login | Register

A Conversation with Jerry Masters: "Hanging From A Tree By My Knees"

Posted: Jan 11, 2012

Jerry Masters, musician and sound engineer for nearly every hit record cut in the Shoals from the late 60s through the early 70s, and I met for breakfast at Cafe Savanna in Rogersville, Alabama, this past August. I had heard by way of Facebook that Masters was back in the Shoals and that he had recently published his autobiography entitled Hanging From a Tree By My Knees: The Jerry Masters Story (Crossover, 2010). I wanted to talk with Masters about his long and often infamous career. One might call the story of his life-- the long road back home.

The renowned Irish novelist James Joyce deliberately and consciously exiled himself from his country, his church, and his family. In the case of Masters, his alienation was more like a fall off that crazy cliff, a fall that only ended when he hit bedrock and started the long climb back home to Alabama, to his God, and to the love of his life.

The introduction to Masters' autobiography by Randall Mooney reads as follows:

"What do Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Burt Reynolds, Bob Seger, Liza Minelli, Donny Osmond, Jerry Lee Lewis, Steve Winwood, Paul Anka, Wayne Newton, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Rivers, Cat Stevens, Boz Scaggs, Ronny and the Daytonas, The Hombres, Clarence Carter, The Osmonds, Wilson Pickett, J.J. Cale, Bobby Womack, Leon Russell, Luther Ingram, Jim Capaldi, Canned Heat, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Simon & Garfunkle, Blackfoot, Mary MacGregor, Kim Carnes, Dr. Hook, Foxy, Mac Davis, Rita Coolidge, Andy Williams, Peter Yarrow, Traffic, and Will McFarlane all have in common? The answer is Jerry Masters! "

The first five chapters of Hanging From a Tree By My Knees deal with the events in Masters' life from 1944 when he was five years old and living in Little Rock, Arkansas, through his stint in the army following graduation, his first brief marriage and the birth of his son, playing bass with Charlie Rich, his second marriage and second child, and getting hooked on drugs and booze.

In 1964 his life took another unexpected turn. He formed a tour band at the request of Ray Brown, a Memphis promoter. However, in 1967, Masters formed a new group, The Hombres. They then released a song that was an overnight sensation, "Let it All Hang Out," and Masters went from making a $100 a week to making more than $1000 a night.

Nevertheless, there was always an aching emptiness at the center of his life. His brother Jimbo returned from Vietnam in '72, physically and psychologically damaged, and was killed in a car wreck sometime later. Masters went through his second divorce and took up riding dirt bikes and then graduated to motocross. Meanwhile, he was working in Muscle Shoals with musicians who would become some of the biggest names in country and rock music. The legendary Sam Phillips called Masters "the best goddamn mixing engineer in the world."

Masters married for a third time, but drugs and alcohol continued to wreak havoc in his life and on his career. Then in 1982 he underwent a conversion experience. According to Masters, he simply started crying and could not stop. He writes that he cried for three days. At that time he called a friend at Fame Studios and asked him to pray for him. He went to his friend's studio and the next thing he knew he was crying out to God to save him. From that moment on he felt the joy that had been missing from his life. He moved to Muscle Shoals and another chapter in the life of Jerry Masters began .In 1989, after a call from Malaco Records, Masters moved to Jackson, MS, where he lived and worked until 2008.

Hanging From a Tree By My Knees concludes in August of 2008 when Masters left Malaco Records, but another, yet unrecorded, chapter had begun.

It was in August of 2011 that I met Jerry Masters in Rogersville, Alabama, almost exactly three years after Masters left Malaco Records. As we sipped our coffee at Cafe Savanna, Masters told me that at the age of 71 he is happier than he has ever been in his life. He recently married (June 2011) the woman of his dreams and now lives in the home of his and his wonderful wife's dreams near Shoals Creek in Killen.

Masters told me that he had met his current wife, the former Jan Stevenson, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio back in 1972, and they were both instantly enraptured and deeply in love. However, he was, again, unhappily married at the time, and her love, as well as her courage to commit, "scared him." So,” he says, he “ran her off”--the “biggest mistake” of his life.

When Masters published his book in 2010, Jan sent him a Facebook message saying "Would you sign my book if I sent it to you." At that time, Masters was still in Jackson. The rest is a classic fairy tale. After being apart for nearly 40 years, Masters met Jan again on August 6 of 2010, at a restaurant in Clinton, MS for coffee. Within 30 seconds, they knew they belonged together for the remainder of their lives He moved back to the Shoals in November of that year, and he and Stevenson were married in their home on June 11th of 2011, with approximately seventy  friends and loved ones to witness this miraculous event.

More than one fairy tale is connected with this story. Four months prior to his own wedding,  Masters had attended the wedding of his friend, musician Pete Carr, who was also marrying the love of his life, and Swamper Jimmy Johnson had also married his sweetheart in 2009. There is something to be said for late life love. I can personally attest to it.

With over 50 years in rock music, Jerry Masters went from sixties rock star to recording engineer, working with many of the most recognized performers in the world. He mixed and engineered some of the greatest songs and recordings of our time. Masters started his music career playing bass for the great Charlie Rich and before the first decade was over, he had moved on touring with Ronny and the Daytonas. From the musicians of that group he went on to form The Hombres who had the hit song, "Let It All Hang Out," a song that has experienced a revival on the hit TV show, Cold Case, the Discovery Channel, and movies.

Jerry then moved on to make Rock and Roll history with the remarkably creative folks at Fame Studios, and mostly Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. Were it not for the incredible work at that North Alabama recording studio, Rock Music would have a huge hole in its history. Mooney writes in his introduction that Jerry "reinvented himself in the seventies" and went from playing music to creating music with the greatest entertainers and musicians in the business. He quickly became "one of the best recording engineers to sit at a console."

The Swampers lounge at the Marriott in Florence, Alabama, has a room full of photos honoring the musicians who recorded in the Shoals, but there was not a single photo of a recording engineer. Now there is! Jan Stevenson Masters had Jerry's photo embossed with these words: "Without an engineer, music is just music. But with an engineer, music can be Gold or Platinum."

Jerry now lives with his lovely wife Jan in Killen, AL, near Florence, Alabama. They have formed a publishing and production company called "MightCouldMusic" and "GottaHearIt Music," LLC. They are applying and looking for funding to help try and resurrect the legacy that was formed in the 70s and 80s with the trademarked theme, Music Heals the Shoals. Together they are determined to bring back to the Shoals area and even bigger and better legacy for the future.

----Penne J. Laubenthal

Sweet Home Alabama: Movie Making and Music in the Shoals

Johnson Family of Muscle Shoals

An Interview with Pete Carr




related tags

Muscle Shoals,

Wireless from AT&T


Please login or you can to leave a comment.

If you aren't registered, Register Now to start leaving comments.

Copyright 1998-2018 by Swampland Inc. All rights reserved.