by: Thomas D. Mooney
The first time I heard Jay Boy Adams, I was convinced he wasn’t a Lubbock artist. No way this guy grew up in West Texas. But the more you listen to those two albums from the ’70s–Jay Boy Adams and Fork in the Road–the more you hear that Texan twang in his airy vocals.
Still, you’d find many who probably thought he sounded like he grew up underneath the glow of the Hollywood sign or with the harmonies of Laurel Canyon coming through his childhood bedroom.
Dive a little deeper and you do that hear West Texas storyteller creating a story lines all too familiar to the Panhandle. You hear that–and maybe never intentional by Adams–but that recognizable fiddle or that chugging guitar that Adams grew up on under that vast West Texas sky.
In a lot of ways, Adams has always gotten an unfair rep as being a ’70s songwriter who could never make it into that top-tier–someone who gave it their all in two albums, but ultimately couldn’t break through and eventually made the decision to stop professionally making music in 1982.
It’s not as though Adams couldn’t have continued on releasing records, refining his sound, and touring with major acts such as Jackson Browne, Marshall Tucker Band, and ZZ Top. That’s really something that very few Lubbock musicians have ever been able to do.
Still, you can’t help but ask “what if?” I’m sure that crossed Adams’ mind from time to time over the past 30 plus years, but when you speak with him, you never get the sense that it bothers him. It’s not something that keeps him up at night. That’s really the reason I never even brought it up in our conversation the other day. I didn’t need him to confirm something I already knew the answer to.
What I feel is most remarkable about Adams’ career is just how big an impact he was able to create without releasing an album every two years for 20 years. As of 2014, he’s only released four albums–Jay Boy Adams, Fork in the Road, The Shoe Box, and this year’s Let It Go.
That’s by my count, 43 recorded songs. You’ll be hard pressed to find another singer-songwriter in the Walk of Fame with that many officially recorded and released songs in their discography (other than the obvious Buddy Holly).
Adams may have not blazed a clear trail like Holly, Jennings, or Ely did, but it’s certainly there. Anyone who’s going back as an intimate singer-songwriter storyteller and a country rocking band can trace their way back to Adams.
I have to say though, as far as the current Lubbock songwriter generation goes, there’s not nearly enough who know him more than just by name (Personally, I hope that changes a bit–that you don’t think of Adams’ as your parents’ music or just a songwriter from yesterday’s Lubbock).
I had the opportunity to speak with Jay Boy Adams last Thursday about his career in music, the upcoming induction into the Walk of Fame, and where he saw himself fitting in, in Lubbock’s long storied history of music and art.
Adams, along with his fellow 2014 West Texas Walk of Fame inductee class of singer-songwriter/writer Andy Wilkinson, radio personalities Lew Dee and Diane Dee, and actor-playwright Jaston Williams, will be inducted officially this Friday at the Lubbock Civic Center starting at 6 pm. This event is free.
Related: Read our interview with Andy Wilkinson here.
New Slang: Well, first off, congratulations on being inducted into the Walk of Fame.
Jay Boy Adams: Thank you very much. I’m very excited about it. It’s been a long time coming and it’s a sweet deal. I’m glad they’ve remembered me.
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. What were those very first thoughts when you received the news?
JBA: Well, it was pretty bittersweet to be honest with you. I was in route to Lubbock at the time when my son called me on the phone. We were basically having a catch-up business conversation and had asked him if I had gotten any mail. He said that I had this and that, etc. He went down the line and said there was a letter from Civic Lubbock. I said to open it up and tell me what was in there. I thought maybe it was a past-due water bill or something [laughs]. He read it to me and I was just wowed.
I already had a friend tell me to check my mail. And I did check my mail when I was in Texas every day and I finally decided he was just playing a trick on me. You know, we kind of kid each other on a regular basis. Every time I had talked to him, he’d ask if I had checked my mail. Well of course I’ve checked my mail. He’d just laugh so I sort of thought he was pulling a prank on me.
But, I was very excited, Thomas. I really had thought that I should be in the Walk of Fame in Lubbock, but you know, it’s a committee thing. I had wondered several times if they had forgotten me. But there’s nothing you can do about it. I just sort of rolled with the punches. But, it has happened and I’m just excited about it. It’s an honor.
NS: Yes. I was speaking with one of your fellow 2014 class inductees Andy Wilkinson about this earlier this week. We were speaking about how Lubbock can be a difficult place to be recognized, but when it does happen, it does feel very important and special.
JBA: Yes, it does. Lubbock is a hard nut to crack. Lubbock’s always been that way. I had some substantial success in the ’70s and ’80s working out of Lubbock. We had a wonderful base and following there. I was always very honored to claim Lubbock as my second home and certainly my music home. That’s where it all happened for me. Lubbock has some great local talent. It always has. I was just one who had a minimal amount of national recognition, but I never left Lubbock. It was always my home base. I didn’t move to Austin, Nashville, L.A., or New York. I always stayed put and worked out of Lubbock. My band members lived there. Everyone who worked with me throughout my career, they were hanging their hat right there in Lubbock County.
NS: I guess for myself, if you could sum up what I’m trying to accomplish and learn about here into a single question, it’d be: What makes Lubbock a place that’s been able to develop all of these talented musicians, artists, and writers? For you, what do you think it is?
JBA: You’re certainly right. It’s always been a burning question. It’s a tough question to answer. You know, I’m originally from a little town south of Lubbock–about 100 miles–Colorado City. I came to Lubbock in 1972 and enrolled in Texas Tech. Consequently, I never left Lubbock after I moved there. Experimenting in writing started in a period a little prior to coming to Lubbock. I was already playing music. I’ve always tried answering this to the best of my ability–and basically, there’s just not much else to do.
You’ve got a beautiful calm out there. You have beautiful sunsets. Great people. Great subject matter. There’s just not a lot to do if you’re a musician. I wasn’t a real good athlete, though I did play sports. Growing up, I picked up the guitar in seventh grade and started listening to music. I was totally caught by that. Size had no barring. Me being pretty light in the seat of the pants wasn’t going to make a real good football player [laughs]. I had to find other outlets and other things to do. There weren’t a whole lot of options out there for us who had some creative juice.
NS: I was reading about your early career and listening to those first two albums. You did have some national exposure during the time. You performed with some really great bands during the ’70s and early ’80s. It seems to me–and correct me if I’m wrong–but it seems as though you were considered a part of two specific music scenes happening. Obviously the local Lubbock music scene and then as part of the ’70s country-rock movement of the time–what I guess some would consider as “LA country” or something. Where did you personally see yourself fitting in more?
JBA: That’s a real good question. You’re correct on your research. There were several genres that I fell into the category of. It wasn’t really the kiss of death, but it certainly was the kiss of confusion. My record label never knew where to place me. They never knew what genre to get their teeth into to promote me. Therefore, they promoted me straight across the board. For me to go play with Jackson Browne or do a date with Joe Cocker or The Marshall Tucker Band, that pretty much covered the base for a bunch of different types of music right there. It kind of morphed with whatever act we were touring with at the time. That’s how we gauged our set list or if I played mostly electric guitar or acoustic.
To answer your question, I never really ever figured it out. I love to play blues, country-rock, and acoustic music that’s more singer-songwriter based. I don’t know. I’ve never really had a home to capitalize on. I think that was one of the biggest problems.
We could literally go out and play with anyone. We’d just kind of make a set list to morph into what we needed to do. Of course, sometimes that didn’t work. Sometimes that got us into trouble. We’d go out with a country-rock band or someone who was more mellow than we were. Sometimes, it didn’t sit too well for us being with a group where we were sort of overpowering as a support act. That happened on a few occasions. Eight or 10 days on the road with some of these guys and sometimes it’d be obvious that it wasn’t working. They’re were saying “We need to get a different support act [laughs].”
NS: You released those first two albums (Jay Boy Adams and Fork in the Road), that’s now a good 30 years ago. When you look back at those songs, what’re your impressions?
JBA: There was definitely a turning point between my solo record and Fork in the Road. Those songs on the first record, they were recorded over a couple of years. I had been playing in front of ZZ Top for a couple of years without a band. I had experimented with piano. I had experimented with a string quartet. My producer had seen me go through all these different presentations of the same songs.
When I look back on those songs, the first thing I feel is that I wish I would have waited to record any of those tunes. I also hear this real high, crystal clear, young sounding voice and think “God, I could sing high [laughs].” I think ‘Is that me?” I pick out things that still bother me today that are the exact same things that bothered me when I first recorded them.
I feel like the transition from the self-titled to Fork in the Road was a big leap. There was more band harmonies and band participation in general. A lot of dual harmony guitar work and the musicians getting to shine on solos and that sort of thing. I think the tunes were certainly more commercial at the time. They were a little country flavored in a soft-pedal Allman Brothers or Marshall Tucker Band feel. By the same token, there was still a soft side. There was some pretty fiddle and some more heartfelt tunes.
It’s not as though I’m not proud of those two records. I was a young man when we recorded both of those records. It’s a good example of what I was doing at the time. However, our live performance was always better than either of those records.
During that time, I had a certain degree of intimidation when it came to the studio. I was not a seasoned studio man or player. Really the only session work I had done at the time was for my own material. I didn’t have a lot of that experience under my belt.
NS: Your voice can change over a period of time. Do you feel as though you’ve changed as a songwriter?
JBA: I don’t think much as effected my songwriting today. I still have to be moved by something that makes me be in the creative spirit. I’ve got to have an idea or some subject matter in mind to write. Back in those days, I didn’t do any co-writing. I missed many, many brilliant opportunities to do some co-writing that I didn’t take advantage of. And I don’t know why. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t want to write with anyone. I think it was that I felt like I needed more experience. Maybe I was a little intimidated by the thought of trying to write with someone else.
It certainly wasn’t anything to do with having my name penned to a song that I wrote 100% of. It had nothing to do with that. I think a lot of what I was trying to write was really personal experiences that needed to be conveyed from that point of view. That’s really the only explanation I have for that.
In today’s world, I co-write with a lot of people–some very experienced and successful songwriters. I learn something new from them every time I sit down and write. What remains, if it’s a song that I’ve brought to the table, there’s a story that goes with it. Sometimes, the end result is 100% the truth. Sometimes, it’s slightly embellished. And sometimes, what started out as a true story turns into a different story all together. That’s just what writing is all about.
I’m not as critical today of myself as I was when I was a young beginner. I was pretty hard on myself back in those days. I was striving for something that might not have been possible at the time for myself. I was maybe asking more of myself than I was really capable of delivering. I’m not sure if that makes sense to you, but it does to me. I’m not sure if I’ve explained it well. You know, a lot of water has run underneath my bridge since 1972. I have a totally different outlook and point of view on playing music today. I’m a lot more fun to play with now than I was then [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Yes. It makes a lot of sense. When you’re young and you’re going after something, it’s really easy to be difficult on yourself. It’s easy to be your biggest critic. Speaking with musicians and artists, that almost always seems the case–especially when they’re young. I’d guarantee if you spoke with the years down the line, they’d be more laid back and realize that they did do some really terrific work back then. It’s not that you’re not striving to create great things now, but you’re just more understanding and knowledgable.
JBA: Yeah. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Going back, I’ll clarify and expand on why I wish we would have waited a little longer on those first songs. I wish we’d have worked them out and really got them down as their best versions. My manager and producer at the time, he was ready to go. He was really busy. He had his plate pretty much full managing and producing ZZ Top. At the time of my first record, I was the only other act on that label.
I had to keep working to make a living. Not only that, when it came time to put a band together and perform these tunes live, well unfortunately, just because I added a combo, it didn’t change my economical bottom line. There was only so much money allotted for any support act. Being a virtual unknown without a record deal, up to that point, you don’t have any thing to legitimize why you need more money. The making money part, that really had nothing to do with it. If I could make a living–if I could feed my dog, put gas in the van, and pay my rent–that was making a living and it was plenty. “Making money,” that was relative.
When it got to where I needed a band, the bottom line didn’t change much for us. Later, it did. When you’re able to get out and sell a few tickets, that’s how you’re able to get on tours. You’re no longer the support act for the support act. There’s a reason why you’re there.
I’d have much rather Fork in the Road been our first record. That’s where we ended up going. Our live show at the time, we’d start off playing acoustic–piano, two acoustic guitars, a pedal steel, bass, and drums–and then half way through the set, we’d be gradually bringing in the electric guitars and bringing up the tempo and energy level.
NS: You released The Shoe Box, your third album, in 2007. Were you apprehensive to release new material after your last album–with obviously a good chunk of time between? Nervous or something?
JBA: Well, it was certainly a good chunk of time. You definitely got that part right [laughs]. Nervous? No, I wasn’t nervous. Was I apprehensive? I was a little. The reason I was so comfortable with the release of that record was because I never really intended to publicly release it in the first place. That was never my goal.
I had inspiration and encouragement from several of my closest, dearest friends to make a record for the sake of the record. Record these songs that I had written because they were just going to go away if I didn’t.
I never actively pursued a record deal. It just wasn’t for that. What we actually did for The Shoe Box, about a year prior, the record was finished. I did a printing of 100 copies to take to a Christmas party that I’ve been doing for about 15 or 20 years. The acts I was playing with, they were guys who were out playing professionally. They were making a living doing that and they always all brought merchandise to this party.
I did a quick mix down of the record. It wasn’t mastered. I made a quick sleeve for it, called it The Shoe Box, and took these CDs to the party. About six months later, a friend of mine with Smith Music Group called me saying, “Hey, I heard you have a CD that you’re shopping.” I said, “No, I’m not really shopping it, but yeah, I do have a CD.” I ended up sending him a copy of it. This was a friend of mine that I had worked with during my tenure with Pat Green. I guess subconsciously, I was hoping that he would like it. But, it wasn’t going to break my heart if he didn’t. It wasn’t the end of the world.
I sent it to him and he called back saying that he wanted to give me a deal. Let’s do something with this. I said, “OK, let’s do it.” I spoke with a guy who was doing their record promotion at the time and thought, well, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it right. We got a publicist, but not a personal manager or booking agent.
So we released the record in February of the following year. I guess it was ’05 when I did this Christmas party and the album was released in February of ’07. So I guess it was about 14 months later.
A friend of mine was doing this benefit in Austin. It was to raise money for one of the hospitals there. They had a budge for this show and was asked to play. When I found out what the budget was, I said, “I’m not worthy of this. I appreciate this big budget, but we need to get someone else to do this show.” I suggested Stephen Stills. So I called him and asked him if he’d do this deal. He said he’d do it and said that we should play together. He knew I was playing some music and had a band together. He suggested that we just use my band.
He sent us a set list of songs that he wanted to do and we started rehearsing these tunes. My band could sing. Everyone was a singer. A couple of the guys had real high voices. So Stills plays and we do this benefit in November and really dug it. He loved the band. At that time, he said he was going out on tour in March and that we should come out and play with him. So it all just kind of came together–with no booking agent, no personal manager [laughs]. Any act with a new record would have killed to go out and do 40 dates opening for Stephen Stills.
So we released the record in February and by the 20th of February, my record was in the Top 20 on the Americana charts. Then it just climbed. All of a sudden, it’s like Number 5. Then the record label is working these singles back in Texas. All of this is just happening–something that just started off as a 100 copies of a CD to give to some of my best friends.
It really never was my intention to release this record. Yeah, I’m going to make this record as a 60-year-old man who has been out of the business since 1983. I just got wild hair up my ass and am going to do it because, you know, everyone is going to remember who I am [laughs].
Then now, it’s a few years later, and it’s time to record another one. I might have waited a little too long actually. Again, I wasn’t trying to be a rock star or become a household name or anything. I’m just doing it because I want to make music. I enjoy it. The new record, Let It Go, it was released this year. We’ve been playing around the country.
I’m doing a duet with a lady named Zenobia. She’s a piano player and we have this little combo together and kind of doing a rhythm and blues, Americana, country thing. We’re just doing it because we want to do it. We’re playing what we want to play. Just having a good time doing it.
NS: Yeah. That’s what counts. If you’re the one having fun and you’re the one writing music that you want to do, the people will come. I kind of believe that if you’re a performer, you’re going to find a way to perform. That’s what you do.
JBA: Yeah. I love to play live. I always have. I don’t think the two records I did with Atlantic, they ever captured the energy and feeling of our live performance. I love to feel that energy. I love having that interaction with a crowd and feeding off of them. Just letting them take you.
NS: Are there any bootlegs or recordings of those live shows out there?
JBA: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of them around. It’s hard to control that. To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a live bootleg that’s been done professionally. It’s always been done, back in those days, it was a cassette with a microphone or someone having a two-track set up somewhere.
NS: That’s really not something that happens these days. I guess it’s been replaced by the iPhone recording video. But the “bootlegging” of a show, that’s pretty much gone. You really didn’t have any idea where that person was set up or how great their equipment was. You never really knew what you were getting if you bought something from someone.
JBA: That’s very true. I saw our security people, management, and roadies confiscate many, many cassette tapes that were being recorded unauthorized.
NS: During that time between Fork in the Road and The Shoe Box, had you been continuously writing or did you go through a period of putting the pen down?
JBA: Yes. Of course. I’ve got boxes and boxes of work tapes that are filled with finished and unfinished tunes, songs that we were working on in the studio but didn’t think were ready to go, all of that kind of thing.
NS: Have you thought of releasing those as some kind of special demos and unreleased material kind of thing? Some kind of collection.
JBA: What I’d really like to do is go back and remix those two early records, make some changes, and re-release those. I’ve also thought of going back into the studio with the original band and recording those tunes with today’s equipment and the way we would play them now 35 years later. I’d love to see what came from that and then release those together.