What good is music if nobody hears it?
Too often it takes the death of some important figure in country music before we take the time to properly honor them, especially when someone’s contributions are felt mostly behind-the scenes—the people who help shepherd the music from the artists to hungry ears. This is truly a shame since it’s better to shower someone with praise when they’re still around to soak it up.
Something has passed away here, unfortunately. After 25 years, some 800,000 CD’s and LP’s shipped, and an estimated $10 million in the hands of artists, labels, and local sellers that would have otherwise not been fulfilled, the country music distribution company Roots Music Exporters has shuttered as of January 31st.
Blame streaming and the continued lack of interest in physical music, blame the pandemic for putting the final stake through the heart, but the company just didn’t see the need to stick around any longer. Nonetheless, the effort of Roots Music Exporters should not go unrecognized. For a quarter century, they were responsible for stocking the shelves of local record stores with country and roots titles fans outside of the United States would otherwise not be able to get their hands on, and on three separate continents.
But the owner of Roots Music Exporters—John Lomax III—is still around and kicking, and he’s quite the accomplished character, and from the family of arguably the most important musical archivists in American history. A third generation music booster, writer, preservationist, and journalist, John Lomax III’s grandfather was none other than pioneering musicologist and folklorist John Lomax, who was one of the very first individuals who set out to capture, catalog, and preserve America’s distinct musical dialects starting in the late 1800’s.
John Lomax passed away in 1948, but his sons picked up where their father left off. John Lomax Jr. was also a folklorist and a folk performer, and a booster for the music in other capacities in a long career helping to preserve and promote American folk, especially in his native state of Texas. And of course John Lomax III’s uncle is the great Alan Lomax, who might be the best known from the Lomax clan from his field recordings and work with the Smithsonian Institution, as well as his efforts as a performer and preservationist. The entire family has forged their legacy behind seeking out, archiving, and paying forward important songs. After all, what good is music if nobody hears it?
And so John Lomax III continued in the family business, but in a way that ultimately had major impacts in country music through the many Texas-born songwriters that would shake country music up as part of the 70’s Outlaw movement, and later in the emergence of alt-country. Raised in Houston, TX and attending college in Austin, John Lomax III came of age right when songwriters such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were making their mark. He moved to Nashville in 1973, just like a lot of these Texas songwriters did looking for greener pastures and promising song placements with big country stars. Along with Guy and Townes, you had songwriters like Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, and Richard Dobson helping to move Nashville in a more open and poetic direction, and John Lomax III was embedded right there with them.
When the iconic Outlaw Country film Heartworn Highways was in production, it was John Lomax III that convinced the filmmakers to focus more on the up-and-comers and unheralded songwriters as opposed to the superstars, and he ultimately became the talent coordinator for the film. John served as the manager for Townes Van Zandt from 1976 to 1978, helping to get the songwriter’s messy affairs in order, and overseeing the release of Van Zandt’s iconic live album Live at the Old Quarter. Lomax III knew what the rest of the world eventually would: Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest songwriters ever. But it would take guys like Lomax to make sure the world knew about him.
John Lomax III later managed Steve Earle from 1983 to 1986, and oversaw Earle’s big breakout on MCA records, and the release of the landmark album Guitar Town. Steve Earle was an outsider with a country rock sound getting played on country radio, and earning Grammy nominations and Gold records, and once again Lomax was right there when it all went down. It was Steve Earle that made Nashville realize they couldn’t keep the emerging movement of alt-country at bay.
The accomplishments and accolades for John Lomax III in a multitude of capacities are almost too long to list. He’s the author of numerous books, including Nashville: Music City USA and The Country Music Book. He started multiple publications meant to put more attention behind important artists, including the Nashville-based magazine Hank and later the Nashville Gazette. He’s known internationally, and has written for periodicals in Australia and England. John Lomax III is also a photographer, and many of his shots ended up in the recent Ken Burns documentary on country music.
It didn’t matter what the task was. Similar to his grandfather, father, and uncle, whatever was called for to throw support behind music that deserved it, John Lomax III was game. So when he saw a hole in the market where international sellers needed an affordable way to get physical product to customers, he set up Roots Music Importers, all the while still writing articles, contributing liner notes to albums, and doing whatever else was needed or asked of him to make sure good music made its way to appreciative ears.
In the 90’s and early 00’s, John Lomax III also spent time as the manager of The Cactus Brothers, Kasey Chambers, Kimberly Clayton, and Sunny Sweeney. He’s a CMA Award winner, earning the Jo Walker-Meador International Award in 2010 for his work advocating for country music outside of the United States. He also helped sire the appreciation for roots music to now a fourth generation of Lomax’s. His son John Nova Lomax is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Texas publications and operates his own Substack, and his daughter Amanda Lomax is an artist and photographer living in Nashville.
And at 76-years-old, John Lomax III is not finished yet. “I will continue selling hard copy music on Amazon’s Marketplace via Lomax Global Music (est. 2011),” he says. “I’ll be completing a feel good book about American ingenuity and other writing projects … Finding, preserving, presenting and promoting unique American music and musicians is what Lomax’s have done for 111 years across four generations.”
What good is music if nobody hears it? This is the question the Lomax legacy has been asking and answering for over a century, making sure important voices, artists, and songs of American music are accessible, paid forward, and preserved.
What good is music if nobody hears it?