Country singer, songwriter, honky-tonk hero
Although Nashville was established as "Music City USA" in the 1950s, it wasn't until the early '60s that Hank Cochran (along with such contemporaries as Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson and Willie Nelson, to name a few) changed the tenor of country music and launched the true ascendancy of the songwriter in Nashville. But unlike the generation that followed them, this group had a first-hand knowledge of the poverty and misery that fed country music's roots, as well as a direct connection to the powerful dream that lay at the core of hillbilly stardom.
Born in Isola, Miss., in 1935, Cochran's early years were spent shuffled between various relatives and orphanages that he ran away from on several occasions. By the early 1950s, he'd already worked as an oil-rigger out West, and he had no intentions of going back to it. So the teenage musician had made his way to California, where he teamed up with Eddie Cochran (no relation) as the hillbilly duo the Cochran Brothers, cutting a handful of early rockabilly sides.
But stardom came calling for Eddie Cochran, who found success and then rock 'n' roll martyrdom, while Hank found his future in songwriting and Nashville. In 1960, he had already placed several songs with artists when he co-wrote "I Fall to Pieces" with Harlan Howard, which Patsy Cline turned into a No. 1 hit.
Cochran continued to turn out one epochal hit after another, from Cline's "She's Got You" to Eddy Arnold's "Make the World Go Away," bringing a fresh sophistication to his tales of country heartbreak. But he and his fellow musicians weren't seeking stardom for stardom's sake. Music promised not only the hope of a better life, but a success beyond the imaginings of any dirt-poor kid from Mississippi.
The night before Hank Cochran died from pancreatic cancer, close friends visited him, playing and singing songs. Even in his final hours he tried to join in the chorus. Music had carried him to a better place before, and even now, the music still worked its magic.
Singer, songwriter, bandleader, Nashville R&B giant
Having long injected charisma and nuance into performances on both sides of the Atlantic, Nashville-based R&B singer Earl Gaines remained a strong and expressive vocalist up until his death at age 74 on the final day of 2009. It was a final crushing blow in a year of incalculable losses to the city's R&B legacy — not just the death of Johnny Jones, the famed blues guitarist who played on Gaines' records, but of Gaines' lifelong best friend, songwriter, producer and label chief Ted Jarrett.
Forming the core of his legacy is the 1955 classic "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)," a jaunty shuffle on Excello Records by Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers that showcased a young Gaines on lead vocal. The Nashville-recorded hit, his breakthrough, quickly put Gaines on stages from the Ryman Auditorium to Carnegie Hall.
Gaines went on to create an underappreciated catalog of Southern soul gems billed under his own name. As a vocalist, he masterfully exercised tasteful restraint while building and releasing emotional tension in simmering performances. "Best of Luck to You," "Don't Take My Kindness for a Weakness," "From Warm to Cool to Cold," and his catchy "White Rose" petroleum jelly jingle — no less — are just a few of his recordings that are revered today by R&B aficionados.
Gaines strove to do things right, or else not do them at all. He lived to perform, but he rarely used unbuttoned pickup bands when that would have been the easy thing to do. Nor was he quick to jump on stages during loose local "blues jams." For this wise and dapper bandleader chose his moments carefully. Weathering the dry periods when a live audience was rare, he waited for those opportunities when he could handpick and rehearse his musicians, eager to employ robust horn sections and the finest players, though it might mean less dough in his own pocket after divvying the night's pay.
Gaines was the consummate professional — a dignified, high-principled class act, 24 hours a day.
Singer, songwriter and native Nashvillian Bobby Hebb, who died on Aug. 3, 2010, will be remembered by most people for only one thing: his 1966 hit song "Sunny." But what a song it is. Recorded hundreds of times, it remains one of the most performed compositions of all time, according to music publisher BMI. Frank Sinatra recorded it; Ella Fitzgerald recorded it; James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Cher and Nancy Wilson all recorded it. But if any version continues to echo in our ears today, it is Hebb's own.
As sung by Hebb, "Sunny" is a love song, as pure and direct as any ever written, but its enduring beauty lies in the fact that the object of the singer's affection could be anyone — a lover, a child, a family member, a dear friend. Hebb wrote the song in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the stabbing death of Hebb's elder brother and mentor, Harold. But in his own discursive way, looking back through years of personal history, he described the song as a prayer for peace. "Very few people knew what I really meant when I said 'Sunny,' because it can be taken quite a few ways," he told me once in an interview at Sevier Park, just down the road from where he grew up.
Though he spent many years away from Nashville, living at various times in Chicago, New York and Massachusetts, and crossing paths with some of popular music's greatest talents, Hebb's life began here, and it ended here. And few lives connected the diverse strands of this city's musical history better than his. He grew up performing gospel music with his parents and siblings. As a youth, he performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Roy Acuff and got songwriting tips from Hank Williams. As an adult, he became an active participant in the city's bustling R&B scene, recording with legendary WLAC DJ John "R" Richbourg and playing on sessions for the Excello label.
Hebb's deeply soulful recording of the country standard "A Satisfied Mind" shows that he never forgot those Nashville roots, and that he understood implicitly the deep familial ties that connect country, R&B and pop music. Just as significantly, the song embodies the very idea he expressed so eloquently in "Sunny" — that we have no greater purpose in life than to love and be loved. Our world is richer by far for his having been a part of it.
Guitarist, frontman, Four Hundred; product specialist, Gibson Guitars
Silly, confused, boastful, touchy-feely, overwhelming, thoughtful: These are the ways I remember Eric Marlow. I have saved a voicemail he left me before he died in June; on the voicemail he said something ridiculous and then giggled his mischievous laugh. I saved that voicemail so I could hear his laugh anytime I want. We used to get into trouble back in the '80s and '90s, when he had his band Four Hundred. I remember late nights at the Gold Rush or Elliston Place with him crying on my shoulder, and me trying to soak up his emotion. Eric was delighted with the unexpected, and he reveled in surprising people. If you got him to open up to you, you would find out little hidden snippets about him, like his martial arts skills, his amazing guitar playing, his strange tattoos, the depth of his intellectual knowledge, his passion for art. If you passed his test and accepted his idiosyncrasies, you were under his wing forever. If he loved you, it was unconditional, like a dog.
His wife Emily shared with me a great memory about Eric: "He had a tattoo on his wrist — a Japanese symbol — that translated roughly into, 'There is only this moment, there is only now.' He initially got it so he could look down at it while playing guitar and performing, to remind himself of this when he got nervous. But he actually lived what he felt in each moment — good or bad — and he never apologized for it. I will forever attribute Eric to teaching me that. It is how we should all live. We are not promised tomorrow. Our time together was shorter than most, but we crammed an awful lot of laughter and love into that space."
God, how I miss his laugh.
Singer, guitarist, session player
No city in the world is home to a greater concentration of yeoman musicians than Nashville. Those players who spend endless hours in studios, on tour buses and onstage supporting major acts rarely become household names, but they are ultimately the lifeblood of the industry. And while singer and guitarist Will Owsley, who died of an apparent suicide on April 30, certainly racked up enough recording credits and tour miles to be among the cream of that hallowed crop, he was a respected artist in his own right.
Owsley first showed up on the Nashville radar as a guitarist in Judson Spence's band in the late 1980s. In the early '90s he co-founded The Semantics with Jody Spence and Millard Powers, who now plays bass with Counting Crows. (Ben Folds played keys for a stint and Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey was a later band member.) The band recorded their debut, Powerbill, for Geffen in 1993, but the deal fell into the major-label black hole. Powerbill was finally released in Japan three years later, where it sold over 20,000 copies, despite the fact that the band had already broken up. And fortuitously, the album fell into the hands of contemporary Christian music superstar Amy Grant, who loved the record and asked Owsley to join her touring band — a collaboration that would continue for the 16 remaining years of Owsley's life.
With the money he was earning with Grant and in session work, he built his own home recording studio, where he recorded his solo debut, Owsley, released on Giant Records in 1999. He earned a Grammy nomination for his engineering on the album, a well-received collection of striking power-pop. He released a follow-up, The Hard Way, in 2004. Meanwhile, his schedule was quickly filling up with work for a wide variety of artists — from Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Michael McDonald to Clay Aiken, the Neville Brothers and Kenny Loggins.
I only met Owsley once, at a vintage guitar show in the late '90s, where we had a brief discussion of the merits of some particular guitar effect pedal that escapes me now. I'd only been in town a few months, but I already knew who he was, and sought his advice. His was one of those names — like Kenny Vaughan, Michael Rhodes, Kenny Malone or Dennis Crouch, to name a few — that commanded respect among the tight-knit community of players and producers who make Music City tick. His music and presence will be sorely missed.
The following is excerpted from a Scene account of Bianca Paige's memorial service last September:
In June, Bianca Paige, the Pantomime Rage, succumbed to lymphoma after a two-decade reign as Nashville's pre-eminent drag queen. It was the last transformation left for Mark Middleton, a kid from Paducah, Ky., who reinvented himself as a slinky diva with a gloriously filthy aside for every occasion. Last Friday night, several hundred friends — along with a veritable convention of drag performers — gathered at the Vanderbilt Plaza for the best kind of memorial service: one with a cash bar, a men's choir singing "Over the Rainbow," and a pair of Tammy Wynette's amber tortoiseshell sunglasses up for auction in the lobby.
She became an out-and-proud icon in a city where, just a couple decades before, gay men were routinely rousted by police and fired if their sexuality was discovered. Even at Juanita's, the 1960s Commerce Street nightspot often acknowledged as Nashville's first gay bar, patrons were rapped with a stick if they so much as held hands below the bar.
Bianca Paige, on the other hand, could not be contained.
"She made people feel comfortable with who they are," says David Taylor, one of the entrepreneurs behind Church Street's booming gay club district. "She was the first drag queen a lot of people ever saw." Among them was Brent Davis, who saw her the first time he ever visited a gay bar: the old downtown Connection, in 1992. The diva later accepted his nervously offered dinner invitation — they went to Red Lobster — and Davis remembers going to her house for yearly Halloween parties "so crowded you couldn't swing a pubic hair."
When Paige learned she was HIV-positive, she put her force-of-nature stage presence and sandpapery voice to use as an activist, reportedly raising more than $1 million for AIDS-related charities. "When she found out she had HIV, she didn't run away from it, she ran toward a microphone," says Michael Fox, waiting in the congested lobby for the ballroom doors to open.
The evening's honoree, somewhat eerily, was visible all evening on video, both as subdued Mark Middleton and as Bianca, pulling off a dynamite pantomime to Shirley MacLaine's full-tilt tantrum from
The Turning Point. But her presence was felt more keenly offscreen. Everywhere you looked, there were men in foot-high Mohawks, gay cowboys in tight white shirts and butt-hugging jeans, and drag queens in full peacock splendor. Even before the gathering adjourned to a midnight block party that cordoned off part of Church Street, it was clear that Bianca Paige had bent the city to her will.
Country singer, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame
Hailing from Roy Acuff's hometown of Maynardville, Tenn., Carl Smith grew up like many Southern boys of the Depression, idolizing singing cowboys in the movies and hillbilly musicians on the radio. By age 10, Smith began the musical training that would lead to his years of apprenticeship on the road and radio.
In 1950, the 23-year-old Smith was signed to both the Opry and Columbia Records in less than a month. Recruited as Columbia's answer to Hank Williams, Smith quickly proved himself a master of just about any form of hillbilly music he set his sights on — from Eddy Arnold-style crooners to Hank Williams-style honky-tonk heartbreakers. But the style that Smith really made his own was "honky-tonk stomp." Slices of hillbilly bravado and swagger like "(When You Feel Like You're in Love) Don't Just Stand There," "Hey Joe!" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed" left the corn-fed teenybopper crowd swooning in their seats while that Presley kid was still getting the cold shoulder from high school girls.
While seldom acknowledged as such, Smith, along with other honky-tonk stompers such as Faron Young, had an enormous influence on the musical primordial soup that would spawn rockabilly in just a few years. Listen to Carl Smith's hits, and then check out the early records of that other Carl from Tennessee — Perkins, that is — to see the chain of evidence for yourself.
Although his hottest period was in the pre-Elvis era — the same time as his marriage to June Carter, which ended in 1957 — Smith continued to produce solid country hits, and he stayed true to honky-tonk until his decision to retire from the music business in 1978. He spent his later years enjoying the fruits of a country boy's dream, on his Williamson County horse ranch with his second wife Goldie Hill, while watching his and June's daughter Carlene Carter carry on the family tradition.
Saxophonist, author, teacher
Dennis Taylor, 56, literally wrote the book on playing sax: His instructional texts taught students how to learn from the masters in shaping their own sound. But it was as a sought-after sideman for Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Buckwheat Zydeco and Delbert McClinton (his gig of the past two-and-a-half years) that he made his lasting mark. He had just recorded his first solo album when he went back on the road with McClinton's band in October. While touring, he complained of chest pains in Greenville, Texas, and was gone within minutes of reaching a hospital.
"Making music with Dennis was a true pleasure," McClinton recalls. "He always had a smile on his face, and something good to say. A great talent, a good man, and a good friend." A memorial fund has been established in his name at the W.O. Smith Music School. Below, two of the people who knew him best — Taylor's wife, Nashville songwriter and publicist Karen Leipziger, and his producer/bandmate Kevin McKendree — share their memories:
Dennis was proud of his Northern Vermont roots. He was a gentle soul, loyal, kind, honest, extremely focused and quietly intense with a wickedly dry sense of humor. He did the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning and was a voracious reader. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan. And he lived to play the saxophone. He poured out his heart in his music. He practiced for hours nearly every day of the 25 years we were together. And he found his musical home when he joined Delbert McClinton and his extraordinary band. Two weeks before his passing, he was in the studio with Kevin McKendree and Delbert putting the finishing touches on his debut album. We went over the sequencing a few days before he left on his final road trip. He lived his dream. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. KAREN LEIPZIGER
Five minutes before every Delbert gig I find myself looking around and asking myself, "Where is Dennis, he's never late?" Then I remind myself of the harsh reality and am left with a cold empty feeling. There is comfort though. Dennis left us with his masterpiece, the recording he completed just weeks before his untimely passing. His playing reveals his essence. Smart and humble, always saying enough and never too much. Making his statement while supporting everyone else. He would probably make a pun about not blowing his own horn (only more cleverly than I can). I miss the man terribly, so I thank him that I can hear him playing from his soul anytime I want. KEVIN McKENDREE
FRED CARTER JR.
Session guitar great who played on Marty Robbins' "El Paso," Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" and Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer"; subject of his daughter Deana Carter's 2007 concept album The Chain
Pianist/arranger noted for his work with contemporary Christian and 1970s "Jesus music" artists, including Larry Norman, Mark Heard, Randy Stonehill and the band Daniel Amos
Veteran Music Row executive who helped bring traditional country back into style; founder, Audium Records (later Koch Records); aka baseball commentator "Nick the Stick" on George Plaster's sports-talk show on 104.5 The Zone
Steel and pedal-steel master noted for his three-decade association with Neil Young, starting on 1971's Harvest
Singer-songwriter who shared his fight with brain cancer and his bone-marrow donor search via social media
From his self-written bio, which typified his good humor: "I've played polo with the Atlanta Polo Club, trained with a SWAT team, caddied for Davis Love III, sang on the Grand Ole Opry, hugged Andy Griffith, worn a bite suit for police K-9 training, was baptized in the Mississippi River, kissed Wynonna Judd and helped Little Jimmy Dickens take down his Christmas lights."
Longtime club fixture; guitarist/frontman, Blacks on Blondes; died onstage of a heart attack during club gig at La Hacienda in Franklin
Former music publisher; early partner in Forerunner Music, whose catalog included hits by Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and her former husband Hal Ketchum
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