John Lomax III and Rocky Hill featured in Tennessean

Peter Cooper On Music: Lomax’s ‘lost cause’ is preserving great music

John Lomax III (photo: George Walker IV/The Tennessean)

By his own estimation, John Lomax III is a musical catalyst. And a producer, and a manager, and a publisher. And a journalist. And a historian. And an author. And an exporter.

And a sucker for a lost cause.

“I learned long ago to just follow my musical heart, unfortunately,” he says, sitting in a home office jammed with albums, CDs, books, posters and such.

The “unfortunately” part is true enough, at least if we’re talking about achieving the goal Lomax held for himself in the 1970s, which was to “go on to fame and glory and be a big shot with money and groupies and everything.” Lomax’s penchant for favoring talent over marketability has left him without an abundance of money or groupies.

But he is in fact a big shot, having aided and/or enabled the careers of Townes Van ZandtSteve EarleSunny Sweeney, Australian songbird Kasey Chambers, dulcimer wizard David Schnaufer and others.

And Lomax comes by his instincts honestly, as a member of a family that has contributed so much to American popular music over more than 100 years.

Gaining traction

Grandfather John Lomax was a pioneering musicologist (he called himself a “ballad hunter”) who preserved and archived thousands of songs via transcription, cataloging and recording, and who helped Louisiana State Penitentiary prisoner Huddie Ledbetter become iconic roots music performer Lead Belly.

Uncle Alan Lomax, known as “the man who recorded the world,” was a collector of folk music whose massive archives are crucial to our understanding of roots music. His Association for Cultural Equity — Lomax III’s cousin Anna Lomax Wood is the Association’s president — has made available, at no charge, 17,000 of his sound recordings (and numerous photos and videos) at the www.culturalequity.org website.

“Alan Lomax went to England in the 1950s and played blues and folk on radio shows, and published books and articles about this great American roots music, and played live himself,” Lomax III says. “Would there have been an English rock invasion had he not been there, spreading the gospel? No one was playing gutbucket blues in England on the radio before him, or singing about it. (Nashville Songwriters Hall of FamerPat Alger told me he thought Alan was the premiere figure in American culture in the entire last century.”

Lomax III’s dad made his living in the real estate business in Houston, but he was also a musician and the founder of the Houston Folklore Society, a community of music-lovers that offered opportunities for bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1980s country hit-maker K.T. Oslin, Americana stalwart Lucinda Williams and others.

“Being a Lomax, the expectations were intimidating, but I felt privileged to grow up in that environment,” Lomax III says. “I had a background nobody else could have had, hearing cowboy songs and blues songs and being around Lightnin’ Hopkins. I had no talent as a musician and no patience to make music, but in college I realized that I was spending all my time hanging out with musicians, reading about music and going to shows, and I thought I’d better figure out a way to get some traction out of that.”

Vital link in chain

He got plenty of traction, and wound up as an integral link in the Lomax chain.

As a manager, he managed to get Van Zandt’s problematic career up off the mat in 1976, helping Van Zandt to a place as a seminal figure in what would come to be called “Americana” music. He helped Earle to his first two record label deals and to a publishing contract. He produced albums that brought Schnaufer to public attention, got Chambers label deals in several continents and worked to get Sweeney set up with Big Machine Records.

In the 1970s, he tried to secure a greater audience for a tremendous blues guitarist named Rocky Hill, the brother of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill. In 1977, Lomax began co-producing an album for Hill that included songs from the pens of Van Zandt and Nashville songwriting great David Olney. The album starred three members of Delbert McClinton’s crack band, and it featured Hill’s audacious guitar-playing. But before the album came to fruition, Hill re-signed with previous manager Bill Ham, and exited Lomax’s watch. The album went unreleased for 34 years before being issued, too late for Rocky Hill to celebrate: He died in 2009, at age 62.

“Last summer, I called Rocky’s widow and said, ‘I want to do something with this stuff, ’cause it’s great,’” Lomax says. “We put it online, and then (journalist) Andy Langer got excited and wrote a piece that ran in The New York Times.”

The Times piece caused folks to take notice, and Lomax III was back where he’d always been: In support of a critically acclaimed, commercially inconsequential, lovely, funky, groovy piece of art.

“Now you can hear why a small squad of veteran rock crits consider Rocky Hill the equal of any guitar-slinger to ever strum six strings,” he writes in the liner notes of the CD called Lone Star Legend.

John Lomax III won’t be getting rich from sales of Lone Star Legend. Or from publishing the brilliant David Olney and Townes Van Zandt songs Hill recorded. Or, likely, from his other endeavors. John Lomax III, most probably, won’t be getting rich. But he has protected a family legacy, and he has extended that legacy to include son John Nova Lomax, an award-winning music journalist.

He sent a note to me the other day, with a finished copy of Rocky Hill’s Lone Star Legend. The note said, “Doing what Lomaxes do — Finding and releasing and promoting great music and musicians.”

A lost cause, perhaps. But he’s a sucker for that sort of thing. And we’re all the richer for it.

Article courtesy of The Tennessean

Originally posted: April 11, 2012