By Michael McCall Nashville Scene Sept 24 1998
At the start of his audio autobiography, If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets, songwriter-guitarist Ken Spooner says he originally considered writing a book about instrumentalists and the important role they play in popular music. As he began logging his stories, however, he found himself heading in a different direction. The resulting cassette-only book, named after a No. 1 country hit that Spooner co-wrote for singer Joe Diffie, is part memoir, part music-industry commentary, and part behind-the-scenes curtain-lifter. It's filled with the kinds of stories usually passed between musicians in backstage dressing rooms, or by songwriters over tumblers of sour mash.
In that sense, If the Devil Danced is reminiscent of other recollections written by musical foot soldiers. Because Spooner doesn't have axes to grind, asses to kiss, myths to perpetuate, or a career to extend, he simply tells it like it is--and it's this unbridled sense of honesty that makes his folksy storytelling such a rare treat.
Though he comes off as a gentle-natured and forgiving soul, he doesn't shy away from naming names. He relates how it felt, as a struggling unknown,to receive a cruel comment from Chet Atkins, who hadn't taken time to listen to Spooner's tape but told him it probably wasn't worth a damn anyway.And when he relates how producer Josh Leo dismissed him coldly, even after he'd scored a recent No. 1 hit, he reveals how easy it is for the powers-that-be to treat songwriters like second-class citizens.
At the same time, the cassette reveals how important a word of encouragement or an act of graciousness can be to someone advancing through the system. In Spooner's case, that may mean simply getting treated with respect by producer Kyle Lehning and A&R man Cliff Audretch, or being encouraged by the Jordanaires' Gordon Stoker and the late bassist Roy Huskey Jr., or making life-changing bonds with musicians Leo Kottke, Jim Hoke, Walter Hyatt, and Kim Williams.
Spooner's inside look at the music industry has a rich history, and it's among the most interesting volumes ever written about being a musician. Indeed, it ranks with the best of them: I Remember: Eighty Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues, by veteran jazz trombonist Clyde E.B. Bernhardt, and Willie and Dwike, William Zinnser's book about the relationship between jazz bassist Willie Ruff and pianist Dwike Mitchell.
Spooner's tape also has much in common with insider tomes created by other Nashvillians, including the late W.O. Smith's Sideman, Tommy Womack's Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, and Jim Rooney and Eric Von Schmidt's oral history of the Cambridge Folk Years, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down. Like all of these books, Spooner's personal and highly personable tale conveys both the gut-level pleasure that comes from making music as well as the difficulties that artists face as they endeavor to transform a blissful hobby into a self-sustaining career. But since Spooner's volume is in cassette format, the medium also allows him to provide his own soundtrack. If The Devil Danced features 24 original songs,giving the listner an idea of his work as well as a glimpseinto his life and career.
In Spooner's case, his life in music coincides with the birth and growth rock 'n' roll. Growing up in Long Island, he received his first guitar as an elementary-school kid in the mid-'50s, and by the time he was 14, he was performing at proms and in nightclubs. He played in a guitar-and-sax instrumental band called The Continentals, a ragged '60s garage band called The Strangers, and a psychedelic group called Mrs. Murphy's Basement.Hell,he even wrote an unrecorded rock opera, "I'm Waiting for the Watertower Repairman."
Through it all, he continually jousted with the big-time, interacting with legendary music figures such as Morris Levy, Albert Grossman, and Tony DeFries. He had a gun put to his temple by a member of The Kingsmen, he loaned a Hammond organ to his friend Billy Joel, he shared stages with the Rascals and Vanilla Fudge, and he was invited to audition for the Beach Boys. He had several almosts as well: For instance, he almost signed with United Artists, and he almost had an album produced by The Band's Robbie Robertson.
Between his early years in Long Island and his recent decade in Nashville,Spooner spent time in Florida, where he co-owned a custom guitar shop and managed a popular concert theater. The experience gave him sweet tales to tell about Doc Watson and Norman Blake, as well as memorable encounters with such towering figures as bluesman Albert King, who once flashed Spooner a pistol tucked under his suit when asking for his concert fee.
For all his experiences, it's likely that Spooner's Nashville stories will resonate deepest. His segment on life in Music City dwells on three experiences: struggling to make connections while holding a job under the demeaning factory system at Gibson Guitars; penning a No. 1 country hit and all the outrageous events that led to it and followed it; and his songwriting relationship with the late Walter Hyatt, whom Spooner describes in saintly terms.
Near the end of If the Devil Danced, Spooner discloses that he has cancer, a diagnosis that came shortly before Hyatt's death in 1996.Spooner cowrote four songs on Hyatt's 1993 album, Music Town, and he explains that the late singer -songwriter, who was killed in the Florida ValuJet crash on the eve of Spooner's 49th birthday, has had a profound effect on him both as an artist and as a person. His segment dealing with his own illness and the death of his close friend is deeply moving without being maudlin.
Part of what makes it all work is Spooner's wry way with words and his own easygoing outlook on life. Despite all his trials, he comes across as bemused rather than bitter. In the cassette's epilogue, he begins to speak directly to God, hinting that he wouldn't mind having more time with his loving wife Anne and his 15-year-old son Erik. But true to his nature,even as he tells the Lord, "Thanks for everything," he can't help but end his tale with a good-natured smirk.
A regular contributer to the Nashville Scene,Michael McCall's words appear in the LA Times, USA Today, Tower Pulse, and on The Tonite Show website