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Son of the South, Amram Celebrates His Roots

From the Wichita Eagle - Wichita, KS
August, 1999


David Amram is a Southerner by heritage and affinity more than by experience. Though his ancestors settled in Savannah, Ga., in the 1850s, and much of his family still lives in the South, Amram himself was reared in Pennsylvania and has lived in upstate New York for several years. The composer and entertainer counts his 10 years in Washington, D.C. _ from 1942 to '52 _ as part of his Southern experience ("It was a Southern town then"), but even more significant was his first-grade year, 1936, spent in Passagrille, Fla. That, along with an awareness of his Southern roots and contact with family in the South, add up to Amram's appreciation for the area.

So was spawned "Southern Stories," a 13-cut CD of original music and stories that will be released on the Chrome Records label on Aug. 17. I caught up with Amram during his travels. He called from the Pittsburgh, Pa., airport, a stop on his way home to Putnam County, N.Y., from Ottawa, Ontario, where he conducted the National Arts Center Orchestra in a tribute to Duke Ellington.

Amram, you see, is best known for his more than 100 orchestral and chamber works and for his jazz collaborations with such notables as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Lionel Hampton. Early in his career, he wrote scores for movies, including "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Splendor in the Grass," and for theater, notably Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning "J.B."

He appears as guest conductor and soloist with major orchestras around the world and tours internationally with his quartet. Because he plays French horn, piano, guitar, numerous flutes and whistles and folk instruments from 25 countries, Amram has been hailed as a pioneer in multicultural music.

In 1957, he and Beat poet Jack Kerouac developed the genre of the jazz poetry reading, in which he played jazz and chamber music behind Kerouac's readings. He has performed at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas for 23 consecutive years, as well as at folk festivals worldwide.

Country, he isn't. But his latest project is appropriate to the broad definition of country/folk music. Besides, he has performed at four of Willie Nelson's FarmAids, counts Texas songwriting great Guy Clark among his friends and chose two of my favorite musicians, Mickey Raphael and Vassar Clements, to play on the CD. That's country enough for me.

Amram met Raphael, Nelson's harmonica player, at FarmAid, where the two performed together. Clements, one of Nashville's top fiddlers, and he and Clements were contemporaries in the Army in the early 1950s. Applying his considerable composing expertise to "Southern Stories," Amram has come up with a CD that deserves a prominent place in any music lover's collection.

"The classical musicians I've played it for love it," Amram told me, crediting Raphael and Clements' musicianship. Only friends and the occasional audience had heard the songs on the CD before they were recorded. "Alfred the Hog" is the best-known. Other cuts worthy of mention are "Down Home Sunday in the South"; "Kentucky Southern Gentleman," a tribute to his friend, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson; "From Kerrville to Cairo"; and "Passagrille, Florida 1936," a charming story of the magic of making another's wishes come true.

Through his songs and stories, Amram said, he tried to convey the flavor of the South, where folks are more gracious, where they remember who married whom, where most practice some form of spiritual discipline. "There's a down-home way of enjoying simple things," he said, and "people get together, just enjoying another's company." He also appreciates the eloquent manner in which many from the South speak. From preachers such as Martin Luther King to writers such as Carson McCullers, they have preserved the language of civility. "Southern Stories" is a labor of love for the 68-year-old world musician who grows collard greens on his New York State farm. He even embraces Texas as a cultural middle ground between the Old South and the New West. He chuckles when he hears a British-stiff announcer on a New York classical radio station introduce his "Theme and Variations on Red River Valley," including its dedication to Hondo Crouch, the late unofficial mayor of Luckenbach, Texas, population 7, whose motto was "Everybody's somebody in Luckenbach." To Amram, everybody's somebody if they play music. He expects that as technology continues to shrink the world, others will share his appreciation for the music of other cultures. "As we get into the next millennium," he said, "musicians can see that the vistas are unlimited. You can be receptive and inspired by anything that is beautiful."

Reprinted with permission