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Rocking My Life Away: Jack Emerson

Remembering the Jack of Hearts

November 26, 2003 12:00 AM ET

You can love and appreciate people during their lifetimes, but when they die -- particularly when they die unexpectedly -- the role that they played in your life and that of everyone around you becomes painfully clear. As does the depth of the loss. That's what I felt recently when I learned that Jack Emerson, a passionate music fan and independent label head, died of a heart attack at the far-to-young age of forty-three. A friend of his sent around an email about Jack that explained, "I'm sending this to you because I don't think enough people knew about Jack and how much he contributed to the Cause." He's right, and that's why I'm writing this.

I first met Jack about twenty years ago when he and his dear friend Andy McLenon were running a small label in Nashville called, hilariously, Praxis International. Praxis was about as international as hand-stamped packages to music writers in England could make it. But soon its impact would be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Jack and Andy had just put out the first releases by Jason and the Scorchers, a band that combined raw rock & roll energy with the depth and conviction of classic country music. In other words, Jack, Andy and the Scorchers were helping to create and define what would eventually become know as alternative country. They've never gotten sufficient credit for that, but it's true nonetheless.

I was living in Atlanta at the time, and just starting out as a rock writer. The Scorchers were coming to town, and I got an assignment to profile them for Record, a now-defunct music monthly based in New York. That was a big deal for me. I met the band just before their soundcheck at 688, the New Wave and punk club that gave a Hotlanta home to progressive bands from nearby Athens, as well as from the rest of the U.S. (particularly the South) and England. And that's when I met Jack and Andy, too. The interview that day turned into a conversation that essentially never stopped.

Like the Scorchers, Jack and Andy were true believers, and they made you feel the fire that they felt. At the time so many great young bands were starting out that had roots in the South -- R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Q's, Pylon, the dB's the B-52's, the Georgia Satellites and, of course, the Scorchers among them. The inventiveness, smarts and sheer joy of the music made supporting those bands feel like a mission. The especially great thing about Jack and Andy, however, was their visceral sense of history. They loved the Clash, and they loved Johnny Cash. They loved the Ramones, and they loved Jerry Lee Lewis. They made no distinction between music that was happening right this minute, and music that had changed the world decades before. All it had to be was great.

Jack was the sort of person who elevated the music industry merely through his involvement in it. He and Andy went on to launch the Georgia Satellites, and worked with artists of the caliber of John Hiatt, Steve Forbert, Billy Joe Shaver and Sonny Landreth. After Praxis ended its fourteen-year run, Jack joined forces with Steve Earle to form the E-Squared label, which put out The Mountain, Earle's blistering collaboration with bluegrass wizard Del McCoury, along with albums by Cheri Knight and the V-Roys. Most recently Jack was running his own label, the aptly -- and now sadly -- named Jack of Hearts.

The simple fact is Jack was all about heart. If Jack was involved with a project, you knew it was going to be good. Not that every album or every artist he ever worked with was destined for the ages. But anything he touched was always substantive and real. Jack didn't have a cynical bone in his body.

And that's a big part of what his friend Jim Barber meant when he wrote about Jack's contribution to "the Cause." The cause was not just music, though music was essential to it. The cause was caring. Bothering to make whatever you were working on as good as you can make it. Bothering to let other people know when they did something good. If the term alternative means anything, Jack embodied it. His every action provided a vision of what might be possible, and gave testimony that the music business could be and should be dignified, honest and fun.

With the news of his death, the emails and phone calls started flying, and the theme in them was always the same. How Jack had encouraged someone. How he had inspired them. In recent years, he and I had spoken and seen each other less than we used to, but I kept up with him through mutual friends and, needless to say, the sheer quality of the music that he made possible. Even when we were not in touch, it always heartened me to know that he was out there doing what he loved and communicating that commitment to others. He was a living ideal, one of the good guys, and it will take the dedicated, ongoing efforts of all of his friends to fill the hole that he left behind, and to create the musical legacy that he deserves.

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