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Bluegrass Music Americana 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 “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.”

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.

Categories
Americana Music

Justin Townes Earle RIP

I received the news last night (Sunday) from a friend in Nashville that Justin Townes Earle was dead. My friend had gotten it very soon after the fact, since as I was checking the internet as soon as she texted me, there was next to nothing available news-wise. Within a half hour, the reports started rolling in.

Justin was way more than just the son of Steve Earle. His songwriting was amazing, way more noteworthy than what usually comes across from the child of a celebrity. Justin had a deep sense of human conscious that came across in his songs. Where his father’s songs usually had negative laments of past occurrences, Justin’s songs seemed more positive about future endeavors of humankind.

His adolescent and young adult life was not bright and shiny. Having Steve as a father figure was not the best influence. Steve had cleaned up by the time Justin reached adulthood, and he offered Justin a job in his band. He later fired Justin due to drug abuse. Justin was in rehab a few times, but in the last few years, he was clean and sober, He was enjoying life as a husband and father of a three-year-old daughter.

I had first met Justin a few years back at an Americana Music Association conference. We talked a long time about non-music things, but I noticed how keen he was in observing human nature and interactions. That is a gift that writers have, and I believe he used it wisely. I went to many of his shows afterwards when he came through town here in Detroit, and he remembered me when we met up.

No cause of death has been announced. Because of his lifestyle, I am sure there will be a number of rumors spread. I just want to remember him as someone who was kind to those who valued his work, a person with a wonderful, slightly sarcastic sense of humor, and a performer who knew that there were better times for all of us ahead.

Rest easy now, my friend.

Categories
Americana Music

John Hartford: Pay Attention, Kids!

I’ll try to make this as brief as possible, but it seems to be important to me and should be to you as well.

I am currently working on an article for Fiddler Magazine (www.fiddle.com) regarding the recent release of The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project: Volume 1. This album is a companion to the 2018 book John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. The book contains 176 tunes from John Hartford that were never recorded by him – just written down in music notation and filed away in various notebooks. His daughter Katie Harford Hogue (not a misspelling, John’s real surname was Harford), fiddler Matt Combs and musicologist Greg Reish gathered up these tunes for the book, which is an enjoyable read even if you never heard of Hartford. This year, Hogue and Combs produced the album to include 17 of these songs, performed by a number of A-list bluegrass musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Ronnie McCoury, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and the band Hawktail among others. It sounds fantastic!

John Hartford was a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, writer and steamboat pilot, along with a dozen other unique hobbies. Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, nor Anderson could have written a more distinct character into one of their novels. He loved music immensely. He would have jamming parties at his house in Tennessee that would last for days. He wrote one of the greatest country/pop standard songs of all time (“Gentle On My Mind”) that allowed him to live off of the royalties to do his own thing with studying old-time fiddle music and riverboat history.

Hartford died in 2001 of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which kept him from playing his fiddle and banjo in his final months. His last major appearance was in the music documentary Down From The Mountain, which highlighted the music from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to jam with him for a few minutes at Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville. I was passing through town to attend a Civil War reenactment, and stopped into the store to try out a few guitars. From behind me, Hartford walks up, grabs a banjo, and asks me to fall in with him while he started “Cripple Creek.” That was two minutes of Heaven for me, two minutes that I will never forget in all of my life.

I bring up John Hartford because I feel he STILL has never received the recognition that he deserves with the musical audience. Sure, thousands of people know “that Glen Campbell song,” and he has been recognized for lifetime achievements by the International Bluegrass Music Association, the Americana Music Association, and the St. Louis Walk of Fame. However, do people (other than his hardcore fans) realize how much of an influence he had on today’s music? He is considered the Father of Newgrass, which had a cult following in the 1970s and 80s but has become a fixture in the Americana music genre. As most musicians progress to learn more varied styles of playing, he went in reverse, intensely studying old-time fiddling forms so that they would not disappear from history.

I promised to keep this short, so I will state this – Soak up as much as you can about John Hartford! Listen to his music, check out what he was studying, read some of his writings. The man was a cultural genius. People like him come around only once every hundred years or so. So pay attention to what he was saying and doing! Below are some recommendations to get started.
Albums: Gentle On My Mind and Other Originals; Aereo-Plain; Morning Bugle; Nobody Know What You Do; Cadillac Rag; The Speed of the Longbow; Live From Mountain Stage (some of these are out of print, but worth the hunt)
Books: John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddle Favorites (songbook)
Articles: “John Hartford: A Fun and Open Discussion” (Fiddler Magazine, Spring 1997, out-of-print, can be found at www.fiddle.com/articles.page?index=40&articleid=19118)
Video: Down From The Mountain; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddling: Trying to Teach My Hands to Do What I Hear in My Head

Chew on it and comment.