Saturday, August 20, 2011

Larry Jon Wilson: The Best Singer You Never Heard Of

I don't know what made Larry Jon Wilson seep into my head just a bit ago, but I turned around and there he was. Larry Jon, who was singing at Steak and Ale in Augusta (along with Terry Gibbs, "Somebody's Knockin'") in the 1970s has one of the finest country and blues voices I've ever heard. On top of that he is a simply astonishing songwriter.

And you never heard of him.

Back in the days when I was writing about music for a Roanoke local daily paper, King Edward Smith was a DJ at WSLC, the country station in town and a well-known figure nationally. Eddie took me under his wing and taught me a good bit about country music, introducing me to people like Larry Jon. He once said that Larry Jon "would be the biggest name in music of any genre if he was good lookin'," but LJ wasn't that. He was pretty much the opposite of it.

But if you'll listen to "Wildflowers in a Mason Jar" you'll get an idea what it is I love about him. This smooth bass drips with honesty, revelation, sympathy and an understanding of our shared culture (I grew up across the Savannah River from Augusta). If you want a virtuoso guitar performance and lyric of such simplicity and impact that it will leave you breathless, try "Song for Jonah," an ode to his young son.

He gives you funk with "Drowning in theMainstream", laid back blues in "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", a country ballad in "Loose Change" ("livin' ain't easy, but dying ain't too; and hanging' on just leaves you like me; I'd leave women and whiskey alone if I's you, but I ain't and I ain't likely to be ...") and the wonderfully sensitive "Through the Eyes of Little Children." Nobody ever sang "Stagger Lee" better (and listen to those background girls). And his country/soul "Sapelo" takes you to the Georgia coast you don't know and that my buddy Pete Krull just left for Asheville (look at the photos with this video).

LJ did four albums for Monument in the 1970s and I wore all of them out. A couple are still around here somewhere, but I don't have any way to play them. If I had a record player, my guess is LJ's records would be the only vinyl I'd ever put on it.

There's a good bit of nostalgia in all that. I was drinking heavily when Larry Jon and I spent a lot of lonely nights together, but he's still there through the sobriety, the successes, the happiness because he's good. He was a guy who understood the power of music to heal, to soothe and to become a real part of who we are. LJ died in 2010, about 70 years old and not looking a whole lot different than he did 40 years ago. He didn't sound any different either. And I'm glad for that.

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