It’s time to look within the No Depression community and interview one of our own. Amos Perrine, based in West Virginia, not only writes but also takes wonderful photographs of musicians performing. His weekly Through The Lens column is always worth checking out. I also look forward to his photos and stories about the upcoming Americana Music Conference and Festival.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business?
Amos Perrine: Seeing Townes Van Zandt in 1969. Everyone who became acquainted with him at that time fell in love with him and his music. Then, a couple months later, attending my first music festival, the Philadelphia Folk Fest, and two more discoveries: David Bromberg and my instantaneous dislike of John Denver.
What have you done since then?
I have written for various publications during the past 45+ years. Part of me wanted to be a visual artist, but I had no talent for painting, etc. I took up photography, took a couple of classes in college, but used it just for the darkroom. Won some awards, juried exhibitions, etc. More something just to do. I also liked photography just so I’d have a few mementos from festivals. It then took on a life of its own. I picked up photography again some ten years ago, and have traveled the world in search of musical treasures from the downtown New York music scene in the 1970s to Mozart operas in Paris.
I continue the adventure I began years ago, the pursuit of music that moves me. I try to share that sense of excitement in my writing and photography. I only wish I were better at both, especially the writing.
What was the first artist or album that got you into Americana or roots music?
I would say Townes Van Zandt in 1969, but you could also say Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” being played on every AM radio station in 1965. Then, John Prine came along in 1971, and Steve Young, Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsey, Loretta Lynn, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Karen Dalton, Tom Waits, Paul Siebel, Michael Hurley, Emmylou Harris’ work with Gram Parsons, Pete Boyd when he was head of A&R at Warner, Flying Fish and Rounder Records, and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings being able to record their music their way. All that was happening by 1973. Not to mention what was happening in traditional and bluegrass, which is an entire discourse of its own.
Who are your favorite artists of all time?
Townes Van Zandt, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Lester Young, Lucinda Williams, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Johnny Hodges, Shirley Horn, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Jimmy Scott, Bill Evans, Carla Bley, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Nellie McKay, Robert Johnson, Mabel Mercer, Maria Callas, Susana Baca, Ry Cooder, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe.
How do you define what Americana music is?
As Big Bill Broonzy once said, “It’s all folk music. I’ve never seen any chickens or cows playing music.” In other words, Americana is the music folks make that has not had its soul stripped out of it by some corporate machinery.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
Nowhere but up, as I think we are living in a golden age of music. Granted there is some crap out there, sensitive coffee shop types and the posers that tag along, but if you have your ear to the ground, and are aware of what’s gone before, you can tell the difference pretty quickly.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
It’s the pursuit of music that moves me, and the continuing evolution of Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Jason Isbell, who mines the depths, the soul, and the contradictions of the South. New, as yet unreleased, albums: Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton (Nowhere in Time) who are, respectively, the Picasso of the banjo and Edna St. Vincent Millay of the fiddle; Motel Mirrors (In the Meantime), a trio of Amy LaVere, John Paul Keith, and Will Sexton who make sublime music that’s the heart of Memphis with a dash of Austin; and Applewood Road, whose 2016 UK album has just been released in the US. I am also enamored with the music scene around Ithaca, NY, that includes Richie & Rosie, Johnny Dowd, Anna Coogan, Bronwen Exter, and Mary Lorson. Lest I forget, there’s my own local scene, in West Virginia, with Blue Yonder, featuring the songwriting talents of John Lilly and the superb guitar of Robert Shafer, The Early Mays featuring Rachel Eddy, and Jesse Milnes and Emily Miller, who seamlessly fuse traditional and ’50s country.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Townes Van Zandt, knowing him, traveling, writing, and putting together a couple of college tours in 1970-71. The Townes I knew was nothing like he has been portrayed. Granted, most of those stories were after my experiences. He was a kind, gentle, humorous young man. He had an aura about him that drew you to him, into him and his songs. I was not alone. Even his minor work is gigantic. Besides that I have not talked about him that way in a very long time. It’s hard, kinda like talking about the first girl to break your heart. Not long afterwards, booking some Muddy Waters gigs, the first being my college campus.
What projects are you working on next?
I have some book offers, but I don’t see where I’d find the time. The Lens column occupies my writing time. I also work with various musicians and music organizations that keep me pretty busy, and creative photography, not to mention family, home, farm, part-time work as an attorney, and long hikes in the woods. And I still have to find time to listen to music, and see some 400 sets a year – festivals help out a lot.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
My basic thesis is that folks invariably gravitate to what they have been exposed to. I want to turn folks onto stuff that’s just around the next corner.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
Being true to myself and my instincts. I took a lot of crap from fellow critics and friends when I began writing. Their basic complaint was, “Why on earth would you review, much less, like, that hillbilly shit-kicker music?” But I have also not limited myself, as evidenced by my love of jazz and opera. Other notable “accomplishments” were being in the right places at the right times: Townes Van Zandt in a St. Marks club in June 1969, and Lucinda Williams in an Austin bar in the Spring of 1986.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
I also have a great love of cinema, foreign films, classic Hollywood, noir and independent. I helped found the two oldest international film festivals in West Virginia, served as a consultant to various other festivals and film series, taught film in New York and had several film fellowships. Not that long ago I programmed a series of Iranian films and then Asian films. I also edited a feature on cinematography that was screened during the Academy Awards some years back. I also serve as my local NPR station’s Metropolitan Opera representative.