a lot of patience with those who didn’t. She was outspoken to a fault at times, and that might have delayed her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame for a while. But her sheer talent was undeniable: She, along with Kitty Wells, pioneered country music for women–and there finally came a time in 2011 when the voters couldn’t deny her contributions any longer.”

Tales of Bessman: Garth Brooks and the new Adele video

If I wasn’t the first I most surely was among the first reviewers of music videos, having critiqued them at the short-lived Rock Video magazine–edited by Danny Fields–back in the early ’80s. I also did a sort of Siskel & Ebert thing for Nashville’s Music Row trade magazine, in which I was invariably the curmudgeon opposite another reviewer (Bob Paxman, a nice guy, which I most assuredly wasn’t) who 99.9 percent of the time disagreed with me.

Let me just say that while there’s nothing like a great music video, virtually none of them are great, and most of them are just plain shite. We had an okay thing going for a while at Music Row until I got an angry email from a low level music video production house staffer taking issue with my review of one of its productions. I remember it was a stupid letter, and I responded stupidly: She forwarded my letter to Music Row’s editor—remember: this was a trade magazine—and I was out on my ass.

I don’t remember that video or exactly what I said in my letter. I also don’t remember the video that prompted my dear late friend Sherman Halsey–who directed Tim McGraw’s videos–to bust up laughing when he read it in-flight: “I can’t believe a reputable music writer used the word ‘barf’ in a review!” he told me (italics are mine).

The only video review I remember is my trashing of Garth Brooks’ controversial clip to “The Thunder Rolls”—which of course went on to win the 1991 Country Music Association award for Video of the Year—even though it had been banned by TNN and CMT due to violent content.

The video, like the song, had to do with a cheating suburban husband who returns home to his wife on a stormy night when “A strange new perfume blows/And the lightnin’ flashes in her eyes/And he knows that she knows/And the thunder rolls.”

And she guns him down.

Garth played the husband and locked ridiculous with a beard and mustache, later explaining that he wanted viewers to find him so despicable that they’d want to shoot him as well; as such, he appeared in marked contrast to the intercut performance footage, where he was shown as his country boy self singing the song clean-shaven and wearing his cowboy hat. I looked all over for the video and was only able to find an upside-down and backwards image copy at this site.

My contention–and it was emphatic, as I recall–was that a whiff of strange new perfume was not grounds for murder. My negative review was later quoted in an early Garth bio–and not as a compliment.

I was in Nashville shortly after my review was published, and was invited to Garth’s managers’ office for some sort of press party or reception. I don’t remember if it was Garth-related, but he was there—and not particularly happy to see me.

Now I’d known Garth from the beginning, having been old friends with one of his managers. I had breakfast with him in New York before his breatkthrough hit “Friends in Low Places” from the preceding year, so I went over to him and extended my hand. He shook it, but not without expressing his disappointment over my review.

I think I was more surprised that he’d even seen it than uncomfortable by his reaction, and stammered something to the effect that it had hardly hindered his superstardom. Looking back now, it was just another oddity in his Country Music Hall of Fame career, like his ill-fated Chris Gaines rock star alter-ego experiment, his aborted retirements, his habit of referring to himself in the third person and his wife as “Miss Yearwood.”

There’s no denying, of course, that he earned his superstardom—and Country music Hall of Fame recognition. He remains the biggest star ever in country music—unless you consider Taylor Swift country.

And I always remember his kindness to my dear Minnie Pearl (he named ), his loyalty to the Grand Ole Opry, that time at Fan Fair–when it was still at the Fairgrounds–when he signed autographs for 24 hours straight, and how he’s always remembered me since–in a good way.

I thought of Garth yesterday when I gave in to the hype and joined 57 million others in watching Adele’s video for “Hello,” released barely two days ago. And once again the thunder rolled.

Well, maybe it didn’t roll, but the rain falls pretty hard throughout “Hello,” which like most every video in rock, pop or country, has, besides rain, a steamy romance that’s falling apart, up to and sometimes past the point of murder.

I watched it twice. The first time was on a site I found on Twitter, that had it, but counted the time backwards, unlike YouTube, which goes forwards. Hence I had to sit there while six minutes and six seconds of my life ticked off backwards, second by second, never to return. The second time I watched it on YouTube, only to see the lost seconds pile up.

Six minutes and six seconds! For a music video!

I mean, this ain’t Citizen Kane we’re talking about, though after two minutes waiting for the song hook–which I’m still waiting for, by the way–it was starting to feel like Birth of a Nation—especially as the first 20 seconds of the black-and-white clip are silent. Then you hear Adele on a flip phone–that’s right, a flip phone!–losing her signal because she’s way out in the sticks. Nice nails and windblown hair, though!

She opens a creaky door to an apparently long-vacant house with covered furniture full of dust, and it’s like an old horror film–which it’s becoming more and more like as more and more seconds go by without any music; indeed, she seems to go into a trance until the first piano notes finally sound at 1:15. Then she turns on the gas, brews some tea, lots of unfocused shots suddenly focus and I have a headache.

There’s a flash cut of a man smiling. She opens the door and goes through papers on a desk, picks up a desk phone and makes a call, and since nothing much is going on in the song of melodic or lyric interest I’m straining to hear what she’s saying–since you can hear the conversation! Not even she respects the song!

More flashing to the guy, who happens to be black—-messing up the Birth of a Nation analogy.

And he’s in the rain! But then he’s inside cooking a big pan of something or other, presumably during happier times, the couple’s happy talk now audible. But suddenly she’s outside in sharp focus and now singing in full music video anguish. Then it’s back to boyfriend, now smiling–but he can’t keep his trap shut even as her beautifully manicured hands grab his cheeks, either to caress or stifle him. C’mon, man! This is her big comeback song, for Chrissake! He turns away angrily, now in the parking lot and the pouring rain–and the whole fucking thing is only half over!

Cut to an antiquated phone booth in the middle of the woods covered with vines and leaves in what passes for surrealism in music videos. That the handset is dangling indicates symbolism, I guess, but I never did understand Bergman.

Some crosscutting between her singing and an agitated encounter with the guy, who’s either throwing clothes at her or getting hit by the ones she’s throwing at him. Cut to her on the phone and a tear runs down her cheek, or maybe it’s my cheek now–four minutes deep, now, with no end in sight.

Cut back to Adele singing outdoors and apologizing. Cut to me and I’m not accepting it–er, cut to him back in the rainy parking lot and he’s not accepting it. Only thing missing is Miley Cyrus flying in on a wrecking ball, grabbing Adele and dragging her out of the wind back in the woods.

It ends with her looking down at him from an upstairs window. It’s not raining. He’s speaking on his own flip phone and is clearly much younger than her, his forearm full of tatts. He’s not happy. She’s not happy. I’m not happy.

Except that at least I have a smartphone–and I’m sorely tempted to call Music Row.

Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

After finding out Friday that the Grand Ole Opry House has joined the Ryman Auditorium in the National Register, I hastily knocked off a little piece for reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Among them was that then President Richard Nixon attended the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974.

I left out that it was nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency, as he would resign on August 9. In his hopelessly awkward, embarrassing and clearly guilt-ridden way, he was blatantly seeking what was likely his last refuge: at best a conservative audience that was still in his corner, at worst a bunch of hillbillies who probably saw him as too liberal. Who else but Roy Acuff introduced him, and he played piano and sang, and Tricky Dick notwithstanding, clumsily clowned with Roy’s yo-yo.

I made my first trip to Nashville two years later, and by the time President George H.W. Bush became the next sitting president to visit the Opry House—for the 1991 CMA Awards show—I was an Opry regular. In fact, I was either four rows in back and two seats to the left of President and Barbara Bush, or six rows back, two seats left. I can’t remember exactly because I was so stoned when I got there, as was my tradition at all black-tie events Nashville. Probably four rows, because I used to sick-joke that two rows closer and I’d have been within strangling distance.

It was at the height of my career then, and the CMA and Opry took care of me good. I do remember that everyone attending the show had submitted their Social Security numbers well in advance, for vetting by the Secret Service. Still, there were no metal detectors, and I didn’t feel like I was being surveilled at all, especially after it dawned on me that by constantly bending over and setting my notebook, pen, or program on the floor and picking them up again, it might well have looked like I was, say, assembling some kind of makeshift weapon.

I ran this thought past my pal Bill Carter, the next day, the Bill Carter who was the ex-Kennedy Secret Service agent who had taken Marina Oswald into protective custody immediately after the assassination, and who is on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir for fixing his and the other Stones’ legal troubles from the 1970s on.

“Oh, they were watching you from the moment you walked in!” Bill reassured me.

I couldn’t find a video of Nixon at the Opry House to post with my piece, so I settled on Minnie Pearl’s performance from that night. Here it is again:

“Come to see us at our new house!” Minnie implored. “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one of them!”

She looks so adorable, doesn’t she? Beautiful in fact. She’d have been 61 then—a year younger than I am now. The hillbilliest person you can imagine, but you know it was total shtick: Born in the small mid-Tennessee town of Centerville, she was the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumberman, and graduated from what is now Belmont University in Nashville, then its most prestigious school for young ladies. She majored in theater studies, and taught dance for several years after graduation.

She went on to join a touring theater company out of Atlanta, producing and directing plays and musicals while creating her Minnie Pearl character, which she introduced in 1939, then brought to the Opry the following year. And while she played a hillbilly to the hilt, she stood up for the induction of harmonica legend DeFord Bailey—the Opry’s first African-American performer—into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which finally happened posthumously in 2005.

Minnie was also adored by the likes of Dean Martin and Paul Reubens, who brought his Pee Wee Herman character to a Minnie Pearl tribute show in 1992—a year after she suffered a stroke. I had seen her regularly at the Opry up until then, and always worshipfully said hi.

An Opry regular myself, I was particularly close to Grandpa Jones, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis and Porter Wagoner—now also all gone—and Bill Anderson and Riders in the Sky–among the still living.

One time, not long before her stroke in June, 1991, Minnie appeared at the Jim Halsey Company’s annual hang at his Music Row office the afternoon of the CMA Awards. Agent/manager Jim Halsey had worked with everyone from Minnie to Roy Clark, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, James Brown and the Oak Ridge Boys, and still works with the Oaks.

Jim’s son Sherman was a pal, and a talented and successful music video director and a wonderful guy. Sadly, he died, too, a year and a-half ago. When I got to Jim’s office that afternoon, I immediately hooked up with Sherman, and we both made a beeline to Minnie, who was leaving with her husband Henry Cannon. Sherman would have known Minnie all his life, but he was no less enthralled in her presence as I was. We just stood there, hanging on her every word, beaming ecstatically.

“Did you boys smoke pot?” she finally asked.

“No, Minnie,” I said, “but you can be sure we will before the show!”

Minnie was bedridden following her stroke. At first she was tended to at home. For some reason, I felt compelled to see if I could visit her, and for some reason, they let me. I went out to the house—a large estate home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion–but I don’t remember much about the visit.

Soon after, she was moved to a nursing home. My understanding was that Henry was very stern about who could visit her, and that I most certainly didn’t qualify. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

I’d become friendly with Minnie’s assistant, and it was through her that I managed to sneak in to see her every time I was in town, which at that time was three times a year. It was all done very secretly: She’d let me know when was a good time to go, usually mid- to late afternoon, when no one else was there. And sure enough, I’d get there and Minnie would be alone. The nursing staff expected me, and maybe Minnie did, too.

I say maybe, because Minnie was a stroke victim: She was partly paralyzed, and I was never really sure how great her grasp was on reality. I mean, we’d talk about what she’d been doing, and she’d say something like how much Garth Brooks loved her and had been in to see her the day before, which most certainly could have been true—he did in fact name his first daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks—and that the day before that she’d been in New York, which most certainly wasn’t. And that’s how it was with her: She talked nonstop, going back and forth from presumed reality to assured fantasy, and I had to hold on for dear life not only to keep up but to keep her going.

One time—I think it was the last time–she was in the day room when I got there. She was having a bad day. We started talking and she started crying, and the nurses looked on, like maybe I should leave.

“Oh, he don’t give a shit!” she said, and I had to bite my tongue not to bust up laughing—out of respect, of course, and undying love. They then gave me the ultimate honor of pushing her bed, wheels unlocked, through the hall and back to her room.

It was dark when I left, and as I walked to my rental car, I faced the ultimate horror: Henry!

Henry Cannon was really the perfect Southern Gentleman. Serious and polite, he ran an air charter service for country stars including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I’d met him a few times but never really knew him. But I knew he knew me.

I was leaving, he was coming. We met in the parking lot halfway to my car.

“I want to thank you for always remembering Minnie and coming to see her,” Henry said softly. “I know it means a lot to her.”

I was so dumbfounded I don’t remember what I said, or that I said anything.

Minnie died on March 4, 1996, from complications from another stroke. She was 83.

Nixon was 81 when he died almost two years before Minnie. That they were both at the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974 was probably all they had in common.

In memoriam, 2014

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

Tales of Bessman: Jimmy C. Newman and his Cajun Joke

I still consider myself a Grand Ole Opry groupie, even if I haven’t been to the Opry now in years.

Used to get there three, sometimes four times a year. Parked in the artists’ lot and hung out backstage with Roy, Minnie, Porter, Grandpa. They’re all gone and now so is Jimmy C. Newman.

“Folks often tell me that my dad is one of the nicest folks in country music. Jimmy C. Newman was, too!” George Hamilton V told me, and both he and the folks who told him so were right.

“He was the water mark in leadership of being a professional musician who followed his own path, believed in his culture and his vision,” said BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet. “And he always had a joke going that kept everyone around him uplifted in the spirit of the moment in doing and being the best they could be in any situation.”

He had a special joke for me every time I greeted him backstage at the Opry, though it wasn’t so much a joke as a code.

“Bessyl’s out in the parking lot checking the tires,” he said. “You better go help him.”

Jimmy C.’s longtime accordionist Bessyl Duhon, son of Cajun fiddle great Hector Duhon—and why couldn’t I have been named Hector, or Bessyl, or at the very least, Jimmy C.?—was indeed out in the parking lot, but he surely wasn’t checking the tires, if you catch my splift.

“I always encouraged my band to smoke pot,” Jimmy explained to me many years ago. “When they drank, they tore up the bus!”

He was speaking mainly of Rufus, I think. Rufus Thibideaux. The legendary Cajun fiddler who played with everyone from Bob Wills to Neil Young—I saw him when Neil played at the pier across from the Intrepid in 1985, I think, when Young was touring with the top Nashville session players he used on Old Ways–and played with Jimmy from 1952 pretty much up until his death in 2005.

I loved Rufus, but Rufus was from a different part of the culture. He used to tell me N-word jokes backstage at the Opry and I laughed, heartily, out of respect to him. He was already an old man, his prejudices ingrained, and by this point, harmless; after all, he was a fiddler.

Jimmy C. never told jokes like that, at least not in my presence. He truly was one of the nicest folks in country music. I’m proud I wrote the liner notes to his 1991 album Alligator Man, and was there to extol the merits of his last album, Jimmy C. Newman Sings Swamp Country.