Community in concert: Amid personal tragedy, songwriter Roger Salloom preps for his annual community concert

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette July 19, 2022

Roger Salloom plays “Even Tears” from his 2004 album, “Eventually”, in his Easthampton studio on Friday, July15, 2022. Salloom will be playing his annual free community concert at the Look Park Pines Theater in Florence on Wednesday, July 20.

The jangling distant chords called to Jamie Kent at a young age. The Nashville recording artist’s childhood Florence home was a stone’s throw from the entrance to Look Memorial Park and the iconic Pines Theater nestled within.

When Roger Salloom took to that stage for his annual free concert, Kent was there, piggybacked by his parents as a toddler, cutting through the woods and coming in the back way as a teen. But dancing, always dancing, usually right up front.

“We were right down the road on North Main,” said Kent, now 35. “You’d come in and find a seat on the lawn and be in awe — ‘Omigod it’s the Pines!’ I’ve traveled around this country, played everywhere, and I’d still put the Pines right up at the top.”

Kent was not even born when Salloom did the first one in ’82, but this Wednesday they’ll join forces in celebration of 40 years of these free community concerts — give or take a pandemic gag or two — and the pair’s close friendship and collaborative spirit will be hard to miss.

They met a few years ago upon the release of Kent’s first album. “He was nice to me,” Salloom recalls, “respectful, understood my history. He’s a straight shooter, not a hustler.”

Salloom’s not-so-distant history has been of the medical kind, mostly heart-related, involving seven surgeries and the bucking kick of defibrillators. He shrugs at his lifetime as a “vegetarian meat-eater.”

But now Salloom, at 76, is forced to dig down deep and ask even more of that heart. His 19-year-old grandson, Abram, died suddenly this month, a medical accident. Salloom was not only driving to Maine to hang out with his grandson, he had booked a show at the nearby Camden Opera House. He got the call while putting together the set list.

“Abe was like a son to me,” Salloom choked up. “He was my heart. He was a gifted artist, an absurdist…Matisse…Dali. He was so positive, so optimistic, I knew he was going to land on his feet. My grandson’s passing has let creep in the worst days of my life, and I’ve already died once in an emergency room.”

Salloom knows he’ll write a song for his grandson one day, but he played a recording of an old one, “Even Tears Can Make You Strong,” at Abram’s funeral last week, and may play it live for the community Wednesday night, if he can get through it, with its lyric “I want you by my side forever.”

The word “community” is a sacred one to Salloom. The free concert thing is a remnant of 1960s counterculture, especially the shows Salloom took part in at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. “Our community then was the Diggers,” said Salloom. “Hippies never had money; bands just doing it for the love of doing it. It was free love and free money. That’s anathema to the music business now.”

His psychedelic band Salloom, Sinclair and Mother Bear, was signed and then hung out to dry by a major label, souring him on the music biz. He left the scene for 20 years, then came back for the hell of it, writing songs, playing gigs with his band The Stragglers and having a film made of him: “So Glad I Made it, the Saga of Roger Salloom, America’s Best Unknown Songwriter.”

His approach to songwriting: “It’s easier for me to write a song than remember someone else’s.”

Both Salloom and Kent have recently released singles about resilience — Salloom’s “I’m Free,” which Kent produced, and Jamie’s “Rise On Up,” based on the spirit of advocacy.

While the coronavirus dealt its lights-out blow to musicians, Kent had the time to battle a hazy foe that’s gnawed at him and thousands of other musicians — smoking in nightclubs and bars, a tradition in Tennessee and neighboring tobacco lands. “Everyplace is smoke-free except ours,” said Kent. “Waitstaff joined the fight, so many musicians. We had time for strategy and specificity.”

The result was SB2219, a bill that returns control to cities and counties in Tennessee to regulate smoking in venues. Passage took two and a half years of constant lobbying. “But,” said Kent, “that heavy weight can be moved — you just gotta chisel away at it.”

As for playing before a spud-smoking crowd in a packed nightclub, “It cuts your voice in half; by the end of the night it’s toast. It even affects merch — people tell you ‘I don’t want to buy a shirt that smells like smoke.’”

Kent and his wife Bonnie and their baby son Otis live by Hickory Lake, home to many Nashville icons, not to mention the late June Carter and Johnny Cash. It’s home now, with plugged-in permanency, but to return to the Pines stage and look out to see kids and their parents dancing, well …

“It’s a fun, full-circle show,” he said. “A free concert in the middle of the summer is needed now more than ever.”

The concert on Wednesday is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Pines Theater in Look Park.

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