Coming of age in the 1980s, my generation was fated to learn about music in the age of MTV. Now there’s nothing wrong with music videos per se. But make no mistake, the advent of MTV-style marketing and digital audio processing marked a fundamental shift in musical values, and it meant that if you wanted to really understand the power of the human voice and the emotional undercurrents of great singing, you were going to have to go out of your way to educate yourself, because the mainstream music business and radio were NOT going to help you. In fact, they were going to bamboozle you with auto-tuned, processed parodies of the human voice and subliminally suggest at all times that if you young folks out there spent significant time listening to Billie Holliday or Bing Crosby or Jean Shepard, you were trafficking with old fogies and were hopelessly out of step with the Mountain Dew sexy tattoo skater lifestyle that ALL your peers were into.
I was lucky to have lots of musical exposure outside the MTV bubble and I learned something about great singers through my love of jazz and country music. But only when I moved to Nashville and started hearing the older Opry stars sing live and unmediated did it really sink in. Wow. Singers get BETTER as they get older, not worse, as I’d been led to believe by a recording industry that dropped 50-plus year olds and then 40-plus year olds like they were toxic. I mention Jean Shepard because she was one of those golden age artists who made me see the light. When I heard her in person the first time, I felt as if her throat were actually made of gold. The sound was warm, glowing, wise and valuable.
Where am I going with all this? It’s my way of hoping out loud that you’ll come hear Billy Henson at Music City Roots this week. Sure we have a great line up of youngsters, but while Billy is not a household name or an Opry star, he is an exemplar of the golden age of country music, when singing was an extension of human breath and the human condition. On his new album There Is A Time, his first in 45 years and a labor of love if ever there was one, Henson sings with soulful connectedness. He inhabits the lyrics and revels in nuance. And he’ll be doing the same thing on our stage this week, with a band that includes Nashville A-Teamers for the ages Buddy Spicher (fiddle) and Bob Moore (bass).
Billy is a veteran songwriter who penned the bluegrass standard “Lonesome Feeling” among many others. He went on the road back in the day with Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys and hillbilly duo Lonzo and Oscar. He was one of the working musical figures who didn’t get as much recognition as the Ernest Tubbs and Carl Smiths, but without whom those superstars couldn’t have come to shine. He also happens to be the father of our show’s amazing and energetic Laurie Dashper, who coordinates all things to do with talent. She helped this album – a true dream of Henson’s for many years – come to pass. And she did so even as their family struggled to manage and comprehend the illness and death of sister Jen. I asked Laurie to write a few words about her dad’s accomplishment and its meaning. She says it better than I could:
Dad and I have always had a strong connection through the music – my earliest memories from my childhood were sitting in front of his stereo playing Ray Charles, Jerry Reed, the Eagles, and records that he played on, over and over. He’s the one who taught me to look at the album credits first, to see who played on the record, that that was as important as the lead singer. Doing this record for him – at least my part in helping to make it happen – is the least I could do to repay him and my mom for all they have done for me It was a gift for her, too, because she has wanted to see it happen for him. And I am just blessed to have these amazing friends who wanted to do it for me (the producer and the players).
It’s outrageous to me how beautiful his voice still is, and how timeless these songs are. He wrote most of them – and none of them are newer than maybe 15-20 years. I’ve been listening to them that long, knowing that the timing would be right one day to do a record. We had finished much of the record spring 2010, so Jen got to hear most of it. After her passing, I knew the time was right to complete it and move forward with it.
Besides Billy this week we’ll be hearing from roots rocker Drew Holcomb and his band The Neighbors, journeyman musician Barry Waldrep fresh from his tour of super-picking with the Zac Brown Band, Asheville NC country-grass mavens Johnson’s Crossroads and New York folk sophisticate Andy Friedman. And speaking of golden ages, we’ll kick things off with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, featuring the bold vocals of Lester Armistead, who learned about the power of the voice in the thrall of Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe.
I’m happy to say that I see signs that real singing is making a comeback in mainstream culture, and even American Idol and The Voice are doing their part to spotlight the difference between substance and shinola. But Nashville has a special role in keeping golden voices alive and showcased. At Roots, we feel so lucky when we can get a Charlie Louvin (rest his soul) or a Jesse McReynolds or a Billy Henson on stage to show the kids how it’s done.