Jim Boylston is a travelling man, but nowadays the veteran musician and songwriter is leaving his guitar at home. The Central Florida native is now working as an audio engineer, work that takes him to locales such as South Florida, California, Brazil, and Copenhagen — and that’s just the next two months! But when I first met Jim back in the late 1970s, he (like me) was living in Orlando, working at various retail record stores. Since that time, Jim has opened his own businesses (both record and book shops), played in rock bands, worked as a songwriter, gone on the road to handle audio at corporate events, and even found time to raise a family. And, oh yeah, he just wrote this amazing book about the legendary Davey Crockett. That book, David Crockett in Congress, was published in late 2009 by Bright Sky Press, and was the winner of the 2010 Independent Publisher’s Award for Regional Non-Fiction.
The book takes a look at a side of the Alamo hero that most people are not familiar with, that of Crockett’s years in politics and his advocacy for the poor. In between Jim’s recent travels, I asked him about the Crockett book and other things he has been doing.
You recently co-authored a book, David Crockett in Congress. How did the idea for writing that book originate?
Crockett is best remembered as a frontiersman and martyr at the Alamo, but he thought of himself as a public servant and spent the better part of his adult life in government. That area of his life is often misunderstood, and there was a lot of misinformation about his political motivations in the available Crockett biographies. I’ve been interested in David Crockett for years, and after reading a number of these biographies that quoted some of Crockett’s correspondence in part, I started looking for a collection of his letters, thinking that Crockett could be best understood through a careful study of his own writings. When I found that his correspondence had never been collected and published, I tried to convince some of my history buddies to tackle the project. Instead, they convinced me to take it on. I began to contact repositories and collectors, requesting copies of the Crockett letters they held in their collections. I hoped to find and annotate all the extant letters and then search for a publisher. The final project, though, as published, is much more extensive. Crockett in Congress includes not only all the extant correspondence, his political circulars, selected speeches, and all his portraits painted from life, but also features a comprehensive history of Crockett’s tenure in the state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s been called the definitive book on David Crockett’s political career, which is very gratifying.
When did your fascination with Crockett start? And what about Crockett and the Alamo do you find so compelling?
My earliest memory is of seeing Fess Parker as Davy Crockett in the theatrical release of Disney’s “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” I was immediately smitten, and it’s never worn off. My first Crockett book was a children’s biography, a large picture book by Hazel Davis, and I had it read to me thousands of times. My original copy is still in my library, and I read it to my kids and now my grandchildren. I’m hoping the fanaticism will be multi-generational but, so far, it’s not looking good. When I was younger, I was attracted to the action and adventure of the story, but when I started researching the historical Crockett as an adult I found much more to admire. As a politician, Crockett was unfailingly an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised members of society. As an individual, his life was filled with hardship and, often, failure, but he always picked himself up, and looked for the next opportunity despite setbacks. I find that inspirational. My attraction to the Alamo story is harder to explain. At this point, I think it’s largely because there are so many unsolved mysteries surrounding the battle.
You’re quite the Crockett and Alamo expert, and a good writer, so why did you ask Allen Wiener to collaborate on writing the book with you?
After working on the project for a couple of years it became obvious to me that, because of my work schedule, the research element was going to take forever if I didn’t bring on some help. Allen and I met through an Alamo history group and hit it off. We shared the interest in Crockett, and Allen had previously published, The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide, as well as contributing articles on Alamo related subjects to various journals, so we had plenty to talk about. I asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating on the Crockett project and he agreed. He’d read and enjoyed some of my published work on Crockett and the Alamo and, of course, I’d read his work. It turned out to be a great partnership.
How long did it take to write this book? And how did you and Allen divide the writing chores?
From start to finish the project took about five years. The actual writing took about a year and a half. We took geography into consideration with regards to our initial research. Allen lives in the Washington, DC area, so the National Archives and the Library of Congress were easily accessible to him and we needed to scour both those repositories for data. I traveled to Tennessee and spent a lot of time perusing the state archives. We shared research duties in various Texas archives. Once the primary research was completed, Allen and I determined the main issues of Crockett’s political career on which we planned to focus and, somewhat arbitrarily, divided the subjects between us. We e-mailed chapters back and forth dozens of times before a final draft was agreed upon. Then we’d send the draft to our editor, wait for his input, and repeat the process. It was time consuming, but we were meticulous and I think we did the subject justice.
In the late 1970s, you worked at record stores and then ran a wholesale music operation. Later, you opened your own shop. Can you give a brief synopsis of the various jobs you had.
I started out as part of the second generation of Record Mart employees. I was a regular customer, and they offered me a job at the Colonial Plaza store in 1975 because I already knew their inventory. From there I worked as an assistant manager at Wide World of Music until they were bought by Musicland, when I split. The day Musicland took over I went to work as a rack jobber at Sunshine Music, a record wholesaler. I worked there for years, in many different capacities, and when the owner decided to get out of the business he offered to sell me the wholesale operation and one of his retail stores. That evolved into Flipside Records, which my wife, Sandy, and I owned and operated for about 15 years.
What made you decide to finally get out of the music business? And what inspired you to open up a bookshop in Orlando?
We saw the writing on the wall. The record industry was putting a gun to its own head by raising prices until they were out of the reach of most consumers. The major labels were fixated on the idea of charging $20 retail for compact discs. Had they kept price points at around $10, I don’t think the industry would have collapsed. Of course, they were also myopic when digital downloading became an issue, and they backed the wrong horse by throwing their support behind big box and chain stores and alienating most independents. None of this is surprising when one considers that the industry had been handed over to accountants, none of whom were interested in music. We started looking for a way out. A bookstore seemed a good idea at the time. Other than music, books were my main obsession. We opened Words & Music in downtown Orlando and ran it for about 3 years.
Is there anything that you miss about working in a retail shop?
Flipside and Words & Music didn’t have a lot of employee turnover. The same core crew worked together for years and I miss those guys. A few of us had a little reunion last year and it was great seeing everyone again. I hope we can make it a tradition.
You pursued songwriting for a few years. How was that experience and what did you learn from it?
I found songwriting very fulfilling. I don’t have a lucrative catalog, but I have some cuts out there working. The best part of songwriting was the opportunity to co-write. I worked with some incredibly talented people and I’ll always be grateful for the experience. I wrote a lot of songs with Fred Koller in Nashville and I can’t begin to describe how much I owe him. He opened a lot of doors for me and was the catalyst for many positive things in my life, not all of them music related, some of which are ongoing. He’s an immensely talented man and has been unbelievably generous. A good person. I wrote a lot with my old band-mate Mark Michel too, and we remain close friends. I still crash at his place when I’m in Nashville for research trips.
Who are some of the artists who have recorded your songs?
Mainly blues artists. Lucky Peterson and Kenny Neal each cut a couple, Melvin Taylor covered one, the Groove Injectors cut one or two, Hugh Taylor (James’ brother) covered a song that appeared on the Two Far Gone album. I’m also represented on one of those Alligator Records Anniversary collections and a Rhino Best Blues of the Nineties compilation. Those immediately come to mind.
You were also a member of several Central Florida bands “back in the day.” Do you still play, or have the musical itch?
I still try to keep my chops up, but I haven’t played out in a while. I did some solo gigs and played in a blues duo a few years ago but my work schedule keeps me on the road most of the time. But yeah, the itch remains.
When you were in the band Whamarama back in the early 80s, you recorded an album at Mitch Easter’s studio in North Carolina. Tell us something about that experience.
I enjoyed working with Mitch but, in retrospect, I should have waited until I was a better songwriter before making a record. I made an album with Mark (Michel) called Two Far Gone, a few years after the Whamarama record that I think was a lot stronger. On the whole, I don’t have fond memories of the Whamarama period. I was self-absorbed and was often unkind. I know a lot of people look back on the past with no regrets, but I’m not one of them.
You also approached the legendary Memphis producer Willie Mitchell (Al Green, Hi Records) about doing your album. What was he like?
I set up the Mitch Easter deal but Mark Michel made the Willie Mitchell contact. We were discussing a few different producers for the second, unreleased, Whamarama album. Willie Mitchell was one and I think, at one point, we were close to working with Will Birch (guitarist with The Records and Kursaal Flyers). Working with either of them would have been great, but the band imploded before we got there. We had some good songs on deck though, and had cut demos for a lot of them. A couple of the tunes ended up on Two Far Gone, and the old demos are collecting dust on a shelf in my home studio.
Who are your musical influences?
I like a lot of music, but my most recent songwriting has been compared with that of John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Lowe, and some others. It’s flattering to be associated with that group of writers. I’d claim all of them as influences, but I’m certainly not on equal footing with any of them. Those guys are giants.
Which musicians do you particularly admire, would like to play with, or would like to write a song for?
My tastes are fairly diverse. This morning John Scofield’s, Piety Street, and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn were in the CD player. There are a handful of musicians that I find transcendent. John Coltrane, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Son House; I can put their records on and I’m just transported. I’m an unapologetic Paul McCartney fan and I think he’s been on a great run for the last 10 years. I think his last Fireman album, Electric Arguments, is brilliant. I still love Eric Clapton. I’ll buy anything Bruce Cockburn releases. I’d love to play with Ringo Starr because he always makes anyone he’s playing with sound better.
Do any of your children play instruments or do any writing?
Yes, everyone in my family is musically inclined. My wife has a music degree and plays bass and piano, my daughter was a talented flautist, but she’s put that on hold since having kids of her own. My oldest son is a fine blues guitarist who also writes songs, and my youngest son is a bass player who plays in the school jazz band. The Crockett gene didn’t stick, but it seems the music gene took hold.
What types of books do you like to read? Any favorite authors?
I read a lot of history, most often 19th century American history or biography but I also enjoy the ancient period. My interests run from Thermopylae to Custer and the Indian Wars. I also read a lot of contemporary political commentary. As for fiction, my favorite authors are Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Frederick Buechner. When I’m on the road I enjoy lighter fare and usually gravitate toward John Sandford, Lee Child, and James Lee Burke. You can’t go wrong with any of them, and they have huge back lists!