September 15, 2003
an interview with
by Lynn Trenning
Interview with Jim Wann on September 15, 2003 as he drives south on I-77.|
Composer, actor, guitar player and singer Jim Wann was a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You were expected to be a leader,” Wann remembers. “I did it in an offbeat way. I tried not to get into too much trouble, and do something on the literary end.” He’s done a little more than “something.” Wann’s credits include three CDs and four musical theatre shows in addition to Pump Boys and Dinettes, now celebrating its 20th year with a production at Charlotte Repertory Theatre.
Wann lived in New York when he and Bland Simpson, now a professor at UNC, wrote Pump Boys and Dinettes. “I think it has a southern flavor all the way through,” says Wann as he drove down I-77 for a break between shows. “We brought to it a little bit of our street smarts from living in New York.”
Set in a 1950s style gas station attached to a country kitchen diner, the play is a nostalgic road trip through a time when mechanics didn’t use computers, and pie was a panacea for everything. Less a story than a chronicle of daily life, the tale is told through songs celebrating love, partying, and fishing. Wann sets an easy tone by looking the audience in the eye as he cradles his guitar.
“The audiences we’ve had in Charlotte have ranged from casually enthusiastic to wildly enthusiastic, and a lot of times it does have to do with some direct interaction with them,” says Wann. In Act 2, actresses Emily Skinner and Lynn Wintersteller work the audience for tips. “I think they are making more money on those tips than any Dinettes I’ve ever seen,” laughs Wann. The dollars they collect are donated to “Broadway Cares / Equity Fight Aids.”
Pump Boys and Dinettes is the longest running musical in both Chicago and Branson, Missouri, but this is the first time Wann has reprised the role since 1986. His relationship with the songs has evolved. He wrote “Mamaw” a few years before the show premiered on Broadway. “Emotionally, as I sing that song now, there is much more of a feeling of the positive things, and not so much the hurt of missing her. It is a wonderful reconnection with her spirit.”
Gas stations, frogs and fishing are three recurring themes in Wann’s songs. “I think there’s a little bit of a mystique about guys who work in gas stations and fix cars,” says Wann. “It’s like going to the doctor. If someone knows how to fix a car and is a friendly person, that’s great. And Americans love to travel. Americans love their cars unless there’s a traffic jam, or gas is $2 a gallon.”
Wann put in some time at an old ESSO station outside of Chapel Hill in the 1970s. “It was a great place for country humor and wisdom.” His proudest moment as a mechanic? “I actually fixed the carburetor on my 64 Galaxy. I guess that’s my favorite moment as a shade tree mechanic. Cars are much more complicated now than then. I’m not sure I could do anything other than add a quart of oil now.”
“Fisherman’s Prayer,” and “Catfish,” both memorialize a timeworn tradition. “I’ve actually sung about fishing more than I’ve fished,” he admits. Frog Level and Frog Pad are two locations featured in his plays. “Frogs are kind of an appealing symbol for something that you find in the country. It’s a friendly creature, and most of the people in my shows are friendly, small town people. The image of frogs makes people smile; certainly Jim Henson knew something about that.”
Wann’s creativity embraces a culture that is rapidly disappearing. “Country roads are kind of a symbol of a way of life that is vanishing from the scene. You want to hold onto those rural images and rural byways as long as you can, because nobody wants a world that is all concrete,” Wann says.
~ Lynn Trenning