When folk music lit a fire under the Beat Generation, Jim Rooney was there, managing a club off Harvard Square in Boston. When Bob Dylan unleashed an electric band on the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Rooney stood backstage, forming a poignant defense of the debacle. As a Harvard postgrad, he drifted across the U.S. in a motor home, landing in Nashville in time to sow the seeds of the country boom of the 1990s. When Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent needed a hand, Rooney ran the tape machine. In short, Jim Rooney has quite a tale to tell in his autobiography, In It For The Long Run: A Musical Odyssey.
If this book were solely a collection of anecdotes about the author’s adventures with famous people, it would be interesting enough. Rooney managed Club 47, which became an important tour stop for a vast array of artists, from Joni Mitchell to The Staples Singers, and he played a crucial role in establishing definitive music festivals like the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. Rooney befriended bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and bluesman Muddy Waters and wrote a book about them: Bossmen showed the commonalities between the two musicians at a time when many were focused on their differences. Rooney worked extensively with legendary songwriters like John Prine and Pat Alger and even helped infamous artist-manager Albert Grossman build the fabled studio in Bearsville, New York, used by Bobby Charles, The Band, and many others. Rooney developed a rapport with a striking array of people, seemingly able to turn every chance meeting into an opportunity to make history.
But what makes In It For The Long Run unique among celebrity memoirs is the deep worth Rooney finds in each of the people he writes about, from the most eminent to the humblest among them, and he tells his story in a self-deprecating way. In just one example, he writes of learning the alchemical art of engineering from the late Cowboy Jack Clement, renowned songwriter, producer, and raconteur whose career began before the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll: “Jack came in and started to waltz around the room, balancing a glass of water on his head, not spilling a drop, while he sang along with the chorus of my song. Then, as he got to know that I’d gone to Harvard, that I had a master’s degree in Classics, that I played the guitar backward and upside down, he really took a shine to me. I was obviously odd. He liked odd people.”
Rooney is a keen-eyed chronicler of his six decades as an active participant in music history, and he infuses every memory with a profound respect for the role that music and storytelling play in culture. “Melody and tempo supply the setting for the story and set the mood so that you don’t even think to ask the same questions you might ask when reading a novel,” he writes of deciding to pursue music full-time. “I had joined a long, deep, and legitimate tradition as a singer and adapter of songs.” Lucky for us he did.
Jim Rooney will discuss In It For The Long Run: A Musical Odyssey at Parnassus Books in Nashville on April 23, 2014, at 6:30 p.m., and again at The Station Inn on April 24, 2014, at 6 p.m. The signing at the Station Inn will be followed by a performance with his group, Jim Rooney’s Irregulars, at 9.