NPR

Charlie Haden: A Bassist With A Country Pedigree

Charlie Haden sang with his musical family from the time he was just 2 years old. (Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 24, 2008.

Bassist Charlie Haden is known as a great jazz musician, but his lineage is all country: Growing up, he performed alongside his brothers and sister in the Haden Family Band, a country group led by his parents, Carl and Virginia. The group's music played on radio stations in the South and Midwest, and on the family's country radio show, broadcast on KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa.

In a 2008 interview with Terry Gross, Haden remembers joining his family in their radio broadcasts from a very young age.

"My mom told me this story. She was rocking me to sleep, I [was] 22 months old and she's humming all these hillbilly songs and all of a sudden I start humming the harmony. And she said 'Wow, you're ready for the show,'" he recalled. "Every day was a great experience for me. I just loved it. ... We did our radio show from our farmhouse and my brothers and sisters would do the chores, milk the cows, come in and have breakfast and then my dad would crank the phone on the wall to let the engineer in Springfield, Missouri know that we were ready to do the show."

Since then, Haden has made a career in jazz, but his 2008 album, a bluegrass collection called Rambling Boy, returns to his country roots. The album features a host of guests artists, including Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello, as well as Haden's wife, four children and son-in-law, actor Jack Black.

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Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As part of our country music series, we're going to feature a 2008 interview with perhaps the greatest living jazz bassist of our time, Charlie Haden. He's famous, among other things, for his role in helping start a jazz revolution in the late 1950's with the Ornette Coleman Quartet.

So what's he doing on Country Music Week? Well, he grew up in a country music family, singing on their radio show. In 2008, he released an album called "Rambling Boy" that returned to his country music roots and to the tradition of singing with family. It featured his three daughters - they're triplets - his son, his wife as well as friends.

Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1937 and two years later, started singing with his family on their country music radio show. His CD, "Rambling Boy," features a recording of him singing on the show at the age of two.

Here's Charlie Haden's father introducing Little Cowboy Charlie.

(Soundbite of "Haden Family Band Radio Show")

Mr. CARL HADEN (Musician): Honey, say good morning to all the little boys and girls. Say hello, all you little boys and girls.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN (Musician): (Unintelligible).

Mr. CARL HADEN: Say I'm just fine.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: I'm just fine.

Mr. CARL HADEN: Just fine, and say I've got a brand new song to sing for you this morning.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: I've got a brand new song to sing.

Mr. HADEN: This morning.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: This morning.

Mr. HADEN: There you are. All right. Little Charlie has had so many many requests to sing that dandy little song, "Row Us Over the Tide," and then momma's going to take him out and get his big bottle of soda pop. So you sing real loud and nice here and a nice yodel. All right.

(Soundbite of song, "Row Us Over the Tide")

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: (Singing) Row us over the tide. Row us over the tide. (Unintelligible) row us over the tide.

Mr. HADEN: Yodel round.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: (Yodeling)

Mr. HADEN: All right. Thank you, Honey. Friends, that's was...

GROSS: Charlie Haden, welcome to FRESH AIR. Charlie, that is just about the most adorable thing I've ever heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Especially the yodel. Charlie, would you share one of your favorite memories of your family's country radio show from when you were, you know, a child?

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: Every day was like a great experience for me. I just loved it. You know, when we were in Shenandoah, we were there until I was four and then we moved to Springfield, Missouri. My dad got a farm near my grandmother's near his mother's place and we did our radio show from the farmhouse. And my brothers and sisters would go out and do the chores, and milk the cows, and come in, have breakfast and my dad would crank the phone on the wall to let the engineer in Springfield know that we were ready to go on the air and we'd do the show. And every day was like a wonder to me. You know, I just loved it.

And then we moved to Springfield and we did all the shows from KWTO Studios, which was - I loved that so much, I couldn't wait to get there. The double glass windows and the acoustic tile and the air conditioning and all the entertainers and, you know, that I met. And, you know, then the people from Nashville started coming into Springfield to do this network radio show similar to "The Grand Ole Opry" called "Corns a Crackin'."

And then, you know, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters were coming into Springfield and coming over and visiting my mother and I got to, you know, I was a little kid and Mother Maybelle was singing all these great songs in our living room and I was just thrilled.

GROSS: You grew up, you know, singing in a family act and I'm sure like your parents you what to sing on stage. Now, managing, you know, like putting this record together that features your whole family, your four children, your wife Ruth, what were some of the differences between being, you know, like the kid in the band, the kid in the family band and now being like the father in the family band?

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: I - as I was growing up, I became more and more a part of the family preparations for the radio shows. We did two radio shows every day and then later on, at the end of - before my dad got out of the business, we had a television show in Omaha, Nebraska. That's when TV came in. And so I became more and more a part of that, as far as the production of the show and choosing the material and what songs we were going to do and what songs we wanted to learn. You know, my brothers and sisters, especially Jimmy, my brother who was five years older than I, he was a big part of, you know, the repertoire and what we were going to do and I was very influenced by him and his love of jazz, and that's when I started listening to jazz when I was just a little kid.

With my family, it was like I wanted to make sure that they were all happy and that they really wanted to do this and they all did want to do it. And, of course, I hadn't done any country music since I was 15 and I was, you know, a little bit apprehensive and a little bit nervous about whether I could really pull this off. You know, I'm a jazz musician for 50 years, so the first rehearsal we had over at the house with Ruth and the kids and I was, you know, blown over about how great they were.

I mean they all sang with such great intonation. I played all these Stanley Brothers songs for them and the Carter Family songs and Jimmy Martin and they just, you know, took to it as if they'd been doing it every day, you know, the girls and Josh.

GROSS: My guest is jazz bass player and composer Charlie Haden. Here's a track featuring his triplet daughters, Tanya, Rachel and Petra, who have each had careers in indie rock. They'll be with us in a minute.

(Soundbite of song, "Single Girl, Married Girl")

CHARLIE HADEN FAMILY & FRIENDS: (Singing) Single girl, single girl, going dressed fine. Oh, going dressed fine. Married girl, married girl, she wears just any kind. Oh, she wears just any kind.

Single girl, single girl, she goes to the store and buys. Oh, goes to the store and buys. Married girls, married girls, she rocks the cradle and cries. Oh, she rocks the cradle and cries.

GROSS: That's "Single Girl, Married Girl" from the new Charlie Haden Family & Friends" CD, "Rambling Boy." And my guests are the three singers who we just heard: triplets Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden. Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. Your father, Charlie Haden, is in the studio with us as well. What beautiful voices you have and what great harmonies.

Did you grow up singing harmonies like that with each other?

Ms. HADEN #1: Yes, we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And what about the song we just heard? How did you start singing it? It sounds like you've been singing it a long time.

Ms. HADEN #1: Um...

Mr. HADEN: I think I played a Carter family record for them one day, and they just loved it, you know. And then I left the room. They took it from there.

GROSS: You know, it's amazing that you all have such great voices, and of course, you grew up in such a musical family. What were you exposed to musically of your father's music? Either, you know, his performances on record, a concert, or just him playing or, you know, practicing around the house?

Ms. HADEN #2: I remember listening to whatever our dad was listening to. There was always something playing musically, and a lot of jazz, of course...

Ms. HADEN #1: Classical music and jazz and, but I remember always sitting in our dad's lap, and he would have big, huge headphones on. And I remember, like, tapping him and trying to talk to him, and he'd say, just a minute...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADEN #1: ...because he was listening to something. I'm like oh, boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADEN #1: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADEN #1: But, yeah, there was always music playing.

GROSS: Now would you mind if I asked you three to just sing something a cappella briefly, just to show us where your harmonies fit with each other?

(Soundbite of clearing voice)

GROSS: Just a few bars, just, like, maybe you could kind of chime in one at a time just to hear where all three voices - how all three voices connect.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: When you sing "A Voice From On High."

Ms. HADEN #2: (Singing) It's - I hear Lord.

Ms. HADEN #1: Yeah. Yeah, let's do that one.

Ms. HADEN #2: Okay. You start it, Petra.

(Soundbite of song, "A Voice From On High")

Ms. PETRA HADEN: (Singing) I hear a voice callin' it must be our Lord.

HADEN TRIPLETS: (Singing) It must be our Lord. It's comin' from heaven on high. I hear a voice callin'. I've gained my reward. I've gained my reward, in the land where we never shall die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, that's so great. Now do you trade off who sings high and who sings low and who sings in the middle?

Ms. HADEN #3: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you have similar ranges in your voices?

Ms. HADEN #3: We trade a lot. Rachel likes to sing the pretty melody part, so a lot of times I get scooted to the bottom without really knowing it.

GROSS: What was your reaction when your father proposed this CD to you of, you know, a family album of country songs?

Ms. HADEN #1: Finally.

Ms. HADEN #2: Yeah. We said, about time, let's do it.

GROSS: As part of our Country Music Week, we're listening back to a 2008 interview with jazz bassist Charlie Haden and his daughters after he released an album returning to his country music roots. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 2008 interview with jazz bassist Charlie Haden, after he released an album called "Rambling Boy," which returned to his country music roots.

Charlie, the last track on your CD is you singing, and people who have followed your career know that although you sang as a boy with your family on their country music radio show, polio affected your voice and your vocal cords and stopped you from singing. But a few years ago, you recorded a track again, "Wayfaring Stranger," and you sing again on the final track on this CD. And the song is "Shenandoah," which is also the name of the place where you were born. This kind of tears me up every time I hear it. Tell me why you chose this song as the one that you would sing on the CD and what this song means to you.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: It means a tribute to my parents who were traveling around the United States before I was born, auditioning on all the big radio stations with my brothers and sister. And they were on their way to Des Moines, Iowa, do an audition, and there was a blizzard, and they stopped in Shenandoah at a motel. And while we were there, my dad went over to the radio station in Shenandoah and auditioned and got the job. And they stayed in Shenandoah for four years, and that's where I was born, and that's where I started singing with them.

And the two rare times I've sung since, you know, I've been in contemporary music is the "Wayfaring Stranger," which was with Quartet West and Shirley Horn, and Strings.

And then this time, and they were both a tribute to my parents. I don't sing these songs as a singer. I sing it in tribute and thanking my mom and dad for making this music and creating this music and my being a part of it and it being inside my soul. And I want to thank them, you know, whenever I can thank them. And this is the way that I can thank them because I know they hear this -they hear this. So that's why.

GROSS: You know, I always say that you're the most melodic and emotional bass player I've ever heard. And I think that that must have something to do with the fact that you grew up with this - that you grew up with melody and harmony and songs about life and death and love and loss. I mean, that's just - it's so deep inside of you.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: Yes. The music, you know, both of the indigenous art forms in music that come to the United States, you know, hillbilly music and folk music came over from England and Scotland and Ireland into the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains where I was raised. And then, my attraction to jazz was, of course, the struggle of the African slave and the Underground Railroad and the music that evolved from that struggle.

And it seems like, you know, beautiful music, if it's from the United States or wherever it is, it can be from Bulgaria, it can be from Spain, it can it comes from a struggle, you know, of people either in poverty or trying to a struggle for freedom. And so this music is very, very melodic. It's filled with wonderful chords and voicings and harmonies, and I grew up with these harmonies. And I'm so lucky because this was my early musical education, and I feel very fortunate.

GROSS: Just one more thing about your singing. I know there was a long period when you physically couldn't sing because of the polio that you got when you were young. When you sing now, what does it feel like physically to sing?

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: It's very difficult for me because intonation is one of the priorities in my life is to play the music in tune, and I don't use my voice every day the way a lot of singers do, you know, who are professional singers. When I did the "Wayfaring Stranger," I hadn't sung in 40 years or whatever, you know, since I was 15. And so - and I didn't practice, you know. And so I got in the studio and just sang. And it was - I think I did one take or maybe two. And on "Shenandoah," I was kind of nervous because I wanted to be in tune, and then I started thinking, you know, I'm doing this for Mom and Dad. I'm not doing this, you know, to be a great singer. I just want to do this, and so I just relaxed and did it. But whatever.

GROSS: Well, I find it incredibly moving and I'm so glad that you sang it. So, let's hear Charlie Haden singing "Shenandoah" from his new CD, "Charlie Haden: Family and Friends." And Charlie, it's just been great to have you back on the show and to talk with your family. Thank you so very much.

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: Thank you, Terry, so much for inviting us.

(Soundbite of song, "Shenandoah")

Mr. CHARLIE HADEN: (Singing) Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you away, you rolling river. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you away. I found a way across the white Missouri. Tis seven years since I last saw you away you rolling river. Tis seven years since I last saw you away I found a way across the wide Missouri.

GROSS: Charlie Haden from his 2008 album, "Rambling Boy," which returned to his country music roots. Our interview was recorded in 2008. Haden has a new CD of duets with pianist Keith Jarrett called "Jasmine."

Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a new CD of Patsy Cline's Decca recordings, as our Country Music Week continues. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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