COUNTRY SOUL SURVIVOR Larry Jon Wilson

2009’s most unlikely musical comeback is alive ‘n’ kicking.
He’s also on America’s coolest label.

 

BY JIM ALLEN

 

In the ‘70s, when
people like Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and Billy Joe Shaver were
redefining what it meant to make music in Nashville, bringing a raw edge and an
expressionist’s approach to songwriting, Larry Jon Wilson was right there in
the thick of things. Wilson released four albums on the Monument label (home to
Kristofferson and Shaver) between 1975 and ‘79, mixing his Georgia twang and
deep, papa-bear voice with some greasy Southern R&B grooves. His
woodsmoke-and-whiskey sound earned the admiration of his fellow Music City
mavericks and a cult following, but never translated into much cash-register
action, and Wilson went into semi-retirement in the ‘80s. Three decades on,
he’s finally reemerged, with a self-titled album on Drag City.

 

Augusta, Georgia, -born
Wilson’s extended family was full of farmers, and the summers he spent with
them, working the land, were a formative influence on his songwriting. “I was
more excited about it than people who had to do it every day for a living,” he
says. “There’s nothing earthy or folksy about picking cotton or working on a
farm… there’s no up side to it, that’s survival in its purest form.” Those
same stomping grounds gave a young Wilson plenty of musical inspiration too. He
developed a love of gospel by singing in local churches. “We were in the bigger
city and I sang in that choir,” he recalls, “but I enjoyed going back down the
Ohoopee [River] to the old clapboard churches, where they had no accompaniment.
It was just all vocals. I loved that.”

 

But despite Wilson’s
passion for music, his early life followed another direction. “Polymer
chemistry occupied my life until I was in my mid-thirties,” says the
songwriter, who had established a career as a technical consultant for a
fiberglass company. Things changed when he got his first guitar on his 30th
birthday and began writing songs. Four years later, with a Nashville publishing
deal and record contract lined up, Wilson’s life made a 180-degree turn. “I
turned in the company car and all of those things, and at 34 that’s a pretty
risky thing I suppose,” he says. Nevertheless, Wilson was soon mixing it up
with fellow Combine Music writers like Newbury and Tony Joe White, the latter’s
Louisiana country-soul sound making him and Wilson instant brethren. “I
remember the first time I was ever in Nashville,” Wilson reminisces. “He
[White] and I met at the coffee machine, and he said ‘I heard your demo songs
upstairs. I knew when I first heard you that you had some swamp in you.'” Wilson pauses to chuckle. “And I said, ‘You’re
exactly right!'”

 

Wilson’s debut album,
1975’s New Beginnings, was indeed
bursting with swampy, soulful grooves, bolstered by Memphis-schooled R&B
players like Reggie Young and Bobby Wood. Wilson’s Barry White-buys-Johnny
Cash-a-beer baritone growled out tunes full of local color and common-sense
wisdom, like “Ohoopee River Bottomland,” “Canoochee Revisited,” and “Broomstraw
Philosophers and Scuppernong Wine.”

 

“They’re pretty much
true stories,” says Wilson. “‘Canoochee Revisited’… the first line that I
sing is ‘I hope that I see Kay Simmons there.’ There is a Kay Simmons. She was the doctor’s daughter in this little
country town. What I’ve written is based on things that I’ve seen and done.”
But while it earned him fans among connoisseurs of country-soul and Nashville’s
burgeoning Outlaw movement, the album started a trend of blockbuster reviews
and downscale sales that would be repeated for its successors. In hindsight,
Wilson reckons he just may not have been hungry enough. “I worked very hard. But I never had that hunger. I was already a
success in my eyes, because I was doing the thing that I loved absolutely most
in the world and getting paid a little bit for doing it. So few people get to
do that.” After 1979’s The Sojourner, Wilson exited the
music-biz merry-go-round, abandoning his recording career and drastically
reducing his performance schedule.

 

In the 21st century,
Wilson started getting drawn out of hiding. His songs were included in the
British Country Got Soul compilation
series. Then he was tapped to contribute two new tracks to the Country Soul Revue recording project. 2005 saw
the reissue of ‘70s outlaw-country cinema
verite
documentary Heartworn Highways,
which opens with Wilson laying into “Ohoopee River Bottomland.” Eventually, two
younger singer/songwriters, Jerry DeCicca of The Black Swans and Jeb Loy
Nichols, convinced Wilson to record a new album. Like everything else in his
life, Wilson did it his way: recording live, solo-acoustic in a Perdido Key,
Florida, hotel, singing whatever came to mind while Nichols and DeCicca
captured it all for posterity. A mix of covers – everything from Newbury’s
“Frisco Mabel Joy” to Paul Siebel’s “Louise” – and old and new songs from his
own pen, Larry Jon Wilson finds that
craggy, cavernous voice as captivating as ever. The free-wheeling, no-frills
approach serves Wilson’s sound better than some of the overproduction lavished
on his late-’70s work. Released in the U.K. first, it’s now being delivered
domestically by Drag City.

 

Wilson is
enthusiastic about getting back in the saddle, but remains philosophical. “I
know I’ve been a critics’ darling in the past, but you can’t take that any more
seriously than I would have if they had panned everything I did. I’m a senior person now, in the autumn of the years or
whatever you call it, and I’d rather be downstage than in a damn nursing home.
And I have the great advantage – it’s not like I’m yesterday’s papers, because
I was never today’s papers. I would
hate to be like, ‘Larry Jon Wilson, remember those Number Ones he had?’ and be
trying to keep that bubble
unburst.  I’ll be no different if they
don’t sell a copy, and I’ll be no different if they sell a trillion copies.”

 

But don’t be surprised
if it takes less than 30 years before the next Larry Jon Wilson album appears.

 

There are things I
haven’t done yet,” Wilson announces. “I’m gonna record again, because I don’t
want to part from this vale of tears leaving anything [undone]. That’s what
Townes [Van Zandt] used to call it: ‘LJ,’ he said, ‘there’s some graceful way
out of this vale of tears without hurting anybody.’ And I said ‘No, there’s not. You just have to hang on!’ [laughs] He was the ultimate
mind-screwer, I think.”

 

Wilson, 68, then invokes
the name of another old Nashville running buddy in wryly assessing his odds on
rebuilding a career: “I’m still years younger than Kristofferson, let’s not
forget that!”

 

[Photo Credit: Jim
McGuire]

 

 

 

 

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