In conversation with charlie haden

By Stuart Nicholson

Charlie Haden is not just a jazz legend, he’s universally recognized as one of the music’s most lyrical bass players. A three time Grammy winner, Guggenheim Fellow, a recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts composition grants, a multiple winner of the prestigious Down Beat Critic’s Poll and most recently, a winner of the International Musician of the Year Award at the BBC Jazz Awards, Haden first burst on the scene in 1959 when, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, he helped change the course of jazz history during a four month stint at New York’s Five Spot jazz club. Since then, whether it’s been with his own Liberation Music Orchestra, originally formed in 1969 and still going strong, his 1970s associations with Keith Jarrett and Old and New Dreams or, since the 1980s, collaborations with Pat Metheny on award winning albums such as 80/81, or with his own award winning Quartet West, he has remained at the forefront of jazz for almost fifty years.

But on Rambling Boy, his latest album by Charlie Haden Family & Friends, the celebrated bassist returns to his roots and goes country. There are performances from his vocalist wife Ruth Cameron, who co-produces the album, his son, his triplet daughters and guest appearances from country luminaries such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski and Roseanne Cash. Other star guests include singer Elvis Costello, guitarist Pat Metheny and actor/musician Jack Black. Haden himself also gets to sing on “Oh, Shenandoah” as well as contribute backing vocals on a couple of tracks.

                        Charlie Haden, by Jos L. Knaepen

Other than a feature in the March 9, 1967 edition of Down Beat magazine, “Charlie Haden – From Hillbilly to Avant-Garde,” Haden has not often spoken in detail about the formative years of his musical career. But his love of country, as he points out in this interview, has never been far from the surface. On his 1986 album Quartet West, for example, “Taney County” is a memorable solo medley of country ballads dedicated to his parents. So when the opportunity to record Rambling Boy came along, Haden said it was like a dream come true, adding, “It’s like my life’s work and it’s meant so much to me. It’s two American stories about someone who was born and raised here and brought up in country music, and then went on to jazz.”

Haden’s career in country began as a twenty-two month old child, singing on the family radio show, Uncle Carl and the Haden Family, with his parents, two brothers and two sisters. In fact, included on Rambling Boy is a rare Haden Family radio show performance dating from those early years. “It was a lot of work every day,” Haden recalls. “I was very happy to do that, because I loved singing and I loved harmony.”

As a young teenager he began to be drawn into jazz, and as he says in the interview, the rest was history. But he never forgot his roots. “Country music is very dear to my heart,” he affirms. “It’s beautiful music with beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies and when I decided to go to Los Angeles and started playing with Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon and different people, I met Ornette Coleman and we went to New York. I lived there almost twenty years and I played and recorded with just about everybody [in jazz], but never ever once did country music leave my soul, because it’s been there with me since I was twenty-two months old.”

Many people, familiar with your long and distinguished career in jazz, may be surprised by a Charlie Haden country album, so perhaps you could start from the very beginning to illustrate the part country music has played in your life.

In my memory, I recall my mother holding me up to the microphone so that I could sing on the radio, and this was in Shenandoah, Iowa on a radio station with the call letters KMA. We were on that radio station because my parents went from radio station to radio station auditioning. My Dad, Carl Haden, started out in radio work in 1932 on station KGBX in Springfield, Missouri, and he was a member of a musical team known and Carl and Ernest the Missouri Hillbillies. In 1933 they went to WFAA in Dallas, Texas, in 1934 KGKO in Wichita Falls, Texas, then WOAI in San Antonio, Texas, then to WREC in Memphis Tennessee, and then to WSM in Nashville, one of the most famous radio stations in the country—where the Grand Ole Oprey originated—then to WWVA in West Virginia. In 1935 at WLBF in Kansas City, Kansas, my mother joined him and they started their radio career together as Uncle Carl and Mary Jane, which turned into Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. They went to WIBW in Topeka Kansas, and by then my other brother and sister was with them. On their way to a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937 there was a snowstorm and they had to stop at a hotel in Shenandoah, Iowa—it was like a blizzard. My Dad called the radio station the next day at KMA, and Mom and him went over and got the job. So they stayed in Shenandoah for four years, and that was where I was born.

I started singing when I was about two. My mother told me the story she was rocking me to sleep one day, I was twenty-two months old, and she was humming a folk song and I started humming the harmony with her. And she said: “When I heard you humming with me I knew you’d be ready to perform on our radio show.” So I was singing on KMA from twenty-two months . . . those are my early memories.

You were on the scene during some of the key years of country music’s growth. So you must have come into contact with some of the legendary names of the music.

Bluegrass is in my blood and in my ears. My Dad was friends with Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, and all these early country people who were on the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville and on the radio stations. In Springfield, Missouri there was a big radio station called KWTO—Watching the Ozarks—and my father got a job on KWTO. There was a network barn dance show that started in Springfield that was similar to the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was called Korn’s-a-Crackin’—a network radio show heard all over the country. A lot of the country bands and singers from Nashville who were on the Grand Old Oprey would come to Springfield and guest star. That’s how I got to know the old country artists that my Dad knew before I was born—he knew Jimmie Rogers, and the Carter Family and everybody. And then when they started coming to Springfield, Mother Maybelle Carter used to come over and visit us at our house, and she would sing songs all day with her guitar . . . [My mother and her] were good friends and I knew all of her children. Helen was the oldest and she played the accordion, and June Carter was next and she sang and played the auto harp, and then Anita was the youngest. So all these people would come over and they were guests on this network radio show Korn’s-a-Crackin’.

It’s an amazing history. Has this been documented anywhere?

There’s a book called The Ozark’s Greatest Hits, and it’s by a guy named Wayne Glenn, and it’s a photo history of music in the Ozarks, a several hundred page book with pictures, and there’s photos of me everywhere, when I started playing jazz, and there’s photos of me and my Dad in Springfield.

Country music was very much a part of your life, until what age?

We [broadcast] every day of my life until I was sixteen years old on different radio stations. That was before television, everybody listened to the radio, so we had fans all over the country, these big radio stations were 50,000 watts a station, and they covered a lot of territory. Every day my family would choose the songs we’d sing for this radio show, they had files and files of songs and every day they would go through the files and decide what we would sing. I could sing every harmony part by ear. None of us were trained in music as far as reading music was concerned.

I listened to the radio all the time when I was little, classical music, all different kinds of music, the Hit Parade, Frank Sinatra, and I loved jazz. Whenever I heard jazz, I loved it. Later on my brother Jimmy played the bass when he went to high school, and that’s when I started listening to the bass. Every time he played the bass, it made everything sound better. I loved that instrument, and whenever he went out on a date, I’d pick up the bass and play. And he had some jazz records and I started playing the bass with them.

When I was fourteen in Omaha, I went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and Charlie Parker was playing, and when I heard Charlie Parker play, that was it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Then I decided that as soon I got out of high school, I had to go to L.A. I had a full scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, but I turned it down to go to this jazz school, which was before Berklee [College of Music in Boston], and it was called Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles, I wanted to go there, and the other reason I wanted to go to LA was to listen to my favorite jazz pianist Hampton Hawes. I heard a lot of recordings by him, and I wanted to go to L.A. and see him.

It was there I met Ornette [Coleman] and the rest is history.

                    Charlie Haden, by Jos L. Knaepen

How difficult was it making the transition from country to jazz? Country music swings, and there was Western Swing, so you had a head start.

All the country musicians were jazz fans. Right before I went to Los Angeles, when I had just graduated from high school in Springfield, I did a network TV show called The Ozark Jubilee to save money to go to LA, and this network TV show was hosted by a guy called Red Foley and another guy named Eddie Arnold. They were both Grand Ole Opry stars, and the guitarist with Eddie Arnold was Hank Garland, and Hank was a great jazz guitarist. And the guitarist with Red Foley’s guitarist was Grady Martin, who also played jazz. . . All these guys were jazz fans. We were doing a TV show Ozark Jubilee [and] we would take breaks from filming, and Hank Garland and I would play jazz. And he was always telling me, “Charlie, you gotta get out of Springfield and go to New York and play jazz.”

With such a strong background in country, performing professionally from an early age, it would be strange if this influence did not surface in your jazz playing. Can you remember any instances when this happened?

Well, in some of my early bass solos with Ornette, on a tune called “Ramblin’,” one of Ornette’s songs, on my bass solo I play an early folk song. We recorded two records before we went to New York, one of them was called The Shape of Jazz to Come, the other one was called The Change of the Century, and on one of my bass solos I played a series of folk songs that I learned with my family. One of them was “Old Joe Clark” and “Fort Worth Jail House” and “John Henry,” a lot of different songs. These experiences are internalized and not thought about when soloing, but things come out, you’re communicating what’s inside you as you express yourself. Obviously I can’t remember every instance when I used folk songs in my solos, but a couple of examples I recall are “Lonely Woman” on an album I did with Old and New Dreams, or “Lonely Woman” with a trio we had with Gerri Allen and Paul Motian. It’s the music I’m hearing inside me.

There’s a nice story when Ian Drury of the Blockheads heard my bass solo on Ornette’s record using “Old Joe Clark” and he wrote a song called “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll” from my bass solo! I didn’t get any royalties from that, but when he played it with the Blockheads he always announced my name—"Charlie Haden! That’s 'Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll,'” and as a matter of fact that’s one of the songs we do on the record.

Your involvement in country music as a professional performer during this early period of your life represented a significant investment in time, both rehearsing and performing in what were the most formative years of your life, so have you maintained an interest in country since then?

Of course, the two indigenous musics that have come from the United States are Country Music and Jazz. And included in the evolution of jazz was spirituals and the blues that came from the Underground Railroad and the struggle for freedom of the African-American. And then the Hillbilly folk music came over from England and Scotland and Ireland, into the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains where I was raised. So I had a love for both musics, actually.

How did the idea of returning to your roots and doing a country album come about?

Well this record [Rambling Boy], it’s a life dream come true. My wife Ruth Cameron is also a great singer, my second wife, she’s not the mother to my kids, but she’s very close to my kids, Josh, and Rachel and Petra and Tanya—who are triplets—they’re all very close and she wanted to go and visit my mother in Missouri for her 90th birthday, which would have been in 1988. And all of us went to Springfield and visited, and it was like a family reunion. Ruth asked us all to sing including Josh and Rachel and Petra and Tanya, and they all sang with my brothers and sisters. And Ruth said, “As soon I heard that, I knew you had to do a country record.” And then when I did this duet record with Pat Metheny called Beyond the Missouri Sky—Pat is also from Missouri and knew about my background—we did this song called “Precious Jewel,” which is an old country song recorded by the Delmore Brothers, and we recorded “He’s Gone Away,” which my mother used to sing that on the radio. Afterward Pat and I started talking, and he said, “You gotta do a country record, man.”

You get to sing on the album, going full circle to where you began your career all those years ago as a child barely two years of age.

I stopped singing when I was fifteen, this was when the polio epidemic was happening in the United States, very bad. This was before the vaccine was discovered, and I developed polio that paralyzed partly my vocal chords and I couldn’t sing. It took away my range and the doctor said even though I had polio, I was very lucky it didn’t hit the nerves to my legs and my lungs, because that’s where it usually hits, and it hit the left side of my face and my throat. And I eventually got over it, but I never sang again until an album called The Art of the Song [1999] with Quartet West with strings arranged by Alan Broadbent, and Shirley Horn sings on it and Bill Henderson sings on the record. The end track is called “Wayfaring Stranger,” which my mother used to sing on the radio, and I sing that song. And there is a story behind that. I was being interviewed by Terry Gross [on NPR’s Fresh Air program] about a recording I had done with Quartet West called Now is the Hour that’s also done with strings, and during the interview she said, “Why did you want to record this song ‘Now is the Hour,’ that’s a Word War II song?” And I said I used to listen to the radio a lot when I was a kid and I heard Frank Sinatra with the big bands sing this song. I just loved it. And she said, “Sing it to me.” And I said, “Are you crazy? On the radio, on the air?” And she said, “Please sing it.” So I sang it. After the radio show, she called me back. . . . She said, “Charlie, you gotta sing on one of your albums, you’re good!” And I said, "Yes, yes. Tell me something else." And that was the first time I tried to sing, when I did “Wayfaring Stranger.”

We are all the sum of our life’s experiences, so what did it mean to you to realize this project?

Well, it’s kind of like my life’s work and it meant so much to me. It’s two American stories, American musical stories about someone who was born and raised here and brought up in country music, and then went on to jazz and different other kinds of music . . . You have to think about that journey.

Pat Metheny, he’s one of my closest friends in life, and if anybody knows American music then he does. When we did Beyond the Missouri Sky everybody called it true Americana music. It’s not just jazz, it’s beyond category, and he’s been talking about this [project] for a long time. He said whenever you do a country album I want to be a part of it.

So I started communicating with him, but he’s always out on tour, and I’m out on tour a lot myself, and when he was in New York I would play songs for him over the phone and then his trio played here in LA at Disney Hall and he came over to our house, and I played him some of the country music and he just loved it. And so he was a big part of [Rambling Boy], a real inspiration, and you can tell by listening to [it] there’s a lot of love, there’s a lot of love from all the musicians, and especially Pat. There’s this song “Is This America?” a very beautiful ballad, and he wrote the arrangement on “The Fields of Athenry,” and he wrote the arrangement on “He’s Gone Away,” and he wrote the arrangement on “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and then on “Oh, Shenandoah,” the song I sing, and you listen to that and you see where it comes from, it’s where I was born.

So, it’s something I always wanted to do, and now that I’ve done it I can’t believe I did it. It makes me feel so honored that all these great singers—Dan Tyminski who I heard sing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in this movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney plays the main part in the film. He’s the hillbilly singer, and his [singing] voice on there is Dan Tyminski. He’s in a band called Union Station with Allison Kraus—he’s on my record. . . . Ricky Skaggs, one of the great, great bluegrass singers, you’ve got Vince Gill, he came in, a very busy guy. He was in Nashville for about a minute and just came over to the studio and recorded “Rambling Boy.” He was so nice. And Bruce Hornsby called me about this song “20/20 Vision,” and he recorded it, and he wanted me to put my bass introduction on it, like I play with Ornette, like the drone bass thing I did on “Ramblin’” with Ornette [Coleman].

Then I met Roseanne Cash and Elvis Costello, they sent an e-mail to Ruth [my wife] and I, and they wanted me to do this TV series named Spectacle.. I went there to do this show and Pat Metheny and I played on this TV show, and while we were rehearsing, soundchecks and everything, Elvis started singing, and I played some of the country records for him and he loved it and he started singing this Hank Williams song called “You Win Again” and Ruth said you gotta do that on the record. And he said I’d really be happy too. So he went down to a studio down by where he lived in New York, and recorded “You Win Again” with a guitarist called John Leventhall, who is married to Roseanne Cash. And I asked John if I could meet Roseanne and asked her if she would sing “Wildwood Flower,” so that’s how I met Elvis Costello and Roseanne Cash.

Mark Stein was also a big part of it, he’s the bass player on a lot of country records, so he helped me a great deal. My wife Ruth was an invaluable part of this, she kept everything together, she was the producer and singer—without her it couldn’t happen. I can’t believe how great the album is. It’s so good, and everybody that is on this record, you can tell they are doing it for love for my music, all the studio musicians and all the featured singers. They all love it and they’re doing it for their love for me, and it really shows and you can hear it.

Thank you.


October 02, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 Adam // Oct 02, 2008 at 11:10 PM
    Wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing it with the world !
  • 2 m.malloy // Oct 03, 2008 at 06:47 PM