My grandmother had a jukebox chain…
Interview with Robert K. Oerman, music writer
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly
On October 21st I had a chance to talk to Robert. K. Oerman, author of several country music books and documentaries. The meeting was made possible through John Lomax III, who I interviewed earlier. Robert picked me up from my hotel and we sat with light snacks on a bench in Nashville’s Centennial Park. Here is part of our conversation.
Hello Robert! Tell me about your books. What is your recent one about?
It is called “Behind the Grand Old Opry Curtain” – stories of the great romances and tragedies that people at the Grand Old Opry had. My longest, most substantial work is a book called “Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music”. It has been through 3 editions now, written with my wife, Mary A. Bufwack. I wrote also the autobiography of Brenda Lee with Brenda. There is a book called “A Century in Country”, which goes together with a TV series I did. Then there is a book – “The Roots of Country”, which is a companion book to a 6 hours documentary that ran on Turner Channel and TBS.
I saw you in a BBC country music documentary?
Yes, I was in many of them. I did many for the PBS also featuring: Patsy Cline, Marty Robins, Grand Old Opry, John Denver and Chet Atkins.
I have seen the one on Patsy Cline, I nearly cried. You were saying very moving things about her.
Her voice reaches across the years, it is timeless.
And the production is fantastic!
Yes Owen Bradley is a genius.
And it was all live music, no overdubs!
When you listen to those records you are listening to a live performance. It is a same thing with Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison. Everything you are hearing is being played in that moment in the studio.
Tell me how did you become a musicologist and how did you discover your passion for country music?
My grandmother had a record shop and a jukebox chain. She rented out jukeboxes to bars and restaurants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which is mining country where I’m from. Depending on what bar you were going to you were playing either polka records, country records or an RnB records. Then she paid me in used juke box records for working in the store. I never threw anything away. When I was young I was passionate about rhythm and blues and soul music. When I got to college I was reading about the history of rock and roll and I read that it was a combination of country music and RnB music. I read the names of the country performers like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and thought; I have those records why don’t listen to them? So I went home from college and played those records and I just got it… I became passionate about it. This was white people’s soul music. I just became immensely enthusiastic about it. That was the time period when Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall were beginning to change country music. It’s really the voice of the common man. I decided that I had to go to Nashville and to be part of it.
Who did you like, who were your biggest idols?
Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall were the three that spoke to me the most and they are still some of the greatest ever songwriters. I remember playing “For the Good Times” to a friend who was going through a divorce. When she heard the line “make believe you love me one more time for the good times” she just lost it and she never listened to country music. I said to her “you see – that’s why I love country music”.
And what a great songwriter Dolly is?
Yes I heard “Coat of Many Colors” hundreds of times! And it still makes me cry every time.
Do you listen to other genres as well?
Yes I have and extensive collection of all popular music.
What happened when you came to Nashville, how did you become a writer?
I initially was a painter having graduated in fine arts. But if we had to live on what I was making as a painter we would starve to death. So I went back to school to get a graduate degree in information studies, with the idea of getting a position in popular culture archives. I love music so I was trying to get involved. My wife was teaching women’s studies and we decided to write this book about women in country music. We started traveling around the country visiting the libraries and archives. We came to Nashville and there was a job opening at the “Country Music Hall of Fame” for candidates with a librarian degree and an encyclopedic knowledge of music and I got the job. I started to write for little independent magazines then bigger articles and then books. Ten years went by. I got to know the artists very well and this was instrumental in my writings.
What do you like about country music, what it so captivating about it?
It’s honest, it’s about everyday people, unpretentious humility and it wears its heart on its sleeve; it’s not afraid to be nakedly emotional. That’s a good thing when people are so sophisticated.
That’s a good ending of our interview. Thanks so much for your time!