In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, there’s a story about popular novels vs. serious novels. It asks the question: Can they be one and the same?
In the course of not reaching any conclusions, the article quotes a critic who complains: “Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?”
That question is pertinent to today’s music as well as novels. Doesn’t anyone care how something is written? Do words matter?
Where are the Hanks, the Kristoffersons, the Prines? Where are the lyricists? How did we get from pure poetry and poignant reflections of life experiences to 20-something twits who win televised talent shows with big voices but nothing whatsoever to sing about? Girls giggle. Women roar.
Singer-songwriter Pamela Jackson is a rarity in Nashville. The mother of four, a waitress at the iconic Brown’s Diner, she’s a seasoned woman who has been widowed and divorced and lonely and in love, and survived to sing about it. Her writing reflects struggles.
“I start around sundown, I work for tips/Serving whiskey to the in-crowd and old has-beens/On a field where everybody wins/They drop money in my jar/’Cause I know who they were and who they are/God’s in them and He’s in this bar …”
“Red Rock Heart” is the new CD, available July 1, produced by Music Row veteran Tricia Walker for a studio called Big Front Porch Productions, at the Delta Music Institute at small but remarkable Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. Students, professors and professionals all worked on the album, which may end the low-profile, “little quiet life” Pamela professes to favor.
For the past 15 years in Nashville, waitressing has paid the bills. As a day job, it was a natural. Pamela grew up in her family’s restaurant in Auburn, Ala. “I think I’ll be a waitress in Heaven,” she says. Which is all right by her. Customers become family — and inspiration. There’s certainly nothing self-pitying about her song “I Work for Tips,” her paean to the profession.
Her musical heroes were Carole King and songwriter Steve Fromholz. She was 17 and at the swimming pool when she heard Willie Nelson singing Fromholz’ “I’d Have to Be Crazy.”
“I can do that,” she thought, and rushed home to find the Sears Harmony guitar her father bought her when she was 5, the year before he died.
“She’s the best songwriter I know, and I know many great ones,” Davis Raines says. “Her voice is eternally young and soulful — country as grits or soulful as fatback, depending on what the song calls for.” Maybe it’s in the company she keeps. Raines (“Someone Somewhere Tonight”) co-wrote five of the album’s songs. Respected journalist and author Frye Gaillard also co-wrote a couple of the ballads.
The rock heart featured on the front of the CD was painted by her daughter Jillian years ago after a family outing to the Harpeth River. They discovered that the rocks there were shaped like hearts.
“We took the rocks home, and I bought cheap paint and the kids painted a basket full of them,” Pamela says. She kept them.
“A couple of cops were talking outside/of the store on the corner, it closes at 9/So I reached in my pocket, dug up some change/For a pack of smokes when it started to rain/And there in my hand with the nickels and dimes/Was a red rock heart that read ‘be mine …’”
In life, as in songs, little things mean a lot. Emmylou meets K.T. Oslin. Her writing rocks.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.