Well, we laid my mother to rest yesterday, and I feel that I should get back to busy-ing myself in order to keep my mind alert and my slightly arthritic hands working.
Yes, I missed SPBGMA, but I am glad to see that it was a success. Lots of jamming, and plenty of surprises. I am committed to being there next year!
I will still be moving back into my mom’s house and selling my house, so the clean up will continue, along with cleaning out some of my mom’s stuff from her house. As for me, more selling off of music equipment, especially amplifiers and other electric guitar-related stuff that I never use any more. I’ll be also selling some jackets that don’t fit or never fit in the first place but I was too lazy to get rid of. My advice is, if you are in the Detroit area, keep checking Craigslist and look for “Dearborn/Hamtramck” as a location.
I will be trying to hit more shows as well. Not much offered during February and March, but I will keep checking and hope to find a few major bluegrass shows that I can have guitarists try out the 2208! I will definitely try to hit a bluegrass festival as well, but with Milan and Blissfield both cancelled, it will be either Charlotte or something on the west side of Michigan.
And back to practicing gutiar and fiddle, as well as songwriting. Taking care of mom took a lot out of practicing, and I was not motivated to do any songwriting, Hopefully, I can get inspired. I plan to attend more Songwriters Anonymous meetings, as they have always had supportive people.
And finally, lutherie. I definitely want to get back to maintenance and repairs of guitars. I plan to start simple, like setting up that $47.01 bass guitar that I got a few months back (https://luegra.design.blog/2022/12/17/the-47-01-bass-guitar/). I still have a few Yamaha acoustics that I want to set up, one that needs some repairs, and a lot of other minor jobs. I really enjoy working on guitars, and I want to accomplish a few things before the Demon Arthritis takes over.
Next week, I should have a blog full of rants and raves. Chew on it and comment.
First off, I did get a 2004 printing of The Songwriter’s and Musician’s Guide to Nashville this morning. Thumbing through it, I can see a lot of updates. They even put in a cartoon-style map of Music Row and which record/publishing companies are in each building. The chapters are set up more as an overview of each aspect for the aspiring songwriter (record companies, publishing houses, management, etc.), then lists the names and addresses. Alas, as the information here is 18 years old, it is mostly outdated again. Looking at the map, I can tell you from my recent years of visiting Nashville that most of Music Row is different. I guess that if one were to follow this book, the best bet would be to search the internet as well to see if there are any address changes, or if the business even still exists.
Even though I am no longer a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), I still get the monthly e-newsletters. This includes the monthly IBMA Songwriter Newsletter put out by the Songwriting Committee. Most of this month’s newsletter is about the songwriting panels at the September World of Bluegrass Conference in Raleigh. I’ve missed it now for about eight years, ever since it moved to Raleigh and now that the IBMA has thrown its hat into the political ring, and I don’t miss it. However, I noticed that they are taking advertisements for the newsletter now, and the one particular company that has an ad this month is called Buy Demo Tracks (www.buydemotracks.com).
This company promotes itself as a stopping place for songwriters to either download or request a recording of a song for a demo, which is uploaded on the site to market to artists. In turn, artists can surf the site for possible songs to record, or even get karaoke-versions of song to sing to for a demo or audition. The three founders of the company are songwriters themselves, and a “staff writer” is Rick Lang, an IBMA board member. I will have to do some more research on this comapny, but at first glance, it is either a great resource for songwriters to get noticed, or another way to get money out of songwriters’ dreams.
No more pussy-footing around for me, I am setting aside the last weekend in January 2023 for the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) conference in Nashville! I haven’t had a vacation in three years now, and this seems like the perfect get-away to get ready for. I have been wanting to attend for the past few years, but the pandemic and a new job has screwed my time up. No more! I’ll be getting a room at the Sheraton and perhaps spending some time jamming as well as marketing some of my songs. In the meantime, I need to sort out my own demos, perhaps record or re-record some demos, and get back to marketing myself! Anyone out there reading this, let me know if you will be there as well January 26-29. I cannot wait!
My church next weekend is having its annual (after two years of COVID cancellations) rummage sale, and it makes for a great opportunity to clean my house out of unwanted things for them to sell. The donations consist mostly of books that I have either read and don’t feel the need to keep, or ones that I picked up on a whim and now try to figure out why I grabbed them in the first place.
Sorting through my endless pile of books brings back a lot of memories. Hobbies that I started and never finished, biographies of people I once thought important to my education, and guides to adventures that I still pursue in the back of my head. One such book was The Songwriter’s & Musician’s Guide to Nashville by Sherry Bond. I purchased this copy back in the early 1990s when I thought my songwriting was going to make me the next Tom T. Hall. Thumbing through the pages, I see how outdated the information is.
The first half of the book is still somewhat relevant. It talks about what to expect in Nashville, the history of Music Row, and planning a trip to the city as well as a possible showcase. The second half contains contact information of record companies, publishing houses, showcase venues, and management representatives. Just from my experience in visiting the city recently, I can tell you that probably half of these companies do not exist any more.
This edition of the book was printed in 1991, so that is over 30 years old. The internet was still in its infancy, and sites like Facebook, ReverbNation, YouTube, and others that a songwriter or musician could use to promote him/herself were hardly ideas then. The old-school way of getting your song hear by a publisher was to send a hard-copy letter to the office to schedule a meeting, or if you were lucky to get connected, calling on the phone. A desperate tactic was to have a few hundred cassette tapes of your songs in a duffle bag and go knocking on doors along Music Row, then hit a few bars after business hours and schmooze to anyone that would listen to you talk.
There are still thousands of aspiring songwriters out there (I can include myself in that mix), but things have changed. Emailing publishers and songwriter reps is even becoming outdated, although it still works in a lot of cases for introduction. You still need to spend a lot of time in Nashville, but it is not as important to live there permanently. Co-writing can be done using Zoom conferencing. However, to get your foot in the door, it seems more important than ever that you have had some success from the start.
I focus my songwriting in the smaller market of bluegrass music. The artists in the community are much more personable with their audiences than other formats. However, the artists are still very closed-minded when it comes to trying out new songwriters’ material. Back in the days of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt & Scruggs, while the artists did write some of their own material, they were very open to a “good song,” whether they heard it on their own or their producers made some suggestions. Today, it seems the A- and B-list of bluegrass artists flock to perhaps a dozen established songwriters or stick to their own material exclusively.
I am more fortunate than many in that I do have a hit song under my belt, one that was showcased at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in 2014, then won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest in 2015 then later recorded and charted by Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. However, that hasn’t been a golden ticket for me. I still struggle to get other songs of mine in the ears of artists. As far as co-writing with others, my two partners with that song are more closer-knit with the established songwriters, but they are facing the same brick walls. The established co-writers tend to work with each other, and it is a clique that is every difficult to get an invitation to.
My personal life over the past few years has put some wear-and-tear on my songwriting activities. Primarily, caregiving my 89-year-old mother is practically a full-time job in itself. I am also trying to get rid of my house since I am spending most of my time at my mom’s place caring for her. I still pick up the guitar almost every day, as well as the fiddle, but inspiration is hard to come by. I thumb through my songwriting lyric notebook as well to get inspired, but it is hard to hold on to. I haven’t been as active with the local Songwriters Anonymous group due to exhaustion from my work and caregiving. I always think that I could force myself to dedicate a few minutes each day to songwriting, but it ends up disappearing within a week or so.
Back to the book. From a quick internet search, it looks like the last edition was published in 2005, but I could be wrong. If so, that would make it over 15-year-old information, which in the entertainment industry means that it is outdated. I would still be interested in securing a copy, just to compare with my older edition as well as what I know about the Nashville songwriting environment today. If anything, finding the book has kicked me in the pants slightly to think about getting back into songwriting again at a stronger thirst. I hope that this little bit of inspiration doesn’t wear off. I leave you with one of my original songs on my YouTube page.
I remember when I was playing in roots-rock and alt-country bands 20+ years ago. I could easily write a song each week that I was happy enough to perform live with the band. If I were to have taken one of those “song a day” challenges back then, I would have had no problem with the task at-hand.
For the past few years, more like the past decade, that talent has slowly left me. I still write, or try to write, but it is not as easy. A lot of it has to do with inspiration. Back then, I was hitting bars, visiting places, working with a lot of other musicians, and soaking up the experiences. Ever since I started caregiving my mother when my father passed away seven years ago, which is a full-time job along with my regular full-time job, I have lost a lot of creativity. I am lucky to go out to a show once every three months, my employment is most of my social life, and other than weekly church attendance, I do very little for myself as far as outside activity is concerned.
I started to realize that the need to “get out of the house” for my songwriting a few years back, but it has really hit me within the past few months. COVID took away a lot of that socializing for two years, but the problem was, I got used to staying home and doing very little to stimulate my songwriting. You can only write so much about staying home, and no one wants to hear about that in a song anyway.
I have a songwriting notebook, and right now there are about a dozen bits and pieces of songs in it that I try to re-visit every few days to get re-inspired. I was actually inspired a few days ago with a new song idea at work yesterday. A few lines are floating around in my head, but nothing big. But today (Saturday) is my busy day shopping for mom and the week’s food/supplies. Add to that I have a colonoscopy exam on Monday, so Sunday will be spent taking laxatives and starving. I may get some songwriting done in between trips to the bathroom!
I have tried the route of disciplining myself to sit and write for a few minutes each day no matter what the situation. For a while, I would wake up every morning, randomly open up the dictionary and put my finger down on a word, then write about it for 10 minutes non-stop. Even that didn’t help after a while, I seemed to be writing about my same complaints no matter what word came up.
I definitely need more inspiration. Hopefully this summer things will change. I plan to hit more bluegrass festivals, and perhaps attend a songwriting camp that I believe I mentioned a few blogs back. I need to just jump in my car and drive somewhere. I haven’t visited Nashville in over two years. I would love to go back, I should plan on it this summer. My Songwriters Anonymous group plans to start meeting up live again next month (it has been on Zoom for the past two years, and I do not have a great connection for it on my computer internet system), so perhaps that will motivate me in some way.
I hope to find a co-writer that I can work with regularly soon as well. The few good co-writes that I have done have been with people out of town, and our work has been over the phone or emailing back and forth. I have not found anyone in my area that I am compatible with and is determined to write quality bluegrass music. I am not saying there are not great songwriters in my area. Honestly, I get humbled many times when I go to the Songwriters Anonymous meetings and someone performs a song that floors me. I am just not finding anyone that meshes with my style.
I end this blog with a video from my Kitchen Koncert series. The song is “Brown-Eyed Soldier,” co written with my “bluegrass kid sister,” Vickie Vaughn, who is currently the bass player for bluegrass bands Della Mae and High Fidelity. Recorded during the pandemic lockdown, I attempted to give it a Jerry Garcia acoustic feel.
I have been debating for the past few days as to list this song as part of the Perfect Song series, or simply a guilty pleasure. It is both for me, so let’s proceed.
A Taste of Honey was one of many one-hit wonders of the disco era. Record companies were looking for anything that they could throw out on vinyl that would get people dancing at the discotheques. However, this band was different. The band actually had been around since the early 1970s doing USO tours and corporate shows in the Los Angeles area. The core of the band was bassist/singer Janice Marie Johnson and keyboardist Perry Kibble. The original guitarist Carlita Dorhan left in 1976, and Helen Payne replaced her. It was these three musicians (along with producers Fonce and Larry Mizell) that made “Boogie Oogie Oogie” the classic song that it is today, over 40 years after its release.
On the surface, the song is typical disco. Basic 4/4 beat with a dance tempo, moving bass line, and simple lyrics. However, there is a reason (in fact, a few reasons) why “Boogie Oogie Oogie” is still relevant today while thousand of other disco songs gather dust in the used vinyl bins at the local record store. First off, this was performed by the band, not a bunch of studio musicians backing a molded and shaped singer. When you have musicians that have worked together for a number of years, whether it is a tight-knit studio ensemble or a group like The Beatles, a good listener can distinctly tell that groove.
Turning to the song itself, it was written by Johnson and Kibble. Again, no record company tampering here. In the pop music world, having a team of songwriters is the norm. However, the Mizells and the A&R people at Capitol Records had a good ear this time.
Now, let’s look at probably the most important piece of this song – the bass line. Johnson laid it down herself. There was no bringing in a studio pro bassist for the recording, and that is a good thing. This bass line is beyond the disco dance groove. It is a line so catchy, that any beginning bass player HAS to learn it! For anyone that studies music production (like me), it is so damned refreshing to know that she got carte blanche with her bass playing. It is beyond a groove – it is a statement. I also love that, at the end of the second chorus, she sings, “listen to my bass, now!” Yes, I am listening!
Next, let’s check out the rhythm guitar. Again, laid down by Payne, not some studio guitarist. The intro has that slide that is sensual, then once the song kicks in, the staccato picking followed by the jangly Bb chord. What makes this sound so special is that the guitar sound is so clean. No distortion, delay, or dated effects like phasing or flanging. Just the guitar straight into the amp. Yes, there is that heavy-fuzz lead at the end of the first chorus, but it can be expected to create a different kind of tension. But Payne makes playing rhythm guitar sexy.
As for the lyrics, there is nothing that is literary here. Simple words that people can sing along to. Johnson has a sweet voice that makes the verses flow smoothly. Then, when the chorus kicks in, Payne’s gritty backup harmony singing is beautiful. The vocal climax here is at the end of the chorus, when the words “more — boogie” is sung, it goes from two-part harmonies to a full, lush sound. THAT is a great production ear!
“Boogie Oogie Oogie” is sexy without being sexual. The arrangement is timeless, and again, that bass line makes anyone that picks up an electric bass want to learn that groove. Because the disco era was not kind to most artists, a group like A Taste of Honey felt the wrath of the recording industry. Fortunately, knowing that the song is still being played on classic R&B radio stations as well as appearing in a number of commercials and soundtracks, royalties are still going to Johnson and Kibble’s estate (he died in 1999). A wonderful thing would be to see Janice Marie Johnson receive more recognition for her amazing bass playing.
Chew on it and comment (and listen to her bass, yeah!).
Toward the end of every week, I start to get frustrated thinking about what topic to post on my blog. When something comes along prior to tthe time to write, I feel relieved and happy. However, today I am not so happy with the news that came to me earlier in the day.
While driving home, my buddy texted me to say that singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. Although she left us on August 6, it was her wish that her death not be made public until a week afterward. Nanci was an Americana treasure. She wrote fantastic story songs. “Love at the Five and Dime” is an absolute classic. She rode the fence between folk and country music. She liked to call her music “Folkabilly.” Anyone that appreciated fine songwriting knew how great she was with a pen and guitar.
I was fortunate to see her perform twice. Each time, it was not a concert. She had an aura that made each audience member feel like she was singing and talking to that person alone. I know that sounds cliche, but with Nanci, it was true. Her banter between songs was so down to Earth, like you were sitting with her at a coffee house or bar. If she ever felt nervous on stage, you could not tell. She looked at you when she spoke.
She always looked like that girl you knew in high school, the one who was into poetry, but wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty changing the oil on a car if need be. She had an innocence on stage, yet was known for her cussing off stage. That is human, that is personable, that is what you want in a friend.
She was equally at home with a band or solo. Each song was a chapter in an American novel, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Every story, she was there, either as a reporter or protagonist. You could see the location in her words. After seeing one of her performances, it was guaranteed that you walked away emotionally satisfied.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, her record company was trying to pigeon hole her into the wave of neo-traditionalist country music performers. Nanci was much more, and she could not be put into such a category. Yes, her songs were like the country songs of old, but she and her songs were were beyond barriers. Folkies latched onto her. Other country artists looked to her for compositions and inspiration. She was so much better as long-standing singer-songwriter than she could ever be as a short-lived pop star. And the music world is so much better for it.
Like many songwriters, she went through a blockage for a few years, hers during the mid-2000s. She came back strong in 2009 with The Loving Kind. If I were to choose my favorite of her albums, it would be Flyer from 1994. Other great discs include 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind and 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which won her a Grammy. She collaborated with so many other songwriters, the list is almost endless. I implore you to visit her catalog and listen to a few songs. You will surely be motivated to buy a few of her albums.
Goodbye, beautiful lady, dearest Nanci. You were a crush of mine, if only for your amazing writing. You are taking a piece of my heart with you. I pray that your songs will continue on for generations to come. I imagine some young girl who is just learning guitar and wants to sing, and she gets a hold of one of your albums, and learns from it.
I probably should have written this blog last week during the Fourth of July holiday, but better late than never.
There is a reason that John Philip Sousa is called “The March King.” Look at all of the great marches he composed: “Semper Fidelis,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I consider this last one to be a perfect song, especially for its intent.
Sousa spent most of his life conducting military bands. He enlisted into the US Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 14, and would eventually serve as its conductor for 12 years starting in 1880. Afterward, he led his own marching band until his death in 1932. However, during World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant commander to direct the US Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Most of his composing was done after his time in the Marine Band, which included 130 marches along with 15 operettas and 11 suites.
Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” returning to the US after a trip to Europe in 1896, and it was first performed in Philadelphia a year later. The structure of the march is typical Sousa fare. A four-bar introduction. Followed by the first strain two times, the second strain two times, a break strain, the third strain (recognizable by the piccolos), break strain, and the final third strain, this time with the second strain in the background.
What makes this song so powerful is that it totally describes the land that was the United States so perfectly without any words, although lyrics do exist for this composition. The introduction comes in bluntly, like a battleship cutting through the ocean waves. Next comes a strong first strain, a musical interpretation of the industrial strength found in the northeast part of the nation. The second strain gives off a feeling that one is in the agricultural and laid-back South. The break strain reminds the listener of the conflicts that the country has faced and triumphed over to keep the nation as one (the first break strain could represent the Revolutionary War, the second could represent the Civil War). The third strain represents, as Sousa once stated in an interview, the expansion toward the West, discovering new adventures across the land.
My only differing opinion is that third strain. To me, those piccolos represent the voice of the common man, the voice that has kept the US a wonderful democratic republic that is still the envy of the world, despite all of the internal conflicts going on. Sousa had a musical mind that was comparable to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He knew exactly what he wanted from all of the instruments in the band throughout the entire composition, This song, as well as most of his other marches, have amazing counter melodies working against the main melodies is a subtle but fulfilling way.
How can any American not be moved once those piccolos come into the mix? I can’t think of a time when I have heard the song performed in public and the audience doesn’t applaud for that moment. While most people think of brass horns when it comes to marches, Sousa had equal respect for woodwinds and percussion in his bands. All contribute to making this and his other marches ones that any army would be proud to march to. Just listen to that final strain! The song represents the US so well that, in 1987, Congress passed an act that declared it the official National March of the United States.
I give you some great examples of this work. First is the song performed by “The President’s Own” US Marine Band. This is followed by the Dallas Winds, which included 94 piccolos in the final strain. We follow that up with a touching rendition performed by The Band of the Grenadier Guards in Great Britain (when another nation is so moved by one of your country’s songs, you have to be proud). Finally, the day after the tragedy of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, Queen Elizabeth requested her regimental band to perform the song during the changing of the guard. As an added tribute, the band performed “The Star Spangled Banner.” I cannot lie, I was totally moved to tears the first time I saw that video.
Last week it was Jerry Jeff Walker. This week it was Billy Joe Shaver.
My buddy texted me Wednesday with the sad new that Billy Joe Shaver had passed away after complications from a stroke. He was one of the true outlaws of country music. His songs were never hokey. They had grit. He wasn’t in the spotlight like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, but everyone close to the outlaw movement loved him and his songs.
His memorable songs are endless. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and the classic “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” How can one not laugh and nod his/her head to the religious yet sarcastic “If You Don’t Love Jesus”? The greats covered his songs. Johnny Cash, Waylon, Willie, and yes, Elvis. Dylan held him in high esteem. So did so many Americana music fans.
Shaver lived the “outlaw” lifestyle. Not in the way of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, but in his own way. He served in the Navy, married and divorced the same woman several times, lost two fingers in a sawmill accident (yet still earned to play guitar), lost his wife and mother to cancer, and lost his son/bandmate to a heroin overdose. Yet he still carried on, writing amazing songs that will stand the test of time.
My big Billy Joe moment was in 2002. The Americana Music Association was still in its infancy, and they decided to hand out Lifetime Achievement Awards beginning that year. The award for Songwriting went to Shaver. Well deserved, and it was presented to him by The Flatlanders. I ran into Shaver a few minutes afterwards. I had seen his shows many times, but it was the first time that I ever met him face-to-face. I told him, “Billy Joe, a handshake just won’t do” and proceeded to hug him. Well, he hugged me back so hard I had to catch my breath. You could tell that he was humbled to receive the award, but more moved by the fact that people really knew and admired him.
He will be truly missed, not just by me, but by thousands of songwriters, performers, and fans. I could put “Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys” on Repeat and not be disappointed.
Just a quick note: I put up a few beginner bass guitar videos on my YouTube page, and will be doing some more in the near future. I also have some videos of me performing my own songs. I would appreciate any feedback that you can give.
I have never considered myself a singer-songwriter. Yes, I write songs. When I was in bands, from my punk days in the 80s to my last incarnation of a bluegrass band about 10 years ago, I wrote songs for the projects. It started out as due to no one else taking the initiative to write material (or at least, write presentable material), but as I concentrated on it more and my band formats changed, I valued the art of songwriting.
The term “singer-songwriter” never fit with me. I was never comfortable going on stage by myself with a guitar and perform alone. I would do it on occasion if someone asked me to do a set for a special occasion or benefit. I have no problem doing an open mic night of one or two songs, especially if I want to see what a song that I just wrote sounds like live. However, most of the material that I write has a band feel to it, especially the more recent songs that have a bluegrass slant. For a few years, I was in a band that had a female vocalist fronting the band. It was pretty awkward writing songs from a female perspective, but I trudged through it. In fact, some of my best and more recognized work was those songs.
I never felt that I had either the voice or songwriting persona of a singer-songwriter. One thinks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or my personal favorite Tom Russell, when one thinks of a singer-songwriter. No, I consider myself just a songwriter.
I don’t even consider myself a performer any more. I have lost interest in performing with bands for a number of reasons. There is a lot of great music out there that I enjoy listening to, but do not have an interest in playing it live. I will still occasionally pick a Beatles or Clash song on the bass or guitar when I’m sitting around the house, but would not consider playing them on stage. My great music love currently is bluegrass. I immerse myself into it constantly. Heck, I started this blog series because of my passion for bluegrass and what I love/hate about it.
However, I have even become disinterested in performing bluegrass with a band on stage. Oh, if someone were to ask me to sit in as a substitute for a show or two, I probably would do it as a favor. There are a lot of factors though that have turned me off from playing in a bluegrass band.
First, a band has a unique personality. It exists somewhere between a job and family. You are working with three or four other people to move a project forward like one would do as an employee of a company, but you are also joining together to create an entity because of mutual passion, like a family. If all of the members of the band are not on the exact wavelength, it will fail. Girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse issues, dedication to the “real” job, other hobbies and time constraints will all affect the band’s existence. It is possible to find replacements, but then the cycle begins again, and again, and again.
As a songwriter, I found that I was always becoming frustrated that other members were not giving the same dedication that I was. When it came to bluegrass bands, it seemed that a majority of players (especially banjo players, sorry to those reading this) were only interested in performing the same 20-30 standard covers. I always felt that people come to see a band to hear its individual sound, and that includes original material. Yes, the big bluegrass acts like Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, the Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, and others will put a cover or two on their albums. However, a large majority of the songs that they record are either written by a band member or by songwriters the band has sought out.
I have mentioned this in an earlier blog, but again, it can be frustrating to see bands continually play only old standards on stage and consider themselves a viable bluegrass band. In my opinion, they are nothing more than a jam session that has perfected itself. I did not want to fall into that hole, so I chose to walk away from being in bands and stick to just songwriting, with the intent of getting my material to the ears of established artists who will then consider recording my songs on an upcoming album.
I’m in my mid-50s and have been involved with music for over 30 years. That includes playing, booking, promoting, managing, and songwriting. I have reached a point that I am tired of butting heads with others to try and keep a band going when it is obvious that it is dead in the water. So as a songwriter, I can make personal choices on how to move forward and only have myself to either reward or complain to.
As a songwriter, a dream is one or more of my songs being recorded by a big name in the genre for which I am writing. If Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, or Doyle Lawson were to release an album with one of my songs, I could die with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t even have to be the single (although that would be way too cool!), but just the fact that an artist that I admire considers one of my songs good enough to record, that is a great reward.
I have been fortunate that a bluegrass artist did record one of my songs. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike recorded my co-write “Something About A Train” a few years ago for her album Small Town Heroes. To see your name on someone’s CD cover as a writer is a great feeling. I don’t care about the royalties at this time (I will if this becomes more common, of course), but to get recognized is a great thing.
So now what? Yes, I want more, so I send out more demos and queries. Lots of them. No replies. Send follow-ups, no replies. I realize that there are a lot more bluegrass artists writing their own material these days, and even a lot more songwriters clawing for recognition in the genre as well. There are a lot of factors playing against me right now (no longer an IBMA member, Coronavirus pandemic means less live shows to network at, less recording going on in studios), but I still keep trying. I post songs new and old to my music websites ReverbNation (http://www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews) and Songwriting Pro (http://www.songwritingpro.com/members/profile/692), hoping for at least some feedback.
Yes, the bigger-name artists can pick and choose a lot more, and are most likely going to work with established songwriters in Nashville. Many are even stepping outside of the bluegrass fold and recording bluegrassy versions of pop/rock songs. But what about the other bluegrass artists? I am talking about bands that do not have great exposure but are striving for it. They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous. Other than aunts and uncles, who is really going to buy that CD when the original version has been available for years?
Maybe these C- and D-list bluegrass bands don’t want success – they just want to play live once in a while and put out a CD to show that they accomplished something. CDs cost money, even if you record the songs for next to nothing with your brother-in-law’s recording equipment. My advice? Save the money for strings, maybe a better PA system, or a case of beer. You won’t get anywhere in the business selling CDs for $15.00 that contain the umteenth version of “Doin’ My Time” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Play them for jams, occasional live gigs, and for tryouts of new band members.
For new and wannabe successful bluegrass bands, I would like to make a few suggestions. Write some original material. If you have people in the band that just want to play the same 20 or so bluegrass standards and do not want to learn new material, then try to find someone who does want to improve. I stopped working in bluegrass bands locally because of this. I am a songwriter, and I do not want to waste my valuable practice and playing time with musicians who want to stay in the cover-band box. Try writing a good song, you will see how difficult but rewarding it can be.
If you can’t write a song to save your life, then spend some time looking for original material. Check with songwriters in your area at open mics (when they become available again after the pandemic) or surf the internet. Go to pages like ReverbNation or Songwriting Pro and scout out songwriters. Talk to them about performing and recording bluegrass versions of their songs. Most songwriters will be more than flattered that someone is interested in performing their music. I remember one of my first experiences of someone wanting to perform one of my songs. “Built To Crash” was on a compilation CD released by NPR’s show Car Talk. It was an alt-country diddy performed by my old band Gravel Train. A band on the east coast loved it and asked if they could perform and record it. I gave them my blessing. Now that band’s version was a heavy metal-meets-rockabilly, but I was loving it! Totally different, but the fact that someone respected my songwriting enough to want to record it was an absolute honor.
I work with a lot of other songwriters, either through co-writes or just networking, and the consensus we have is that we want to get out work heard. Yes, we would love to have an A-list band record a song, but there are factors such as bands putting songs “on hold” so that they have sole recording rights to the song for months, sometimes years. In the end, the song may never get released, and you are back to Start. It takes a lot of work to get top artists or their management/publishers to lend a songwriter an ear. If a start-up band wants to record your song and you know that they are definitely going to release it, it may be more beneficial in the long run. That CD may get heard by a promoter/manager/artist and think that your song would be a good choice.
In short, as a start-up or struggling bluegrass band, take a step back and see what makes the successful bluegrass bands successful. It is originality, particularly in the choice of songs. Learn, perform, record, and release songs that will make you an original band. Songwriters like me will appreciate it if you use a song of ours. It is totally beneficial for both parties. My songs are available for the picking!