THE PICTURE AND THE FRAME BY STEVEN ROSEN
It was September, 1974 and Mickey Newbury and Kris Kristofferson were in the dressing room of the Exit/In, a club revered in Nashville for treating the singer-songwriters of country as artists rather than merely formulaic-hit-churning Music Row pros. Newbury was doing two nights at the Exit/In and Kristofferson was there as an admirer. A reporter for The Tennessean was profiling Newbury, but he wound up spending quite a bit of his article describing the opening act, Jay Bolotin. How could he not when he was standing nearby when Kristofferson said to Bolotin: “Tell you what, man. You’re a great writer.”?
As The Tennessean journalist, Jerry Bailey, described the scene, Bolotin felt a little uneasy, sitting on a sofa, as Kristofferson and Newbury kept praising him. “He said nothing as they derided ‘those guys’ on Music Row for not recognizing those talents,” Bailey wrote. And after Bolotin left to begin the second show, Newbury turned to Kristofferson and urged him to use his influence on “those idiots” on Music Row to pay attention to Bolotin.
Bolotin never really got the kind of record-industry attention so many members of Nashville’s country music community believed he deserved. Besides Kristofferson and Newbury, Merle Haggard, Norbert Putnam, Porter Wagoner, David Allan Coe and Dan Fogelberg all were enthusiastic fans. Kristofferson, Putnam and Haggard all tried to record him at different times, and Coe and Fogelberg — an odd couple, to be sure — covered his songs. Fogelberg even had a hit single with one, “It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.” But Bolotin, who had frequent live performances at clubs like the Exit/In, never managed to release an album during his time there.
Fearlessly individualistic, his music wasn’t for everyone. But the fans of his songs thought he was uncommonly gifted. “Because Jay was so interesting and poetic, they’d call him the King of Imagery,” says Owsley Manier, the Exit/In founder. “The images in his lyrics were just breathtaking. The people who didn’t understand him…hated him. But for the great writers like Newbury and Kristofferson, it was a slam-dunk. They knew."
Until now, Bolotin himself hasn’t looked back much at that time. He didn’t even know some of these recordings still existed until Mark Linn, the president of Delmore Recording Society, uncovered the demos. Now, Bolotin is hopeful they will at last find an audience.
“I have come to think of time as a kind of tool – like a paint brush or a chisel,” he says. “Time seems to have done some work on these songs – something good.”
Further, he believes what he did then reflects upon his work now as a successful visual artist. He has gone on to make, for example, what is considered the first animated-woodcut motion picture, the 62-minute THE JACKLEG TESTAMENT, PART ONE: Jack & Eve (with his own an operatic score).
The narrative of that film is as post-modern as the choice of woodcuts to achieve it is pre-modern. It retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, except Adam is replaced by Jack, the mannequin inside the toy called a Jack-in-the-Box. The strange vision of the project, coupled with the high level of accomplishment of the finished work, has earned Jack & Eve screenings and exhibitions at many Contemporary art museums and college museums, including Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Smith College Museum, University of Richmond, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Vanderbilt, Georgia Museum of Art. It has also screened overseas. Bolotin will sometimes perform songs after a screening.
In his visual art, he uses inventive and finely detailed, outright literary, storytelling. He has this ability to see things differently and to find meaning in the seemingly obscure without needing to spell it out. That’s similar to his work as a songwriter — just listen on this release to a recording called “The Picture and the Frame.” It was made as a demo in 1972 at the late Lee Hazen’s Hounds Ear Studio in Nashville.
Sung with just a trace of the gentlemanly Southern drawl that came from growing up on a farm near Lexington, Ky., Bolotin recounts how a stranger in a New England town, winter approaching, goes into a junk shop for warmth and spots an artwork — “some old and withered etching of a hero about to slay a wicked looking creature.” The shopkeeper takes it out of the frame and gives it to him — the frame is what has the monetary value. In the song, she recalls the episode later, saying, “He’s the only one my memory retains, who did not shun the picture for the frame.”
Bolotin ends the song by singing wordlessly in a high voice, almost eerily, to let us know he’s finished a strange tale that we will not forget. This is a folk song — but it’s also an art song, simultaneously particular and universal, reportorial and poetic, romantic and observational. Forty-three years after it was recorded, it’s still unforgettably compelling … and different.
The songs presented here, taken from recording sessions between 1970-75, show the beginnings —the empathy that links the visual with the sung.
One early influence was the Kentucky folklorist/singer John Jacob Niles, who also lived on a farm near Lexington. Niles, among other things, was capable of singing in a very high falsetto.
“I was fascinated with him,” Bolotin says. “He would play at the elementary school. He’d bring his dulcimer and act his songs out, and do the girl parts, too. I loved it. And I went to his house a few times. He lived in a beautiful old stone house in the country and had posters of himself performing in Europe on the wall. I thought that was the cat’s meow.”
Bolotin began writing his own songs in high school. He also showed skill at visual art in Kentucky, and upon graduation entered Rhode Island School of Design to study sculpture. But it was the late 1960s, and there was much else going on. “I played out in Providence for the first time in a coffee house,” he recalls. “And I met some fellows from a band – the Tombstone Blues Band. I thought they were ancient because they were in their late 20s. They played in East Providence, across the river, and I’d walk across an abandoned railroad bridge every Tuesday night when they’d play at Bovie’s Town Tavern. They’d play a couple of my songs and bought me drinks, and that was so much more interesting than going to art school.”
Bolotin quit RISD after 1½ years. His connection with the Tombstone Blues Band helped him record a self-titled solo album in New York in 1969, with subtle combo accompaniment, that a label called Commonwealth United Records released — three weeks before folding. The record didn’t get much exposure, although it was reissued in 2009 by a small connoisseur Chicago label, Locust Music.
The first album’s producers, Stuart Wiener and Mike Lewis, liked Bolotin enough to independently sponsor a second recording session in February, 1970. And he came up with strong songwriting. The examples here, “No One Seems to Notice That It’s Raining,” “Message to a Snowman” and “Dime Novels,” show a voice comfortable with its gentleness, dreamy folk-oriented contemporary songs. They are, simply, beautiful in their loneliness.
“Dime Novels” from that session marries his pristine voice with one of his finest, wisest couplets:
“Our lives, they read like novels that we bought for dimes and hid, hoping they wouldn’t find them.”
But the album never found a home. Remembering today, Wiener says that, “It was a lyrically dark album. I wanted to produce it with a little more sweetening and try to lighten it up a little bit — some strings or horns. Jay was very much against it. He wanted it sparse like that. I still love it — Jay was an incredible songwriter. But the album never came out.”
Bolotin spent time in New England after that recording session — making sculpture and writing songs. For one winter, he lived at an abandoned boy’s camp near Keene, N.H. “You May Live,” although recorded in Nashville in 1972, was composed there.
“There was a ruined concrete swimming pool with cracks in it, with dead weeds grown out of them, and a little theater with a burlap curtain hung from bailing wire and spilled powder paint strewn about,” he recalls. “I’d put plays on in there and there’d be squirrels for my audience. They’d sit on the rafters and eat acorns and watch me. I loved it. And I got a lot of writing done —I think I learned basically what irony is.”
Eventually, a family crisis in Kentucky hastened his return there for several weeks. While at home, he listened to his favorite records to pass time and noticed quite a few had been produced in Nashville — in particular a double album by Joan Baez. Nashville was a short drive, so off he went. That was autumn of 1971. The Exit/In had just recently opened and the owner, Manier, immediately hired Bolotin to play. And that cemented a friendship that still lasts today.
“All I had to do was hear Jay and he was there,” Manier says.
Bolotin played often enough at the club that, after sleeping on various people’s couches, he took a small apartment in Nashville. He shared bills with the likes of Fogelberg, John Hiatt, Buffy Saint-Marie — even jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk once. He got to play dulcimer on a Joan Baez recording. In general, a kind of buzz was created.
At the time he made many of these recordings, Bolotin had a songwriting contract with David Briggs and Norbert Putnam, the latter the great bass player and producer of Donovan, Fogelberg, Eric Anderson, Baez (on her huge hit of Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from the same album Bolotin so admired) and many others.
Putnam recalls Bolotin well. “When I was a young kid growing up, I was listening to Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart . . . Broadway writers,” he says. “Those songs are so beautifully crafted with great language. And Jay’s music was also very highly established. Jay could write great melody, great chord progressions, great lyrics.”
Bolotin remembers that Putnam was invited to the Exit/In, to hear him trade songs with Hiatt and Fogelberg, by a music manager. “I was going up to the stage when I was slated to play and another musician whose name I’ve never known got in front of me, all red in the face, and said he was going to play now — he looked like he was going to hit me,” Bolotin says. “It was obvious it was because Norbert was there. Norbert was the golden-boy producer at the time.
“That incident was a moment I’ve always remembered,” Bolotin continues. “Norbert left. But he left a note that said for me to come by the studio, which I did. I played some songs. He signed me to a publishing contract. They paid me fifty dollars a week. Every once in awhile they’d pay for me to make a demo. For the most part, that’s what these recordings are.”
Putnam doesn’t recall that specific incident at the Exit/In, but does remember how he and Briggs would stop there after an evening studio session to listen to Bolotin. “I loved Jay,” he says. “I thought he was a great genius and great guy and just wanted to see him have success. And I don’t think I did a very good job for him. It was difficult to pitch a Jay Bolotin song because it took a really good artist to do one of his songs. But Dan Fogelberg did do ‘It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.’ That was probably the most profitable song (Bolotin) ever did that we published.”
The recording of “Go Down Easy” contained here is from a November 7, 1972 demo session at Nashville’s Hounds Ear Studio, with Lee Hazen as engineer. This recording collects other demos made while Bolotin was signed to Putnam: “The June Bug” and “You May Live” from that same 1972 Hounds Ear Studio recording; “Traveler” and “Don’t Worry About Winning What You’ve Already Won” from a 1973 Quadrophonic Sound Studio recording that featured Putnam on hand to produce Bolotin with a band); the aforementioned “The Picture and the Frame,” “Puddles in the Sun,” “Canteen of Water” and “Outlaw of a Low Class Kind” from a January, 1974 session at Hounds Ear Studio with Hazen engineering. Virtually all are one-take recordings.
“Canteen of Water” was recorded in 1977 by the infamous David Allan Coe, a hot Nashville commodity for writing Tanya Tucker’s “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.”
“David used to play another song of mine, “Outlaw of a Low Class Kind” live,” Bolotin says. “Later on, it was one of the songs Merle Haggard liked. It’s about a thief who steals out of love, really, and feels very badly about it.”
Not the kind of material for Nashville’s tough-guy writers? “It was a very macho kind of scene, but they were really pussycats – and gentlemen towards me,” Bolotin says.
Manier has another theory about why some of the rough-and-tumble “outlaws” of country were attracted to Bolotin, with his polite demeanor. “People like Coe, who wanted to do hit songs and was outrageous, were kind of playing their part,” he says. “Coe, somewhere in his artistic spirit, got that. And something about Jay reminded them of what they’d really prefer to be doing.”
After Putnam produced the demo with “Traveler” himself, it caught the attention of Kristofferson. Bolotin remembers getting a call one night from Kristofferson’s manager, who put his client on the phone.
“He said, ‘This is Kris Kristofferson. That song ‘Traveler’ — a lot of people have been trying to write that for a long time and you did,’” Bolotin recalls. Kristofferson, not just a successful songwriter but also getting starring roles in movies like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, asked Bolotin not to sign a recording contract for three weeks until he could return from a European trip and talk with him.
“So three weeks went by, then three months, then a year and I never heard from him,” Bolotin says. “I figured Kris just had a busy life and forgot. Then he turned up at the Exit/In when I was opening for Mickey Newbury. He had come to see Mickey. He seemed moved by some of my songs. He was talking about ‘Lester and the Gold Coin’ in the dressing room. I reminded him of the phone call a year earlier. He said, ‘You’re the same person?’’’
By now, Putnam had released Bolotin from his publishing contract, so Kristofferson was interested in signing Bolotin. Turned over to Kristofferson’s business people, on Nov. 1, 1974 Bolotin did a demo session at Chip Young’s studio in Murfreesboro, Tenn. It didn’t go well, he believes — nothing is included here — and Bolotin wrote about what he considered a disaster in a letter dated Jan. 19, 1975: “I have made a trip to Nashville where I was fired from the publishing company I have been writing for ... truthfully I feel much better now. There was a pressure there that I did not like. I felt from the start that they did not really like my music very much but signed me only because Kris [said to].”
Rebounding, Bolotin gathered some of his friends and, on April 13, 1975, went to the Hendersonville Studio On the Pond, with Hazen back as engineer, to re-record most everything on the Kristofferson-initiated demo. Two songs from that are presented here, both standouts — “Driver Driver” and “The Story of Lester and the Gold Coin.”
“Lester,” the live performance of which so enthralled Kristofferson at the Exit/In, starts with a lonesome, isolated whistle — eventually some minor key, ruminative acoustic guitar enters. Bolotin’s voice is late-night campfire dramatic, yet also kindly as he starts to tell his story
“When Lester was a young man, he was very tall and very strong
And his hands, lots of people said, had the grip of one of those constrictor snakes
Now one day, he found a shiny coin and an old, old book that was hand-written
Now Lester, he knew the bible because his mother made him go to church and then stay even after the Sunday service to go to Bible School.
So Lester knew that the book that he found was copied mostly from the bible.
And yet things were changed, lines were scratched out and new lines were put in,
And even those were scratched out and changed again.
Enough so that Lester couldn’t even read most of it
And that that he could, he couldn’t make hide nor hair of…”
By now, Bolotin is closing in on the song’s two-minute mark and you don’t know where this is going — religious parable, horror story, fable, word portrait of a lost soul? You’re hooked.
“You could hear a pin drop at the Exit/In usually,” Manier says. “With ‘Lester,’ it would progress to a feather.”
Bolotin made other recordings after the April, 1975 session, including some under the supervision of Merle Haggard. Hopefully, they will be the subjects of a later volume. But in 1976, he attended the McDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat, in New Hampshire, where he met painter John Wesley and his Cincinnati-native wife, novelist Hannah Green. They arranged for him to meet the Cincinnati gallerist, Carl Solway, who had a national reputation for his championing of Contemporary art.
Solway would visit Bolotin at his house near Cynthiana, Ky. (pictured on the album cover), camping out in Bolotin’s field. Eventually the decision was made to give him a show. Bolotin has been represented by the Solway Gallery ever since, as his career as an artist has risen and his career as a Nashville musician has receded.
But every now and then, his Nashville years still assert themselves. Such was the case when Fogelberg, in 1985, released his version of Bolotin’s lovely “Go Down Easy” as a single from his album High Country Snows. (Fogelberg’s album also included Bolotin’s “Outlaw of a Low Class Kind.”)
Bolotin had moved on by then, living in Cincinnati and raising two children. He remembers going to an old-fashioned, somewhat-weathered amusement park near Middletown, Ohio with his children. “They wanted to go on a tea-cup ride and that made me nauseous,” he says. “I was trying not to throw up, as I was in charge of these toddlers. I was sitting on a crate on the hot concrete and there were the wooden telephone pole-looking things with speakers, looking like something from a concentration camp, and it dawned on me they were playing music that I wrote. It was Dan Fogelberg singing ‘It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.’” The check he eventually got for that “changed a lot of stuff,” Bolotin says.