Tales of Bessman: How Jim Ed Brown taught me who I am

I’d been a writer probably a good five years before it dawned on me that I actually was one, that when asked what I did I should say, “I’m a writer.”

But even that was problematic, as I learned early on from Jim Ed Brown.

It was at an afternoon country music festival, I can’t remember where, maybe an hour or two out of Madison. I can’t remember the full lineup, either, but The Kendalls were hot and they were on the bill, maybe the headliners. Years later, many years later, I’d write the liner notes to Jeannie Kendall’s debut CD.

The only other act I remember was Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. Their big hig “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” was Summer of 1976, but The Kendalls’ breakthrough “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” came out in September, ’77, so this must have been Summer of ’78. I think I started writing in ’76, mostly about country music, since that’s all I was listening to then, and since no one cared about country music, I had easy access to everyone from Dolly Parton to Johnny Cash to George Jones. Can you imagine? They were all invariably thrilled that anyone was interested in them.

But when I went up to Jim Ed before he and Helen went on to see if I could talk to him after the set, since I was a writer, he was uncommonly cold. But he did say to come back after, which of course I did. And when I started asking him and Helen questions, he suddenly warmed up.

“I thought you were a songwriter!” he said, and I immediately realized that if you tell a Nashville artist you’re a writer, to them “writer” means “songwriter.” Jim Ed figured I was just another songwriter come to pitch him some songs, and he just wasn’t in the mood to do business.

But everyone else gets it wrong, too, even to this day. Tell people you’re a writer, they think you write fiction, or can write fiction, or poetry or a play or movie script. To them it’s all the same. Alas, not so. There are different kinds of writing, and rarely do they overlap.

I’m a reporter, primarily, a journalist, if you will. I report what you say. Maybe the arrangement of sentences and paragraphs is creative, but that’s about it. Novels, poetry, film and TV scripts, that’s all creative writing. I know some journalists that write novels, poetry, even hit songs. More power to them.

Me, I write formula. Beginning, middle, end. It’s much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: The story’s all there in the box, all the pieces. You just have to fit them together, but there’s only one way they fit together. It’s just a matter of time, is all.

And since I get the pieces from you I can’t claim too much credit for creativity, even if I am the one making the pieces. A journalist. A reporter.

Thanks for making me understand what I am, Jim Ed.