Charlie Haden returns to his country roots—and takes his family with him.
By Jay Ruttenberg
Time Out New York
Aug. 20 - 26, 2008
In January, an unlikely swarm gathered in a Nashville studio to record songs steeped in rural American music. The session was spearheaded by jazz-bass titan Charlie Haden and singer Ruth Cameron, Haden’s wife of two decades. Featured artists included the bassist’s grown children—Josh, singer in the band Spain, and harmonizing triplets Petra, Rachel and Tanya—plus Tanya’s husband, Jack Black, a movie star with an oddly commanding voice. Invited guests included luminaries of bluegrass (Dan Tyminski), jazz (Pat Metheny), country (Vince Gill) and the worlds between (Elvis Costello).
The resulting album, Charlie Haden Family & Friends’ Rambling Boy—due next month on Decca, but showcased live at Lincoln Center this week—underlines the musical breadth of its ringleader. “The hinge of the record is my dad’s past and all the different styles he’s been involved with,” Josh Haden says. “It’s like an overview of his entire life, starting from when he was one year old.”
The younger Haden isn’t exaggerating. Long before he helped Ornette Coleman redefine jazz’s boundaries, the bassist sang with his parents and siblings on a daily radio program in Missouri. Haden, now 71, joined the family act back in an old America that was unimpeded by such dreary niceties as child-labor laws. “I remember my mom rocking me to sleep,” recalls Haden, speaking from L.A. before heading to his son-in-law’s Tropic Thunder premiere. “I wasn’t even two. She was humming, and I started humming the harmony. She said, ‘You’re ready for the radio show, babe.’ They started taking me to the station every morning. My mom would pick me up in her arms and hold me to the microphone so I could sing.”
In an archival recording appended to Rambling Boy, the future Liberation Music Orchestra leader can be heard as a toddler, introduced on the show as “the little two-year-old yodelin’ cowboy.” (Frankly, Haden’s work on The Shape of Jazz to Come is more impressive.) The budding musician worked on the radio until he was 15, coming of age surrounded by tall-tale heroes of American country. “My dad knew Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters and [Hank] Williams,” Haden says. “All the people in Nashville used to guest-star on the show. Mother Maybelle would come sing at our house.”
When Haden’s yodelin’ voice fell victim to polio, he shifted his focus to bass, which he decided was “the most beautiful instrument of all, because it made everything sound better when it was playing.” (Also: He harbored a childhood crush on the Carter Sisters’ bassist.) He heard Charlie Parker, grew smitten with jazz, moved to L.A. and became famous. But Haden never forsook his roots. “Most jazz musicians are born in big cities,” he notes. “I’m glad I was born in the Ozarks and exposed to country music. It left a deep impression in my soul. It’s in everything I do.”
While Haden never put his own children on the radio, he still fostered an intensely musical household. Josh Haden grew up to be a singer-songwriter—his work has been covered by Johnny Cash—and the triplets have played with a veritable who’s who of contemporary rock. Rambling Boy presents a lovely family portrait, with support from some of Nashville’s most accomplished hands. Though steeped in tradition, the recording sounds modern and, with its jazz undertone, somewhat eccentric. “Charlie drew from his country roots here,” says bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs, who appears on the record. “But on the song ‘20/20 Vision,’ Bruce Hornsby suggested that he play his jazz licks. It really showed Charlie’s ability to walk from country to jazz.”
To Haden, mingling those genres is a given: They are, after all, “the indigenous forms of American music.” Appropriately, the Haden Family’s debut performance, on Sunday 24, marks the 25th anniversary of Lincoln Center’s Roots of American Music series. Flanked on the bill by Patti Smith and the Knitters, the Hadens and their Nashville brethren have given Lincoln Center curators Spike Barkin and Bill Bragin what Bragin deems “the perfect anchor. There’s something about family harmonies and communication that really connects this to traditional music.”
Yet for Cameron, Haden’s manager as well as his wife, the album proved something of a break from tradition. “Through years of recording, it’s always ‘Charlie this, Charlie that,’ ” she says. “Then all of a sudden, the girls were singing and we heard from the council room, ‘Daa-aad! Daa-aad!’ In three-part harmony, of course.”
Charlie Haden Family & Friends play Damrosch Park Sun 24.