Jay Bolotin :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Our lives, they read like novels that we bought for dimes and hid/Hoping they wouldn’t find them.” —Jay Bolotin, “Dime Novels”

Jay Bolotin’s songs live in the shadows. It’s not just that the songwriter and visual artist’s compositions are obscure, though they are. But even when they’ve been hits, like Dan Fogelberg’s 1985 version of Bolotin’s “Go Down Easy,” they retain a sense of grand mystery. Rooted in country and folk traditions, but possessing an almost gothic air, Bolotin’s rarest compositions are featured on No One Seems to Notice That It’s Raining, a collection of demos and sketches recorded between 1970-1975. Listening to the quiet lyricism, it’s easy to hear why people like Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and other Music City luminaries lauded the Kentucky native’s work.

Bolotin’s talents are multi-fold. In the decades since he recorded these songs, along with a 1970 self-titled LP, he’s dedicated himself to woodcuts and filmmaking. Like his songs, his art feels spookily inhabited, soulful and lively but tinged with a skewed sadness. He’s currently at work on The Book of Only Enoch, a film featuring not only his art, but also new Bolotin music composed in partnership with guitarist Bill Frisell, along with the voices of Will Oldham, Michael York, and others.

Speaking over the phone from his home in Cincinnati, Bolotin opened up about his work, upbringing, and about the circuitous path that’s brought him to the present moment.

Aquarium Drunkard: A lot of people first heard your songs via covers by Dan Fogelberg and David Allan Coe. How did you feel hearing them sing your songs?

Jay Bolotin: You know, I tend to favor David’s versions, ‘cause they were kind of straightforward. And then Dan, who I adored personally…I hadn’t seen him for perhaps ten years when he released that single. I was at an amusement park with my children, they were maybe three and four and wanted to ride on the teacup ride, which made me terribly nauseous. It was kind of a run-down amusement park, and I was sitting on a wooden crate in the middle of some concrete with the sun pouring down…[I heard a song over the speakers and] something went up my spine. It was Dan singing what he called “Go Down Easy,” “It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.” I told the children I wrote that. They were totally unimpressed.

AD: [Laughs] That’s the way kids are sometimes. 

Jay Bolotin: Yeah, when I got back home, I called Owsley Manier, who had started the [club] Exit/In in Nashville, and remains a friend to this day. I said, “I think somebody recorded a song of mine,” and he checked it out. Sure enough, Dan had released it on the album High Country Snows. Owsley made some calls and a couple days later some guy called me and said, “Are you Jay Bolotin?” I said “Yeah.” He said, “Well we’ve been looking for you for months.” I said, “Huh, what do you want?” He said, “Well we’ve got some money for you.” I thought it’d be like fourteen dollars as it normally is or something like that, but it was if you added several zeros to that. It was number six on one of the Billboard charts. I had no idea.

AD: You’d been living your life and hadn’t been aware? 

Jay Bolotin: No, I had not. But I hadn’t seen Dan for maybe a decade at least at that point. This was in the mid-’80s, but that demo on the record was from 1972. I remembered Dan was there in the studio ‘cause he used to sing some harmonies and play second guitars for me sometimes when I did the demos. I guess he must’ve kept the tape. I’m forever grateful to Dan. It definitely helped my children and myself and changed a lot of things. As you must know, we lost Dan several years ago to cancer, but we were friends when we were kids in Nashville in our early ’20s.

AD: People like Mickey Newberry, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Porter Wagoner all praised your songs. Does seeing their words now inspire feelings of validation? 

Jay Bolotin: Those people were all quite gentlemen to me, and very kind. When [Delmore Recording Society head] Mark Linn was putting this together, he wanted me to write a remembrance of those times. I said, “Well, no.” He said, “What do you mean no?” I said, “Well, no one really knows who I am, and I don’t want to characterize my relationship with those people from 40-45 years down the road.” I mean, Merle was dead, Porter was dead. Because no one knows who I am, I can say anything I want. Linn said, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t do that.” I said “Well, I know I wouldn’t do that, but no one else does. Look, I have drafts of letters in these journal-looking type books. You want me to check and see if I wrote about some of that at the time?” He said, “Sure.” I did and read him some of it, and he said, “Well, we’re publishing that.” So that’s the insert. We made a decision to not use any words that were not from that time.

AD: You worked in Nashville toward being a professional songwriter. Did you enjoy your time there? 

Jay Bolotin: Well, I would say that might be an overstatement. [Laughs] I remember playing some songs for a real sweet guy at BMI, and I remember finishing two or three. He kind of looked at me thoughtfully and said, “You really do write songs for some reason other than to make money, don’t you?”[Laughs]

AD: A compliment, but maybe a backhanded one. 

Jay Bolotin: Exactly, that was the kind of tenor of the time, and I didn’t quite get it, you know. Certainly I had songwriter friends who were very talented people, and I very much admired the craft of songwriting. But I’ll admit, I lived there for two years and then moved back to Kentucky and kept going down. It seemed to me it might be a better idea to just try to live a life and try to come from that stance rather than being a songwriter in Nashville.

AD: Your songs are dark, with an undercurrent of almost gothic melancholy. Do you think that’s what the guy at BMI was getting at when he said you wrote songs for some reason other than to make money?

Jay Bolotin: Yeah, I think he was suggesting that there’s a gap between the business of songwriting and my songs. I had no argument with that. I just didn’t quite get it, you know? I thought you were supposed to try and make something beautiful. That’s what I was trying to do.

AD: Your song “Driver, Driver” sort of employs theological imagery. The driver of the bus is like a stand-in for God. He shows up in “Traveler” too, and “The Story of Lester and the Gold Coin” brings up faith as well. Were you raised in a religious tradition?

Jay Bolotin: My family is Jewish. I grew up on a farm in Kentucky. Apparently, we were the only Jewish farming family in Kentucky for a long time. There was this dichotomy. My mother’s family were cattle dealers that came over to Kentucky and bought land there, but my father’s people were orthodox Jews who I would spend the weekend with. They spoke Yiddish. But during the week, I hung out with mostly black people and Appalachian people and fed cows and helped take care of 2,000 pigs. It was a bit of a wide gap between those two thoughts. The weekends with my grandmother, who was originally from Lithuania, you’d wake up in the morning and they would be lauding to the sunrise and the trees and it was totally mysterious to me. I didn’t take in that particularly, except for that I found it mysterious and wonderful. On the other hand, I was busy feeding the pigs. 

AD: Did those two existences influence your songwriting? 

Jay Bolotin: Looking back upon it, both worlds were full of mystery to me. I had no trouble relating the two. I think that’s something that’s stayed with me. I do read myths and I don’t find it lacking in the everyday— you can just walk down the street and see myth is all around us everyday. I’m working on a short film with that Mexican writer, Ilan Stavans, and the opening line is, “The limit of our language is the limit of our world, and vice versa.” I find that to be a kind of invocation of how I feel about that, which is why I agreed to make the movie with him. I had no trouble with what looks like a kind of gap between reality and myth, I find them intertwined like a knot. 

AD: You made a film called The Jackleg Testament, which is a retelling of the creation story from Genesis.

Jay Bolotin: Yes, I kind of replaced Adam with a Jack-in-the-Box…He runs off with Eve and it doesn’t go well. The end of it is they have to go back to Eden and start all over again with the story that we all know. So this was originally called a Prehistory to That Which Is Mistakenly Called the Fall of Man.

AD: The film employs animated wood cuts. What do you like about working with wood? 

Jay Bolotin: I like the physicality of making woodcuts. It seems like if it’s cut in wood, it ought to have the right to exist somehow.

AD: Do you have more songs and animated projects in the works? 

Jay Bolotin: I’m trying to finish up this film with Ilan Stavans, and there’s another piece in progress, a longer film. I’ll write the score for half of it, and a hero of mine named Bill Frisell would write the other half. There’s some remarkable voices involved. One is Will Oldham, he goes by Bonnie “Prince” Billy in the music world. He’s playing the voice of a preacher who kind of understands the world by misunderstanding the world, but is quite sincere about it. My favorite American character actor Brad Dourif is one of the main voices. All these things tend to take me a decade or so, and I’m kind of running out of decades—I’m trying to pick up the pace a little bit.

AD: You create words in your songs, but also in these films and operas. Was that idea there for you originally, that you were in the business of creating worlds? 

Jay Bolotin: I think the honest answer is that at the time, I was making drawings and sculptures, even in Nashville, while writing songs. So no, I didn’t think of them particularly as the same thing. As the years went on, I started thinking, there’s really no difference between those. They are arrows in a quiver. They’re tools. A song is a brush. words/j woodbury

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