Jack Emerson: 1960 to 2003
Jack Emerson, the pioneer, pillar, and international exporter of Nashville’s rock ‘n’ roll/Americana community, passed on to his reward at his home November 22, 2003. Emerson, who died of a heart attack at age 43, leaves behind a legacy far richer than those who sold millions more records. He was not just a musical pioneer and business entrepreneur; he was also a true modern Saint. Without consciously trying, Jack brought out the best in all those around him, and always put the good of the community above his personal needs and wants.
It will be impossible for me to not take a personal approach writing this memorial. I would not be who I am as a performer or person had it not been for Jack. What’s telling is that scores of others would say the same thing — from hard-bitten music-biz attorneys to vibe-surfing singer-songwriters.
Jack was the first person I connected with when I moved to Nashville off an Illinois hog farm in 1981. I met him in a Nashville bar called Springwater. It was punk rock night and a Sex Pistols cover band was playing. Such was the abysmal depth of Music City’s rock scene then.
Somehow Jack and I struck up a conversation. Jack stated that he felt Nashville, with the right TLC, could become a rock ‘n’ roll recording and business center, and that he intended to get that happening. He already had started his label, Praxis Records, out of his garage, and was preparing to release his first two 7-inch EPs: a compilation of Nashville punk bands called Another Side Of Nashville, and Our Favorite Band’s Pink Cadillac. I remember how another participant in the conversation laughed in his face. Jack was unfazed. With no malice intended, he calmly stated that fellow was simply wrong.
I in turn told Jack that I intended to make a band that could fuse modern rock’s energy and aggression with American roots music’s heritage and charm. Without even hearing me, right there on the spot, he offered to help me start a band! He even offered to play bass until I could find a proper bassist. Back then Nashville was not exactly crawling with cowboy punk rock bass players, so this was of fundamental advantage to me.
Together we came up with the name for this phantom band: Jason & the Nashville Scorchers. With a young law student and friend of Jack’s on guitar and the Sex Pistols cover band’s singer on drums, Jack scored us two immediate gigs. One was opening for Carl Perkins at Vanderbilt (Jack was a student there and on the concert committee); the other was opening for the brilliant new Georgia band R.E.M., who would sleep on Jack’s floor when they played Nashville.
At these gigs, Jeff Johnson and Warner Hodges saw me and offered to jump aboard the train. Jack switched over to manager, and in three months, with only his charm and enthusiasm as legal tender, we recorded and released our first EP, Reckless Country Soul. You have to remember that in those days, putting out a record was a serious and potentially expensive undertaking. On a shoestring, Jack pulled off the impossible. He would continue to do that for twenty more years.
During those critical early days, Jack stayed consistently proactive. He never allowed events to shape him. He shaped events. When no major labels would sign us, Jack, again using only his word and good intentions, orchestrated the recording of our finest work: Fervor, the mini-LP that permanently put us on the Americana music map.
As things heated up, Jack brought in Andy McLenon, his childhood friend and record svengali, and Kay Clary, another Nashville kindred spirit. Together they expanded Praxis Records into Praxis International (by God); in a few short years, they radically altered and in fact created the infrastructure of the Nashville rock and Americana community that exists to this day.
Praxis International became the management home for most of Nashville’s rock and Americana exports in the 1980s. The Sluggers released Over The Fence on Arista. Jason & the Scorchers recorded four records for EMI and A&M. The Georgia Satellites sold close to 2 million records and scored a massive hit with “Keep Your Hands To Yourself”. Praxis managed John Hiatt during his stint at A&M when he released his classic Bring The Family. The Questionnaires released Window To The World on EMI. Steve Forbert staged a dramatic return to form under their auspices.
As the ’90s dawned, Praxis morphed into more of a record company, forging relationships with Island and BMG. They released Shaver’s finest work, 1993’s Tramp On Your Street. Webb Wilder made his best records during that time, along with his movie Cornflicks. Praxis continued to find ways to release non-commercial but important artists such as Sonny Landreth. By 1995, the main players at Praxis (Emerson, McLenon and Clary) decided to semi-retire the company, although they never dissolved it, or parted from the ideas it espoused.
Jack then formed E-Squared Records with Steve Earle, recording Steve’s album I Feel Alright on “Jack’s credit card,” says Earle. During this time, most record-business insiders were terrified of Earle, but Jack saw the musical and personal potential. Steve’s career went through a tremendous rejuvenation; once again, Jack was at the center of the storm.
E-Squared shared many Praxis traits, most importantly the willingness to take on left-of-center artists. Along with Earle’s prolific mid-late ’90s run, they also released albums by Marah, the V-Roys, Cheri Knight, Bap Kennedy and 6 String Drag. During this time, Jack was also the executive producer of the soundtrack to You Can Count On Me, which won Best Picture honors at the Sundance Film Festival.
Though Emerson’s influence on Americana/alt-country/roots-rock music is central, undeniable and permanent (he was a founding member of the Americana Music Association), I think Jack will be most remembered for the intangible philosophies and ideals he stood for. Those are rather high-minded words to use in these cynical times, but Jack had no cynicism. He was a lover of music who became a music business player for all the right reasons. He had huge ambitions but no greed. With Jack, it was all about getting seemingly non-commercial music to normal folks. He understood and appreciated the importance of that work.
JWE, as many of his close friends called him, had a defined code of behavior from which he never wavered. For example, in the early ’80s, many musicians and music people were heavily into drugs and narcissistic power games. Jack consistently espoused the ideal that you could rock like the devil without selling your soul to him. He was anti-drug before that was cool, and he handled his business dealings as fairly and honestly as possible.
He stressed to his artists the absolute importance of being connected to your audience. “Don’t sit in the dressing room after the show and play the rock star trip,” he would advise. “Go out and meet your fans. Talk to them and get to know them. What you get back will be your best reward, and motivate you to tolerate all the road horrors.”
Such words were a radical alternative to the self-absorption “me” trips so prevalent at the time. Those of us who knew Jack carry these ideals onto every stage and truck bed across this world. If I had a dollar for every time I heard Jack use the word “positive,” I could retire!
Jack held all folks in the same regard, whether they were self-important record moguls or the office janitor. He somehow managed to find the humorous twist in bad news; then he’d smoke a cigar (and he hated smoke) when the news was good. We never knew him to lose his temper. He stayed close to his teenage friends even when he became a world-class music executive. He carried malice toward none. His longtime business partner and friend Andy McLenon summed it up: “He had no dark side.”
At this time of year, many of us will see the old Jimmy Stewart classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Jack Emerson was our George Bailey.