WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW… OR NOT
One of the apparent cornerstones of good advice on writing is to stick to what you know. In the world of songwriting, this unfortunately has often spawned “ME” songs, where the writer shares personal and/or intimate details of their usually failed relationships. Or perhaps songs about “being on the road.” These topics work well for some folks, but drive others to consider acts of violence. Quality and listenability can range from Brian Wilson’s Take a Load off Your Feet to Dan Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch.
You don’t have to look too far to find examples of songs written by people who have not personally experienced the subject matter. Bob Dylan did not ride the rails, and his hardscrabble Greenwich Village persona was more fiction than fact. But some of those early songs are now standards and help define the era. So what if he really didn’t play with Big Joe Williams?
WHO YOU ARE AND HOW YOU GOT THERE
In my career as a “folk musician” I have sometimes been compared in print to other more widely known artists. Three that come to mind are Jerry Garcia, Peter Case and Steve Goodman. The first two were comparisons to my singing voice, and Mr. Goodman as someone whose delivery was similar. This of course is pretty high cotton. I guess I hear elements of all three in what I do. I don’t think I really sound like any other artist. My wife has disagreed and says I sound like Levon Helm. Wish I did, but since the Helms were from a spot about an hour away from my family’s home in Arkansas, I understand the accent thing. I did have an uncle who lived closer to the Helms and I often thought his speaking voice and Levon’s were very similar.
Recently I was watching a taped performance of the great Tom Rush. It would be rather conceited of me to compare myself to such a folk icon, but I thought I heard and saw a couple of things that I apparently have lifted from Mr. Rush’s talented output. I love how Mr. Rush denies to honor boundaries in music, so that one of his early recordings might include a bluegrass song followed by a blues and then a pop standard. And later in his career, he became a lightning rod for new songs by non-established artists like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.
RECORDING AND PLAYING WITH TOYS
As a “folk musician” I have generally eschewed the use of guitar pedals. You know, wah wah and echo and distortion and that kind of thing. The acoustic instrument usually strives for a tone that wants to be portrayed as clean and pure. Since I have often flirted with other genres of music, over the years I have purchased a few pedals, all with the same result. I love them, I use them a lot at first and then they reside in a closet at home. But technology has improved effects that work with the acoustic instrument and I’ll chat about two different pedals and how they may be of some value to the acoustic musician.
CUT AND PASTE
I have always been suspect over the process of taking a recording from one era and adding to it in another. You know, having Natalie sing with her dad, or Paul, George, Ringo and Jeff take one of John’s old songs and “finish it.” Or Jimi’s manager having studio cats redo everything but Jimi’s guitar. But I have changed my mind....
STORIES WE COULD TELL
If you are around music for long, you have music stories. Here are two. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, unless I forgot or want to name drop. I find if I am vague about the who, the greatly exaggerated what may be overlooked.
Chances are that if you play musical engagements, you have probably played a number of odd jobs. Odd gigs have importance, primarily because they make your other gigs seem easier. Sort of like when you stop hitting your head with a hammer.
Odd jobs come in many varieties. It may be that the genre of music you perform is not what is needed but no one mentioned that. It may be the location of the gig. It may be who you have to deal with.
Some odd jobs are just odd. I was in a blues band that was hired to play on St. Patrick’s Day at a Chinese restaurant. They had an “Irish” buffet that evening, but I honestly cannot confirm that what was being served as corned beef was even meat. Suffice to say, other than some family members and a few curious fans, the place was empty. We were not hired back the next St. Patrick’s Day.
CLEARING THE MUSICIAN’S CLOSET
If you are a musician of any sort, you own music stuff. Musical instruments, parts, CDs, records, tapes, strings, straps, stands…. well, you get the idea. And it is very easy to let this stuff accumulate, until your music closet (or room or studio) looks like one of those reality hoarder shows. You need one item, and an hour later you emerge with lots of things but not what you are looking for. What to do?
By stereotype, musicians are not the most organized group of folks. I recall the banjo player who held his case together with an old belt. It had only been several years since the case had fallen off a bus in a third world country, and he was definitely going to fix it soon.
If you own a musical case that is broken, you have five basic options. Repair it yourself, pay someone to repair, use it broken, throw it away or give it away. Those options work pretty well with other issues.
If you are a writer of any sort, you will have experienced writer’s block. People that say that they have never had writer’s block are big stinky liars, or so perfect they should not even be talking to us mortals. So what can you do to prevent/end/mutilate writer’s block? Pull up a beanbag chair and listen to another of my-know-it-all diatribes.
In the spirit of full admission, I will say that I have experienced writer’s block and there have been times that none of the brilliant ideas I will attempt to regale you with worked a darn. That’s because we are psychologically impaired human beings and sometimes things just are.
To attempt to relate this to folk music, let’s talk about songwriting. If you are a lazy songwriter, totally driven only by the muse, then having a dry spell is more the rule than an exception. Waiting for the bolt of lightning to hit can require a lot of patience. Disciplined daily writers power through dry spells by forcing themselves to write. The philosophy is that a bad song is better than no song, and in the world of pop music, many a bad song has been cut, released and become a hit. The writer probably began to like the song a lot better after the second or third check…
MUSICIAN: ASSESS THYSELF
Chances are you have a pretty good idea of how good a musician you are. You may even have a good concept of areas where you might improve. Or you could be blissfully ignorant. If you think you are Elvis and the Beatles glued together, chances are you aren’t. Most of us have known great musicians that did not think they were, and sadly, a few musicians that thought they were much, much better than reality reflected.
I have things I do well as a musician, and some things I don’t. There’s a wide range of duties involved, since if you play even semi-professionally, you are not just playing. You’re booking gigs, making CDs, promoting your music, etc.
So I’ll start with me. What are my strengths as a musician?
If you play professionally, or even if you noodle only at home but your friends know your terrible secret, you may be invited to play at a benefit. This can run the gamut from grade school book drives to events to raise money for someone who is ill. The nature of the event obviously sets the tone, but each event can present different challenges or issues.
So someone asks you to play a benefit for their church choir to raise money to attend a conference out of state. They’ll be baked goods and soda and jugglers and a stage for musicians. So you need to find out some basics. Is there a sound system? Is it over 30 years old? Will it suffice, or do you need to bring you own PA? How large is the stage?
PLAYING FOR TIPS
Some professional musicians play their entire career without ever performing for tips. I am not one of those. I have juggled my “music career” between the bread and butter gigs, which often include playing for tips, with those more prestigious gigs doing clubs, festivals and concerts. I love doing clubs, festivals and concerts, but in Southern California most folk/roots musicians cannot make a decent living just performing at just these type of venues.
I’ve done clubs, festivals and concerts. These rarely include tip jars. You are (in theory, at least) being paid to perform, and having a tip jar would be rude at best. Many casual gigs are not tip jar gigs, either. Corporate events; community fairs; backyard barbeques; benefits; and other similar gigs also would eschew the lowly tip jar.
MUSIC: DON’T SAVE IT FOR GOOD
There is a saying in the American South. Folks say that they have an object that they are “saving for good.” The concept is at best silly, and can actually be very detrimental when used excessively. And of course the concept exists outside of the South, although perhaps less colorfully voiced.
I can recall my grandmother using the term. She would have a nice dress, but never wear it because she was “saving it for good.” You may have come across similar acts, like saving a nice wedding gift to use only on special occasions. These items often are found in attics or storage facilities, completely forgotten by the owners.
NOSTALGIA: I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN
BUT I’M OLDER THAN THAT NOW
I seem to have fallen into a common old person’s trap: nostalgia. It crept in slowly, like most addictions, and by the time I noticed I was in too deep. It starts out with the little things, like a box set of CDs from that group you loved so much in high school. And you notice that you don’t read any of the articles about new bands when you pick up a rock magazine. Or maybe it’s those nostalgia TV networks, and you find yourself watching The Man from Uncle or the Ozzie and Harriet show instead of current programming.
There several explanations for this. Although it would be difficult to argue that The Jack Benny Show was high art, it is arguably better (and funnier) than about 78.4% of current entertainment options on your 1637 channel TV package. And that box set of The Band does have a lot of good music, and you can be forgiven for not listening to (insert the name of the current pop band that sucks but is very famous) instead.
INTERVIEW ABOUT NEW CD
It’s my great pleasure to alter the formula of my column a bit this time to interview one of my favorite artists, Dennis Roger Reed. Dennis has been part of the Southern California folk/rock/blues/bluegrass scene since the mid-1970s, and now has three solo CDs released, and performs on three CDs released by roots rock band Blue Mama. He also performed as a member of the bluegrassy Andy Rau Band, and was included in the two CDs the band did for Turquoise Records. He recently released his third solo CD, Songs About Tractors and Stuff.
Folkworks: It’s been over ten years since your last CD, Cowboy Blues. What took so long?
WHERE HAVE ALL THE VENUES GONE, LONG TIME PASSING…
Got an email from a young lady that books music for a pizza place. One of the bands I play with performed regularly there in the last couple of years. She had bad news: instead of a couple more dates before the end of the year, she let us know that the venue was dropping live music. Too bad, I liked the place, it paid fairly well and we drew good sized crowds because it was a ways from our “usual territory.” Certainly not the first venue to close up shop, nor the last. At least it wasn’t like that scene in Paul Simon’s actually quite excellent movie One Trick Pony where the band pulls up to the venue only to find it’s out of business. Sad but true, venues go out of business. Owners change. Live music is dropped.
THE CD: AN ELECTRONIC BUSINESS CARD, PART II
I recently released my third CD. It’s been eleven years since my last solo release, and the music industry has changed a lot in that time. So have I.
Recording is fun, selling not so much. My last CD was one that I promoted mightily, doing tons of research on radio stations, print media and internet media. I spent a lot of time and money mailing CDs around the world. I got some radio air play and some good reviews. It was exhausting. I’m not as thrilled with the concept of being exhausted as I was when I was eleven years younger.
So what will change this time around? Probably a lot.
THE CD: AN ELECTRONIC BUSINESS CARD
Things change in the music business, sometimes overnight. The whole big record company/radio/television thing that dominated the music business for many years is no longer in place, or at least not in the same manner.
At the beginning of my “music business career” an artist who wanted to record had one primary goal: to find someone to sign them to a record company contract. There was little or no concept of recording, releasing and marketing a recording outside of the “system.” For folk or folk related artists, the field was significantly smaller, as were the record companies.
The concept of self-production was so alien it sprang a book in 1979 called How to Make and Sell Your Own Record: The Complete Guide to Independent Recording by Diane Sward Rapaport. Since she has periodically revisited the subject, this is still a great book that goes into all the aspects of self-production.
Buying, Selling and Trading Musical Instruments
For Fun And No Profit
I’m not really sure when it started. My first few guitars were less than stellar, so buying/trading/selling was just a way to obtain a better instrument. I don’t think I ever owned more than one guitar at a time, and sometime around 1969 or 1970 I traded a Guild Starfire electric guitar and some cash for a Martin 00018 that I kept for over 25 years. I must admit that I thought I was buying an exact duplicate of a friend’s Martin, not knowing that Martin makes/made different style guitars. So mine was not a dreadnaught, but I liked it anyway. I picked up an electric guitar or two, swapping and trading and at one point, having added a bell brass resophonic guitar to the stable, actually owned three guitars.
Then I started playing bluegrass more seriously, and the poor little 000-18 just couldn’t fight those mandolins and banjos like a dreadnaught. So I bought a Taylor dreadnaught and was happy. For a while. I then started playing mandolin, first purchasing an almost decent Asian model. But I hungered for a better mandolin, and traded that Martin for a Flatiron mandolin. So one guitar, one mando. It stayed that way for a few months/years and then something seemed to happen. I just kept buying, trading and selling guitars, both electric and acoustic, and mandolins. I don’t recall ever making much money, and I do recall losing money… a lot. That fretless bass that the band demanded I get rid of. I must admit that my intonation needed work. I even started buying “vintage” instruments like a 1930 National O style. Sometimes instruments only passed through the house, not really staying long. Then marriage and family and mortgage started coloring the constant buy/sell/trade. Not stopped, but slowed. Time passed. Bands started and broke up. Gigs were played. Instruments were used, then cast aside as something new caught my eye.
COLLABORATION: SONGWRITING PARTNERS
Songwriter? Just starting out, or do you have about 1,000 songs already completed? Do you always write solo? If you are a solo writer, perhaps it’s time you considered doing some collaboration. Now, first of all, collaboration means working in congress with another. Since WWII, this term also pertains to people who helped a foreign occupier of their country, particularly those French citizen who assisted the Nazis. A collaborating songwriter need not fear death or dismemberment, so let’s just call songwriting partners something less distasteful, perhaps something like songwriting partners.
There are tons of examples of famous songwriting partners, from Lennon/McCartney to Bacharach/David. And it’s not uncommon, especially in the Nashville market, to have multiple songwriting partners with enough names to suggest a legal firm.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
So you’re in a band. You’re working, doing gigs, maybe even some recording. And then something happens. The band ends. End of the world? Probably not.
Bands end for a variety of reasons. Bands are a relationship, so many of the same reasons that a relationship may fail also apply to bands. Money is often a factor in a band’s demise. Gigging a lot but not taking home much pay? Travel costs exceed gig money? Or maybe it’s the classis deal where one or two band members write the songs, and therefore reap more money than their bandmates. Some bands alleviate this issue by attributing all original songs to the full band. This can be sticky if any of the “new” songs pre-date the band. Songs written by multiple writers are rarely equally divided by effort, but often by how the song came about. Did one writer bring in a song that was 99% done and the rest of the band “finished” it? Clearly demarking the rules on songwriting will help. Might even keep a band together.
THE OPENING ACT PART III
Last time around I started a list of folks who I’ve opened for during my music “career.” This time I finish it out...
David Grisman, mandolin player and much much more: Played at a festival in Napa with his band, it was so unseasonably cold I can’t recall any of the performance beyond near frostbite. Oh, and that the promoter put the headliners up in a much nicer motel that we low billed hillbillies.
John Hammond, blues guitar legend: Opened for John three times in the same mid-sized club. He gives every show 110%, and some nights you can cajole him to reminisce about the old days. Gracious and a true gentleman, able to re-string his guitar on stage after one breaks while he tells a story.
Doug Kershaw, the Ragin’ Cajun, fiddle and vocals: Outdoor folk festival in Prescott, AZ, he stayed in his RV except during performances. His band would do 20 minutes of current country covers, then Doug would come out and go nuts on the fiddle, then leave and let the band close out the set. It rained very hard the last day of the festival, big thunder and lighting. He did not want to leave his RV, so the band I was in was promoted to headliner. Played for about 100 nut cases who wallowed in the mud after the sane audience members left. The guitar player kept yelling “Don’t take the brown acid!”
Hal Ketchum, country music singer songwriter: I was playing bass in a country band. I found his performance a little slick, was expecting something a bit more edgy. Some darnn nice songs, though, and he indulged our band leader with some photos.
The Opening Act Part II
I waxed eloquently over the issues related to being an opening act some time back. Here’s sort of a spin on that, and it also allows me to shamelessly drop names and imply that my mere moments in their world made me a star, too. Cue sappy music.
I recently sat down and tried to remember every artist I’ve opened for. This includes as a solo, duet or in any of a number of bands I’ve been in. You’ll note that these artists cover blues, bluegrass, folk, rock and country. So have I. Jack of all trades, master of, well, you know…
As you will note, the opening act experience remains unique. Although I would be exaggerating to say I’ve made any lifelong friends simply by opening for them, I have had some very positive experiences and some negative ones. Mostly they fall somewhere between the two…
Ever been part of a scene? I don’t mean being slapped by an angry date in a crowded restaurant: I mean a music scene. We’ve all heard the term bandied about with things like the San Francisco scene in the mid-1960s, or the Seattle scene in the early 1990s. Does Folk Music have scenes? You betcha. The Greenwich Village scene… the Denver scene, the Chicago scene, the Laurel Canyon scene...
Basically there are several components to a music scene. First, musicians. Second, a place for musicians to congregate, interact and perform. This could be a coffee house, a nightclub, or a church basement open mike. It usually takes more than one venue to create a scene. But besides venues and performers, there has to be support for the scene. That isn’t just bodies in seats, it’s peripheral services like music stores, record stores (remember these?), radio stations that play music from or related to the scene, and even non-musical venues that support the scene, like inexpensive restaurants or coffee houses that may not host performing, but allow those musicians and “scene-sters” to hang out and interact.
Messing Up On Stage
Many folks have stage fright. It may be a slight sense of discomfort, or it may be morning sickness meets the flu. And even without any dose of stage fright, a nice fat mistake on stage can be very daunting. If you do expect to perform in public, you need to expect to make mistakes in public.
Botching something on stage can be traumatic. It’s very easy to amplify the mistake way out of proportion, though. Years ago my wife had a solo spot in a holiday choir performance. She did her bit, and the song moved on. After the show, she lamented her horrible mistake, not taking enough breath so that her final note expired in a wisp. Now, from where I was sitting, I didn’t hear or see any mistake. But she beat herself up for quite some time, and disdained the idea of doing any more solos. Several months go by, and we’re at a social function for this same church, and someone shouts out “Hey, I’ve got the video of the holiday concert. Wanna see it?” A chorus of yeses ensued. My wife stiffened with fright, knowing she’d have to live her horrible mistake all over again. Of course, there was no horrible mistake. She almost passed out with relief. “I’ve been beating myself up for months!” As a good husband, there was no “I told you so” on this one.
RUNNING AN OPEN MIKE
You like to play. Perhaps you’d like to play better, and you’d also like to play in front of some people. You’re not ready to try to play a professional gig, or maybe don’t even have that desire. Maybe you write songs and would like some audience reaction. The best bet is to find a local open mike, and go down and play. But what if there aren’t any open mikes in your neighborhood/city/neck of the woods? Or maybe there’s a great blues open mike, but you’re more of a folkie. What to do?
Somehow, someway find an open mike. Make it part of your next vacation, or the trip to your in-laws. Maybe their town has just what you need. Pay strict attention once you locate said open mike…because you’re going to start your own. Attend and steal every good idea.
It’s been a tough year for bass players. We lost two of the best, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Chris Ethridge. Although neither approached “household name” status (other than in bass player’s houses) Dunn was arguably much better known. His tenure in Booker T. and the MGs provided a high profile and his placement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he recorded or toured with too many great musicians to list, but a few were Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and both Freddie and Albert King! He played in the Blues Brothers and was featured in their two films. His taste and groove inspired thousands to play the Fender bass. There is some irony in the fact that Booker T. and the MGs’ best known song is Green Onions, and Dunn played it a million times. But Onions was recorded and hit the charts in 1962, three years before Dunn joined the band.
How Old? You’re Kidding, Right?
Part of the aging process is figuring out that you are old. You’ve done certain things thousands of times. Why aren’t you better at it? And how much longer do you have to improve?
Most of this stuff comes in little puffs. I recently realized I’d been playing a club in Newport Beach for 25 years, and had held the same last Friday of the month gig at the club for over ten years. That’s a long time. Also, I had to realize that I’d played with a couple of the guys in the band for over 20 years. No wonder they look so old.
I think more of a shock comes when you “inventory” yourself and your accomplishments. I’ve been writing songs for 40 years. Although I’ve written some good songs, shouldn’t there be more? Or better songs? I’ve played the guitar for 45 years, the mandolin for 22 years, and the bass for 20 years. One would assume that I’d be a cross between Segovia, Bill Monroe and Jack Bruce, but I am decidedly not. I’ve been writing about music for a much shorter time, only about 15 years, so most likely I will get better at that.
The call comes in late Wednesday. Someone needs a band for a week from Saturday night. The pay is good, the location is good, and so you say yes. And then you call your band mates, who one by one tell you no, can’t make it. Now you remember that the bass player is on vacation, the drummer is at some convention and the harmonica player already has a gig with another band.
So what do you do? Concede defeat and call back with big apologies? Nah. It’s time to build a band. Remember that the pay is good: this makes a huge difference. Without decent compensation, the field of musicians becomes limited to friends, family or people who owe you. But decent funds means you have opened up more doors. Location is good, which is a relief. It’s hard to construct a band to play a gig a long distance from home, but it is possible. Who knows, you may be able to construct a band that’s better than the one you usually perform with.
PLAYING IN BARS
I have played music in bars. All kinds of bars. In California. And Oregon. And Washington. And Colorado. Nice bars. Clean bars. Terrible bars. Dirty bars. Fun bars. Not fun bars. I would always prefer the nice, clean and fun, but sometimes things happen.
Perhaps at first thought “bar band” connotes a rock and roll cover band. But I’ve played country, rock, bluegrass and blues in bars, and I know folks who play Celtic or Irish music in bars. I know people who play jazz in bars. I do not know any classical musicians who play classical music in bars.
Live music and bars go hand in hand. People go to bars to relax and drink. Relaxing to live music is a good thing. Dancing to live music is a good thing. So bar owners hire live musicians. The rules of the road vary wildly, since bars vary wildly. Urban centers often have trendy bars, the type where the bill for those two martinis requires a second mortgage on the old homestead. Small towns and neighborhoods have smaller, more traditional watering holes. Micro-breweries have added a new element for bar gigs, too.
WRITING TO TRACKS
I try to keep things cutting edge, to be a real pioneer. That’s why I recently started writing songs to existing or altered tracks. Paul Simon has done a lot of this, even back in the Graceland days. He’s just a lot more cutting edge than I am. About 36 years more cutting edge, apparently.
This started out easily enough. I was working on the arrangement of an old blues song, and the singer kept warning me that I was playing the song too fast. I went home and found my broken metronome. Uh oh. But I remembered that I had pulled just the drum tracks from a country demo I had done a year or so ago. Maybe one of those drum tracks would work as a practice metronome. One of the drum tracks was for a bluegrass/country ballad, but the drummer had put a nice almost New Orleans feel to the percussion. The track was just the speed I needed, and the song sounded great with the Naw’lins beat. We kept it in the final mix.
I did another demo for the same country band, and I loved all the tracks, but especially one for Tulsa Time. The electric guitarist had played “off” the rhythm of acoustic rhythm guitars, so when I dropped the acoustic guitars, the electric guitar had a cool, Keith Richards’ vibe. We cut and pasted another verse and chorus of the drum, bass and electric tracks. I took the tracks home and almost immediately was able to go through my idea book (actually just a file on the computer these days) and construct a quite decent song. Of course there are limitations because you have to stay somewhat in the confines of the original tracks. You have to erase the original melody out of your head, and this is usually the hardest part. In this case, it’s a two chord song with a bluesy influence. I wrote a new song with two chords and a bluesy influence, but it is not reminiscent of Tulsa Time. Part of the fun of this project was the speed to completion. Since you already have the tracks in hand, it was more based on what to cut out. I only added another electric guitar, playing off the rhythm of the original electric. Recorded the vocals, did a harmony and mixed. Instant song.
OLD AND IN THE WAY
This is an iconic birthday year for me, one of those ones that end in zero. In my case, I’ll be much older than 50 but much younger than 70. We’ve all heard the saying “with age comes wisdom” but I have seen no recent evidence to support that claim.
With my new status as an old fart, I can continue the process of reminiscing about “the good old days” and, of course, talk incessantly about any illnesses or surgeries. But for the purpose of this column, I think I’ll stick to music and age. Folk music is a good music for us older folks. Folk music performers are not required to be youthful or even have a “traditional” attractive appearance. Whatever trepidations you may feel viewing the aging Mick Jagger can be somewhat assuaged by his prime physical condition. I guess the same could be said for Pete Seeger as well, but in folk music the “façade” is less needed, less expected.
So is one supposed to age gracefully in folk music? Depends on your definition of gracefully. Many folk performers continue performing until illness or infirmity makes them stop. Part of this tenacity is the love of the music, but part may come from the reality that most folk musicians don’t have appropriate health insurance. That does probably mean that we will all be facing a lot of boomer singer-songwriter protest songs about Medicare, Social Security and maybe AARP, and stuff like “Song About My Gall Bladder Surgery” (with Powerpoint).
Rejection And Folk Music
All artists face rejection. It may be your third grade teacher’s analysis of your portrait of her. Perhaps the band you auditioned for in high school still hasn’t called. Love may have been lost based on the poetry you composed for that disinterested someone. For our purposes, let’s keep this about artistic rejection in folk music. Note I do not say “artist’s rejection.” That’s an important point. You need to create the ability to realize that your art is not you, and criticism of your art is not necessarily of you.
So where can we seek out this folk music rejection? Good news: all over the place. Did you try to get a gig at that new coffeehouse that has their own sound system, edible food and has hired all of your friend’s bands? Did they return your calls? Perhaps you have been rejected. That band you sat in with a few months ago that seemed to really click. No texts? Rejection? Practiced all year for the big banjo and fiddle contest and you didn’t even place in intermediate mandolin? Rejection? Did you enter your very best song of all time in that nationwide songwriting contest? No ribbon? Rejection?
If you perform, it’s pretty likely that someday you will be asked to do a “casual.” This is one term used for performing for an event, whether that be a private wedding, a corporate party or a supermarket opening. These types of gigs differ from concerts, bars or coffeehouses. Casuals usually have music as one ingredient in an event, not the full focus of the event. You may be playing the hammer dulcimer while folks peruse an art opening. You may be serenading the populace at a flea market with your tenor banjo. There are very specific duties entailed in playing a casual gig, but with lots of differences depending on the event.
First of all, you get the gig. This may be from an agent who will take percentage of what is being paid for getting you the job and dealing with the employer. Or you may be approached at a coffeehouse gig and asked to play a wedding reception. One way or another, you have to be at so and so place at so and so time on so and so date.
The Opening Act
If you perform, it’s pretty likely that someday you will be the opening act. This could be at a local club or a concert. There are very specific duties entailed in being an opening act, not all of them necessarily positive for the performer. But there are also some specific rewards.
First of all, you are not the headliner. You are not who people are coming to see. You will not have the nicest dressing room, if you get one at all. You will not get the veggie plate with ranch dressing, or the refrigerator with lots of beer and sodas. You will have to be flexible, which may mean playing for less time that you expected, or perhaps more time than you expected. Your sound check will be significantly shorter than the headliners, if you get one at all. You will be paid a pittance (if at all) compared to the headliner. You may have to sell tickets to the show in order to perform.
Music: Master Of Time And Space
Most of us live in a very intense world. We have more things to do than we have time to do them. Our appointment calendars keep us glued to our smarty phones to make sure we don’t miss anything. And when we get a chance to unwind, we often spend some or most of that time in some form of electronic social networking. Staying in touch has become an essential ingredient of most of our day to day lives. “Where were you?” sputters the exasperated teenager. “I called your office, your cell and I emailed and texted you and you didn’t answer any of them!” It’s just unfathomable that someone is not open game for contact at any selected moment.
Much is made about music being the common language, and that is of course quite true. I don’t speak any languages but English (insert editor’s comment about the shakiness of even that statement) [ editor finds no fault w/English] but I can jam on a 12 bar blues in the key of E on a couple of different instruments. There have been times that quality has proven very valuable.
I am not by nature a highly sentimental person. I do not recall the last camera I owned. I have not owned a video camera, and I don’t scrapbook. I have enough to do today to spend too much time on yesterday.
Over the years I have owned many, many guitars. Many many many. I have succumbed to Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. I have purchased two guitars in the same trip. I have purchased guitars that I kept for two weeks. I often frustrate my travelling companions by just wanting to stop and check out what’s in this music store up ahead. The internet was a very bad thing for me, as it opened up the ability to find just about any instrument that I might want to find.
RIP Mitch Jayne
The term “Renaissance Man” is not often used for individuals who make their living playing bluegrass music. In fact, write this down: it may be the very first time the term has been applied in this context. But it suits Mitchell Jayne, the bass player, emcee and raconteur that helped make The Dillards one of the iconic bluegrass bands. In this case, this Renaissance man was defined as a teacher, musician, songwriter, prose writer, novelist, newspaper columnist and storyteller par excellence.
Folk Music versus Music Business
I fell into folk music sideways, slipping from my parents' love of country music. First I succumbed to mass hysteria: the first LP I bought with my own money was The Brothers Four Big Folk Hits. Luckily the second album I obtained was Rat Fink's Surfin' Party, one of those compilations that have a couple of charted artists and the remainder of the LP padded with surf instrumentals played by the same guys that played behind the Monkees and/or Frank Sinatra. Michael Row the Boat Ashore indeed.
The First Time
I walked into a professional recording studio for the first time in the mid-1970s. I had done some Yellow Pages research. The Yellow Pages were a pre-internet Google. I saw that the larger facilities with names like Acme or United didn't seem like places where I'd be comfortable, envisioning short haired guys in lab coats. But I found an ad for a studio that said something about a rustic setting and was located not too many miles from my college town. I called and set up a time to see the facility during a session.
Before I'd gotten that far, I'd decided on three original songs I wanted to record, decided what instrumentation I wanted/needed and lined up musicians for everything. What could go wrong?
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME PART 7B
Last time around I talked about the ability to take advantage of that "right time - right place" issue. And I talked about using some of this synchronicity to my advantage. This time I'll talk about a time I did not.
I think it's interesting when you set a career goal, and see it dramatically exceeded. By the mid-1990s, I had done a couple of CDs with a bluegrass band on a small but esteemed folk/bluegrass record label, and had released two recordings myself. Mine were cassette releases, the second of which may have been the last cassette released in the Western world. A roots rock band I was playing in wanted to do a demo, so we went in the studio and did a demo. Although it was what we now call "low fidelity," it turned out pretty good. We ended up adding a few other songs and releasing it as a CD. We had a good local following and expected to sell CDs at gigs, and the timing in 1997 was just right. We sold a lot of CDs from the stage.
More Me! Me! Me! Right Place Right Time
Last time around I provided a time line of various incidents that shaped me musically. You probably have it held on your refrigerator door with a magnet from your local realtor. Or perhaps you keep a dog eared copy in your briefcase or purse, so that you can pull it out and draw inspiration. As such, I thought I'd continue down that mono-mania-no-more-about-me and talk about how I think one of the most important aspects of my music "career" has been the ability to take advantage of that "right time - right place" issue. And some of my biggest "failures" occurred when I did not...
In the earlier column, I mentioned that in 1995, Bass Player magazine did a short feature about me, with a color photo taken in my own patio/driveway. In the right place, right time category, the issue in question featured Paul McCartney talking about his bass techniques, and an interview with Sting. Did Bass Player write about me because I was one of the best bass players in the world?
ME! ME! ME!
I've been doing this column for about 17 years now, and it occurs to me that other than the little blurb under my lovely photo, most readers know little about me. Or care. But I've never let lack of interest from others keep me from talking about myself, so I've developed a time line that sort of explains how I got to where I am today, wherever that is.
1951-Born in Pasadena CA to somewhat musical family of transplanted Arkansas-ian California hillbillies.
1955-Become aware of Saturday night hillbilly TV show called Town Hall Party. Attend occasional picnics at Corriganville, a movie ranch/tourist attraction in Chatsworth where "THP" musicians perform. Confused as to their apparent ability to transform from small black and white images into full color humans.
THE NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND
A lot media time has been spent lately documenting some famous rock group that is re-forming many years after they imploded or exploded. That can be important news, but it does tend to overshadow those bands that don't have to re-form because they never broke up. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of those. They've re-invented themselves a few times, and only two of the original members remain in the band, but they have a long and happily continuing legacy of providing excellent roots music.
Music and Loss
One of the down sides of the aging process is that not everyone does. I've played at two memorial services this month, one for my aged aunt and another for a wonderful friend no older than I. Music is often a big part of the grieving process. At my father-in-law's funeral a few years ago,the music was all Johnny Cash doing gospel favorites. My aunt's funeral featured a few of the same Cash numbers. There is a particular solace in hearing a familiar voice, a familiar song. Often lyrics long known now have new, deeper meaning.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS AND MORE
My wife bought an old typewriter recently, and then spent more money to get it repaired. I guess if the power goes out and we really need to write a letter, we're all set. It got me to thinking about technology, and how technology has changed all of our lives. Even folk musicians.
I must admit to being somewhat of a curmudgeon when it comes to technology. I don't particularly like cell phones, and I can't fathom the need to watch movies or surf the internet on my phone. I do like my laptop, and I think I'd be hard pressed to live without it, but I don't carry it with me at all times and it's doubtful you'll ever find me at Starbucks checking my email.
RIP DELANEY BRAMLETT
I do not recall exactly when I first heard Delaney Bramlett perform, but I do know exactly where: a gawd awful/wonderful all day Sunday television program entitled Cal’s Corral. This glorious approximation of a country hoe down/used and new car lot jamboree featured almost every country related performer in Southern California, and was the brainchild of Cal Worthington. Yes, that same 163 year old gentleman in the ill fitting cowboy hat whose TV commercials still entreat you to come on down and buy a car. Cal liked country music, and he knew that a lot of good folks liked country music too, so why not somehow tie that to the sales of his low down, easy payment merchandise. Hence, Cal’s Corral.
I have written about Tools for the Soul, Danny Flowers' last CD. The story about the title song involves Texas luthier Donnie Wade. He made and gifted Flowers with a new custom guitar, and "aw shucked" his way around Flowers' profuse thankfulness by saying that it was just another "tool for the soul," which earned him a co-write for Flowers' tune.
In the lyrics for Tools for the Soul Flowers is cataloging those tools:
A good book full of wisdom to rely on
A strong voice full of joyful songs to sing
And an instrument of seasoned wood and steel
To help us find a better way to feel
What Makes Music Move Us? Song of Bernadette
In1960s, there was a television program called the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that did some ground breaking things with comedy, politics and music. In the late 1980s, the Smothers Brothers had a reunion show on CBS. I taped the show and sat down to watch it a few nights later. Dick Smothers introduced the lovely songstress Jennifer Warnes, who sang a song she co-wrote with Leonard Cohen called Song of Bernadette.
I cried. I didn't want to cry, I wasn't comfortable crying and I could not fathom why I was crying. But I rewound the tape several times, and I cried several times. I bought the cassette of the song on Warnes' brilliant Famous Blue Raincoat, but for some equally inexplicable reason, I was not as moved. No tears.
HISTORIC PROGRESSIVE RADIO IN L.A.
This time we're going to chat about radio. Not radio today: not satellite radio. Let's talk about historic Los Angeles progressive radio.
I think radio made me a better person. I was lucky to be a high school student in the late 1960s when something called the FM revolution occurred. Prior to this time, for the most part AM radio had most listeners, and FM was for audiophiles, classical music fans and folks who liked political commentary.
But in the 1960s, FM radio started sprouting a few stations that played jazz, rock and roll, folk and other musics. The format was very free form compared to the tightly controlled AM play lists. The FM disk jockey could put on a whole album side, and people listened. The disk jockey decided what to play, not a national program director. DJs played what they thought the audience wanted to hear, or what they should hear. Radio became an element of musical education.
Has that monthly jam session gotten a little stale lately? How about those new band arrangements? Don't they seem pretty same old/same old? Maybe it's time to add a new instrument or two into the mix.
Most of us can play the guitar, so let's start there. Are your jam sessions comprised of 9 guitars all playing the same open G chord to open C chord to... well, you get the idea. What about a bass? Not necessarily the upright, but perhaps a wash tub bass. Or if you're interested, how about an electric bass? Tuned like the four bass strings of the guitar, a simple one/five bass line is pretty easy to master, and voila! You've got a repertoire.
A BAND BY ANY OTHER NAME: WOULD IT SOUND AS SWEET?
At some point in your musical career, you may decide that playing with others is fun and worthwhile. You'll form or join a band. Unless the living room is going to be your only venue, you'll have to have a band name. This may be the hardest part of being in a group. Seriously, folks take band names very seriously. For the generations of Beatles/Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols/Clash, band names meant something. They were witty, or intriguing.
Country Music in
They made their way to
LET'S START A BAND!
Part More: Getting Better
I know, I know, I promised I was done. But a number of people (okay, one) mentioned that although the pieces had some good advice, something was sort of short changed. Although I touched on it, how do you get to be good?
I did say that practice doesn't make perfect. Only perfect practice makes for perfect performance. And practice doesn't start and end in the rehearsal space.
MATURITY AND DEATH
Last time we got you ready to play your first gig. You've got a band name, some sort of verbal/written agreement from the band members on what the band intends to do and who owns the name, etc. You've recorded a demo and landed your first paying jobs.
The best advice you can give someone who is in a band for the first time is that you have to be flexible. Goals change. People change. And most likely, this won't be the only band you're ever in. Don't compromise your goals, but don't be so rigid that creativity gets stifled.
The first gig at Borders went well. You played for 2 hours and didn't have to repeat a single song. However, about 25% of the band's repertoire needs work. And you need a decent PA. On the plus side, one of your friends saw the band and wants to hire you for a picnic gig, and another customer took a business card and said he'd want you for a holiday party. Both actually follow through, and you negotiate decent prices for both gigs. You're now looking forward to the first money coming in.
Playing in a band can be one of the most rewarding relationships we can have as musicians. The interplay between a group of musicians can be a truly spiritual experience. On the other hand, being in a band can also be like being married to several squabbling spouses at the same time. Let’s look at some of the hows and whys.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO
Most of us that can remember the Summer of Love probably won’t
admit it, especially in light of all the hoopla the various media and retail
sales folks are making of the 40th anniversary. Of course, you may
have been an underage whippersnapper that fateful summer, but thousands of
young people made the trip, either figuratively or literally.
Most of us probably read about hippies and free love first in
Look or Life or some other decidedly not hip periodical. The world was
changing, and the summer of 1967 provided a chance to help sum up the confusing
WHY I SAID NO TO BOB DYLAN
The phone rang just at 6 p.m. on a Thursday evening. My friend Marty explained that one of his co-workers had tickets to the Bob Dylan concert that evening, and his two kids had bailed at the last minute. Did I want to attend? I'd need to drop everything and be at the amphitheater within the hour.
I thought about it for as long as he let me, and then told him that I knew he'd think I was nuts, but I had to say no. I explained I had some things I had to do, and wasn't sure I could make it in time. There was a long silence indicative of someone on the other end of the phone figuring out how to politely articulate how incredulous they are at your statement.
Why Do We Write About Music, When Musicians Seldom Play Songs About Writers
I intended to start off this column with the quote "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I was under the impression that famous folk musician Frank Zappa was the quote's author, but research has shown that a myriad of folks are credited with this wisdom, from Martin Mull to Elvis Costello to Igor Stravinsky. Oh well, it's still a good quote. And since I've used it, most likely someone in the future will attribute it to me.
Getting the Maximum Results in the Recording Studio
Some time ago I did a column about recording a CD project, and I thought I chat a bit about how to use a studio to the maximum.
I realized recently that I have now amassed thousands of hours in the studio. I suppose by virtue of that fact alone, I should've learned something about recording. Well, assumptions may not always be true, but I'll continue anyway. If you're in the studio sitting on a chair with your guitar in your hands and some guy is aiming microphones at you, then you've already accomplished a lot. You've decided what songs you want to record and you've obviously made a decision about where you'll record. Well, let's step back a bit. I hope you not only know what songs you want to record, but that you have a pretty good idea of the arrangements you're going to use, and what instruments and/or musicians you may want to have assist. If you're a solo performer, this is a lot easier, but most of us like a little company. And you've made the decision to hire a producer, or to produce yourself.
FAR-West 2006 Convention
The mention of the word “convention” may evoke thoughts of fez wearing drunks dropping water balloons out of hotel windows, or groups of like-suited insurance salesmen milling in a hotel lobby before the next actuarial seminar begins. With that in mind, one can only conjecture what the “average citizen” might envision for a folk music convention, but perhaps it would include:
- bluegrass bands jamming in the lobby (check!)
- people staying up all night (check!)
- an awards luncheon where the audience applauds the kitchen and serving staff (check!)
- and where the vegetarian plate outsells the steak two to one (not sure.)
Last time I waxed eloquent on several folk artists from the 1960s that you might’ve missed. This issue I’m going to chat about some “new” folks I’ve discovered in the last few years that you may not be familiar with. There’s such a wealth of talent today in the big world of folk.