’m a songwriter and I’d like to tell you straight off that I’m a famous person. I’d like to, but I can’t, because I’m not sure it’s so. And one of the reasons I’m not sure is that we Americans live in a world of increasingly segmented musical tastes (and not only musical tastes). Our culture is richer for the diversity of musical forms we create and appreciate, but it’s also more fragmented. When I was a kid, radio and recording technology had long since given rise to commercialized music that, while it hardly all sounded the same, pretty narrowly defined the popular music of a given year or decade or age cohort. The young have moved in turn from ragtime to ensemble jazz, big-band, pop, rock, metal, techno, hip-hop and so on. But now, thanks in part to more recent technological changes, we’re returning to a sound world of multitudinous niche forms.
I say “returning” because American music has been diverse for most of the nation’s history, as immigrants from all over the world brought different musical styles to different regions. These styles then mixed and matched in wondrous profusion, so that America’s musical melting pot today is defined not so much by ethnicity or geography but by other ways of slicing and dicing musical taste. And what’s true for America is also increasingly true for other parts of the planet, in no small part because of America.
I used to enjoy a little fame, sort of. Many who don’t recognize my name might recognize the name of the band I played and toured with for 13 years, The Red Clay Ramblers. From 1973 to 1986 the Ramblers made some glorious noise, cutting a new suit for what has since become known as “American music”: an eclectic style of newly composed material with sources in folk, string-band vaudeville, blues, country, jazz, rock, both black and white gospel, and some up-class musical theater fare thrown in for good measure. By juggling all these styles, the Ramblers came up with stuff that defied any particular category. In a sense, The Red Clay Ramblers helped define what “American music”, or “Americana” as it is sometimes called, means today. If you search Pandora radio using “Red Clay Ramblers” as your term, you’ll pull up a vast trove of music in roughly the Ramblers’ style, pretty much all of it created after our reign.
The Ramblers excelled at writing some way-out-there lyrics, an accomplishment for which I stake some personal claim. The band became well known for a time for a zany, high-energy song I co-wrote with our banjo player, Tommy Thompson, called “The Merchants Lunch.” (You can watch a live rendition, from 1985, right now on YouTube: That’s me over there to the left, sitting at the piano, when I had more hair.)
I’ve continued to write and perform music since the heyday of the originalRamblers, including a successful two-year stint off-Broadway. My lyrics often remain somewhere between the zany and the eccentric. Some people still listen and pay good money to do so. I still don’t know if I’m famous, but I’m sure that I’m a songwriter. As Damon Runyon used to say, “A story goes with that.”
grew up in a home full of music in Davidson County, North Carolina. My dad played the violin and my mom played the piano. My folks started each of us five kids out on John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play. If that stuck, they would drive us to Winston-Salem every week for lessons at Salem College. My oldest brother took voice lessons and was fond of singing Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River.” My sister got to be a good pianist who could light into Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude” to beat the band. The first pieces I memorized were Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” You can’t get more American than that.
But I also went Old World: My first public performance on piano was playing Handel’s “Largo” for an elementary school assembly. Pretty soon I was backing up my Dad’s violin pieces on piano. We’d play family reunions, weddings and funerals—mostly funerals, as I remember. That music worked as a kind of score for the rest of life. My grandparents had grown up in the late Victorian Era, and the sentiments and trappings of that time still influenced the world in which I was born. I loved the old architectural monstrosities, rambling gingerbread manses and stately two-story farmhouses with ells that still dotted the North Carolina countryside back then.
I delighted, too, in poring over the filigreed school annuals of my parent’s youth. They still had “literary societies” back then—one for Henry Timrod and one for Sidney Lanier. Mom was an English teacher who could quote poetry by the yard. We had a set of “Childcraft” books, and the poetry volume was my favorite. Mom had a dog-eared copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare, too, with engravings that would have looked positively biblical had they not been a wee bit profane.
My folks always sang in the church choir, and one of my favorite books growing up was the 1940 edition of the Episcopal Hymnal. It had chants and plainsongs and things by Bach and Handel, plus more “modern” composers like Sir Arthur Sullivan, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst. But the two big heroes around our house were Albert Schweitzer—with his pith helmet and wavy silver hair, and the fact that he was a missionary doctor in Africa who just happened to play Bach on the pipe organ—and the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. My mother had seen Paderewski in concert when she was a girl. I learned his “Minuet in G” for my fifth grade recital, largely at my mother’s prodding. Another big hero around our house was Matt Dillon. Every Saturday night, after a big fried chicken dinner, the family and assorted in-laws and hangers-on would gather to watch Gunsmoke. Here was communal appreciation of American mythmaking at its best.
Meanwhile, two of my music teachers at Salem were encouraging me to try my hand at composition. My first opus was grandly titled “Sarabande for Flute and Piano in G minor.” It was not so grand, probably, but nevertheless it got performed by two college girls at the student recital. I grew up with music recitals, my own and those of others. We were constantly attending or participating in them in school auditoriums and church fellowship halls. There would be paper “programmes” from the mimeograph machine, purple fresh and suitably odiferous, and the stage would be festooned with gladioli and crepe paper. Waiting in the wings were the sweaty boys in sports coats and nervous girls in prom dresses, all praying for perfection. Afterwards there was always punch and cookies.
Music surrounded me in its own way at home, too. My folks subscribed to Étude magazine. Back issues yellowing in the music cabinet offered hours of entertainment. There were elegant ads from Steinway and Baldwin and Hammond, and profiles of famous conductors, pianists and opera singers relaxing in glamorous splendor by their penthouse hearths. A big bonus were the scores included in each issue, transcriptions of classical oeuvres and more populist pieces with airy titles such as “A Frolic in May.” Then there were the classifieds from folks like Crystal Waters of East 54th Street: “Concert Singer—Teacher, Voice Building, Breathing, Diction, Expression, and Style in preparation for Radio, Screen, Stage, and Concert & Opera!” Oh, to live in New York City, amid the towering skyscrapers and glittering concert halls where it was always curtain time.
My folks also took me to see local summer stock theatricals like Sunrise at Campobello and Inherit the Wind. I so wanted to write plays and act in them, too. I also wanted to mimeograph the programmes, design the sets, stitch the costumes and build the scenery. I was sure that one energetic and sincere person could do it all with a little bit of cloth and pinewood and papier-mâché. Pretty soon I was scratching out my own plays in a Blue Horse composition book, with a staff pen dipped in carmine ink. I figured that’s how Shakespeare would have done it. I enlisted (well, ok, bribed) my innocent cousins to help me act out my masterpieces, which we debuted for my grandparents. The plays had Gothic titles like The Wicked Witch of Brattleboro (that was the manufacturer’s city decaled in gold script on my grandmother’s pump organ). We would also dance and act out skits to Tchaikovsky’s suite from The Nutcracker and Jimmie Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans”, as recorded by Johnny Horton. I was no stranger to eclecticism even then.
I kept up with the piano lessons, and even endured two years of pipe organ, but by the time I was 14 the hormones had kicked in and I discovered Motown. Then came the lads from Liverpool; I must have worn out the grooves in my “Meet the Beatles” LP. And I had a cheap little Silvertone radio that at night could pick up faraway stations like WGN from Chicago, where I first heard tunes like “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers and “King of the Road” by Roger Miller.
By age 16 I was leaving Motown and the Beatles for folk. A friend lent me his “Freewheelin’” Bob Dylan record, and I soon learned to play the guitar. I subscribed to Sing Out! too. I fantasized about being a beatnik and living in Greenwich Village, so I started a folk group with three other classmates. We called ourselves The Bleecker Street Singers. I played guitar and we sang songs by Peter Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia, and Judy Collins. I loved singing harmony, though that could get tricky with a voice that was still changing. No matter; we wore matching plaid vests, and one of the girls played the cello. We were just this side of cutting-edge as, unbeknownst to us, the Incredible String Band was about to be for real.
Our senior class play was The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. I was cast as Beverly Carlton, who was modeled after Noel Coward. I had to say things that were hard for a 17 year old to say, such as, “Shall I tell you how I glittered through the South Seas like a silver scimitar? Or how I was ushered, in my lemon silk drawers, into a room full of Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert and Aldous Huxley!” But I got to sing a song called “What Am I to Do?”, a Noel Coward parody written especially for the play by Cole Porter. Despite my still small and soft voice, it went over not half bad.
My mom wanted me to study classical piano at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. But folk rock won me over, and I chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where sandal-wearing beatniks and guitar players and poetry readings were rumored to exist. Besides, Winston-Salem was only twenty miles away. Chapel Hill was at least ninety, and thus the nearest thing to Mount Parnassus I could imagine.
I didn’t study music at UNC; I majored in English and minored in Budweiser, like most everyone else at that time. But I kept playing the guitar, and I got myself in a rock band called Thursday’s Grief (Thursday was the day we got evicted from Cedar Court Apartments for being too loud.) We covered the Doors, the Stones, the Band and Steppenwolf. My generous and supportive dad bought me a Leslie Speaker to amplify my Vox Continental combo organ. I covered the Vox with swirling designs of psychedelic Day-Glo colors. For our debut I wore a ruffled blue shirt because I wanted to look like Mick Jagger on the sleeve of the “Jumping Jack Flash” single. By the end of the evening my ruffles had wilted and the Day-Glo colors on my Vox had run together, whether from perspiring cans of beer or stage fright I could not tell.
Rock ’n’ roll, I soon told myself, was for troglodytes. In school I had admired the generation of acoustic songwriters who were coming up at that time, people like Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Robin Williamson. They all wrote, performed and recorded their own material. I wanted to do the same, so I saved up money to buy a Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder. This amazing machine—or so it seemed at the time—had “sound on sound” capability. I could record one track and then overdub another, perfectly synchronized, while listening to the first. Suddenly I could be my own band. I soon got up the nerve to begin playing with other acoustic musicians in various configurations around town. I had an old DeHaven upright piano in my apartment, and I could back things up instrumentally with relative ease thanks to my thousands of hours of classical music training. But more than anything else I wanted to be in a really good band and make honest-to-God records, and maybe even get the band to do one of my songs.
ow, as it happened, there was a little street theater in Chapel Hill called the Everyman Company. Founded by the redoubtable Virginia Hill, it welcomed hippies, students, waitresses, dishwashers, university employees, housewives, construction workers—anybody with a yen to act, sing or play music. Everyman was fond of tackling Shakespearean comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You like It. The rustic characters in these comedies were always played by the old-timey musicians who hung around Chapel Hill. That’s how I got to meet Tommy Thompson, a great, gentle bear of a man, and his cohorts Jim Watson and Bill Hicks—the three founding members of The Red Clay Ramblers. They played regularly at a place called The Cat’s Cradle, and I quickly became one of their biggest fans.
I didn’t know anything about old-timey music, but the Ramblers referred to themselves as a “string band”, and since those were the last two words after “incredible” I figured I was in good company. I volunteered for Everyman’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor because director John Haber needed a saloon piano player among the string-band rustics for his Old West setting. I’d heard the Ramblers enough to know most of their material by heart, so it was a cinch to jam with them during rehearsals. The next time they played at The Cat’s Cradle they invited me up on stage for a few numbers. Later that summer they asked me to join.
At last I was in a great band with good musicians who sang songs, and with lots of harmony. We started playing weekend gigs and festivals, and we each made each other better musicians. Before long we recorded our first quartet LP, Stolen Love, for the independent label Flying Fish. Around the same time we got involved with a homegrown Chapel Hill musical, a Jim Wann/Bland Simpson concoction called Diamond Studs—the Life of Jesse James. Director John Haber had some big city connections, and pretty soon a couple of New York types flew down and decided the show was worthy of the Big Apple, so we all packed up and headed north. Studs was a success. (“Yes, yes, a thousand times yes”, gushed Clive Barnes of the New York Times.)
It was a heady time to be in New York. We were young, in a hit show, and the city was our oyster. The Studs engagement was open-ended, so that forced us to commit to band life full time, which we did—for the next 13 years. We wore out two fiddlers and three vans, and relocated our lives several more times in the process. I was flabbergasted by all the traveling. Until I found myself doing it, I couldn’t believe anyone would get up four hours before dawn and drive all day in all kinds of weather just to play some gig in the middle of nowhere, often with no guarantee anyone would show up, or even knowing where (or if) we would sleep that night. I learned to believe it, and even to believe in it.
When I joined the Ramblers our repertoire was basically music from the 1920s and 30s. Not much original material was being written in the string band/old-timey tradition back then. But there was a frontier feeling in the air, a sense that anything was possible, if you had the nerve. Tommy and I had plenty of nerve, as it turned out. That’s how “The Merchants Lunch” was born—at Randy Wood’s Pickin’ Parlor in Nashville, Tennessee.
We were hungry one night after the gig, so we took a stroll down Broadway before heading back to the Andrew Jackson Hotel. That’s when we saw the sign for the “Merchants Lunch.” Once inside it didn’t take us long to figure out that food wasn’t on the menu, at least not the kind of food we were after. Peanuts and cheap whiskey don’t get you far toward a nutritious meal. But I knew we had a great title for a song.
The song wasn’t about what happened that night. We merely used the setting as a point of departure and made up the rest. “Merchants Lunch” wasn’t easy to write. Pages and pages of yellow legal paper full of lyrics passed back and forth in the van as we noodled around fitting chunks of words to potential chords and melodies. We worked on it through the next winter. We arranged it so that Tommy was the hapless protagonist and the rest of us functioned as a sort of Greek chorus answering in three-part harmony. The song begins in E minor but it meanders through various major and minor modulations and finally resolves a half a step up in F minor, complete with a propulsive banjo backbeat. All of these touches gave it an edge that made it sound groundbreaking at the time. Well, it was groundbreaking at the time.
Songwriting is an act of will. Nobody gives you a license saying, hey buddy, you can now write songs, or poems, or bigger things like albums, plays, librettos and shows. Whether I had the talent to be a songwriter didn’t matter to me as much as my conviction that songwriting was what I was meant to do. Besides, it was the perfect aspiration for a flighty fellow who grew up with recitals, Étude magazines, Thursday’s Grief and the like.
Songwriting is hard work, but it can also work to fulfill wishes. I’ve used songwriting to time-travel, to visit exotic lands and people, to manifest my wildest desires. I’ve staked out real estate in the world of the imagination. I have repeatedly fit myself out in a new suit of metaphorical clothes. You can write down what you want and make-believe a world out of it, and if you work hard and long enough your American Dream Song just might come true. It is possible, in other words, to create a song that works a little like Alice’s looking glass, or like Harold’s famous purple crayon.
I used that principle to write “Thoroughly African Man.” I started it while I was wintering in New York City doing Diamond Studs. I was missing the warm weather, the trees and fields and open spaces of the South. Heck, I was homesick. But as often is the case, the mind transposes desire, so the object of my affection became not the foothills of North Carolina, but something more foreign and exotic that I knew only from the multicolored globes of my childhood. I longed for sunny vistas on a distant continent; Davidson County could wait.
It took months to get the song even half right, but I eventually mustered the nerve to show “Thoroughly African Man” to the other guys. They agreed to work it up, and we started playing it on stage. It had bits of AM radio, bits of folk, bits of Gilbert and Sullivan and National Geographic, and even a shout out to my old boyhood hero Dr. Schweitzer. It was an ambitious song, second only to “Merchants Lunch” in the number of words and chord changes. We put it on our Chuckin’ the Frizz album, recorded live at The Cat’s Cradle.
No wonder I believe in wish fulfillment through songwriting, because not long afterward the U.S. Department of State invited the Ramblers to do a six-week tour of 11 subequatorial African nations. Of course, our invitation had nothing to do with “Thoroughly African Man.” As a matter of fact, we were expressly forbidden from performing that song while on State Department per diem. The State Department folks were sort of risk-averse, although I’m still not sure which lyric in the song spooked them off. Maybe it was, “We’re gonna make that heart of darkness shine with phosphorescent starkness.” Or maybe it was, “I’m gonna wet my paws in Victoria Falls and be a thoroughly African man.”
f you spend enough cozy winter evenings listening to Billie Holiday, and enough warm spring ones listening to Ella, you’ll inevitably find yourself wandering back through the Golden Age of American song. I got a bit of a local reputation during the Rambler days for singing romantic ballads to loving couples in a couple of Chapel Hill clubs. When I got back from Africa a friend had booked me into the local recording studio to put the pedal to the metal. The cassette tape format had by then replaced reel to reel, which made it much easier to send out dubs of your latest songs to friends or potential producers. Bruce Kaplan (who was both) let me record my endeavors on his label, Flying Fish Records. Maybe I wasn’t ready, maybe I was past ready, but by hook and by crook I finally got my first solo recording project stuffed and hung on the wall. I called it Fishing for Amour, and it languishes still in an honored position on my studio shelf.
We kept on touring, both nationally and internationally, and we kept on making records. We lost one member and gained another. We spent a summer in California, working with Roger Miller (who I had listened to so long ago on WGN) and being the string band rustics in the pre-New York production of Big River. The director said the show was going to Broadway and strongly hinted that the whole cast would go with it. Oldest trick in the book: He ended up taking only John Goodman, and it was back to the drawing board for us.
In the meantime I became friends with Mark Hardwick, a Texan transplanted to New York. Mark was a brilliant pianist and an awe-inspiring comic performer in the best theatrical tradition. He also happened to be the finest soul I’d ever met. Like Tommy and the Ramblers, he helped give my life a meaning and a sense of belonging that it had never quite had before.
It was autumn in New York. I was visiting Mark and we were walking down Broadway in the sun and I’m thinking to myself, more or less as I had done many years before, “What I wouldn’t give to live here.” We turned a corner and ran smack dab into Tommy. “What are you doin’ here”, I asked him. “Looking for you, for one thing”, he said. “I’ve got news: Sam Shepard wants us to do the music for his new play!”
Life can sometimes be as strange and convoluted as song lyrics. Turns out Sam had heard us Ramblers on a live public radio show we did in Iowa, one of those aforementioned gigs where we had gotten up at some hideously premature hour and driven halfway across creation, in this case from Calgary to Cedar Falls. Sam was in Iowa filming Country, heard our show and liked us, but couldn’t remember the band’s name. Two years later he was in New York for auditions for A Lie of the Mind, which happened to be sited in the same theater where we had done Diamond Studs. He’s in the can one morning and looks up to see an old Studs poster from ten years before, and the Red Clay Rambler name jumps out at him and, he later told us, grabs him by the cowlick. His people track down our people and pretty soon we’re packing up and moving to New York City again. By Christmas Eve I had a tree (and an apartment) on West 72nd Street. Mark and I went to the midnight service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and later watched It’s A Wonderful Life for the umpteenth wonderful time in my dandy new digs.
The cast of A Lie of the Mind was chock full of theater and film luminaries: Geraldine Page, Harvey Keitel, Aidan Quinn, Will Patton and Amanda Plummer; and it was attended by even more famous people. (“Who’s in the house tonight?” “Oh, Jackie O., Norman Mailer, David Bowie—ho hum.”) The show was close to four hours long, and a lot of time elapsed between our songs. We were stuffed into a little bandbox in the corner of the mezzanine, and from our aerie I would study the audience and sketch them to pass the time.
t this point it seemed like the Ramblers were poised to go just about anywhere and do just about anything, but nobody could figure out exactly what the next step should be. To make matters worse, relations in the band had grown sour. There were even a few very uncharacteristic loud arguments. I had often thought our ability to be a good band had a fair bit to do with the fact that we all got along, and made each other better musicians because of the trust we felt for each other. Bands are delicate organisms, however. Even the best line-ups are rarely long lived. We’d had a good run. Maybe it was time for a change.
After A Lie of the Mind closed I opted to stay in New York with Mark. We had already done a couple of showcases of what became the musical Oil City Symphony and had gotten good responses. I felt a little more at home in musical theater. It was a place where I could be myself, as a performer and a person. Musicals seemed to go hand in hand with the kind of absurdity and eccentricity and farce that had been my native habitat all along.
Mark and I, along with Debra Monk, put together Oil City Symphony around the idea of a group of middle-aged musicians who get together for a reunion concert honoring their high school music teacher. I didn’t know where this premise would take us, but I knew it had to be in the guise of a recital, set in a school auditorium, complete with prom clothes, and punch and cookies afterwards. I put on my blue tux and pink bow tie that first night and thought, “This is fun, but it’ll never last!” Thirty years later, I’m still doing it.
Oil City Symphony forced my songwriting hand. The reason was that, while I admired the atmospheric and regionally flavored ballads from the 1950s like “Canadian Sunset” and “In Old Cape Cod”, it was expensive and sometimes impossible, depending on the publisher, to license songs under copyright to head a musical or a revue. So I concocted my own nostalgic ballad and called it “Ohio Afternoon.” It had atmospheric and regional references, and an unavoidable postmodern twist. A typical Oil City writing session would involve me giving a lyric to Mark and Debbie, who would put it to music on Mark’s piano. Then they would call me and sing it into my answering machine with the message, “Call us back if you like it!” That was American songwriting, late ’80s style.
After several out-of-town tryouts, Oil City Symphony opened off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square Downtown, and it was a success. My dream had come true: While not exactly a beatnik, I was living in New York City and working in Greenwich Village, on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker. Oil City Symphony ran for almost two years. What’s more, I was happy.
Live long enough, and everyone knows what comes next. Mark and I had been doing Oil City on the road and writing a new show, Radio Gals, when his health began deteriorating. A doctor in Columbus, Ohio, told him he had a year and a half to live, and by the next spring he was slipping away. He nevertheless remained committed to finishing Radio Gals, working valiantly to come up with new music and play his part in the April 1993 premiere in Little Rock. By the end of that year he was gone. Those were very dark times for me, but Mark’s music, like his life, was full of light, wit and love. I remember Mark quoting a line he attributed to Edmund Gwenn, the English actor and film critic who played Kris Kringle in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street: “Dying is easy, comedy is difficult.”
Life in general and in New York in particular seemed unbearable without Mark, so I moved back to North Carolina and counted tears. But with time and the support of friends and family, I eventually got back to work finishing up Radio Gals. I found a new director, Alan Bailey, and the Pasadena Playhouse put the show in their 1995 season. Radio Gals was a great success in California, and on the last day of the last week of its run we sailed into a studio in Canoga Park to record the cast album in what seemed like one big breathless sweep.
It was then time for another great escape, this time back to my grandparents’ generation during the turn-of-the-century South. My album Wagoner’s Lad was ostensibly about them and their old houses and family dramas, but it worked as a kind of triple catharsis for me, since I had lost Mark and both my parents in a seven-year period. Here’s a snippet of lyric from the title cut: “Oh kind stranger listen to me, things ain’t what they seem/The sweetest flower withers on the vine, life is a sorrowful dream/Life is a sorrowful dream.”
Maybe I’ve been a serial escape artist my whole life. I certainly have gotten to play some interesting characters. The first was the somewhat sensitive, somewhat tortured piano player I played for 13 years with the Red Clay Ramblers. In Oil City Symphony, I played a Welkian music nerd—surely a vestige of all those childhood recitals—for at least 1,500 performances in at least a couple dozen states. And in Radio Gals I got to be a little old lady singing and playing the tuba in a Victorian parlor, which just happened to bear a striking resemblance to the one in my grandparents’ house.
Lately, in a follow on to Radio Gals, I’ve written a series of musicals about a gang of mythical 19th-century music hall entertainers as they wander around the hardscrabble American West. There’s a saloon singer, a Shakespearean actor, a young couple in love, a gunslinger and an undertaker (me). I called the first one Bosh and Moonshine. Since then there have been The Belle of the Wabash, Sarah Bernhardt in Texas, Oklahoma Hale & Damnation and The Queen of the Cowtowns. I think of them as “adult high school musicals”, or maybe they’re just facetious hybrids. But whatever they are, they’re not all that far off in spirit from the life I led with the Ramblers: traveling and working together, trying to get ahead by individual wiles but also trying to function as a group and in many ways as a family. Switch out a Pullman car for a Ford Econoline van and you’re there.
These latest shows actually go back farther than that, to when I was a piano-playing bank teller being held up by a diamond-studded James gang, when a couple of bands from Chapel Hill could put on a romping Western and play the parts, and the instruments, onstage, even to when my dad and I played mournful music at country funerals, or when I put on musicals with my cousins before everyone settled in with Gunsmoke. Those stories always seemed to have a dance hall girl (read: “prostitute”) with a heart of gold, a taciturn gunslinger, some love struck couple, a hammy character or two and, last but not least, the ever present undertaker. How American can a songwriter get?
here are the shows and the music and it’s all about art, but there is the business side of all this too. When I came of age the music business in the United States was still somewhat rigid. With luck and pluck you could wrangle a record deal from an established label. The label would advance you the production money. They would also promote your music, in varying degrees, depending on how they saw its potential. We couldn’t self-produce or DIY much in those days. Vinyl LPs felt special and seemed to carry more weight, because they were harder to make and get made. And album covers offered a gallery of potential in the imaginative and literate ways an artist or a band could be presented. An LP cover was a substantial and palpable introduction to the music inside, much more so than the cramped space offered by a CD cover or the frosty distance of a web or social media site.
Now everything has changed. The floodgates have opened to promiscuous diversity and the destruction of any sense of consensual standards as to what is good music, or even as to what is music at all in some cases. At times it’s like a cacophonous Tower of Babel, with the stakes amped up even higher by each succeeding generation. We’re over-saturated, what with everybody and their dog getting in the act, and with all the computer-generated shows, music sites and personalized radio emporia that have metastasized in support of the Great Digital Domain. We’ve probably reached the point where there are more acts than audiences. Who has the ears or the patience or the time to listen to all this stuff? And that’s a shame because some good music will get lost in the shuffle.
Technology has made some things easier. When Clyde Edgerton and I were making a musical out of his novel Lunch at the Piccadilly, he lived at one end of the state and I at the other, so we collaborated by email. I could record a song, overdub all the parts, convert it to mp3 in one keystroke and get it to his laptop in a couple of seconds. Quite a change from the old days when it might take days or weeks to send out a tape and get a response. But then again, some things have gotten harder, like finding an audience. I’ve never fit well into any particular genre, so I find myself these days encountering the same kind of format-bound control freaks that we Red Clay Ramblers struggled with when we first started out forty years ago. Maybe the music business has always been a mess. I wonder what the Gershwin brothers, or Fats Waller, would have to say about that.
I don’t take it personally. My dilemma is shared by nearly every other working musician I know. We’re all lucky to live in a world that still values songwriters, even though that valuation is subject to some distressing trends. A small plastic bottle of water now sells for more than a song on iTunes. But I’m lucky to have played in a wonderful band, to have worked in musical theater, and so to have made a life out of music even more than I’ve made a living from it.