Joe Sun - Ovation's Sun Is Rising Fast And Bright

First published in Country Music People, September, 1980

The praise is already flowing fast and furious for JOE SUN, a former promotion man from Minnesota who made impressive strides in Nashville as one of the people behind the records success of The Kendalls. Now he’s making it on his own count. ALAN CACKETT provides the facts.

Country and blues have always by their very nature been eclectic music genres. They owe their existence to the accidental merging of hitherto diverse forms, and they both, on occasion, been saved from stultification by transfusions from outside sources. So, as they both have roots in common, it was always inevitable that one day their paths would cross in the most cataclysmic examples of cross-pollination.

The man who has most recently, and very successfully blended country and blues music is Joe Sun, who made his British debut at this year’s Wembley Festival. He describes his style as blues/country: “I’m singing country music with a heavy blues influence. It’s blues/country, as opposed to country/blues. The blues influence is really much heavier than the country influence.”

Joe Sun, formerly James Paulson of Rochester, Minnesota, arrived in Nashville in 1972 after having served his time, so to speak, in college, the Air Force, and working various jobs, which included  a disc jockey stint at Radio WMAD in Madison, Wisconsin, and two years with a computer firm in Chicago.

“You've got to hang in there,” he explained about his move to Music City. “You can't come to Nashville and expect it to happen overnight. I gave myself five years… and it just so happened that it was five years when the Kendalls hit with Heaven's Just A Sin Away.”

Joe didn’t write the song, but he was ‘responsible’ for it being a hit. At the time he was a promotion man for Ovation Records, and he worked harder than anyone to get the record to the top of the charts. His reward for putting the independent Ovation Records on the map and giving Royce and Jeannie Kendall that all important country/pop smash, was a record deal for himself. It certainly was just what Joe had been working for, even if his approach was a little offbeat. 

When he first hit Nashville eight years ago, he took an apartment on Music Row and started off on the ground floor. He began by sweeping up at a club called The Glass Menagerie, which has since been burnt down. Later, using his talent for drawing caricatures, he started a small graphic business called The Sun Shop. He took up independent record promotion, designed a Fan Fair booth for GRT Records, wrote a column on local nightspots for a Nashville paper, and did various other odd jobs to make ends meet.

“I was real keen to get into the music business,” Joe said, remembering those days, “and it seemed right to learn all I could about it. I took a job, part-time as a disc jockey, and I would listen to hundreds of records each week, just to find out what made a record a hit. Then I landed a job as a promotion man for a Memphis label, Hi London Records, operating out of their Nashville office.”

“I believed I knew what made a record successful, and I was responsible for charting Bill Black’s Combo, an outfit that had never enjoyed any hits until 1976. They were well-known and respected, but record wise they meant nothing. By the end of the year they had become the number one Country Instrumental Group.”

Joe worked for a couple of years promoting records, but he was still eager to become a singer. He kept up songwriting and strumming his guitar. He became a staff writer for House Of Lloyd music publishing company, and became very involved with the many new young songwriters trying to make a name for themselves in Nashville. 

Then came a call from an old friend that was to lead to Joe Sun making the transition from back room boy to the star out front.
“Brien Fisher, a very good old friend, we’d met earlier,” Joe rcalled. “Before Brien had moved to Nashville I met him in Chicago. I was releasing a record at that time and Brien was helping me to get it released. Anyway, soon after I moved to Nashville, then two years later Brien moved to Nashville and we ran into each other on the street and kept tabs on each other.” A swig from his faithful bottle of booze and Joe continued with his recollections. 
“Then one day, he came up to me and said, he was working with a group called The Kendalls and was going to release some records and wanted to know if I wanted to do some promotion. I didn’t jump right into it. I said: ‘Wait a minute, let me hear what you've got.’ I was experienced enough in promotion at that time to know that it was going to take the product, working with the right product. I wanted something I could believe in. I was tired of promoting records that other people were just shacking together and throwing it out there. And I wanted something that was good.”

Although it was obvious that Joe had probably spoken to hundreds of people about his start in the music business, he was putting a lot of thought into his recollections. His start was important to him and his career, and he wanted you to know that. Staring thoughtfully at the bland wallpaper, he said: “So I went out that night to the studio where they were cutting, and in fact when I got out to the studio, they were cutting Making Believe, and I about flipped, because it was some of the best music I’d heard since the time I’d arrived in Nashville.” 

“So at the time, I said to myself: ‘I’m going to work with these people ’'cause they’re going to happen.’ The first single was Making Believe, and though it didn’t do really well, I still consider it to be a good record. The people at Ovation decided to release another oldie, Let’s Live A Little next; I preferred the other side, Heaven’s Just A Sin Away, and persuaded a few of the jocks to give it a try. The response, I can tell you, was just amazing. Some of the stations had their lines jammed with people who wanted to hear that record again.”

“I told Brien that the stations were playing the other side of the record, so it was decided that we should give it a try. I’d never worked with a record like that before. The reaction was so tremendous and I really enjoyed working that record.”

“When I took the job with Ovation,” Joe recalled, “I made them a deal. I worked for them at a reduced salary on the condition that they would put out an album on me. I was busy telling the jocks to look out for my record. I must have been promoting my record for a year before it finally came out.”
His first single for Ovation, Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You), came out in May 1978. Joe had recorded it several months earlier, but because there was another cut by another artist already recorded, he had to wait for that one to be released, before his record could come out.
“I just knew that song was going to be a big hit, so I just hung in there, waiting for the opportunity to release it,” he explained. 
“We had all the records pressed and just couldn’t release them until the other cat put his record out. We were ready for weeks, then bang we were off.”

“To begin with I did my own promotion on that record,” he continued, “I was also promoting Pittsburgh Stealers for The Kendalls, but when mine went so far up the charts, it just wasn’t practical for me to continue to promote it.”

A moody, atmospheric song given a powerful, yet subdued blues feel by Joe, this record slowly, but surely climbed to the number 14 spot on the country charts and Joe Sun was on his way to becoming a star. His second single for Ovation, High And Dry, penned by Curly Putman and Mike Kosser, has an unusual haunting melody and also made the country top twenty.

His first album, named after that initial single success, surprisingly achieved an affectionate balance between old and new, between voice and instrument, between emotion and technique. Included was a stunning version of the old Lefty Frizzell hit, Long Black Veil, the self-penned, I Came On Business For The King, and another chart success, The Blue Ribbon Blues.

Introducing Long Black Veil on the album are Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, writers of the song, who tell the story of how the song came about. They have both said that they feel Joe’s version to be the bet so far. 

“For a long time I never knew why I liked that song so much,” said Joe. “I used to sing it in honky tonks years ago, then one day it dawned on me, that song is about reincarnation, The cat who is singing it is alive, yet he’s dead, and it’s very strange.”

Joe Sun takes great care in his choice of song material. He has a passionate, fervent style that has some of the earnest, heavily emotional approach of a rock singer like Joe Cocker. Yet his roots are definitely country—his soulful voice evokes images of smoke-filled bar rooms and honky tonks, too many cigarettes and too many bottles of booze.

His second album, OUT OF YOUR MIND, features songs from the pens of Mickey Newbury, Paul Craft, Don Schlitz and Michael Clark. The principal joy of this record is probably the clear certainty with which it treads the tight-rope between country, blues and rock. A potpourri of ballads, rockers and blue elements, it’s as inviting and polished a package floating under a stylus there is—and documents a far-reaching vocal and musical range.
The obvious stand out is his second single Shotgun Rider. Joe’s emotional, soulful voice is full of longing and makes the lyrics far more important than they really are. 

The hypnotic chorus is carried along by the superb blending of The Cates Sisters harmony vocals.
“That particular song I found and recorded it, and it was even out on the album, and you know, it’s saying about going to Florida and having a shotgun rider,” said Joe reflectively. “I think when I took the band down to Florida to pull them together and rehearse last February, I was singing that song all the way along, because that’s what we were doing. I have a tendency to do that. I don’t why that is, or why it happens, but it’s just one of those freaky things. I’ll pick up these songs and record them, and they’ll come true for me when I’m out on the road, maybe several months later.”

Joe’s band, Shotgun, is one of the finest ensembles you’re likely to encounter within country music. They perform music of today with obvious relish. They are modern–minded musicians with a seemingly effortless grasp of the required balance between virtuosity and discipline. Indeed. Joe Sun and Shotgun’s attempts to touch a number of bases may mean that their music will only be a moderate success—kind of too funky for the country fans, too country for the rock fans and too ambitious for the average pop listener. 

“I’m currently recording my third album, and I’m working on the idea of taking my band into the studio and working on some tracks,” Joe said. “When we’re on the road we’re doing this new material to get it ready for the studio. And all the time we’re learning new songs.”

“Once we get out on the road for two or three months and play, the excitement level in the band drops if we keep on doing the same stuff over and over. So I’m always learning new songs, because I don’t want to be bored myself. I like to keep the excitement on stage, so we’re hitting the stage with all this new stuff, and folks have been saying: ‘Hey! Where’s all the other stuff?’ But we know it, and we do it, because we keep switching things around. No one night is the same as another.”

Joe Sun plays contemporary country music. So far he’s had the media on his side, bur that’s a mixed blessing. How many artists who’ve been lauded in print have been studiously ignored by the fans? Joe Sun and his blues-based country music is about ten years ahead of the average British country music fan, so acceptance this side of the Atlantic will be hard to find.