THROUGH THE LENS: Legends of Roots Music
Emmylou Harris - Photo by Bryan Bolea
This week we continue our “photos of the week” theme. While last week’s column looked at women artists leading the way in roots music, this week we feature a sampling — just a sampling — of legends in the genre that ND photographers have seen in concert in the past month or so.
This week is also somewhat personal. As I have often been asked about how I first became involved with roots music, a couple of reminiscences are included below, along with a special note of appreciation of Jim Brock for going above and beyond.
In 1969 I went to visit a friend in Philadelphia for a few weeks and ended up staying for a couple of years. My buddy wrote for the Philadelphia Free Press and invariably I hung around the office a lot. Eventually, they got tired of me just being there for no reason, so the editor asked me to cover the club circuit, both there and in New York.
My first festival, later that year, was the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where I saw many of my faves, including Muddy Waters and Jerry Jeff Walker. As much as I liked Walker, I came away a bigger fan of his accompanist, David Bromberg. He was astounding even then at age 23.
The following summer I caught Bromberg during a live radio broadcast in the WBAI-FM studio in New York. He was not the lead then either, but instead was accompanying a vocalist I was unfamiliar with: Emmylou Harris. The set began well enough, but my ears perked up when Harris included two Townes Van Zandt songs. I had met Van Zandt the previous year, instantly became a fan, and wrote an article on him. So anyone who liked him was immediately on my A-list, and I began following her as well, including during her stint with Gram Parsons.
I was not able to catch Harris again on her own again ’til 1975, not long after after Pieces of the Sky was released. I was back home visiting my parents when I learned that she and the Hot Band would be playing an amusement park in rural West Virginia, not too far away, on July 4. That solidified Harris’ hold on me. I have never let go.
During college I had extremely few indulgences. One was a subscription to an English publication, Melody Maker. There I became aware of many artists long before they, or their records, made it to the US, including Pink Floyd, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention. Sadly, Drake never made it over.
Working songs by Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan in alongside traditional English tunes, Fairport was the epitome of British folk rock. At the band’s heart were Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. When they left I began following them more so than the band. Denny would go on to write some classic songs and make some great albums on her own before she died way too young in 1978 at the age of 31. Her voice remains a high-water mark even today.
Thompson went on to even greater heights. Following a solo album, he made quite a few records with his then-wife Linda. While those records did not sell that well at the time, they became collector’s items with music critics. Their shows always sold out, and their gigs at New York’s Bottom Line club were filled with the who’s who of the city’s musicians in rock, jazz and folk — and critics too, of course.
After their marriage ended, Richard Thompson continued writing more great songs. Perhaps the best known one, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” was recorded by another legend, Del McCoury. Not only did McCoury’s recording win many awards in the bluegrass field, his fans still clamor to hear “the motorcycle song” at his concerts. Thompson’s prowess and reputation is so immense that in 2012 he became the first non-American to win the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association.
My enthusiasm for Thompson also got me into a bit of trouble. In 2006 Paste magazine published one of its many “100 Best” lists, this time on living songwriters. My comments that the list did not include Stephen Sondheim (arguably the best) and identified Thompson at only number 63(!) got me banned for life from commenting on future social media posts. Don’t get me wrong, I knew some of the early folks at Paste, and continue to admire their promotion of roots music, but it also appears that they can be rather thin-skinned.
The Rolling Stones
A special note of appreciation for the lengths a photographer will go to to get a photo goes to Jim Brock. As Jim was not able to get his professional camera into a recent Rolling Stones show, he went out and purchased a Lumix ZS50 camera (basically a point and shoot with a nice zoom lens) to get some shots. Many thanks to Jim for sharing three of those photos with us.
Now, photos by Jim Brock, Willa Stein, Todd Gunsher, Kirk Stauffer, Mark J. Smith, C. Elliott, Mary Andrews, Eric Ring, Bryan Bolea, Rick Davidson, Peter Dervin, and Jim Gavenus. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.