Judy Collins’ career is filled with remarkable accomplishments, but what were the odds of anyone turning a 200-year hymn into an international pop hit during the early ’70s.
Collins will perform “Amazing Grace” during Friday night’s (Sept. 9) Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. During the program, she will be presented the Spirit of Americana free speech award from the association and the First Amendment Center in honor of her support of social and political causes. The award was previously presented to Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.
Thanks to her versions of songs such as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” those inclined to categorize music would probably list Collins as a folk singer, but that doesn’t quite sum up a 45-year career. In addition to “Amazing Grace,” her biggest commercial hits include a Broadway show tune and a country song that became a country hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1991.
The latter, a cover of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” remains an overlooked bridge between country, folk and rock. The track was featured on Collins’ 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, which included backing from guitarist James Burton (who had recorded with Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard and many others), steel guitarist Buddy Emmons (who previously worked with Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price and Ernest Tubb), bassist Chris Ethridge (who would soon become a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers), drummer Jim Gordon (who later worked with Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos and co-wrote “Layla”) and Van Dyke Parks (who had been working with Brian Wilson). As a side note, Collins’ affair with Stephen Stills, who played guitar and bass on the album, inspired him to write the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
“My producer, David Anderle, had the idea to bring Stephen Stills and Buddy Emmons and Chris Ethridge and James Burton and several others to the sessions,” Collins tells CMT.com. “It took on a different kind of flavor. I don’t think anybody has used the pedal steel any more beautifully than Buddy did on that session.”
Collins says she often finds her songs through the recommendations of others. It happened recently when her granddaughter suggest Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” for her latest album, Portrait of an American Girl. In the ’70s, a friend suggested “Send in the Clowns,” a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, A Little Night Music.
“It always comes down to the song,” Collins says. “The cast recording had been sent to my then-producer who said, ‘Oh, no. She’d never do Broadway.’ Of course, you never say ‘never.’ It’s the song that dictates. The song was spectacular, so of course I did it.”
And then there’s the story of how “Amazing Grace” became a hit.
“I was involved in a therapy group in New York,” she explains. “After one of the sessions, everybody was pretty fried. My producer, who was in the group, said, ‘I think we need a song.’ And we all sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was always one song that you could pretty much figure somebody in the crowd would know some of the words to. The next day, he said, ‘I think we should record that.’ So we put a group together that consisted of friends and people we knew — my brother sang in it, [actor] Stacy Keech was in that chorus. … We did it at St. Paul’s chapel on the Columbia University campus.
“It was certainly not planned to be a hit. It just took off. … I think it pretty much changed the public’s appreciation of the song. The song, at that point, was sort of falling out of favor. It had fallen out of hymnals. It was as though people had suddenly rediscovered the song after decades.”
Collins is especially happy to receive the Spirit of Americana award during the same evening the late John Hartford’s family will be accepting the Americana Music Association’s President’s Award on his behalf for his outstanding career contributions.
“I knew John pretty well,” Collins says. “He was just a darling man. I was so upset when he died. He was such a light spirit. I got to know him in the ’60s when he and I were doing some of the television shows that were around at the time. He was just a sweetheart.”
Collins is also grateful for the award she’ll receive for her role in promoting free speech.
Asked about the state of free speech in America today, she immediately cites the Dixie Chicks, who were ostracized from country radio after lead vocalist Natalie Maines criticized George W. Bush during a concert in the United Kingdom.
“I’m told that they’re still not being played on radio that much,” Collins says. “What a flap over someone speaking their God-given right. I like to remind people that I live in a country — and I hope they do, too — where free speech is part of our constitutional rights and something we all know that people died for.”
Country radio’s reaction to the Dixie Chicks controversy sends a troubling signal to the rest of the world, Collins contends.
“It’s a shame, because we live in this democracy that we’re trying to sell to other countries, for heaven’s sake,” she says. “We’re trying to make it clear that we have these rights, and we must protect them if we’re going to have them. And we must make sure that we don’t throw out the people who stand best for what we believe in and what we fought for. There’s a multiple array of opinions about life, in general, and politics, in particular. It’s important that we allow one another the dignity and the freedom of speech that is part of our message to the rest of the world.
The Dixie Chicks backlash is not good for radio, Collins says, adding, “But it’s not good for the public opinion about what happens here. When we’re busy sending these kids out to die in Iraq, we better look to what we’re fighting for and dying for. As far as I’m concerned, what we’re fighting and dying for is the right to speak out.”
However, Collins emphasizes that with free speech comes responsibility.
“We have free speech — and we have running-off-at-the-mouth speech,” she says. “And that’s sort of talk radio and the kinds of slanderous things that people say. … But then, after all, it is an outgrowth of our freedoms and the right to say things. But I think good taste is in question in those cases.”
Is good taste the standard in defining the line between free speech and the other type of speech she cites?
“Oh, I don’t know,” she admits. “I think slander is slander. It’s a strange time. I got caught in one of the right wing, running-off-at-the-mouth, never letting the person finish their sentence, interviews in California. I was shocked, and I shouldn’t have been. I see it on television all the time. I see people screaming at each other. Free speech and argumentative conversation run amuck is not the same thing.”