Story Jason Browne | Photographs Luisa Porter
Jim Brock is old school country.
Jim Brock is so old school that when he combs his memory for a contemporary artist who embodies all that’s wrong with the new school of country, he settles on a 48-year-old whose last gold record came in 2004.
“Just a few of these country bands even have a fiddle player, but not many. They’ve all gone Shania Twain,” said Brock.
Perhaps he can be forgiven for hating on an artist whose best work is 10 years behind her. First, he’s 79 years old. Second, he’s not your typical “classic” country music apologist.
His dues are paid in full. He knows what he’s talking about.
As a fiddler, the Fayette County, Ala., native, who now lives in Aliceville, Ala., made it to the elite class of country musicians in the 1960s and ’70s. Not as a front man in the spotlight, but as a studio and touring musician for 20 years or better, including a stint onstage at the defining venue for country music: the Grand Ole Opry.
“Country music is no more,” Brock said, clarifying his stance. “What they call ‘country’ now is just ’70s rock. That’s all it is. There’s no country music anymore.”
His list of contemporary artists that qualify as “real country” — Alan Jackson, George Strait, Merle Haggard — are a generation or more removed from their peak popularity.
Now he cringes at the sound of “screaming guitars” and music overproduced with “four or five drum sets and synthesizers and all that junk they put in it just to see what they can put in it.”
When Brock was part of country music’s top tier, the usual lineup was a steel guitar, a fiddler, a bass guitar and drums.
“A piano is great, too. You can take a four or five-piece band and make real country music.”
That’s the kind of country music Brock intended to make when he picked up a fiddle at 12. Both his father and his uncle played, but Brock wound up teaching himself. He practiced for hours every day, playing strictly by ear, until he was moving his fingers intuitively along the instrument’s neck, bending notes by subtly shifting the weight of his fingers on the strings.
A fiddle player, he said, has to have a sharp ear and the willingness to practice “until you get arthritis so bad you can’t play.”
Brock joined his first band at 16 and by 17 had moved to Carrollton, Ala., to play with Carl Sauceman and the Green Valley Boys, making regular appearances on radio and television in Meridian and Tupelo. The band was also featured on WCBI in Columbus back when shows were sponsored by Caldwell Furniture and Robert “Uncle Bunky” Williams was operating a camera.
When the Green Valley Boys disbanded, Brock followed a couple of bandmates to Nashville.
TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
Half a century ago, before YouTube views were the benchmark, decades before music video rotation drove popularity, even before record sales distinguished the biggest country acts, there was the Grand Ole Opry.
Brock said the Opry was the final destination in country music at the time. And as a regularly-featured member of Jim and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, Brock spent 10 years under the famous venue’s lights.
“It was a good feeling knowing that you had gotten to that point and were able to do that. It was the place to be if you were a musician. That’s as big as it got,” he said. “I was just a peon. Not a big star musician, but I was with a group that was members.”
He played alongside some of his country heroes like the Louvin Brothers and Lester Flatt. And later recorded with stars like Jerry Reed and Bill Monroe — back when the whole band crowded around one mic.
But much of his career was spent on the road, keeping him away from his wife, Dorothy, and their children for weeks at a time.
“I got kind of tired of Nashville. I got tired of the road,” he said.
Brock went to work painting cars and airplanes, but never walked away from music.
STILL GOT IT
With the exception of one year when he felt burned out on the fiddle, Brock has never put his instrument down. He still records as a studio musician and plays small gigs at places like the New Hope Community Center. He even plays in a band with his son, Jim Jr., the drummer, who had his own 15-year run on the Opry stage years ago.
Brock teaches lessons to those few young people willing to put in the long hours of work to master the fiddle. He’s conducted lessons at the Columbus Arts Council. He’s had students succeed in their own music careers — like young Ruby Jane Smith of Columbus, who has gone on to record with Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson.
He doesn’t read music, so it’s all by ear and practice.
“People say ‘Teach my kid to play.’ And I ask them up front, does he want to learn or do y’all want him to learn? If he don’t want to play there’s no use trying,” he said.
Brock still practices to this day. He still masters new techniques. He remains dedicated to his “real” country music.
“I’m not bragging on myself, but I can still play. I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I can still get over.”