Rocking My Life Away: Jack Emerson - Rolling Stone
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Rocking My Life Away: Jack Emerson

Remembering the Jack of Hearts

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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