John Lincoln Wright lived the hardcore country-and-western life. And that’s a tough way to live.
Wright’s music was nothing like the sappy crap Nashville turns out today, treacly pop music produced by carefully managed Hollywood-star wannabes who think a lost highway is one without flush toilets in the rest areas. I’m talking about the raw stuff ripped out of heartache, wrong choices and cheap liquor, the legacy handed down by the Singing Brakeman, the Texas Troubadour and Luke the Drifter.
Wright was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in the mill-town atmosphere of Sanford, Maine. He was short, scrappy and committed to a musical vision forged by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Lefty Frizzell. He wasn’t unaware of other styles – he got his first big break as a member of the Beacon Street Union, a Boston-based rock band that came and went in the late-1960s in a haze of record-company hype – but country music was what he loved. Hard-luck stories. Cheatin’ songs. And drinkin’ songs.
Especially that last one.
This was the early 1970s, long before the alt-country of the Byrds and Gram Parsons had caught on. Willie and Waylon weren’t yet considered outlaws. Cool people didn’t play country music. Cool people didn’t even listen to it.
Wright was his own brand of cool. He had a Stetson hat and a Ballantine Ale belt buckle and a voice that came from somewhere between Merle Haggard and Ray Price. It reeked of honky tonk.
He also had a band that kicked ass. Sometimes, literally.
After the Beacon Street Union disaster, Wright formed the Sour Mash Boys (or when there were women in it, the Sour Mash Review). He attracted a rotating collection of first-rate pickers, several of whom would go on to solid careers as session men. He wrote a bunch of songs that didn’t pander to the country-music establishment, but reflected where he was from and what he was about, which was pure puckerbrush New England. Then, he hit the road.
It was probably the worst business plan developed by a musician since Charlie Parker got hooked on heroin.
Wright was based in Boston, a city he once described as “absolutely the only place in the world that hates country music.” Even in rural parts of the northeast, country was played only in dives and bottle clubs that favored cover bands with limited talent and cut-rate fees. Wright’s hair was too long for the patrons of most of those establishments. His repertoire was too unfamiliar, his attitude too in-your-face.
He wrote a song about trying to survive in that scene. It was called “Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Again.”
In the early 1970s, Wright played Portland at a club on Forest Avenue called Bottom’s Up. The long, narrow bar (it was located where part of the Great Lost Bear is today) mostly featured rock acts, so the regular patrons were a bit taken aback by the Sour Mash Boys. They were also unsettled by members of the audience who came because they’d heard Wright on country radio, singing a song called “Nothin’ But The Rain,” a fair-sized local hit for him.
The crowds were rowdy and not always in a good way. But the band was rowdier, and it was very good. Wright’s songwriting ranged from serviceable to solid, but his performing was what sold the act. He sounded like he’d paid some serious dues.
Wright got booked repeatedly, packing the joint, until the owner moved operations to a bigger venue off Franklin Street called The Loft. Again, Wright played to audiences more used to psychedelic jams and hard rock. Again, he pulled in a mixed bunch of traditional country fans, boozy rockers and proto-punks just beginning to appreciate the razor edge of genuine American music.
By 1977, he seemed destined for the big time. His “Takin’ Old Route One” album was a modest success, and he was getting enough bookings to keep himself and his bandmates in Ballantine and bourbon. Some Nashville artists even took notice, with Joe Sun recording Wright’s “Lonesome Rainin’ City” and stars of the fledgling alt-country genre stopping by his gigs to pay homage.
His second album had a title that turned out to be uncomfortably prescient. It was called “You Can’t Get There From Here.”
As the 1980s began, Wright was enjoying the success of a solid regional hit with “Lovin’ in the Morning” and steady work on the road. He made several forays to Nashville, hoping to attract attention from a major record label. A few showed interest. None showed anything else.
He kept at it, recording “The Red Sox Song,” another regional success, under the name of his musical alter ego, Pine Tree John.
These almost-but-not-quite efforts began to take a toll. And to make matters worse, country had gone mainstream. The new breed of listeners wanted slicker production. They wanted violins instead of fiddles. The clubs Wright played in began to close (he memorialized one in Boston in “They Tore Down the Hillbilly Ranch”). His audience had aged and given up late nights on the town. He cut back on touring, rarely showing up in Maine.
But Wright kept at it, releasing a couple of critically acclaimed CDs. One called “That Old Mill” evoked his childhood in Sanford. His 1991 album “Honky Tonk Vérité” made a final stab at breaking through, but it sounded on some tracks as if he knew it wasn’t going to happen. The re-cut version of his song “Rockabilly Man” came off less like a tribute to the legendary Sleepy LaBeef and other musical road warriors and more like his own eulogy.
At the height of his limited success, Wright closed most of his shows with a rousing Maine-themed, semi-autographical shouter called “Pine Tree John Got Drunk.” Unfortunately, that’s just how things turned out. Separated from his wife, living alone in a small apartment, drinking heavily, John Lincoln Wright died on Dec. 4, 2011. He was 64. There were sizable, fond obituaries in the Boston papers and even in Nashville, but nobody in Maine seemed to notice.
Maybe one of his last recorded works was more than wishful thinking, when he sang about being “One Drink Closer to Heaven.”
Al Diamon writes the weekly column Politics & Other Mistakes. He’s also the media critic for Down East magazines website. He can be emailed at email@example.com.