Sherman Halsey & The Crazy Carny Circus That Was Country Music's Fellini

He was beautiful. There was no way around it. Carved features, like Wild Bill Hickock with breeding, honey tangle of silky hair tumbling down past his shoulders – or restrained by an elastic, tie or leather thong. Those eyes, so piercing, curious, alive: looking not at, but into you, wondering and sizing you up... like all the great carneys do.

You could fall into those eyes. Not like limpid pools, but some kind of fiery diamond. So electric, so alive. Maybe the most alive human you’d ever seen – and as he talked, his tempo would accelerate, momentum taking him quicker and faster and even more impassioned as he went.

Sherman Halsey was a one man aesthetic revival. Cutting edge without cutting anyone off. A curator of odd humanity, a culler of talent and vision, a reckoner of the original and a champion of the ones who wanted to walk on the edge.

I can’t even remember meeting him. Somewhere out in Hollywood, those first few Dwight Yoakam videos under his belt. “Honky Tonk Man,” especially, soddering the ethos of a razor sharp cowpunk that was equal parts thrown back honky tonk, hardcore hillbilly Hollywood and DIY hand-to-mouth with a massive dose of style.

Beyond the Dust Bowl, the Sunset Strip, Bakersfield and viva Las Vegas, there was wisp thin Dwight, one leg swinging like n unhinged a gate in a storm, jeans sprayed on, Manuel bolero and a beat that landed like gun shots. Sherman knew how to show what the rest of the world couldn’t imagine – and he did it with as much as bravura as the videos he made.

Course he should have. His Daddy was Jim Halsey, the uber-agent/manager who owned country music in the ‘70s and ‘80s with Haggard, Waylon, the Judds,. Blowing it up,straight outta Tulsa, taking the Oak Ridge Boys to ridiculous heights and booking every country act imaginable – creating momentum that wasn’t there,churning what was into tidal waves.

If he was born in Independence, Kansas, Sherman learned how to spin and hustle on the road, in the stands, backstage, onstage, in the grand offices and doublewide production trailers of state fairs everywhere. He was a sponge; like Palmolive,he was soaking in it.

By the time he started making lofi videos for Dwight Yoakam, produced by Detroit blues guitarist Pete Anderson on a small indie label called Oak Records that was distributed by hardcore punk label Enigma, Sherman had his vision set in concrete.Progressively retro, shot within an inch of its life, stylized like crazy andwith just enough squalid to suggest the washed out, burned out and faded away characters that were two stops from the abject brokedown of a Sam Shepard play.

It was a world that was scintillating and tragic. Where jukeboxes wept neon tears, barmaids dragged Pall Malls like their lives depended on it and old guys melted slowly into their watery booze like the sun bleeding into the Pacific. It was brutal sport, that North Hollywood fringe he was casting, and realer than anything most of us would see in our suburban realities.

Dwight landed like an atom bomb. Instant sex on the half shell, woman fantasizing about fishnets and straight razors, candle wax and merry widows, cowboy boots and getting hogtied; things they’d never dreamed of. Oh, the danger and that damage.Dwight’s wail assailed their senses like some primal call; Anderson’s guitar blazing, throbbing, rising, lashing. But it was the way Sherman made him look,made his scene feel so that it captured a zeitgeist that turned country radio on its ear with a lacerating aggression it might not have known it was succumbing to any other way.

But Sherman was more than a provocateur. He was willing to be the punchline, to reach for the sky, to stand up, to want more, to push the edge. Fellini, yes, and Truffaut, celebrated foreign directors most of the stars he made video for would never know. One look at his work, the layering of images, the textures and treatments of the film – and the very busyness of his tableau spoke to something so far beyond what was happening, it was its own language. Iconics on steroids.

You got swept up, sucked in. You surrendered willingly, wanting to be part of the gyroscope. “Shermie,” I’d call him, riffing on Miss Piggy’s nom d’amour for her Kermit the Frog, and he’d laugh, always ready to tell me his next notion.

And his notions were good. He had an instinct for talent, an eye for what wouldn’t justwork, but explode on the screen. He knew how to interject grit without seeming amateurish; avoid slickness, yet somehow seem more in the pocket and polished than anything out there.

He would put girls in cat-eyeliner, dancing the frug in cages for Yoakam. He would give McGraw an Indian motorcycle and a swagger the soon-to-be superstar would grow into. Indeed,brought in to manage the brewing controversy of “Indian Outlaw,” knowing edgy was not his awesomely old school managers’ strength, I politicked for Sherman –and Tim, always one to seek the outer-est limit, stood down to his label.

That swagger begat the future, and a creative alliance was born. Throughout McGraw’s career, Halsey was there, casting a rock & roll tint across everything the Louisiana-born’n’raised quasi-bad boy did. Many things changed in McGraw’s world; Sherman Halsey was a constant.

Sherman was a constant in my life as well. When a client needed a bit more brio, the patina of cred, he was the always the go-to guy. Not just for McGraw, but the smooth-singing lounge exile Collin Raye for the raw alcoholic trying to kick lament “Little Rock” or the Appalachian traditionalist Patty Loveless, who found herself at Silver Lake’s legendary coffee shop Millie’s, as the take no-mess sweetheart of the below the Mason Dixon blue collar for “Blame It On Your Heart.”

He did good work, knew where the margins were. Took a squeaky clean singer, grew out his stubble and put him in a cheap pine-paneled motor court motel room to signify how low he’d fallen and how seamy the struggle with the bottle can be, or cast a merlot-tressed songstress opposite an incorrigible David Keith for a flirty chemistry that could burn through, then reignite her rage like flipping a switch.

Sherman knew people. He captured the flickers most never notice, and gave them ballast in that war of personality most singers never win. And give Sherman someone with an outsized persona and he’d nuclear melt it down.

The Kentucky Headhunters, an unlikely looking crew of middle aged rockers who’d never quite hit and ended up with a country deal as much from a favor as a notion it could work. They were the pride of Metcalfe County, a scrawny drummer with mutton chop burns, a mangy raccoon cap and a propensity for taking his shirt off was the focal point, with his bring down the thunder pounding and intricate fills on the show-stopping solos.

They were country with the emphasis on ALL syllables. Talked with attenuated vowels andhad no interest in citying it up, like most of the AC wanna-be Music City comers. Like McGraw with his smoldering machismo, the Headhunters came with a strong visual anchor and a serious personality.

Together, they crafted not just a backwoods sense of what country was, but they took it places people would’ve never thought: a romp through New York’s storied Plaza Hotel and a scorching show at punk temple CBGB’s. Juggled bowling pins, erstwhile baptisms, tightrope walking, buckskin jackets and a serrated blues punch that was as much Muddy Waters and Albert King as it was Waylon or Hank Senior – asthe Heads never relinquished the potency of the music or the playing.

That Plaza rampage was pure “Hard Day’s Night,” Sherman gleefully laughing as his charges– some in Future Farmers of America jackets, some in overalls – moved through the beginnings of a formal charity function, like slo-mo bulls in Pamplona making their way to the door and their gig. Setting up in a bevy of rooms and suites, like Led Zeppelin in the day, Sherman laughed about the excess.

“My Dad always said, ‘You stay in the Plaza... You tell people you’re at the Plaza... They draw their own conclusions.”

Secretly, he got off on the rococo opulence, the historic, elegant Palm Court and the juxtaposition of his subjects. Last thing you’d expect, utterly Sherman. And those three days were wild...

Beyond the ear-bleeding level at Hilly Krystal’s seminal punk club – originally named for the Heads’ exactsynthesis of Country Bluegrass Blues – there was the action out in the streets,down blind alleys like they were waiting on Lou Reed’s man. For Sherman, his young videographer Steve Hurst and the murky Merrill Ward, who once appeared in Rolling Stone clad only in zebra paint (long before Kevin Herring thought of it) as part of a portfolio about LA’s first wave of punk, that Halloween night was young: there was adventure to be had, hungers to be fed.

So we made our way to Florent in the Meatpacking District, back when only the demimonde went there. The waiters, many in some state of tranniness, were dressed as stewardesses – often leaping onto the counters to re-enact the Emergency Evacuation and Oxygen Mask speeches. It was raucous, bright, alive; it was everything Sherman loved and we laughed too much and too loud in a room without enough oxygen as the night leaked out into a dove gray predawn.

Those shoulder hours were the times that mind would still a bit, dream dreams that might turn into visions of videos. Never quite quiet, there was a contemplative pall that would fall over him; just this side of exhausted, we emerged to cab uptown and with the night mist and sweat dried to our bodies, allow what had just happened to swirl us into the land of Nod.

We’d fallout wherever we could find a space, sleep until we didn’t. Then wipe our eyes,wash our faces and forage for a little something to take us to the next crescendo. “That yooouuuuu, buuhddy?” Richard Young asked like some waiting up daddy when I pushed the door open.

“Shhhhhh,” I cooed, looking for my chunk of floor.
He and his brother, that licorice whip thin drummer, shared a room, and I saw no need towake both up.

“Damn, what kinda hell did you get into?” came the raspy whisper.
“I was with Sherman,” I said.“You don’t wanna know...”

“Sherman,”he echoed. It was all that needed to be said. Never mind that it was mostly only goat cheese salad, high conversation and low talk of X, Lone Justice and the Blasters. Or, well, that was all that I heard before I drifted from consciousness as real light started slicing through that huge room three stories up.

That was how it was, why it,as it was. No candle burned brighter, no light shone with such intensity.Wherever he was – whether in that striped mock turtleneck, his aviator leather jacket or the exquisite black blazer tailored to perfection – Sherman Halsey made it the place to be.

He could talk fast, spin a yarn, take no prisoners, yet somehow have everyone fall inline. When he decided to create an artist’s commune/video hive as the last decade of the 20th century dawned, he had no trouble attracting the talented and the quirky. Video bays would be stacking footage, cutting and whirring and doing things no one had seen before around the clock, while waiflike girls would float through looking for “the director” and the non-editing editors could be found in the hot tub.

One of those editors was a cute boy who looked an awful lot like the young Jim Morrison. Kentucky kid, Richard Young’s personal pick for me... and I spent plenty of time with Steve Hurst and his friends talking about creativity, the potential of country music as a container for life experience, watching the videos evolve and giving Sherman crap.

It was there I first stayed the night when I got the news that Sam Kinison, my first profound loss, had died in a car wreck. The news was devastating. Steve pulled up news channels on every screen in the edit bay, and I sunk into shock, not having a compass to process these sorts of losses.

Kind of like when I got the email from Steve tonight. Subject line: Sherman Halsey. Content brief, to the point. How he died doesn’t matter, that he’s gone is what does. Another hole... in a week of holes. Too many gone, but few as brazen and beyond as the man who’d been trying to pedal his NASCAR movie, who knew no shame or fear and was always jumping in front of crazy notions in the name of combustion and could be.

Sherman,somehow figured out how to exit and again shock us all. No big trick, just the ultimate escape. Why? How? What? And so, the calling begins: those people who’d want to know, folks I’d not talked to in months. Sharing the news, then sharing some memories; trying to be brave and find strength in the common experience with this man who made videos, but also conjured magic from ordinary people who sang extraordinary songs.

Some people got angry, some didn’t move past the shock. But after the “what happened?” and “I don’t know”were done, there was quiet reflection and catching up with people I never should’ve let drift away. Kinda like Sherman, who’d moved back to Nashville to parasail some new dream or notion.

The last time I really saw him, black turtleneck and black blazer, he was headed into the CMT Awards, grin like a Cheshire cat. He was working on something, he smiled, something big. You could tell he believed it, and all these years in the one-day-you’re-up. one-day-you’re-down business of show only reinforced the notion:it’s always just a matter of time.

Talking to Richard Young tonight, who got flat grumpy when the “you’re not joking?” didn’t get the answer he wanted, the disjointed nature of the call actually brought itto a halt. Twenty minutes later, he called back – no apology – to say Sherman had been there, just last week, talking about a project. The bewilderment was audible, the idea this roman candle was burned out and gone cold as fireworks’ remains.

Ain’t that just how it is.Especially these days. You never know, and you can’t tell. Live those moments,ride the waves, enjoy – as Warren Zevon would suggest – every sandwich. Take nothing forgotten; do the things that make memories over money.

Easy to say, hard to do.Heaven knows, I’m guiltier than anyone reading these lines. Maybe that’s why liked Sherman so much: with that cockeyed grin, he mocked everything about expectations, savored everything completely.

He’d laughed and talk about William Burroughs as if he were just another person, someone Sherman knew as a kid in Independence and sought counsel from. No big thing, just one of the most iconoclastic people for the sake of seeing how it feels; not name dropping,just exploring that brilliant, brilliant mind. Kinda the same way as knowing Sherman, who knew everything – even pancakes – should be an “event,” not because you never knew, but just because.

As he got older, he looked more like a little lion. The hair, cut a little closer,expanded from his head, and the posture got a bit fuller, a bit more regal. He didn’t get starchy or stiff, just somehow more. But always, always that same smile that spoke of big things, great adventures, places you could go.

Sitting here, covered in tears,vertigo in the numbness, I don’t know what to say or even what I feel. James Carlson, the video commissioner from my time at Sony Nashville, was found dead the day before. A dear friend had lost their neighbor, a high-spirited Louisianan while we were at dinner last week; 46 and they found brain cancer, 6 months later, he passed right in the chair he’d not moved from for days.

Not to mention Lou Reed, spilling out of my Facebook feed in a single line, then finding myself ankle deep in eulogies and memories in no time. I’d had a run like this this spring.Now its happening again. And Sherman, Sherman was my wild, bright-eyed innocence, the Palomino Club and L.A. when Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett had a chance, if not the Scotchguard that kept country music from succumbing to the lounge lizard lothario-ism goop of the late‘80s.

Sherman pushed the limits, pushed against what could, yet always rooted in Steinbeck images and an industrial agrarian cool. Even his MTV Video of the Year – “LaBamba” for Los Lobos, from the movie about Richie Valens – merged a mainstream palette of saturated colors with movie clips and a county fair carousel,whirring around with its bright lights and painted horses.

Calliope music for a boy from Independence who changed so much, and never bother to rest to just take it all in. Always onto the next mountain, next project, next cliff, next notion. Happy to see you, tales to tell. Right now, he’s probably telling St. Peter about this idea ... about parting the seas and a band of the 27 club rising up... And something tells me St Peter is listening, taking it all in.

29/30 October