Long before he became known as “Papa Jack,” Jack Couch was bitten by the music bug. In fact, that bug has taken at least four big bites, and after dipping his toes into the musical waters and having some brushes with musical celebrity, he decidedly, though somewhat regrettably, set his musical interests aside. But with this last bite, he is immersing himself into them. He has honed his chops and paid his musical dues as much as any performer in the area; he has just done it in shifts rather than in a single span of time. As a result, he is a rare, charming anomaly – with the enthusiastic zeal of a performer just starting out combined with the wisdom and delivery depth of a seasoned artist. If he previously laid away his lyrics and melodies, he now freely shares them and underpins them with material such as the songs on his new album, Witness Tree, following up Meriwether, released in October 2018. Jack will host a listening party show with his full band at Eddie’s Attic on August 15, offering a sneak peak at his new material before Witness Tree’s slated release in September.
Bite 1: When he was just 13, Jack was given a guitar as a Christmas present; he recalls it as “a Sears Silvertone that cost $13.95 at the time.” Though no one in his family played any instruments, from an early age Jack loved music. The popularity of folk music fueled his intention to play. “I only learned to play it by taking off the top two strings like a tenor guitar, because a guy in The Kingston Trio played a tenor guitar, and they were one of the folk acts that other kids my age would sit around trying to play.”
Jack and two friends started tagging along with one of the friend’s college-aged brother who was into playing music. Soon they began playing together before audiences. “Every month some school in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, had a hootenanny that was a battle-of-the-bands competition. Everyone was covering the popular songs of the day. The clean-cut guys who looked like The Kingston Trio or The Brothers Four would always win. We looked all scruffed up like Bob Dylan which was really far out then, and we tended to play some of the rowdier tunes.” Jack says that it was a perfect environment to stoke his musicianship. “We never won but we really loved to go just to hang out with all the people backstage who were all older and better than we were. It was educational and motivating. Plus, there was other interesting stuff around like all the girls who were there and that my friend’s brother had a stash of beer with him!”
While Jack acknowledges he may have been a tad young to participate in some of the scene’s elements, it pushed he and his friends toward the skill level they saw in the older kids and they kept at it for a couple of years.
As it was for many teens of his time, the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964 was a defining moment of change, but for Jack’s folk group, it was not the change they needed. Jack recalls, “The Beatles put us out of business! As the year went on, The Beatles’ influence became stronger, and by year’s end, it became obvious that we were not going to be able to continue in music unless we had electric guitars. The hootenannies dried up and folk clubs withered and closed.”
This was the first time that Jack turned toward something other than music. “I could not afford an electric guitar and that contributed to my getting out of music, but actually by that time in high school, I was more strongly drawn to playing sports. I performed sporadically with my church’s Young Life program, but I certainly was not playing out like I did. I shelved music in favor of football, and for those years I was okay with that.”
Bite 2: The second music bug bite came when Jack was in college at Georgia Tech. While he had given up serious performing, a few people knew he played and encouraged him to pick it up again. During his first summer home, a friend talked Jack into playing some low-key gigs in St. Augustine. “My friend thought he might meet some girls out of it. It was a miracle if I ever covered my gas money because I was only playing for tips. My friend tended to drink up our beer allotment, too. But it was at that point I wanted to try my hand at writing, and I wrote my first song.”
During these college summers Jack was encouraged and inspired by brushes with musical fame. Jack and a friend started following a local band named The Second Coming featuring two guys named Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley. “We would see them whenever we could. So, school starts again, and my friend calls to tell me that this band we liked so much was now in Macon and playing for free everywhere. When I would go to Macon, we would literally just drive around and find them playing somewhere. Then before I graduated, they were selling out the Tech auditorium as The Allman Brothers.” Jack further ruminates on their impacts to his own music, “Looking back, that experience just solidified the idea for me that these guys were just fellow human beings. We had been around all these guys so we did not have to put them in some exalted position that we might never reach. It showed us success could be real and attainable. That was encouraging in a fundamental way.” Jack said the same was true of Jacksonville resident, Gram Parsons, whom he met while in high school. “That said, Graham was just a little older than we were, but he was so far ahead better than I was. He looked better. He sounded better. He had been a musician since early childhood and was already getting promoted when in high school. He was clearly a cut above all of our crew, and he showed me what was possible.”
During this period, Jack’s friend Dan moved to Nashville and took a production assistant job with The Johnny Cash [television] Show, then filmed at the famed Ryman Auditorium. “I would go visit him almost every weekend, and with his all-access pass we had the run of the place. The Opry was on Friday and Saturday, and many different musicians would visit and congregate in the wings just to hang out. I met Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Tex Ritter and others. While I was still playing just to make a few bucks here and there, I was not thinking about music professionally at all. I was just trying to make it through school, but suddenly I was captivated with trying to write songs. Through Dan, I got the amazing opportunity to pitch some of my songs to The Statler Brothers in the dressing rooms that had built adjacent to the Ryman for the TV show.” Jack details that story, “As I started playing, I could sense someone had come up behind me and was standing there listening. I did not dare stop, but when I had finished my first song, I turned around, saw it was Johnny Cash and I about fell over! He inquired if I had another song and asked me to keep playing. I fumbled through another one and Johnny said that was okay and that I should send those songs to his publishing company.” At the time Jack had five or six songs and put three of those to tape to mail to the company, House Of Cash. “Frankly, they really were not great songs, though one song about a girl I met in Manuel’s Tavern I still sometimes perform today.” Jack never received a reply. Not wanting to be too pushy, he followed up intermittently over almost a year. During this time, he met a girl who was attending Florida State. He changed his plans to move to Nashville and instead took a job in Camilla, Georgia to be near her in Tallahassee. “My fantasy was that I would scoop Anne up and once we settled down a bit we would head up to Nashville. Of course, that never happened.”
Again, Jack put aside his musical ambitions to focus on family and career. “I was working hard and kind of tied up struggling with my job. I had a gift for running into disaster when it came to my career. We had three boys, and we were involved in their activities. Taking the time to sneak off to play music was like forbidden fruit. In special moments I would steal away and just pluck at my guitar. I would try my hand at writing songs, too. I had a creative urge that I just couldn’t kill. Yet, at the same time I was critically aware that I needed to put all my energy into making a living. I stuck to this ideal for the most part but still occasionally late at night I indulged my musical muse.” Jack recalls those moments as more of an urge to sit down and express something, “almost a mindless need to just say stuff. It builds up pressure in your soul and there has to be some release.” While Jack played and even occasionally wrote music for the youth at his church, he really tried to give up music. “I just did not have the time. I was self-employed and needed to devote everything to work. My family was supportive of my playing, but that only increased my determination to do well for them and not let my music indulgences get in the way of that. I felt guilty.”
While Jack focused on family and work, he stayed connected with his old friend Dan who had worked on the Johnny Cash show. After that program went off the air, Dan married and worked at a Nashville bank, but he shared with Jack that he was making a career leap to full-time represent and promote his sister-in-law, who had started a career in music. “I was thinking ‘you poor bastard, that is going to end up something ugly’ because we all had albums from someone’s sister-in-law.” Still, Jack congratulated him and they continued to stay in touch. It did not take long for Dan’s efforts combined with the talent of the sister-in-law to bear fruit as Amy Grant’s career took off.
Bite 3: Jack and Dan reconnected at their high school reunion. By this time, Dan had founded Reunion Records and recruited several promising gospel and country artists. Dan asked Jack to send Reunion Records any songs that he may have written and over the course of a year Jack sent about a dozen songs. Five of the songs were picked up by Dan’s publisher and Jack was told if he could bring five more songs just as good he potentially could come on board as a staff writer. Jack recounted “I was in heaven at the thought. I got to work on some more. Many songs on my last record Meriwether were from that time period. Before I could amass a full ten songs that were acceptable, that publishing guy got fired. I knew I would be starting over. Sure enough, his replacement went through the same batch of songs and hated them.”
Jack again decided to put music aside. “At that time, given how old my boys were, I wanted to put a lot of time into family and so I gave up music again. I remember I was on my way to meet up with Dan at an Amy Grant concert. I was thinking through everything I had to do when I would get back from that show and it struck me that I really could not fit it all in. I turned the car around and headed back to Waycross. My marriage and our family were wonderful, and I would have betrayed them if I let music take me away from them. So I just stopped. I gave it all up, and I do not regret that decision nor would I trade it for anything.”
Jack offers other reasons for pulling his songwriting ambitions to a full stop. “Dan made helpful introductions, but I knew I was so far from having a realistic toehold to make anything happen. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was beating me on the head and shoulders at work. It was almost like the music part of me was an addiction or a socially unacceptable disease I had. I knew I did not have the time to grind it out in music. As a result, I have always had an empathy for people who might have something about themselves that they did not have the freedom to express and enjoy freely.”
Jack made peace with quitting his music “addiction” and savored family life in Waycross for close to another twenty years. Over ten years ago, Jack and Anne moved to the Atlanta area. Two months after arriving in Atlanta, Jack suffered unimaginable tragic heartbreak. He and Anne were in an automobile accident and Anne died in in the wreck. “She was my connection to the world. She was the outgoing one. She was the one who knew all the details about people and events. Although I was not hurt in the wreck, in many other ways it was like learning to walk again. My entire life had to start over. The shock and the trauma of it all left me in fog of depression. I absolutely felt like a Walking Dead zombie.”
Bite 4: As Jack began to recover from this horrible time, one of the things that gradually started happening again was music. “I was not really pushing it or working on it. I was around a group of young people who regularly came each year to help with a Habitat For Humanity build. They were all into original folk music from way back. They somehow found out that I had been involved with folk music back then, and I became a cool hero to them. It made me feel like maybe I should pay some attention to that. If these kids think it is so cool, then maybe it is. So I started playing more over a period of maybe two to three years.”
Jack started playing bass in church and occasionally stepping out front to lead the music. He wondered if he could cut it on stage again. “I knew about Eddie’s Attic, of course, and so I thought that if I am going to crash and burn and embarrass myself, I might as well do it from the best place I can find. It is amazing how much talent you can see on that stage. So I played an open mic at Eddie’s Attic, and I didn’t suck. Everyone there was very encouraging.”
Over the course of the next year, Jack started playing the Eddie’s open mic about once a month, getting to know the crew there well. Simultaneously, Jack fell into a late life career as a pastor, though he did not previously have any inclination to serve professionally. “I am not necessarily a big fan of organized church – often I would rather be at a bar – but that is where that business is centered so I support it.” [You can hear some of that opinion in the new song “Back With Their Own Kind”]. The job also enabled Jack to secure an apartment in Atlanta so he could participate at open mic nights without having to drive 60 miles each way. In addition to Eddie’s Attic, soon he was a regular at open mics at Redlight Café, Venkman’s, and Kat’s Café and landed gigs at The Hard Rock Café, Smith’s Olde Bar, and Crimson Moon.
“Brian Revels, the alternate open mic host at Eddie’s, got to be a very valuable friend. I asked him if he could provide me some guidance in how to pursue my music. He ended up being the producer on my record Meriwether released in October 2018.” Jack and Brian recorded at Owner/Engineer Damon Moon’s Standard Electric Recorders. Brian helped select the musicians for the session. Josh Birmingham, who played with Michelle Malone, played all the drum tracks. Matt Wauchope was on piano while Jacob Deaton and Micah Caldwell split guitar duties.
Jack appreciates the talent of the musicians in his band and likes to give them the flexibility to imagine their own parts, as he did on both of his records. “I tell them ‘I want them to play what you think you should be playing.’ Outside of some minor tweak suggestions, that is all the direction I provide.” Michah and Matt are joined by Mike Dana on drums and Robert Green on bass and Rae Evans, Tiffini Rose, Cristina Rae on vocals to form the Standard Electric Irregulars who now play live with Jack and will be performing at the August 15 show.
Given his years of songwriting, Jack immediately notes a couple of inspirations. He has a strong appreciation for songs that address things that are not being said elsewhere. He elaborates, “It occurred to me that almost all love songs are adolescent love songs – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and all the other variations are teenage-like. In contrast, I try to write adult love songs like “Make Time For Love” off Meriwether. I wrote another I have not put on any album called “Married People Make Love, Too” making the point that the real lovers in life are the ones who hang together long enough to really understand each other and know how to love each other in every way.” Faith also plays an important role in Jack’s song writing, especially what he calls ‘everyday faith’. “It is not how it works just in church or to what we would call spiritual issues, but also that it applies to everything life…not simply religion.”
One view could be that after the many years of starts and stops in music that getting to share his original music might seem like a triumphant ending to the story. Jack has a different perspective. “My grand advantage in this life right now is that everything I am doing is a second chance. I should be dead from that car accident. I have never had a sense that I have been saved for this purpose. In the total of my life, I don’t think of music being part of my life’s mission. It is more about being part of the music community in town. If I have a mission, that is it: do what good I can for this community.”
Jack carries these thoughts further. “I have loved this ride. Yet, I would trade every good thing that has happened since to have my wife back. If she were alive, however, I probably would not be doing these things now. Only because now I am loose on the universe, I can go and do what I want to do. I am not worrying about anyone. That is kind of my edge. I am just this lonely old bastard, and I am out looking for people to be friends with and turn it into music.”
Jack shares his ideas on what his music communicates to listeners. “I was very fortunate in love but just snakebit in career and worldly advancement. I have struggled. I got beat down a lot. The pride that separates some people from others – a lot of that has gone out of me. If there is an impact in my music, it is that I can relate to people who struggle. I am not claiming sainthood. I can still be a son-of-a-bitch. But life has rendered me much more capable of relating to people.”
Asked why audiences of all ages have taken to him and his music, Jack reflects a minute before saying “I think it is about being authentic. That is what attracted to me to folk music. I had grown up in a typical suburban middle-class lifestyle. My dad had a corporate job. Even then I realized that we kids my age all wanted something that was little more real, not sterile, something with more life and more grit. That is why I loved Bob Dylan. You can’t try to be genuine like you can’t try to be cool. You have got to be real and be you.”
While Jack says that his path to now has been “about just following every little lead that comes up,” he has goals for his music efforts. “What I care about and what I want to do is write great songs. Really, the performing is just in support of the writing. I love doing it. It is such a thrill. I have never thought of myself as a capable performer. I don’t think I have written a great song yet, but I hope I will write some songs that are lasting. It surprises me that people enjoy it.”
Listeners and fellow musicians are, in fact, enjoying it. After being bit by the bug multiple times and leaving it behind, having to treat music’s urge in his soul as an “addiction,” Jack is soaking up the satisfaction of being a part of Atlanta’s music community, self-effacingly offering “People don’t know how much I appreciate all of this. To have people respond to my songs – I literally can’t believe it. I keep thinking that someday someone is going to say ‘This is over. The jig is up.’”
|Grapevine Profile: Papa Jack Couch|
|5 Desert Island Discs||1. Ray Charles - Modern Sounds In Country Music
2. The Band - The Band
3. Bob Dylan - Nashville Skyline
4. John Hyatt - Bring The Family
5. Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee - At The Bunkhouse
|First concert||The Beach Boys and The Lovin' Spoonful - Jacksonville Civic Auditorium, 4/07/1966|
|Favorite concert in Atlanta||Can't pick just one!
- The Band, Municipal Auditorium, 12/10/1970
- Bob Dylan & The Band, The Omni, 1/21/1974
- Janis Joplin, Georgia Tech, 12/05/1969
- The Allman Brothers, Georgia Tech, 5/09/1970
|Favorite area hangouts||Eddie's Attic, Kat's Cafe, Manuel's Tavern|
|Memorable gigs around town||My first show at Eddie's Attic|
|Favorite Atlanta music site||Atlanta Music Grapevine!|