When Nashville was in early metamorphosis from misunderstood southern city with much to share, to hip and global musical metropolis, one writer served as its one-man embassy.
Robert K. Oermann has written nine books and thousands of articles for Rolling Stone, Esquire, USA Today and most every publication in Nashville, rubbing elbows with everyone from Dolly Parton to Ozzy Osbourne along the way.
The man with 61,000 records, one of the largest private collections in the south, is a quick-witted and thoughtful diplomat who has much on which to reflect from a time before country was cool, and when a rock band from Music City was only seen from beyond the bridge of the nose.
“All the minority musics that are here have a kind of ‘circle the wagons’ mentality that makes them very tight and very, very family-like almost, at least back then. It’s not quite so much the same way now,” Oermann said. “But back then, these were all cottage industries, they were all small, embattled, denigrated by the larger culture industries.
“That appealed to me in a way, and I wanted to make it a mission to be this town’s ombudsman and to get the rest of the world to appreciate what a beautiful city this is, and what a fabulous culture this is here.”
But before he could fall in love with Nashville, first Oermann had to get free.
“I was going to be a minister like my grandfather and my uncle and my great uncle,” he said. “But thank God for sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll.”
Oermann was born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a German, Lutheran family. He grew up a “shy-ish” and “somewhat brainy” kid.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of there because it was so white and judgmental. The football hero and the cheerleading queen and all the stereotypic high school things,” Oermann said. “I hated all the stuff. I hated it.
“I couldn’t wait to be gone. I couldn’t wait to become a hippie. I couldn’t wait to become an artist. I didn’t know what I was after, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay in suburbia.”
Oermann found his earliest windows of escape in the form of his grandmother’s music shop and frequent trips with his uncles to service jukeboxes.
“I grew up loving it all … My grandmother paid me in used records off the jukeboxes,” Oermann remembered. “I still have each and every one of those 45s.”
True to his desire, during his undergraduate study at the University of Pittsburgh, Oermann lived in a commune, worked on a creative student-publication, and took part in antiwar protests with his future wife, Mary Bufwack.
Syracuse University was where the Motown and rock-infatuated young man would fall for country music while reading up on its impact.
An article name-dropped the likes of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Red Foley, names he recognized.
“I never played them. They were just in the back of the box somewhere. I just wasn’t into that,” Oermann said. “When I got back home, I got those records out and played them and I got it. I totally got it.”
Meanwhile, Syracuse’s country radio hammered the finer points home.
He and Bufwack, a Colgate professor of anthropology and sociology, began researching a project on women in country music, visiting audio archives across the country seeking folk and country recordings.
Oermann, then a print maker and illustrator who’d gone back to school seeking a more stable occupation, found an opening at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s library in 1978.
“All the people that used the library were writers, people writing screenplays like “Coal Miner's Daughter,” “Sweet Dreams,” and books, and articles and studies,” Oermann said. “I thought, I could do that.”
In his late 20s, Oermann picked up the typewriter as a librarian in a town that sported one Chinese restaurant and just a few clubs, armed with a minimal “Hemingway” style of writing, a blue-collar work ethic and an encyclopedic knowledge of music.
“Back then you’d be in a little club and there would be somebody you know who wrote the last number one hit or sang it. That was very charming,” Oermann said. “You’d see people in Kroger. You buy their records and there they are buying bananas.
“Back in those days you could walk into any record company president’s office on Music Row and listen to records. That’s how small it was. There were no gatekeepers. It was lovely. It was tiny, it was so tiny. None of this sales explosion had happened yet. We got a gold record in Nashville in those days and there was dancing in the streets. Now there’s a gold record every week.”
“I do think it has the same heart though,” he said. “I love the heart in this town.”
And for the writer, that steady beat emanates from one place more than any other.
“What I love the most is the songwriting community. I dearly love songwriters. When I first moved here the Bluebird Cafe had just started and I lived there. That was my favorite thing to do was go hear writers try out their works. It still is,” Oermann said. “The real heart and soul of this town is the songwriting community. I believe that.”
Oermann quickly parlayed his labor of love legwork in getting to know every songwriter, producer and publisher he possibly could into print validation.
“I felt I was short on time … I felt I had to work quick and really ambitiously,” he said, noting he was behind on starting his career.
In 1981, Oermann took a job at USA Today. Within four years, Oermann’s work was printed in Billboard, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and numerous artist press kits.
“During a given day when the phone rings, it could be anything, it can be a black gospel act, it can be a rock n’ roller, it can be a country star, it can be a bluegrass act, a folk performer, it can be a business person, a TV person,” he said. “It’s a banquet of experiences. It’s a wonderful banquet. I have loved every bit of it. It gave me a life.”
Time was on his side too, with the blooming of the city’s rock scene and emergence of a new generation of country stars in Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others.
“They completely changed the format, revived it, made it hip and younger, and sales exploded,” Oermann said. “I was just in the right place at the right time as the reporter who was chronicling all that.”
Oermann’s access to, and knowledge of, the scenes of Nashville made him a valued resource by inside and outside mediums alike from magazines, to TV and radio.
The mantra became “Talk to Oermann, he knows a whole lot of (expletive),” whenever 60 Minutes or Ken Burns came to town.
“People often come down to Nashville from New York and it’s like they’re anthropologists going to study the natives in some exotic jungle or something,” Oermann said. “When they came down here, I could explain the natives.”
Oermann recalled an employee of Burns expressing their surprise to find country music acts were articulate enough to tell their own stories as opposed to scheduled academics.
“I was like, what a backhanded compliment that is,” Oermann said. “You think these people are stupid don’t you? Yes you do.”
Those attitudes only played into the city’s charm and strengthened its resolve, he said.
“Country music had an inferiority complex and that kind of made everybody tighter. The city at-large spat on them. Nashville was not proud to be in country music the way it is now,” Oermann said. ”The larger culture spat upon country music at the time too. Rolling Stone and these people, they didn’t give a (expletive) about country music. They still don’t … It drove the community here in Nashville.”
Rebutting stereotypes while embracing the more romantic and thoughtful elements the city offered was a duty Oermann took seriously.
“When I opened that door for outsiders, I think that was important for them to know, that we’re not running around here and sitting on hay bales. We’re socially aware people. We’re doing our best to elevate the culture in our own ways,” he said. “I think that’s what people liked in the national media. Here’s a guy who can explain this to us.
“I embraced that. I loved being the spokesperson. I wanted to spread the word, to be the John the Baptist for this town.”
Still, there were times when all the fun did make life a jungle of sorts for the ‘natives.’
“What’s the old expression? Life is a banquet and most people are starving?” Oermann said. “I didn’t starve. I had a wonderful time.”
Oermann recalled a Capital Records event where he met Tina Turner in the prime of her “Private Dancer” days.
“Everyone was horsing around and drinking champagne,” he said with a smile. “And Tina Turner and I wound up dancing together … It was like OK, this is cool.”
Oermnann’s brother once came to town on a day when the writer was scheduled for a Hank Williams Jr. press conference, a Travis Tritt gold record party, and a meeting with Alan Jackson backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
“He was gobsmacked,” Oermann recalled with a laugh. “It just happened to be a day with all that happening.”
But while his day-to-day eyes were fixated on appeasing the stargazers, his mind was often elsewhere.
“I had to write about Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash and everybody, but the fun of it is the nobodies. The fun of it is the up and comers, the fun of it is the struggle,” Oermann said. “That’s where the fun stories are and the fun people.”
By 1993, Oermann had gone freelance. Increased radio, TV and writing opportunities followed the release of he and his wife’s first book, the award-winning “Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music,” which was regarded as the Bible of women in country music and eventually converted into a two-hour CBS show.
“At one point I just said I’m going to walk off the diving board and see if there’s water in this pool and freelance. I turned my back on the newspaper and walked out the door ... “ Oermann said. “There was water in the pool. I never had to call anybody to ask for work.”
“I’d seen everybody but God with a backstage pass by then,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “So I really knew the business.”
Numerous books, articles, and several decades later, Oermann still writes regularly.
Despite his status, perspective remains important to the active and thoughtful writer.
“What I always say is, we’re in the music business, we’re not curing cancer,” Oermann said. “Although I do think people need music like they need air, and food and water, because it’s nourishing and it’s healing, it’s a light in your life, but there are people that do really significant things in other areas of life.”
Reflecting on his days at the peak of country’s new wave of talent, Oermann has nothing but appreciation for Nashville and its people.
“They make you one of them. It’s a lovely, lovely, place. Nobody’s from here in the music business anyway, very few are. And so it’s a group of people that are all sort of getting to know one another all the time,” he said. “It’s always kind of fellow-well-met … It’s a very pat-on-the-back place.”
When dwelling on the escape route that led him home, Oermann couldn’t be happier with where he landed.
“It doesn’t have the coldness of New York and not the false fronts of Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s a much more decent place to make art and make a life … It’s a town full of decent people.”