COLIN ESCOTT WRITES ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE, PLACES, AND THINGS FOR A LIVING. THE LONG LIST OF SUBJECTS HE HAS TACKLED IN THE PAST INCLUDE HANK WILLIAMS, SUN RECORDS, AND THE HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND ROCK 'N' ROLL. MORE RECENTLY, COLIN LENT HIS KNOWLEDGE OF THE MAN IN BLACK, JOHNNY CASH, TO A FORTY-PAGE BOOKLET INCLUDED WITH THE COMPLETE SUN RECORDINGS: 1955-1958, A THREE-DISC COMPILATION OF CASH'S EARLIEST WORK. ESCOTT SAT DOWN WITH TLC'S WAYNE CHINSANG TO TALK ABOUT WHAT IT'S LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE'S LIVES FOR A LIVING.
Wayne Chinsang: I was reading up on all of the books that youíve written and all the stuff that you know, and the first question I have for you is, does it ever scare you to think about how much knowledge you have in your head? Because the amount of stuff that youíve researched and written about is pretty amazing.
Colin Escott: I think everyone has that amount of knowledge. Itís just that mine is narrowed down to one little zone, I guess.
WC: How did you get interested in writing about the music scene and the people that come from it?
CE: I grew up in England, and Iíve never really been able to explain it, but there has always been a real fascination there with American roots music. Like the jazz man Sidney Bechet went there in 1919 or something like that. Guys like Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were stars over there [England] long after they had come and gone here [America]. So I grew up in the Sixties always loving that, what is known today as roots music. But it was virgin territory then. There wasnít much known about early blues and rock 'n' roll and country music. People had just begun studying country music.
WC: Is it weird for you to think that even though the music has been around for decades and decades, that youíre now serving as somewhat of a historian and writing what could be considered as history books for the music?
CE: Well, Iím glad that me and the other people working in this field are still doing it, because so much of the history of country and rock 'n' roll and the blues is tied up in the memories of old men and women. So little of it was written down at the time. Classical music and jazz were pretty well and thoroughly documented, but rock 'n' roll, blues, R&B, and country music were just seen as lowlife musics. So if you look back at the writings about them in the Forties and Fifties-- up until the time Rolling Stone and Creem started in the late Sixties-- writing about pop music was like asking, "Whatís your favorite color?"
WC: There is obviously a resurgence of interest in roots music today. Why do you think the resurgence has come about now instead of ten years ago or ten years from now?
CE: I think the success of the O, Brother soundtrack was a huge eye opener for everyone. It was the tip of an iceberg. It showed us something that the people wanted more of. But letís go back a bit: record retail began to be dominated by the big buck stores, like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy. And the range of records that they carried was pretty slender. At the same time, radio just kept playing the same twenty, thirty, forty tunes over and over and over again. So a lot of people just became increasingly dissatisfied with that, and dissatisfied with the sterility of contemporary country, contemporary rock music. Someone said to me once, "You can polish something until it doesnít shine anymore." And I think that the older guys with the bum notes have a real appeal to them: the soulfulness of it, when music was created on the spot in the studio instead of being layered over days and weeks and months. And then the songs... I mean, if you listen to contemporary country songs and look at the composer credits youíll see two, three, four different songwriters there. And Iím not sure you should write country music by committee.
WC: (laughs) Right.
CE: The best country songs are usually the snapshot of the way someone was feeling one night. Thatís what gave them their immediacy, thatís what gave them their soul, thatís what gave them their charm. But when youíve got three people agreeing to get together at 10:30 one morning and write a hit, itís just not the same.
WC: Do you worry that this resurgence might run the risk of cheapening the music if society becomes over-saturated with it?
CE: It could happen. You know, Shelby Singleton bought the Sun [Records] catalogue back in Ď69, and heís been popping out reissues of Johnny Cash on Sun ever since then. And some of them have been overdubbed with applause, overdubbed with additional instruments, overdubbed with Elvis imitators, and put out on LP and cassette and eight-track tapes and digital media, but itís still powerful stuff. Itís still got the ability to entrance a new generation.
WC: So letís talk about [Johnny Cashís] The Complete Sun Recordings and how you got involved with that project.
CE: A guy that I used to work with at BMG/RCA and Sanctuary, a guy named Mike Jason, moved to Time Life, and he wanted to get some records out. Time Life was pretty much known as a TV marketer, so they hired Mike to launch a retail division. So Mike asked me, "Do you have any ideas?" And he wanted something that they could do quickly. So we knew that the movie [Walk The Line] was coming up, so I said, "Well, no one has really done a complete Johnny Cash collection. Itís been done a million different ways, but no oneís ever done it complete. So letís try that." And he said, "Yeah, letís do it."
WC: With the movie coming out, and with Johnny gaining more and more popularity postmortem, what is your take on how Johnny was perceived when he was alive versus how he is perceived now? I mean, he was always an iconic musician, but with the movie coming out now he seems even more so.
CE: The funny thing about Cash is that everyone says how great and influential he was, but you canít show me a Johnny Cash imitator. There were some during the Sixties, and during the Fifties there were a couple. There were thousands of Hank Williams imitators and Elvis imitators, but very few imitators of Cash. And I think what Cash did was really more to liberate than to inspire imitation. He made country music into a border church. He brought in and embraced songwriters like Peter LaFarge and Kris Kristofferson, people who really changed the notion of what a country song was. And he too wrote songs that were very different in their day. And, above all, he had this commanding simplicity. He seemed to be saying, "This doesnít need to be any more complicated than it already is." A good song, you sing it well, you sing it soulfully, and you keep the ornamentation to a minimum.
WC: So do you think he was more of a rebel because of his actions than because of who he was on the surface?
WC: How do you think he would feel today if he were alive to see the movie come out and countless greatest hits collections be released?
CE: Well, during the late Sixties and early Seventies he had his TV show [The Johnny Cash Show], and there were countless packages on Johnny Cash coming out then. So I think he just viewed it all with equanimity. If youíre a star, this just goes with it. People are gonna recycle your old stuff, the company youíre with now is gonna pressure you constantly for product and theyíre gonna recycle their old stuff. This is just what happens.
WC: Have you seen the movie yet?
CE: No, I havenít. Have you?
WC: No. From what youíve seen of it-- commercials, previews-- what is your take on it? I mean, Iím not asking for a critique obviously, because you havenít seen it. But from what you can tell, are you excited about it?
CE: I just really canít say because I havenít seen it. The one thing they do seem to have gotten right is instead of trying to cover the whole suite of Cashís career-- where his appearance changed so dramatically from 1955 to 1995-- theyíre just concentrating on one small period.
WC: Yeah, I think itís just the beginning of his career. And thatís probably the smartest way to go, because youíre not going to be able to cram four decades of a career into three hours.
WC: So when you approach a project or a subject, if youíre working with someone more personally, more one-on-one, does that make it harder for you to work? Is it hard to stay away from personal bias if youíre working directly with someone?
CE: Well, it does happen inevitably. What tends to happen very often is that I get assigned to work on a project that I donít really care that much for the personís music, but I just kind of like them personally. And unfortunately there is the vice versa, where youíll like someoneís music and then find out that theyíre an ass.
CE: So you always have to keep in mind the brief notes from the record label. Theyíll tell you pretty much what they want, and theyíll get pretty peeved if they donít get it.
WC: Thatís very much like what I do, too. Sometimes I interview someone I have total respect for, but then they'll treat me like crap.
WC: So, youíre living in Nashville now, correct?
WC: Alright. So youíve done all of these things that are similar in their geography, like the Memphis music scene and Sun Records, and the Nashville music scene. But are there any other topics that youíre interested in and would like to focus on?
CE: Well, I really love West Indian music. I grew up with it in London, England. And last year I got to do a box set from the Trojan catalogue, which has the early Bob Marley and Toots & The Maytals, a lot of that real early Jamaican stuff that I really love. It was great to work on that because it was something new, and it kind of connected to back when I was a kid. So it just sort of rekindled my enthusiasm for that music all over again.
WC: When you approach a new topic to start writing about, be it a person or a genre of music or a company, what do you do to get started?
CE: Well, the Country Music Hall of Fame has got copious and wonderful resources: clippings, books, audio. And if the person who youíre studying up on is dead theyíll point you towards other guys who knew him. And there is a big archive in Toronto that has similarly deep holdings. So those are the starting points. Youíll do no better than those.
WC: Were you ever able to personally interview Cash?
CE: I did years ago back in the Sixties in England.
WC: He was just over there touring?
CE: Yeah. But I didnít really know what to ask him then.
WC: Were you a big fan then?
CE: Yeah. I went to see him at the Royal Festival Hall back in 1967 or something like that. I bought the records, bought the t-shirts.
WC: When did you come to America?
CE: I came over to work for Polygram in Canada in 1974. Itís been awhile.
WC: So is there any project or topic that youíd like to cover in the future that you havenít yet had a chance to do?
CE: Yeah, plenty. There was a British folklorist named Cecil Sharpe who went to Appalachia during the first World War, and he documented what he found there, in terms of music and society. So Iíd really like to get his journals, which are on file in England somewhere, and retrace his footsteps someday. Iíd like to see what survived. He was intrigued by elements of British culture being trapped in isolation in Appalachia for a couple hundred years. Heíd hear songs that had disappeared in England but that were still being sung in the hills. He was a true folklorist. He compulsively logged what he encountered, so I think it would be really interesting to follow in his footsteps and see what you can see now maybe through his eyes.
WC: That sounds really cool. So was there ever a topic that you started that you were never able to finish?
CE: Well, part of the deal of being a freelance writer is that you learn after awhile to put only so much effort into a proposal. At some point, I think financial people call it a "stop-loss provision", where you donít put more than so many hours or days into something before you realize that itís going nowhere. So then you just call it off until someone else comes along who might share your enthusiasm for it. Because on the 23rd of each month the Visa bill is going to arrive.
WC: The last question I have for you is, if someone were to write a book or do a piece on you and your life, who would be best suited to do that?
CE: Oh, there would be no need for anyone to do that. There really isnít.
WC: But everybody has a story to tell.
CE: Well, thatís the problem, really. You go into bookstores and there are tens of thousands of books in there. Thereís too many. Itís like cultural overload, and I donít see any point in contributing to it with my life story.