Living Blues — Living Blues #238
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Breaking Out: Jerry Lawson
Tim Ghianni

Jerry Lawson, 71, leans into the microphone at Nashville’s most famous bluegrass nightclub and begins I’m Just a Mortal Man, the title track (except for the “I’m” part) to his justreleased debut album.

He’s seated on a stool because about a year ago, he got two new knees. In fact, a year ago, when he was in Nashville to finish up this album with producer and Red Beet Records owner Eric Brace, along with a cast that includes Music City elite gospel/blues stars The McCrary Sisters, he took a turn on this same stage.

That time he was sitting in with Brace, Peter Cooper, Thomm Jutz, Sierra Hull and a mix-and-match batch of the city’s Americana/ bluegrass and harmony all-stars. That band was in the club to show off the Brace-Cooper good-timey The Comeback Album, an Everly Brothers-harmony-style batch of songs about jail, loss, laughs and life, a smile-inducing brand of music that could be called “Tom T. Hall Lite.”

That first visit to the stage was historic. This is the Station Inn, perhaps the last great fortress of bluegrass music, a low-slung blockhouse in the once-decrepit L&N Railroad Gulch, where homeless shared small brown bags and urinated in view of the few who ventured down here.

Now this club, where Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass royalty picked when they were off the road, appears out of- place, a stash of history and grace amid modern urban uglies—a fleet of condo towers, sushi joints and designer-caffeine providers— that rip at the soul of the city.

But Lawson, although surrounded by white faces both in the audience and on the stage, was not out of place that summer night.

Barely able to navigate the three steps to the stage, the stooped-over R&B veteran—with an accent on the “B” part of that formula— plopped down in a chair and sang the Curtis Mayfield classic People Get Ready while the bluegrass players behind him firmed their grips to match the tight, blues-inflected voice of their guest.

Lawson said on that night that he’d be back soon. “I’ve gotta go home to Phoenix and get two new knees, but I’ll be back in the fall for the record release,” said the septuagenarian first-time solo star.

He didn’t quite make that deadline. In addition to getting his knees replaced, he was busy almost dying. “They gave me a pill to relax for the knee surgery and it went down the wrong tube,” he says now. “That’s when they discovered I had a torn esophagus.”

Surgery couldn’t be stalled. “I was laying in my hospital bed, waiting for surgery, and my mind began playing tricks. And a priest came in, white collar, and I thought ‘I may not even pull out of this thing.’ It’s a real weird feeling that you get. They are getting ready to put you under and you know you may not wake up. I knew I was a mortal man—like the album says—and that I could leave this world.

“I thought well, at least I recorded this album. And then there were the albums I recorded with the Persuasions (a ground-breaking a cappella group he fronted for 40 years). I thought ‘well, at least I had something to leave to this world.’

“I woke up and saw them lights and everything and I told myself ‘I hope those lights ain’t the Pearly Gates.’ Then people started talking and I knew I was there, I was alive.”

It’s difficult enough for a man to heal from double-knee replacement surgery. Throw in the frightening esophagus repair and three-month recuperation and the autumn release party gets delayed until around Christmastime 2014. Then perhaps early in the spring of 2015.

Finally, the singer celebrates the release of his album a year after that first hot summer night in Nashville. Sure, he’s still not getting around like he was as a young Florida transplant in Brooklyn, New York, where he sang lead while the Persuasions harmonized Beatles, Partridge Family and Mothers of Invention songs at the Apollo.

He remembers visiting that legendary Harlem theater in the late ’60s, when he was fresh to New York from Florida, holding day jobs and singing with his harmonic pals on the street-corners and in the subways. “I saw them all: B.B. King, James Brown, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington, the Platters… I would sit in the audience and wonder what they did backstage. Little did I know that 10 years later I’d be backstage and I’d be one of the Apollo’s mainstays.”

Though he does have new knees, Lawson needs to be helped by this writer as he climbs up and down the steps to the Station Inn stage at the end of his 90-minute set and then after the encore that has much of Music City’s roots and Americana music population overwhelmed while chasing baskets of popcorn and razorthin pizza slices with cold beer.

Before and after this show—which drew long and loud standing ovations and Dixie hoots that are regularly heard by the bluegrassers who call this blockhouse “home”— Lawson sat plopped in a throne-like chair in the unisex dressing room and talked about how lucky he was to be alive and finally back in Nashville for his debut as a solo headliner. And how anxious he was to get back to Arizona, where his wife, Julie, 62, runs Lawson Productions (www.jerrylawson.biz), and the singer spends his days working with mentally challenged youth.

It’s been a dozen years since his life changed after decades in show business that took him all around the world and had he and his group singing with their Number one fan, Frank Zappa. “He was a genius,” Lawson says of the man who mixed symphony, skewed society’s “norms” and baffled the censors with his unique wash of psychedelic rock ’n’ roll as The Mothers of Invention mastermind.

“My mom had Alzheimer’s down in my hometown (Apopka, Florida) and I had to leave New York to take care of her. I would still go on the road and perform, but then I’d go home to take care of my mother.

“When I saw her casket get lowered into the ground, it changed my whole life around,” he says.

As he watched, Lawson thought about his own bluesy roots. “My uncle, Booker T. Washington, had a juke joint, The 2-Spot and my mom and I lived above it, so blues is in my blood. I’d go to sleep every night listening to the blues on the juke box…

“I started thinking ‘what is this all worth?’ ‘what is this all about?’ so I came to the guys and I said ‘I’m thinking about leaving the Persuasions. I’ve had enough.’”

Julie and Jerry Lawson decided to collect their energy and think about the next phase, whether it was in music or in his work with his beloved young men.

“I have three boys with mental complications,” he says of his charges in the residential facility 14 minutes from his house. ‘”One is 24 going on 6. One is 34 going on 12 and has Prader-Willi, an eating disorder. And one is 21 and has autism.”

He never permanently parked his musical dreams. But he was content, occasionally doing a lounge show or working with a cappella group Talk of the Town.

He also kept in touch with Brace, who became a “pen pal” of sorts years ago when the then-music journalist for The Washington Post wrote a note in a column telling people how great the Persuasions, with their unique sound and repertoire that mixed the Grateful Dead with Lennon and McCartney, and the occasional dash of Holy Ghost thrown in.

Lawson wrote Brace a “thank you” note and the two began a long-lasting mostly-by-mail friendship.

By the time they got to Phoenix, Brace and his wife, Mary Ann Werner, thought Lawson’s voice might be a perfect “instrument” to use on one of his albums. In addition to working with Cooper, Brace fronts alt-country stalwarts Last Train Home.

But the visitors listened to the recordings and decided it would be better to bring this brilliant R&B voice out of self-imposed exile and make an entire Lawson album, with Brace et al providing the texture.

Days after unveiling his debut album this summer, Lawson looks to the future. “I’m thinking of doing a full gospel album: get the Mississippi Mass Choir, Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the McCrary Sisters and the Dixie Hummingbirds behind me.”

He gently begins singing “Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion,” by way of example.

Lawson laughs when thinking about the long, strange trek since he was visited by the priest in the hospital a year ago, the day I’m Just a Mortal Man almost became his own version of Happy Trails.

“I was thinking the other day of my heroes, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and B.B. King. I was thinking what illustrious careers both of them had and they got to spend their lives making people happy with their music.

“What a great way to leave history.”

He figures he’s just beginning to make his own mark for the ages. “It’s like being born again.”
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