Chattanoogan: Jerre Haskew – Folk On!

Saturday, July 20, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

In the early 60s, folk music was a hot ticket to fame - that is until The Beatles' appearance in the United States left singer/songwriter  Jerre Haskew to fall from the ladder of stardom.

Jerre didn’t let that keep him down for long. His home on Elder Mountain, which sits at the top of the bluff 1,890 feet above sea level, is affectionately adorned with lions reminding him of his 1964 hit ‘A Lion Named Sam’.

“I wrote it (with wife Barbara writing a couple of lines) because as a kid, I had a lion as an imaginary playmate and I liked the song ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’. The whole thing is about the power of imagination,” Jerre maintains.

His father Sam was the inspiration for the name. Jerre remembers his father being outgoing and generous. “Dad was a man of tremendous values, raised in a Methodist family near a place called Fiery Gizzard. Fiery Gizzard Records is my label and Fiery Gizzard Music is our publishing company,” Jerre says.

His mother Lucille was very loving but also organized and meticulous, which is probably where Jerre obtained his proficiency for business.

The oldest of his brothers Gary and Greg, Jerre was close to his family – especially his grandmother Lou Ella Richmond, affectionately called ‘Granny Richie’.

“She never said a negative word about anyone and that’s how I like to be,” Jerre says.

His father Sam was a great athlete and played baseball with the Navy during the war. Afterward he worked in lumber and became a successful contractor.

Jerre loved sports and thought at one time of becoming a sportswriter. Instead, he would find a passion for writing songs. He loved listening to music on the radio but never sang or played anything until he was 20 years old.

While at UTK, Jerre had heard a student playing recording artist Joan Baez and he loved her sound. He also liked the sound of The Kingston Trio and wanted to form his own trio. During the summer of 1962, Jerre bought a guitar and banjo from a pawnshop. With fraternity brother Jim Shuptrine, the young men took a five-day drive to Alaska to cut trees from power lines for a good-paying summer job. It was hard work, but during their free time Jerre learned to play chords.

“I was determined to start a folk group. Andy Garverick could play the banjo and was one of the best - better than Earl Scruggs,” Jerre insists. “We needed a tenor and had tried a couple of really good people at first, but they moved on. When Tom Kilpatrick joined us, it just clicked.” Jim Shuptrine was a musicologist and played the trombone. He said he could play the bass to their style of songs, but that he didn’t want to sing.

The Cumberland Trio was formed and consisted of Jerre, Andy and Tom with Jim as their bass player.  With music patterned after The Kingston Trio, the group entered a contest in 1963 and won $50 each.

“Socially I was totally backward. I hardly dated at all in high school, I guess I was afraid,” Jerre says.

He was involved in student activities at UT and Barbara was a student leader. Jerre asked one of Barbara’s friends if she thought Barbara would go out with him, but the friend let him know that she was seeing someone. It wasn’t until they were in their senior year that Jim would encourage Jerre to ask Barbara out while at a pool party.

“Barbara was wearing this black bathing suit and had a great tan,” Jerre grins. After his friend had coaxed him, Jerre asked Barbara to go to the boat races on Sunday and after a few months of dating they were pinned.

“Barbara had won a contest to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle Magazine and she went to New York for the summer. I wrote her almost every day and she wrote me as often as she could and we still have some of those letters – in one of them she misspelled my name,” Jerre laughs.

The couple married in 1963 in Granny Richie’s church. Both were very busy as the Trio was performing. The group auditioned for big-name talent agencies and they were told by a few that they were better than the Kingston Trio.

“I came home from a college concert and Barbara was rocking our daughter Bonnie and humming a song that she had made up. It was about 2:30 in the morning and I listened to her singing it and I thought it was very good. I called Jim and said, ‘You gotta come over here right now - Barbara just wrote a song and you better work out the melody before she forgets it’,” Jerre laughs.

‘I Wish I Were a Babe’ became a signature song for the group. “It was just so good and it was such a poignant song during the Civil Rights troubles,” Jerre says.

In 1964, The Cumberland Trio recorded 15 songs in one day at RCA’s studio B in Nashville produced by legend Chet Atkins. They won first prize in the National Collegiate Folk Festival in Jacksonville, Fla.. and a month later made their national television debut on ABC-TV’s Saturday evening series Hootenanny where over 11 million people tuned in.

With this success, the trio was ready to sign a contract with RCA and begin touring.

Arriving at Gotham Studios in New York, the trio recorded 12 songs over a four-day period. Manager Bob Newsome informed them that Recording Industries Corporation (RIC) wanted to buy out RCA and offered the group a recording contract five times the album royalty rate. Chet had spoken very highly of the executives and the group signed with RIC.

“We went back to Gatlinburg and worked on our act. Jim had designed improvements and we built the stage for our shows…. he was ingenious. We did two shows six nights a week. We racked in the money making $1,500 apiece, which was a lot for college kids back then. Our album was going to be released and we were going to tour. We were excited,” Jerre declares.

In late August, the group got word that RIC went bankrupt.

“Aug. 1, The Beatles hit the U.S. to tour and they were on the Ed Sullivan show. I remember that it completely destroyed the folk era - almost overnight, it was wiped out,” Jerre claims.

“The Kingston Trio was the biggest act going and they were reduced to a small hall/club act. Capital Records dropped them two years later. That was the effect it had,” he says.

The trio attempted to roll with the change adding electric instruments and recording two songs, but the new sound just wasn’t a fit for them and the group broke up.

Jerre went from showman to businessman and was executive vice president of Commerce Union Corporation in Nashville, and then the CEO at Commerce Union Bank in Chattanooga. In 1986 he started a venture capital company called the Haskew Company.

Jerry dabbled in many business endeavors, one of which he owned  - Guild Guitars whose endorsees included Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and many other major artists.

Among his travels Jerre recalls meeting Johnny Cash on a plane. With the aid of the stewardess, Jerre seized the moment and sent information of his guitar company along with a note to the man in black, who was sitting in first class.

A few moments later, the young lady told Jerre that Mr. Cash would like to see him. As he pulled back the curtain to first class, Jerre was asked to sit down next to the celebrity. Johnny stretched out his hand and said “Hello, Jerre …I’m Johnny Cash.” In that surreal moment, Jerre conducted a business deal with the icon.

“Johnny said to me, ‘You are right, I should be playing an American made guitar. Are these guitars as good as you say they are?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir, they are.’ He asked if I could do one in cherry-sunburst and I said, ‘Yes, and that would look really good against your black outfits.’  Then he said, ‘Yeah, two great minds think alike, don’t they Jerre?’”

Two months later, Jerre was invited to the Cash residence. He took the guitars made especially for Johnny to Hendersonville and, as he walked in, he saw pictures of Billy Graham and Presidents gilding the walls.

“He loved the guitars and I spent half the day with him. He made me feel like I was the important one - he was that special of a man. He played those guitars for seven years exclusively,” Jerre asserts.

Jerre also formed his own independent label, Fiery Gizzard Records/Music LLC.

“The trio didn’t play music together for 37 years and then this ‘Lion Named Sam’ thing came along and prompted me to have the original Chet recordings restored,” Jerre says.

In 2001 UT Vice Chancellor Dave Roberts, and a fan of The Cumberland Trio, invited them to do a reunion concert.  “We added Lou Wamp to the mix - he is great on dobro and fiddle.  He is also a great cello player and sounds just like a lion when we play ‘A Lion Named Sam’,” Jerre affirms.

The reunion concert was held at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville and the trio was asked to do it again in 2004.

”Barbara is an absolute riot on stage when she dresses in the lion costume. That is when she becomes the real Barbara,” Jerre chuckles.

Barbara explains, “That idea grew out of my having breast cancer. After surgery and reconstruction, we got involved with Dr. Sargent who reconstructs faces of children born with deformities.”

When Jerre was asked to perform in one of the camp events, Barbara had the idea to rent a lion costume.

“The children were young enough to think Sam was real,” Barbara says. “One boy named Martin climbed up in my lap. I had never felt a more perfect love than I did from that child.”

Barbara is on TVA's board of directors. She stays involved with the music and enjoys donning the lion costume whenever she gets the chance. She and her husband have published a children’s book and given away thousands of copies as well as the recorded CDs of the song.

Jerre recently had the great fortune of having the digital re-mastering of the lost 1964 New York recordings, but there was much involved and, without the help of Andy Laird, Steve Wallace, Dave Roberts, Harry Lipsitz, Nick Noble, Ron Olesko, Bradley Reeves, Crystal Dunn and Terry Rose, the recordings would have been lost forever and the trio's comeback wouldn't have been possible.

The trio gets together three or four weekends a year to play. “We are going to do a CD-release celebration of some kind, and music is going to be a part of it - not just with our music but also of people we know who are special to us,” Jerre says.

“It’s not to make money, but for the love of the music - to get it back out there,” Jerre insists. He adds, “Barbara said it best - some things you do for money and some things you just do for love – this was done for love.”

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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