Jay Bolotin is the best country songwriter you’ve never heard, until now
Jay Bolotin came to Nashville in the late ‘60s, wondering if he had a future as a songwriter.
“I picked up the guitar when I was 12,” Bolotin says. “I had a ‘How to Play the Guitar’ book and a turntable. My parents had three albums – The Threepenny Opera, a Mitch Miller sing-along record and South Pacific. I’d tried playing along to some records I had, but I couldn’t play well enough, so I started writing my own songs, inspired by The Threepenny Opera.”
Bolotin grew up in rural Kentucky. One of his neighbors was John Jacob Niles, a folksinger and folklorist, and one of the founders of the folk revival that swept the country in the late 50s. “On his wall, he had posters of concerts he’d played in London and Paris. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I can do that, if I start writing songs.’”
In 1971, Nashville was full of soon-to-be-famous songwriters determined to break out of the conventions of three-minute songs built around a simple verse/chorus structure. Bolotin met many of of them. “I was 20 years old. I was befriended by Kris Kristofferson, Dan Fogleberg, Mickey Newbury and Norbert Putnam, a famous producer and session musician.” After hearing Bolotin play a few songs, Putnam gave him a songwriting contract and got him into a recording studio. “In those days, when you had five or six songs written, you made a demo. Norbert would bring in some A-list session players, like Reggie Young, who played with Elvis and Johnny Cash. You’d play the song once, the band would make some notes and then you’d step up to the mic. The drummer counted it off and away you went. Dan Fogleberg sang harmonies on a couple of my demos. It was a heady time.”
Bolotin played gigs and made an album that was never released. Later on, Merle Haggard produced another album for him, but that also fell by the wayside. When his songwriting contract lapsed, he went back to making art – woodblock prints, drawings, films and sculptures.
“I grew up on a farm,” he shares. “I used to carve figures out of the fallen trees. I kept doing it and made a living at it. By that time I had two kids, so I had to do something to bring in money. “One day, I took the kids to an amusement park. They wanted to go on a ride and that made me nauseous. I got off and sat down, trying not to throw up. As I was sitting on a crate, something shot down my spine. There were poles with speakers on ‘em, and they were playing Dan Fogelberg singing ‘It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.’ I told my kids, ‘Hey, I wrote that song.’ They looked at me like I was from Mars and asked if we could go on the Ferris wheel.”
The royalty check Bolotin got from Fogelberg’s hit was a substantial help to his artistic lifestyle.
Flash forward 50 years. Mark Linn, head of Delmore Records, is compiling Kris Kristofferson’s publishing demos for an album. “I noticed testimonials from Kristofferson and other heavies, talking about how great Jay was,” Linn says. “They were raving about the demos he’d made in the early 70s, so I started tracking them down. Owsley Manier, who is Jay’s longtime friend, was the owner of the Exit/In in Nashville, one of the club’s Jay played in the 70s. He still had the demos. I liked what I heard. I contacted Jay and started corresponding with him in 2009. The tape transfers, and serious discussions of this release, began in 2013.”
The resulting album, No One Seems To Notice That It’s Raining, was released late last year in a deluxe package that includes Bolotin’s woodblock prints, entries from letters and diaries he wrote in the 70s and, of course, the music. Bolotin’s songs are as literary as they are musical, lush melodies married to lyrics that still sound contemporary today, timeless sentiments of love, loss, mortality and life on the road. “You May Live” has a lilting British folk melody riding Bolotin’s impressive fingerpicking and a lyric that owes a debt to William Blake. “Traveler” is a laid-back country song played with a full band. Bolotin sings the surrealistic tune with a confessional whisper. He likens life to an endless journey for truth, beauty and companionship. The title track is a subtle anti-war song, just Bolotin and his acoustic, standing at the grave of a fallen sailor, rain washing away the tears of grief that run down the faces of family and friends.
“I haven’t heard some of these songs in 45 or 50 years,” Bolotin says. “I was not displeased when I listened again. I was proud of the young man who wrote them. I still write songs, but I don’t know if I’d want to record any of them. I can’t say recording is something I’m all that fond of, but I guess I could work myself up to do it. I still play concerts, if somebody offers an opportunity to do that. I enjoy it, or maybe not enjoy, but it’s something I feel I should do. It’s almost a challenge, like hunting a woolly mammoth.
“Mark did a beautiful job with this reissue. He found things in Nashville basements and attics and had them restored by a guru who bakes the old tapes and makes them sound good. I agreed to do two or three releases and he may tackle the Merle Haggard sessions next. I don’t know how many people will buy that sort of thing, but good luck to him.”