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 They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous.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!
Chew on it and comment.