Internationally acclaimed producer, recording engineer, songwriter, musician, singer and Americana-music pioneer Jim Rooney became immersed in the New England music scene from the moment he appeared on the WCOP (now WZLX) radio program “Hayloft Jamboree” in 1954 at age 16. Throughout the 1960s, he played a vital role in the area’s folk revival, first as manager of the quintessential Cambridge coffeehouse Club 47, then as director of and talent coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival and eventually producer, tour director and stage manager of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Born in Boston in 1938, Rooney graduated from Amherst College in1960 and later earned a master’s degree in classical literature from Harvard. As part of a generation for whom “folksinger” meant not just performing but also being diligent about folklore scholarship, Rooney has spent a lifetime exploring musical roots in the same way as folk icons Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, Paul Clayton, Dave Van Ronk, and Eric von Schmidt.
He’s penned songs recorded by a slew of artists including country-music megastar Garth Brooks and produced albums for some of the most influential post-Dylan singer-songwriters including Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Iris DeMent and Nanci Griffith, whose Rooney-produced 1993 release Other Voices, Other Rooms won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
In 1970, after having made indispensable contributions to the folk and jazz scenes in New England for over a decade, Rooney moved to Woodstock to become the manager of Albert Grossman’s newly opened Bearsville Sound Studio, which celebrated producer Jimmy Iovine calls “one of the top three or four studios in the world.” In that role, he worked elbow-to-elbow with blues legend Muddy Waters and “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe, produced records by The Band, Todd Rundgren, Townes Van Zandt, Hal Ketchum, and Bonnie Raitt and was a member the Woodstock Mountains Revue, an informal affiliation of folk musicians living in the area who recorded occasionally. In 1975, Rooney released a solo album, One Day at a Time, and in 1976 he moved to Nashville, where he steeped himself in both the creative and production sides of the country-music scene.
Rooney is the author of three books including Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters (1971), Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated History of the Cambridge Folk Years (1979) which he co-wrote with New England folk-music legend Eric von Schmidt, and the memoir In It for the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey (2014) in which he gives his front-row perspective on the milestones, personalities and legacy of the folk music boom in the latter half of the 20th century.
In 2001, Rooney released the album My Own Ignorant Way with his backing band, Rooney’s Irregulars, in 2007 he released Farewell to Tracks with the same group and as of 2022, the 84-year old Rooney was still gigging regularly with Rooney’s Irregulars around the Nashville area. In 2009, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association for his contribution to the very genre he’d helped to establish, and in 2016 the International Bluegrass Music Association awarded him their Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award.
Reflecting on his 60-plus years in the music business, Rooney wrote in his memoir that what he’s been “doing the whole time” is “going my own way in the world, finding my own voice, following my own path – doing it ‘my own ignorant way’. That path took me on a musical journey from Dedham, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, to New Orleans, to Newport, to Woodstock, to Nashville, to Ireland, to Vermont, and all around the world. I’ve been making my story up as I went along….”
(by D.S. Monahan)