Jack Greene, 1930-2013

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David Cantwell writes:

The great country crooner Jack Greene passed away earlier this week. I interviewed Greene for the following feature in The Journal of Traditional Country Music (in its latter day incarnation as a Country Music magazine insert). It was around 2002, but I’m unable to pin down the exact date, unfortunately, or even the headline it was given at the time; what follows may not be word for word what actually appeared in print. But I wanted to share this here because, as I’d feared, his death has recieved little to no notice–a state of neglect unlikely to improve as his catalgoue has yet to make the transition to compact disc, let alone to downloadable mp3’s. He deserved better….

Jack Greene, the Jolly Green Giant of Countrypolitan

Jack Greene was once as luminous a country star as any in the world. In just three years at the close of the 1960s, he scored nine Top Five country hits, including five number ones. The first of these, “There Goes My Everything,” topped the country charts for nearly two months in 1967, prompting Greene to give up his job as Ernest Tubb’s drummer in favor of a solo career. “Ernest told me ‘Son, I believe it’s time to go,’” Greene remembers today. “But he also said, ‘If you can’t make it, you can always come back and be a Troubadour.’” He never HAD to come back. “There Goes My Everything,” the Jeannie Seely duet “Wish I Didn’t Have To Miss You” and, especially, “Statue of a Fool” were instantly indelible recordings. This was due, in part, to the records’ elegant countrypolitan settings—what Greene describes as “the power of [producer] Owen Bradley.” But it was mostly thanks to Greene’s singular voice. When his rich, quivering tenor rose to the aching climax of “Statue of a Fool,” it confirmed that Greene was among the great crooners in all of country music.

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Jack Greene was born in Maryville, Tennessee in 1930. Often ill as a child, Greene was encouraged to play music by his mother, who was fond of playing the guitar and singing Carter Family songs around the house. “I had a disease called diphtheria fever,” Greene says. “So I had to stay inside—I was just a kid, barely ten years old—and in order to keep me in, mama taught me to play ‘The Wildwood Flower.’ I’d practice for hours.” He also listened to the radio. As a teenager, Greene found himself especially enamored of western swingers such as Tommy Duncan and Tex Williams, the lead singers for Bob Wills and Spade Cooley’s bands, respectively. These crooners worked a smoother, more pop-influenced style that, in the string-band rich hills of east Tennessee, struck Greene as sophisticated and exotic.

Greene also made sure not to miss singer Pete Cassell’s radio performances on WWVA’s famed Saturday night Jamboree. “Cassell was called the Blind Minstrel, but he was really a crooner too,” Greene remembers. “He had a vibrato that was a little fast and he had a deep, rich voice but he could sing high too. He made a big impression on me.” Indeed, Greene’s recollection of Cassell’s vocal style—a crooning vibrato that could both tumble low and fly high—describes as well the style that made Greene a star twenty years later.

His first break came in high school when he and a neighbor friend, Cecil Griffiths, landed a show on Maryville’s WGAP. Maryville and nearby Alcoa, Tennessee, were by then known as the Twin Cities, an area where most people either worked for the Aluminum Company of America—WGAP stood for “World’s Greatest Aluminum Plant”—or scratched out a living from the land. It was, in part, this dearth of opportunities, as well as his recent local success as a working musician, which prompted Greene, fresh out of high school, to take a gamble and accompany Griffiths to Atlanta, where his friend had heard there might be radio and television work for two hungry musicians.

There wasn’t, not at first anyway. In fact, while Cecil found a job as a salesman in an Atlanta shoe store, Greene endured a period of homelessness. “I’d go to an office building there just before closing time,” he recalls, “and I’d go into the restroom and stay there. They’d close the place up and I’d sit there on the commode all night. That’s where I slept. I’d get up the next morning and there was a truck would come buy and leave about ten cases of milk to this restaurant, and I’d drink all I could out of those. That’s how I lived until Cecil got me on at the shoe store.”

Things improved considerably for Greene after that, and not just financially; he was soon playing music again in a series of local bands, providing rhythm guitar, upright bass, or drums, whatever was needed. Eventually, he earned a spot keeping time and, occasionally, singing for the Peach Street Cowboys, a successful Atlanta group that played local night clubs while starring in its own half-hour program each midday on WSB-TV.

Greene spent the next decade with the Peach Streeters. By the time he left the Cowboys in the late 50s, Greene, now pushing thirty, was married, had a family and was employed at a glass factory. He continued to perform, though, singing and drumming for pedal steel man Pete Drake, whose band also featured future stars Joe South, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller and Doug Kershaw. A soon-to-be in demand session player himself, Drake introduced Greene to his brother, Jack, bandleader and bass player for Ernest Tubb.

“Jack Drake would always say when you going to move to Nashville,” Greene recalls. “I’d tell him I can’t afford to. I got five kids, and I’ve got a good job. But one time he caught me in a weak moment. He called me up saying Ernest needs a drummer and how long would it take me to get to Nashville. About five hours, I said.

“I was working as shop foreman at the glass factory and as I left that day I said, ‘Tell the stockholders to get ‘em a new boy, I’m going to Nashville.’ When they asked me when was I coming back, I said: ‘Never!’”

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From 1962 to ‘67, Greene was a Texas Troubadour, passing weeks aboard Tubb’s bus as it rolled through a seemingly endless string of one-nighters that, come Saturday night, found the band back in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry. In these years the Troubadours featured a line-up that Tubb biographer Ronnie Pugh has dubbed “the great band,” due to the sizzling, jazzy solos of lead guitarist Leon Rhodes and pedal steel player Buddy Charleton, as well as to the vocals of rhythm guitarist and front man Cal Smith. And, of course, to the impassioned balladry of Jack Greene, who Tubb quickly dubbed his “big-eared singing drummer.”

In the Troubadours’ opening sets, Greene mostly performed radio hits of the day, but his signature number with the band hadn’t been a hit in thirty years. Originally recorded by Rex Griffin in 1937, “The Last Letter” was a song he remembered from his youth, when his early hero Pete Cassell performed it on the radio. Greene’s reading of the song’s funereal melody and chilling lyrics—the letter is “the last” because it’s a suicide note—was a perfect showcase for his unabashedly emotional style: Jack delivers each quivering line with a pristine caution that sounds at any moment like he might collapse into blubbering anguish.

“The Last Letter” was so popular for Greene, especially after being included on a Troubadours album, that it was released as a single—a move that soon led Greene to sign a solo recording contract with Decca Records. He scored his first minor country hit, “Ever Since My Baby Went Away,” in 1966 even as he continued to back E.T. Later that year, though, he recorded songwriter Dallas Frazier’s “There Goes My Everything,” which sat atop the country charts for seven weeks in the winter of 1966 and ‘67. The record changed his life.

“It was number one and I was still sitting back there playing drums,” Greene laughs. “But I didn’t just want to say, ‘See you Ernest, I’m gone.’ I waited until he told me it was time.”

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“There Goes My Everything” won the Country Music Association’s first Single of the Year award in 1967. Along with its chart-topping successor, “All the Time,” the record also earned Greene the CMA’s debut Male Vocalist of the Year prize, as well as an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. The next couple of years included a whirlwind of hits for Greene; You Are My Treasure,” “Until My Dreams Come True,” and “Statue of a Fool” each topped the charts. But as the ‘70s dawned, the big hits, to Greene’s surprise, stopped coming.

“I still am surprised that ‘Lord, Is That Me’ didn’t do more,” Greene says, referring to the wrenching 1970 single that stands as among the most soulful moment of his career. “I loved the arrangement, the dynamics, the words—a guy dreaming of his own funeral. It’s my favorite song I ever recorded.”

Still, Greene has some theories about what went wrong for him in the seventies. First, he believes that his frequent duet releases with Jeannie Seely began to rob attention from his solo recordings. He also believes that, for a time, he drifted too far away from who he really was. “We tried to keep up with the times,” he explains today. “We came out on stage in jeans instead of a nice suit, played dinner theaters in St. Louis, stuff like that. Before long, we lost our identity.”

Even in the lean years, though, Greene never stopped performing. Today, at 72, he still plays a few dozen dates a year, is busy completing his first album of new material in eight years, and remains a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. And when he sings his monument to heartache “Statue of a Fool” from the Opry stage, Greene’s dramatic final note—an operatic cry that Marty Robbins or Roy Orbison might have envied—is still greeted by the Opry audience with a staggering blast of ovation.

3 Responses to “Jack Greene, 1930-2013”

  1. Russ Says:

    Thank you for posting this, and thanks forever to Jack Greene for “There Goes My Everything” and the exceptional “Statue of a Fool”. What great, great performances! Bless him.

  2. Nondisposable Johnny Says:

    I’m really glad I found this tribute. I wanted to write something about Greene when he passed but I just didn’t have enough information to do him justice. As you say, he’s sadly underrated…Among other things, I’m extremely interested to discover he’s from my dad’s hometown (Greene was born about ten years after). My dad didn’t follow music much so I wonder if he even knew about Jack’s success. Hard to believe they didn’t at least know of each other in a town as small as Maryville!

    Anyway, thanks David. Great tribute to a fine singer.

  3. David Cantwell Says:

    Thanks, Johnny. Lord, Is That Me is one of those (many) country songs that Elvis would have nailed. It’s like Long Black Limousine for one’s own funeral…

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