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Americana Music Bluegrass Music Music Industry

Jerry Jeff Walker RIP/Sturgill Simpson and Downloads

Two things.

First, my heart dropped this morning when a buddy texted me that Jerry Jeff Walker passed away at 79 years of age. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t heard his classic song “Mr. Bojangles.” It is a standard up there with “Gentle On My Mind” and “Yesterday.” But Jerry (real name Ronald Clyde Crosby) was way more than that. His catalog was amazing to say the least. There were the humorous and crazy tunes like “Trashy Women” and “Pissing In the Wind.” Then there were the tender and heartfelt songs like “Navajo Rug” and “Morning Song to Sally.”

He was from New York, did some time in Greenwich Village, but moved to Austin, Texas and helped to create the city’s live music scene. Once could say that he was Texas’ favorite adopted son. He lived the rowdy lifestyle (he wrote “Mr. Bojangles” after an experience in a jail cell arrested for intoxication), but was always humble and giving. He helped Guy Clark get noticed by recording Clark’s songs “L.A. Freeway.” Legend has it that he influenced Jimmy Buffett to move to Key West, Florida.

Jerry spent his last few years in the grips of throat cancer, the one ailment that only the Devil could place on a singer-songwriter. He continued to write until this past week when he died. His songs are timeless, stories that are not so much feel-good/happy-ending types, but ones that are truly descriptive, soul-wrenching, and life-like.

Thank you, Jerry, for showing all of us other songwriters how it is done.

Late last week Sturgill Simpson released Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1, a collection of his own songs done bluegrass style. I love Sturgill! Not just the fact that his songs are fantastic, but I love his attitude that he has taken toward the country music industry. After winning “Best Country Album” at the Grammy Awards in 2017, the industry didn’t even bother to invite him to the following year’s CMA awards. So what did he do? He busked in front of the theatre that evening. That takes balls!

With the release of the bluegrass album, he did some crazy stuff like putting lawncare signs on music biz buildings in Music Row (https://www.whiskeyriff.com/2020/10/20/sturgill-simpson-continues-his-a-cma-trolling-puts-ddss-lawn-care-sign-in-front-lawn/). He has also been very vocal on the way Merle Haggard was treated by the industry in the years before Haggard’s death. Well done! And while I’m not in agreement with a lot of Sturgill’s politics, I do applaud him for doing legwork and not just talking the talk.

However, my gripe here is how he has chosen to release his bluegrass album. While the streaming version was released last week, the CD will not be available until December, and vinyl is not available until January! While mainstream pop markets are pretty much going the streaming/download route, there is still a large fan base in the roots-music formats that crave the physical part of owning music, myself included. We want to be able to hold in our hands something that is attached to the music. The album cover means a lot to us. We soak in the liner notes, the musician lineup, the choice of photos and artwork. We involve our sight and touch sensory functions along with hearing. This becomes a disappointment to say the least, and may involve me forgetting to purchase the album next month.

This is not to say that streaming and downloading should be banished. If there is an audience for it, then by all means, market that as well! It also serves its purpose in the music business area. I was contacted by a musician who was releasing her album in two months, but wanted me to listen to the songs beforehand so that I could review it for a magazine. She sent me the download link, and I was able to get the review published right about the time the CD was becoming available. Perfect!

But with downloading as a primary or only way to purchase music, especially with bluegrass or other roots music formats, it is one way to lose music fans like me. I am from the old school. Like I said above, I like the physical aspect of being a music fan. I also like having a big stereo system. Downloading music to your iPhone or MP3 player and wearing ear buds makes that music private and closed in. The stereo system lets others know what I am listening to as well. It fills the room, not just my head.

CD sales are down because of the music industry, not the music fans. The industry will still charge you a dollar for a download, which when considering that the average album has about 12 or 13 songs, it’s the cost of a CD anyway, but they don’t have to manufacture anything. They save that cost. It is also more difficult to track download sales for the performance right organizations like ASCAP and BMI. Thus, songwriters get cheated out of royalties. Vinyl sales are still rising thanks to hipster audiophiles. However, that rise is still not enough to get the money collected by the record companies into the hands of the workers that deserve and earn it. Besides, I like having a wall of CDs towering over me.

Sturgill has a lot of top-notch bluegrass artists like Tim O’Brien, Sierra Hull and Stuart Duncan appearing on his album. Fans of these musicians will gladly bring Sturgill into the bluegrass fold. Most of the bluegrass fans still rely on CDs. He is making a big mistake by not making his bluegrass album available in CD so that roots-music audiences can fully enjoy his work.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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