by Peter Cooper
July 28, 2010
Joan Baez is comfortable these days in Nashville. On Thursday, July
29 she'll play Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, and there'll be pretty
flowers and warm applause and smiles all around.
Quite different, then, from Baez's first trip to town in the fall of
1968, when her staunch anti-war stance and outspoken civil rights
work made her the sweetest-singing sore thumb in area code 615.
"The musicians and I were tiptoeing around each other," said Baez,
whose most recent album, the Steve Earleproduced Day After Tomorrow,
was nominated for a Grammy. "I don't think I was as nervous as they
were. They were afraid I was going to do whatever pinkos do. But the
first dinner we had, (renowned Nashville guitarist) Grady Martin told
a very funny, very dirty joke, and I split a gut laughing. That was
the trial, and after that, I was OK."
In the studio, the folk queen sang songs by Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons
and Utah Phillips, while automobiles with bumper stickers nodding to
famous civil rights opponent George Wallace sat idle in the parking
lot. And Baez soon found musical empathy had nothing to do with
"She just wanted us to do our thing behind her, and at the time it
was such a joy to back up somebody that had chops like she did," said
fiddler Buddy Spicher, talking to steel guitarist and historian Pete
Finney for a book project Finney is working on. "When the singer's on
you're going to play your best, and that was the feeling with her."
In other words, hearty laughter or no, things would not have gone
well if Baez's voice had not rung true. Plus, Johnny Cash's support
of and appreciation for Bob Dylan had helped ease Music City's
suspicion of folkies, and Earl Scruggs and Marijohn Wilkin were
similarly supportive of Baez. On 1971's Blessed Are album, Baez sang
the self-penned "Outside The Nashville City Limits" about time spent
at Wilkin's house, and Scruggs' presence at folk festivals meant she
was familiar with him for years before ever setting foot in Nashville.
"Earl was before everything," she said. "I had a crush on him and his
playing. I'd trod around after him to watch him play 'Wildwood
Flower' in that old, quiet, southern style. He was just sweet. He'd
start pickin' when I'd come around, and I loved his whole style."
'Music is a different thing . . .'
In those days, Baez's own style was far more frenetic than Scruggs'.
She kept a full load of tour dates, and also managed to march at
Martin Luther King Jr.'s side and to appear at dozens of war protests
and non-violence conferences. She logged more time in jail than in
recording studios, as was depicted in the recent PBS documentary,
Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound. (Watch some outtake footage from that
"Watching that footage now, it exhausts me," she said. "I don't
regret any of it, but I don't know how I did it."
Baez's Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (which she received in 2007)
is testament to the impact she made behind microphones, and to the
then close, now largely dissolved ties between popular music and
"I was talking to my ex-husband David (Harris) the other day, and he
said there was that 10-year chunk that was like nothing had happened
before, and nothing since," Baez said. "It was a perfect storm of the
politics and the music and civil rights and Vietnam. And the talent
of the musicians. I don't know exactly how, or when, it stopped, but
it stopped. How do you re-create that inspiration? I don't know the
answer to that.
"My son is 40, and his daughter is 6," she continued. "Music is a
different thing for her than it was for us. My son and his wife are
trying to rationalize that Hannah Montana is OK, and I say, 'That
makes me want to throw up.' But maybe there's some hope: She sang
(Bob Dylan's) 'Farewell Angelina' with me at their school fundraiser,
and the kids liked that one just fine."
Reach Peter Cooper at 615259-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.