The Producer

Why Jim Rooney ’60 was honored for his con­tributions to Americana music, a genre that encompasses artists such as Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett.

By Simone Solondz

Jim Rooney '60 [center, in light-brown jacket] with his band, Rooney's Irregulars, and musicians Tim O'Brien [second from left, on stool]. John Prine [seated, in black shirt and jacket] and Nanci Griffith [front row]

[Music]  Last September, record producer Jim Rooney received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Producer/Engineer from the Americana Music Association. Until as recently as the 1990s, the Americana musical genre did not exist. The artists it encompasses—people like Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett—were heralded as folk musicians or alternative country artists. It is fitting that Rooney should be honored for his contributions to the genre, which is derived from the traditions of American roots music, because his life’s work was one of the catalysts for its creation. “I guess I was a pioneer of this music, but I didn’t know it,” Rooney quips. “And I didn’t even have to die to get the award!”

It all started in the 1950s, when Rooney was a Boston teenager banging out hit songs of the day on his $12 guitar. He’d been turned on to American folk and “hillbilly” music via WCOP radio’s Hayloft Jamboree. Rooney successfully auditioned for the program and made his professional musical debut at the age of 16 as a member of the show’s house band, which played popular songs and backed up guest musicians. His musical idol at the time was Hank Williams, and his friends started calling him Tex.

By the time Rooney arrived at Amherst in 1956, he was a knowledgeable devotee of all kinds of American music: folk, bluegrass, jazz, hillbilly, R&B and gospel. He got a weekly radio show on the campus station WAMF, where he played everything from Leadbelly to Duke Ellington to Aaron Copland. “The only requirement was that it all be American music,” Rooney says. “So I guess I was into this Americana concept way back then.”

Rooney was a classics major at Amherst, which, he says, gave him plenty of time to focus on music and theater. “My folks thought this would pass,” he says. “I was supposed to go on an academic course—I was studying classics, Latin and Greek—but eventually I had to say that music was going to be it for me.

“I love to perform,” he says, “but I think I had a pretty good idea that I wasn’t as talented or as driven as you need to be to be an artist. I still play”—his current band, Rooney’s Irregulars, performs at Nashville’s Station Inn—“but I also have this ability to put things together and help other people get their music out to the world.”

After graduating, he put this ability to work in a series of high-profile jobs in the music industry. He ran the famous folk venue Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass. (now Club Passim), helped organize the Newport, R.I., folk and jazz festivals and managed Albert Grossman’s legendary Bearsville Sound Studios, in Woodstock, N.Y., where the likes of Van Morrison, the Band and Bonnie Raitt recorded. Rooney was drawn to Nashville, where he produced and engineered more than 100 top-flight recordings by such artists as Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Iris DeMent, Hal Ketchum and the celebrated Townes Van Zandt, who died young in 1997. Rooney won a Grammy in 1993 for the Griffith album Other Voices, Other Rooms. He also produced early albums by Alison Krauss.

The role of the record producer depends very much on the artist and the musical genre, but the key, says Rooney, is “making the artist feel comfortable in the studio so they can actually give a performance, rather than just go through the motions.” His focus has always been on giving the song space to come to life in the studio and then capturing it on tape, often in just one or two takes. “I’m looking for energy,” Rooney says. “I’m not looking for perfection. Perfection is highly overrated.”

Rooney and his wife now divide their time among Nashville, Vermont, and County Galway, Ireland, a country to which he has always felt strongly connected.  “I started going over there in 1980 for various musical reasons,” he says. “There was a BBC documentary called Bringing it All Back Home, about Irish music and its travels around the world. I organized the sessions in Nashville we did with the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs.”

In the small Irish village where he’s stayed for the past 12 years, he records local musicians, sells CDs and raises money to buy traditional instruments—fiddles, flutes, accordions—for neighborhood children. “When my grandfather left Ireland in 1881, things were pretty grim,” he says. “It feels good that after 130 years, I could bring something back to the place. It feels like a circle was completed.”

Solondz is former editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine. Her last article for Amherst magazine was the Fall 2009 review of the newest Amy Speace ’90 album.

Photo by Jim McGuire