Larry Jon Wilson. songwriter, singer, guitar player. Born October 7, 1940, died June 21, 2010.
Remembered by Ross Allen.
I hate things like this. It seems that nearly every week of doing my radio show some legend has gone and died. You want to doff your cap and pay tribute, so you play a track or two, recount what you know (or have looked up) and they go by… and I clichedly say – “but the music lives on…”
Well with the passing of Larry Jon Wilson, I can say more than that. The music will live and build to a place where his music was truly meant to be, as happens with all great artists. You see, Larry Jon may be known to you but really he is unknown, far from known. When you put together the cumulative parts of what he had, said and recorded, you realise that that is a tragedy. Then, aside from that you had him as person. Thats a double blow.
I was introduced to this music, his world, by default. Growing up a South London soul boy ( though with a slight heavy metal deviation at the ages of 11 to 13 – God, grief will make you fess up the wierdest things !), I had parameters in my musical life. Open to most things but country was way beyond my city limits.
Then there was one magical day in Peckham (surely those words cant be put together in a sentence !). I owe the opening of the door into this extraordinary world to one Jeb Loy Nichols, and it is a debt, a big one ! As not only did Travis Wammack’s version of ‘You Better Move On’, open my mind to what became known as Country Got Soul and thus the music of Larry Jon Wilson and Tony Joe White, Dann Penn and Donnie Fritts – funky and soulful, with that country narrative. The story telling ability was remarkable. It oozes out of all good country (all good songs in reality) but it, and subsequently they, opened me up in turn to their influences. I was aware of a lot of the soulful side of those but not the real country – the soul music of the white south. True stories.
It was not just the music that was amazing but the whole vibe of these guys, and Larry Jon Wilson was pivotal in opening me up to all this. He was the first guy we visited in the States, whilst making in-roads in to recording The Country Soul Revue record. On a trip to Augusta, Georgia, we were met by that voice – the one off the record and the one from down the phone – there he was – a bear of a man, as aimiable and chatty as ever. And he lived next to James Brown !! Happy that we had come to see him, happy to tell us more stories, (at points we thought they would never end, you now wish that they hadn’t !) Always keen to show you things, play you things, tell you about gigs with Mickey Newbury, Guy Clarke, Tony Joe White or Townes Van Zandt. Travelling around the states these troubadors were on ‘Heartworn Highways’, hobo’s with guitars and songs recounting the tales of their lives and stories that they had picked up along the way. These guys, and Larry in particular, were fighting the real fight for music and if not being too over dramatic, life. They were Outlaws. I had never heard the like of it. These were not my usual musical heroes – city slickers but Country, out and out Country, and they were cool. It, they, he, blew my mind. I was in another world and I loved it
You may know the music, you should know the music. No shame if you don’t but after reading this look him up you won’t be disappointed – you will be rejuvinated. But my dealings with LJW are more than absolute next level lyricism, melody, playing and vocals – and that, as i said earlier, is enough. To me LJW was the ultimate southern gent. And that was something that I loved meeting and finding out about. The south of the states is a mass of contradictions, beautiful beyond belief in parts, full of history and tales of misdemeanours and glories, and a tradition that was exemplified by LJW. Upright, forthright, downright straight ahead – no punches pulled, if you were good you were good, if you were wrong, rude or stupid – you’d soon know about it and should watch out. I think the word I am looking for is a timeless one, he was REAL, even though some of the stories were a little too tall at times, he was real. What you hear in those songs were the tales he had been drawn to, the lifestyle that he loved, the way he lived his life. The music is great because he was, the lifestyle was, the mindset was. It seemed to echo a different time and place, part Gone With The Wind part Sam Peckinpah.
He will always remind me of balmy southern evenings, southern history, southern ways, being a true gent and great, great southern music. And the music will live on and grow and a whole world will exist in my head that will forever be stamped “LJW Was Here”. For that I will always be in his debt.
JB adds; Ross and Jeb Loy Nichols have done a lot to bring Larry Jon’s music to a wider audience. After that fortuitous night when a young soul boy had his mind expanded the pair of them embarked, with fan-boy enthusiasm, on a mission to spread the word. They compiled and released two albums, both of them full of lost treasure – Country Got Soul, Volumes 1 & 2 – that are ‘must have’ records for anyones collection. As Ross mentions in his heartfelt remembrance, him and Jeb upped and went over to meet these heroes. Whilst there, and with help from the mighty Dan Penn, they got the survivors in the studio to cut new tracks for a compilation titled ‘Testifying’ which was launched with a show at London’s Barbican. For more information I recommend a visit to Jeb’s website
Honorable mention must go to James Endeacott of 1965 Records for bringing LJW over here to play some shows a couple of years back and released an album of new material to coincide. more on that HERE.
We’ll leave you with a clip of the great man doing his thing for the superb 1975 documentary film ‘Heartworn Highways’, another great entry point into the music and artists that Ross writes about above.