After a career on modern jazz’s cutting edge, bassist Charlie Haden acknowledges being scared before recording his first country music album at Ricky Skaggs’ Nashville, Tenn., studio.
But with a little help from family and friends, Haden found he could indeed go home again to his Ozarks roots, and even garner a Grammy nomination.
The 71-year-old bassist helped change the shape of jazz a half-century ago as a member of Ornette Coleman’s quartet. Now he finds himself nominated for best country instrumental performance – with guitarist Pat Metheny, dobro player Jerry Douglas and pianist Bruce Hornsby – for “Is This America? (Katrina 2005),” a slowly flowing ballad written by Metheny to evoke the sense of sadness and disbelief felt over the government’s response to the hurricane.
It’s one of the few pieces of contemporary Americana on Haden’s new album, “Rambling Boy,” that finds him returning to songs made famous by the Carter Family, Hank Williams and other traditional country musicians.
Haden last performed these songs with his parents and siblings as the youngest member of the Haden Family band popular on the Midwest country circuit in the 1930s and 1940s.
Now he’s doing them with his wife Ruth Cameron, son Josh, triplet daughters – Rachel, Petra and Tanya, and son-in-law actor Jack Black, as well as Elvis Costello, Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash.
“I’ve gotten three Grammys and about 15 nominations for jazz recordings … but this record was very special because it was going back to my country roots and playing these old songs that I used to sing when I was a little kid,” said Haden in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
“My roots have never left me … because the very first memory I have is my mom singing and me singing with her. At different points in my life I thought about doing something like this, but I was so involved in modern music, it never seemed that it could ever really happen.”
The CD includes Haden’s first recorded performance – an excerpt from a 1939 Haden Family radio show on which 22-month-old Cowboy Charlie yodels on a gospel tune.
Haden feels a strong personal connection to songs like “Wildwood Flower” and “Rambling Boy,” which he remembers Mother Maybelle Carter playing with her daughters in the Haden family living room in Springfield, Mo.
“We do these songs in a new way yet we don’t take their tradition away from them or try to do anything hip,” Haden said in an earlier interview at a New York hotel. “We want to allow people to hear this music for the beauty that it has.”
Haden speaks in a soft, raspy voice – a lingering effect from the childhood polio that weakened his vocal cords and ended his singing career at 15. He turned his attention to the bass, and was drawn to jazz after hearing Charlie Parker at a concert in Omaha, Neb., eventually heading to Los Angeles in 1956 to study music and play jazz.
But even as a member of Coleman’s 1958-60 quartet that charted a freer course for jazz improvisation, Haden drew on the harmonies and melodies he learned playing country music. His bass solo on “Ramblin'” from Coleman’s 1960 album, “Change of the Century,” includes fragments from folk songs such as the fiddle tune “Old Joe Clark.”
Haden, who leads jazz groups such as the noirish Quartet West and leftist Liberation Music Orchestra, sees the common link between jazz and country in that both are poor people’s music related to “the struggle for independence, identity and to be recognized.”
The seeds for “Rambling Boy” were planted 20 years ago when three generations of Hadens gathered in rural Missouri to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday. Cameron, his wife and manager, suggested that everyone sing “You Are My Sunshine,” and was struck by the harmonizing of the bassist’s triplet daughters.
“The girls just fell into it and I think they all realized they blended so well because when you’re related, your voice, the timbre, seems to blend,” said Cameron, who sings an Irish ballad “Down by the Salley Gardens” on the new album.
Haden received further encouragement when he won a Grammy for best instrumental jazz performance for his 1997 album with Metheny, “Beyond the Missouri Sky,” that included Roy Acuff’s “Precious Jewel.” Backstage, bassist Mark Fain, of Skaggs’ bluegrass band, offered to help Haden do a country record in Nashville.
When Haden finally took Fain up on his offer, some of Nashville’s finest musicians turned up for the January recording session, including Skaggs, guitarist Bryan Sutton, mandolin player Sam Bush and vocalist Dan Tyminski, who was George Clooney’s singing voice in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“It was more like a family get-together than a studio session,” said Tyminski, who sings “Ocean of Diamonds” on the album. “I would consider it very authentic country music. … All the songs are extremely pure and the arrangements are what I would consider very traditional.”
The album spotlights Haden’s four children – all of whom come out of the indie rock scene. Son Josh, who leads the band Spain, touchingly sings his own ballad “Spiritual,” which Johnny Cash once recorded. The Haden Triplets with their tight, high-tone harmonies create a distinctive blend on the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl” and other tracks.
Tanya Haden, a cellist and visual artist, says the experience provided a chance to discover her musical heritage.
“It means a lot that I have that music in my blood,” she said. “We’ve been talking about doing this for so long, but everyone was always so busy. … It just feels good to be making music together as a family.”
Charlie Haden says he not only wanted to teach his children about their roots, but also wanted to pay tribute to his parents. Haden closes the album by tenderly singing “Oh Shenandoah” in honor of the Iowa town where he was born after his parents, stranded by a snowstorm, landed a show at the local radio station. It’s one of the few times he has sung on a record since childhood.
“I’ve always loved that song because it’s really about where I come from,” said Haden. “Everything that I have musically I owe to my parents because they brought me up in a way to really respect beautiful music and be inspired by it.”