M/cloudy
36°
M/cloudy
Hi 49° | Lo 33°

A Love Of Music With a Long Life: Sharon’s Jim Rooney Has Produced Some Greats

  • Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer.  Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer. Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer.  Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer. Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim Rooney strums a tune in his home in Sharon Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Rooney has recently released the memoir "In it for the Long Run." <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jim Rooney strums a tune in his home in Sharon Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Rooney has recently released the memoir "In it for the Long Run."
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer.  Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jim Rooney of Sharon will perform Friday evening at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Rooney's career in music spans 60 years, beginning in 1954 playing at age 16 on the radio, playing as part of the folk scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, then becoming a producer.  Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jim Rooney strums a tune in his home in Sharon Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Rooney has recently released the memoir "In it for the Long Run." <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Jim Rooney, musician and producer, has as many anecdotes about the musicians he’s worked with and listened to as could fit in a weighty volume of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Here’s one.

In the 1960s, when Rooney was bringing acts into Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., which was for years the leading venue in the Boston area for folk and bluegrass, the blues singer Paul Butterfield told him he should try to get Muddy Waters, one of the greatest of all American blues guitarists.

How do I get hold of him, Rooney asked? Butterfield gave Rooney some phone numbers and eventually Rooney reached Waters. Since Club 47 was a coffee house, Rooney asked Waters what kind of coffee he preferred. Waters said something that sounded like “Shivers.” What? Rooney asked, confused. “Shivers!” Waters said again. Rooney was baffled; he’d never heard of a brand called Shivers. Waters, by now impatient, yelled “Chivas Regal!” Not coffee, of course, but the pricey Scotch whisky.

“I love people like that,” Rooney said, laughing.

Rooney will be playing guitar and ukulele during a set tomorrow evening at 6 p.m. at the Hotel Coolidge with friend, guitarist and songwriter Pat Alger and mandolin player Colin McCaffrey. When talking to him about his career in music the question is not, “Who did you know?” but “Who didn’t you know?” because Rooney has worked with, met or heard performances by so many notable musicians that his memories of them amount to a 50-year roll call of greats, the distinguished version of “America’s Got Talent!” The short list includes Pete Seeger, Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bill Monroe, Nanci Griffith, Bonnie Raitt.

They share something else: They’re not flashes in the pan, but musicians with bodies of meaningful work. “I like longevity. I love music that has a long life,” Rooney said in an interview in his home in Sharon, which he shares with his wife of 18 years, Carol Langstaff, founder of the Flock Dance Troupe. “You can play that music until you die.”

Rooney also spends part of his time in Nashville, where he’s lived, on and off, for years. He is best known in musical circles for his work producing records by John Prine, Iris DeMent, Hal Ketchum and Nanci Griffith, including her Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms. He has three books to his credit: a recent memoir, In It For the Long Run; Baby Let Me Follow You Down, a history of the folk music scene in Boston in the 1960s; and Bossmen, a cultural comparison of the careers of Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe, the Kentucky singer and mandolin player who coined the term “bluegrass.”

Lanky, with still-reddish hair, Rooney, now 76, looks like a really tall leprechaun. In a deep voice he tells his story, unprompted; it rolls out like a long scroll, filled with incident and observation.

Because music has been both avocation and vocation, he’s had the chance to see over the years what separates the best of the best from the merely good or competent. It’s not only talent: “It’s drive and determination. If you don’t have the stomach for it, it’s not for weak people. Ellington would be writing music all the time; Monroe, music was on his mind all the time; the physical circumstances of his life didn’t matter.”

Music has also been on Rooney’s mind since he was a kid, growing up in Dedham, a Boston suburb. His parents were from South Boston but they’d moved the family to Dedham, a distance of only seven or so miles from the city but a world away from the more insular Irish enclave of Southie.

Although you might not think of Boston as a hotbed of what was then called “hillbilly” music, in the 1950s it boasted a thriving country music scene. Rooney listened every night to radio station WCOP, waiting to hear the Confederate Mountaineers, a band, whose members were originally from West Virginia, who had a time slot from 7:45 to 8 p.m. WCOP played the Hanks: Williams, Snow, Thompson. The audience included the Franco-Americans of the mill towns of Lowell and Lawrence, and Southern boys who’d come to work at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Rooney sucked it all in.

“My theory now is that it was my Irish genes waking up,” he said. Out in the leafy, ordered suburbs, the yawps and yowls, the plaintive, breaking high notes and shivery, lonesome-sounding mountain music with its evocation of broken hearts, the echoing whistle of a distant train and that last shot of smoky whisky felt “totally foreign and exotic. It took me away from Dedham. ... It was the emotion of it, the simplicity of it. I wasn’t good at sports. I loved a lot of different kinds of music, jazz and classical, but this was a music I could play. It felt natural within me.”

He got himself a mandolin that he learned to pick, started reading Country Song Roundup magazine and made his way into Boston on his own, going to the movies and to WCOP, which had its studio in Copley Square. You could audition there to get a spot on the live broadcast, and after listening to some terrible acts who’d made the cut, Rooney decided he could be at least as terrible as they were. There was a Saturday afternoon live show on which he played mandolin, backed by a Connecticut band with the un-Connecticut-like name of Cappy Paxton and the Trailsmen.

His family, thinking this was a phase that he would outgrow, indulged him; for one performance his mother went so far as to buy him a pair of powder-blue pants and a checked shirt. Rooney befriended the local musicians, including the Mountaineers, some of whom rented a triple-decker in East Cambridge. Outside it was Boston, but “when you went into the house you were in West Virginia.” He added a Martin guitar to his musical repertoire.

On the side, Rooney was enrolled at the Roxbury Latin School. As far as his parents were concerned, “education was our primary occupation in life.” Rooney studied classics at Amherst College and went on to Harvard, where he was going to earn a Ph.D. in the same subject. He was awarded a master’s degree, but life, as it is wont to do, intervened. While on a Fulbright in Greece in 1963, he realized that he didn’t want to pursue a life in academia. He wrote a long letter to his parents, “the thrust of which was, I couldn’t be doing something my heart wasn’t in.”

When he returned to the U.S., he threw himself completely into the music scene, and ended up back at at Club 47, where he’d already served as a board member, and worked doing whatever needed to be done. The club was in an old warehouse near Harvard Square, and this time Rooney took over as manager. (The space is still there, under the name Club Passim.) It wasn’t a huge space, and could hold a maximum of 110. But it was as influential as the New York coffee house the Gaslight Café, where Dave Van Ronk held court and a scrawny Bob Dylan began to attract notice.

Dylan haunted Club 47, as well. Rooney shows two photographs of the club, crowded with listeners and musicans, and, in his version of Where’s Waldo, asks how easy it is to spot Dylan. The familiar profile is there, not exactly hidden but not standing out either. “And who’s lookin’ at him?” Rooney asks. No one. Which applied, in some ways, to the man himself, as famous as any person could ever be, but a cipher who didn’t particularly want to be decoded.

Rooney’s meetings with Dylan, which happened, for the most part, when Dylan was starting out, were infrequent. Dylan struck him as being “shy and skittish,” and something of a verbal game-player. What was clear was that despite the adoration and admiration he attracted, and his almost Messiah-like reputation, Dylan “didn’t want to be solving everybody else’s problems for them,” Rooney said. Hence his act of defiance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he went electric and set off a storm of reaction from an audience that expected him to play the acoustic guitar as he had in prior appearances.

Rooney also worked, after Club 47, as a manager at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Sound Studios, near Woodstock, N.Y. Grossman managed Dylan, The Band, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, and it was at Bearsville that The Band recorded Music from Big Pink and The Band. Working for Grossman was a seven-day-a-week enterprise and eventually exhausted Rooney so much that he quit. This was in the 1970s and at that point, Rooney had what he calls a “mid-life crisis,” ending his first marriage, returning to playing music, and fleeing to Nashville, first in 1974 and then, for good, in June 1976.

“I was a free spirit. There wasn’t anything attaching me,” he said.

He began to make friends with other songwriters like Rodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt, and picked up valuable contacts that led him into the world of recording and production. A man named Cowboy Jack Clement, who produced records for, among others, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Emmy Lou Harris, Charley Pride, Louis Armstrong and Doc Watson, gave Rooney the confidence to get into the recording side.

Rooney was unsure whether he had the skills, but Clement cheerfully told him, “You don’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car, do you?”

Rooney recorded Alison Krauss’ first album, and Nanci Griffith’s break-out album Once in a Very Blue Moon, which also features musicians just making a name for themselves, a young Lyle Lovett and Bela Fleck, the banjo player. Rooney’s aesthetic is to keep recording as close to live performance as possible. “I’m not the man to call if you want to lay down one track at a time,” he said.

He puts on the CD of Once in a Very Blue Moon, and the sound of Griffith’s clear voice wafts into the room. He rests his chin on his hand, and listens intently, and memory floods in. He recalled the big attic room in Clement’s house where the album was recorded, and the way the musicians were spread out around the room, with Griffith in a corner, where “there wasn’t a lot of extraneous sound.”

Griffith had the quality that sets a unique talent apart from a hard-working amateur. “Part of it is her timbre and tone, she wasn’t trying to be some other singer. ... By the time she came to me she had an identifiable voice and personality.” You know it when you hear it, he said.

One of Rooney’s distant cousins on his mother’s side was the director John Ford, who worked with a stock company of actors and crew, which is a model Rooney has emulated in his career as a producer. “(Ford) loved to have the action come to the camera rather than the other way around. That’s how I like to do things. I’ve done lots of recordings and I can deliver the goods.”

Like many a producer and musician, Rooney laments the state of the music industry. “Today the recording industry is sidetracked by the quest for perfection,” he said. Recording engineers can massage and manipulate every note, they can remove the flats and the sharps, and auto-tune you to death. But that’s not really the point — or shouldn’t be.

“Cash and (Ernest) Tubbs both had their share of flats and sharps,” he said, “but when you take them out, you lose their personality.”

“Marketing people have taken over the world,” he said gloomily.

What still matters most to Rooney is the passion of the artist, and to illustrate that point, he shares another story. On a tour with Bill Monroe in 1970, riding on a ramshackle, unheated bus called the Blue Grass Express, the musicians left Montreal and drove down, in frigid winter cold, to Worcester, Mass., where they were going to play a gig at Clark University. But Rooney noticed that the campus was suspiciously quiet: the scheduler hadn’t taken into account the fact that it was exam time.

So when the band came that night to play the arena, a space that held around 1,500 seats, there were only 30 or 40 people in the audience. Many musicians, said Rooney, would have kept the show as brief as possible, and called it a night. But not Monroe.

“He played one of the most incredible shows I’d ever heard him play: he was on fire,” Rooney said. “You don’t punish the people who came to punish the people who didn’t. Their music is what’s important to them.”

Rooney will play with Pat Alger and Colin McCaffrey as part of the Hotel Coolidge Salon Series tomorrow evening at 6 p.m. For information, call the Hotel Coolidge at 802-295-3118.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

CORRECTION

Musician and producer Jim Rooney of Sharon plays the ukulele and the guitar. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point.