SERFA 24 (Part 3 

Return From SERFA

There were plenty of takeaways this year, but “The Return from SERFA” wasn’t nearly as dramatic as last year when I nearly ran out of gas. That warranted a Pedestrian Ramblings on its own, but this year's trip was eventful.

I planned to leave Black Mountain Sunday morning, stop in Asheville at the legendary donut shop Hole, and then motor up to Charlottesville. We have some dear friends that live in a lovely retirement community near the university and I wanted to stop and see Ned and Janet, and was hoping my stop would be a bit of a surprise. I had never driven this route before and enjoyed this section of the mountains. I need to look up the elevation of a few of the peaks. While this section of the Appalachia might not be as high, it was certainly rugged. When you are zipping along at 75 miles an hour it is impossible to imagine what it must have been like to traverse this region on foot, horseback, or with a wagon. I found myself thinking about how incredibly important a guide was and what a big deal the Cumberland was. Of course, I was thinking about the conference and all the things that I felt I needed to attend when I got home. This included physical care of the Creek House, to-do’s for music, and some personal housekeeping as well. I wasn’t in any big rush, I intended to spend the night in Charlottesville, visit with my friends for a few hours the next day, and then continue to Falls Church to rendezvous with MJ at Rachel and Viresh’s house before heading home. 

I was going through that part of the world where Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia touch. I pulled off to take a road break at a Virginia Welcome Station and was immediately entertained by the musical theme of the facility. There were a couple of guitars on display, one hanging on the wall, one in a floor stand, and a mocked-up set for a simple recording booth with included a mic and stand and a “recording” light. 

The guitars were even in tune. I could not resist the opportunity to take a “selfie” and even recorded a short video playing part of Dave Gordon’s song Dust Eating Cowboys At The Rear Of The Herd. 

This prompted a conversation between the attending host, Joan, and I. She produced a dulcimer and played her version of Big Bend Gals. Joan was also quite adamant that I needed to visit the music museum in nearby Bristol, which thankfully, I did.

Bristol straddles the Virginia/Tennessee state line and factored significantly in the history of American country music. This museum is associated with the Smithsonian and was a wonderful stop. 

It was yet another addition to all of the ideas, notions, and motivations careening around in my head after spending the past few days at SERFA.   

SERFA 24 (part 2)  

Performance Highlights

As I mentioned earlier, the Official Showcases at these conferences are generally really good and SERFA 24 was no exception. A couple highlights from this year were Sue Horowitz who did a killer “high school reunion song” and Chris Haddox, who found and shared an incredible coal mining song, written by an African American man. A young fellow from the deep south, Dustin Gaspard not only had just tremendous on-stage energy but was a simply great guitar player.

Perhaps my favorite was Helene Cronin. She is a professional songwriter who has been commuting from Dallas to Nashville for decades. Other standouts for me were Wes Collins, Cast Iron Bluegrass, Ruth, and Max Bloomquist, Couldn’t Be Happier, and Ordinary Elephant, and that is not to say the other performers were not remarkable, they were.

I played the conference “maximum” of three private showcases, so I had plenty of opportunities to check out other performers. And I caught some folks who are consistently great, like Wyatt Easterling, Ash Devine, and RB Stone, and some folks that I knew were good but had never been able to hear in person, like Friction Farm, Rod and Annie Capps, Mattew Sabatella, and Brant Miller. It was a delight to take them in. Some “new” performers for me were Pat Wictor, Randy Palmer, and Emma Francis. Pat is a great slide guitarist, with really good songs and a remarkable tone and touch. I have heard Randy play with his buddy, the other Randy (Lewis Brown), but never by himself, and the delight of the conference was hearing Emma Francis and Ma Crow.

 Emma’s mom is Erin Ash Sullivan, who happens to be a wonderful song writer and singer, and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Emma was simply great. Ma Crow is an incredible bluegrass performer who predominately works in the greater Cincinnati area. We got to spend a little time talking and realized that we had several friends in common.   

I regret missing Karyn Oliver, Claudia Gibson, and Carolann Solebello. I have heard of these three ladies before and they are fantastic solo artists. Ah, next time I suppose.

SERFA 24 (Pt 1) 

SERFA 2024  

It is all follow-ups and memories for SERFA 23. 

I just got back from my third South East Region Folk Alliance conference. Each was held at the Black Mountain YMCA assembly center a few miles from Black Mountain North Carolina. I got involved with these regional music conferences in 2019 after I left my public sector career. I figured I should explore and engage with a new and different dimension of the business of music. In my park and conservation career, I traveled across the country attending conferences and tours hosted by local, regional, state, and national organizations, and I thought I might gain some new insight by exploring music from different perspectives.  With the advice of Charlie Mosbrook, the president of Cleveland Folknet, I attended my first Midwest Regional Music (FARM) conference and I found it both motivating and inspirational. At FARM, my name was drawn in a raffle and I won a free registration for the SERFA conference the following year. Unfortunately, the pandemic disrupted those plans and I didn't attend my first SERFA conference until 2022. 

What is SERFA you might ask? There are regional Folk Alliance conferences all across the country and people tell me that each one has a unique vibe, and from my limited experience, I can certainly see that. In addition to the influence of regional social attitudes and behaviors, physical location is certainly a contributor to the ambiance of these events. 

In many ways, it would be hard to top this facility as a perfect site to host a regional music conference. Black Mountain College was an interdisciplinary liberal arts school that was known for cultivating free thinking and creativity. Some incredibly influential people were associated with this institution: the urban planner Jane Jacobs, architect Buckminster Fuller, and the new-age composer John Cage, just to name a few. Some art history experts have declared that Black Mountain College was the birthplace of American Existentialism. 

I believe the college was shut down in 1952, and at some point was purchased by the YMCA. The Y turned the facility into a conference and retreat center. Several large dormitories and college buildings still exist and create an interesting dimension to the experience for a visitor. Two large contemporary buildings have been constructed for housing (the main lodge) and presentations (a large auditorium), and this is where the activities for the SERFA conference take place. While the accommodations are institutional, they are certainly adequate. That being said, the geographic location is fantastic. The buildings are set high on the side of a mountain affording spectacular views of the Blue Ridge. 

 

Several hundred people registered to attend SERFA 2024. Mostly from the southeast part of the country, but some from as far away as Texas, California, and Canada. There might have been a few folks who traveled from Europe too! While most attendees are performing artists, there are venue managers, promoters, booking agents, music publicists, and folk radio hosts. 

As is the case with most business-related conferences, there are “how to” work sessions, panel presentations, discussion groups, and keynote presentations, on topics like marketing, touring, recording, building a professional support team, and that sort of thing. What sets these Folk Alliance conferences apart from other professional conferences is the large inclusion of musical performances. 

The primary musical highlights are the juried showcases that occur throughout the conference. Anyone is welcome to submit an application to be considered by the selection committee who choose a handful of artists to perform in 15-20 minute slots on stage in the main auditorium. I can assure you, they are all very good. 

In addition to these main performances, there are several themed song circles and private showcases. Anyone can sign up for a song circle which is a themed event. Participants gather and play one song pertinent to a predetermined topic. They are generally topped off at 20 to 30 people. They are a lot of fun and a great way to hear and meet new people. 

Private showcases are a little crazy. Most often they are hosted by a performance venue or a folk radio show. They start at 10:30 in the evening and go until 1:30 or so. There may be 10 or more private showcases going on simultaneously, so there is a great deal of energy in the air as people go from room to room either performing or listening to a specific performer. Sometimes the room hosts require a specific theme or style of music, and sometimes they are set up as a solo act or a three-act round. Most time slots are 20 to 30 minutes long. 

It is a great way to hear new people, share your music, and in some instances step out of your comfort zone. For example, Sam Edelston hosted a showcase called “Anything But Guitars”, and as you might suspect, participants could not play guitar. I played my banjolele and a mandolin and had a great time

Some Things Just Make Me Happy 

Some Things Make Just Make Me Happy

Probably 25 years ago, my buddy Alex Bevan stopped by the house and handed me a cassette tape, (Do you remember those?) and said “You got to check this guy out”! And that is how I was introduced to James McMurtry.

Fast forward and I can assure you I still find McMurtry’s music just as engaging as when I first heard him. I have since bought many of his records and I have seen James perform several times. Regardless if he is with a band or playing solo, he provides a great night of musical entertainment. His guitar work is excellent and his lyrics are off-the-hook. His music is so accessible, that after all these years, going to one of his performances feels like I am checking in on an old friend.

I don’t mind saying I was excited to go see James in April 2022 and walked away from that evening’s solo concert with not only a renewed sense of appreciation for his art but also the unanticipated bonus of finding a new musical talent, Betty Soo.

Ms. Soo was the supporting, or opening act, and just a few bars into her first song, she had, and held my attention for her entire set. I found her vocal delivery strong and fluid, her melodies were engaging and diverse, and her guitar playing superb. I hate to fall victim to the over-used cliche but I was quite frankly blown away.

At the end of the show, I spoke with her at the merch table and took the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her guitar work. She was quite gracious and told me she appreciated that especially as she was fronting a show for such a great guitarist. 

I bought one of her recordings.

Sometimes I can be enchanted with a live performance only to find that a studio recording may be sterile and lifeless. A few months later, I got around to playing “Insomnia Waking” and was instantly pulled into Betty Soo’s music once again.

I am one of those folks who can listen to a song a dozen times before I get past the music and actually start hearing the lyrics, and in subsequent plays, I found Betty’s lyrics to be just as strong and engaging as her melodies and guitar playing. As a singer songwriter, she is simply the whole package.

Two years later, April 4th, James McMurtry returned to NE Ohio and I was delighted to see that Betty Soo was again his supporting act, Just as before, she performed a wonderful show. She was joined by James for several songs during her set. She reciprocated by joining him with his band for several tunes as well.        

Betty is an Austin song writer, with a witty, seasoned stage patter. She comfortably references her Korean heritage and relates how some family members ask if she is still doing that “music thing”. Relaying an underlying sentiment that that she might grow out of this. She made a hilarious comparison between a trade worker being “prepared” with a junk filled pickup truck while a woman can be teased about the size of her purse.

She is a very petite person with a big personality and in spite of her physical size she has total command of her dreadnought and jumbo sized guitars.

Of course her music is on all streaming platforms, but you can also buy her products directly from her website at 
https://bettysoo.com/

She has a wonderful website that is easy to navigate and full of options to enjoy her music and art. And I recently discovered Betty has been working with another remarkable folk music icon, Chris Smithers. 
  
It makes me extremely happy to come across such an inspiring talent that is finding well deserved recognition and success. 

And Figuratively speaking, thank you Mr. McMurtry for “introducing” me to Betty Soo.  

Everybody's Favorite 

Everybody’s Favorite
I just finished reading Prine On Prine, a book conceived and edited by Holly Gleason, and it is a bit of an irony that I would wrap this book up on the week that John Prine died. So I felt compelled to write this article about him and this lovely book.

If you happen to be a JP fan I am sure you will find is is a a delightful read. It brought back many memories and provided me with a backpack full of chuckles, but it also motivated me to learn a bit about Holly Gleason.

I knew Holly was from Northeast Ohio, and that she was associated with the music industry, but that was about it. A few years ago when Alex Bevan mentioned to me that he was working with Holly, I should have taken the time then to do a little research on her career and accomplishments.

Since reading this book, I have come to realize she has enjoyed a remarkable and successful career as an author, music critic, reporter, and songwriter. She has written for nearly all of the major music industry publications and worked as a consultant and advisor for many major artists. She truly is one of those music industry celebrities that NEO can be proud to claim as their own.    

Holly knew John Prine and clearly knew him well. She was the perfect person to gather this selection of interviews with Mr. Prine, edit, and assemble them in such a way that they not only held together, but they created a book that was a joy to read.

As you might imagine, nearly every time John Prine was interviewed, similar questions were asked about how he got started, how his career progressed, and how he was inspired to create and write songs. And to Gleason’s credit as an editor, she didn’t try to eliminate or cut these repetitive passages, she allows the reader to perhaps see a little bit deeper into John Prine’s character as the same stories are told with each interview.

As you read the book, you read about Prine being stationed in Germany while in the US Army, during the Vietnam War. You read about him being a mailman in a Chicago suburb, attending an open mic night, grousing a little about the quality of the performances, and being challenged to get on stage if he thought he could do better. And the story goes from there exploring topics ranging from roast pork to muscle cars.

John Prine was a delightful character.
 
I was first introduced to his work in 1975 when my long-time friend and fellow musician, Vance Wissinger, gave me a couple of John Prine records. He told me I needed to listen to them. Well, I did, and it just didn’t resonate, or should I say, it took a while. At that time I was listening to, and performing, mostly the hard rock of the day, Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, and, you get the idea.  

I left my high-school band behind when I went to Miami University and embraced the singer-songwriters of the day: Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg, and a new guy, Jimmy Buffet. This was when I first heard and met, Alex Bevan, who was sailing on the success of “Skinny” and Grand River Lullaby and I found myself revisiting John Prine’s first two records. I think I learned to play nearly everyone, and then, a handful of newer ones as well.

This was early in my own solo performing career, and John Prine’s songs were a substantial part of my repertoire: Grandpa Was A Carpenter, Dear Abbey, Paradise, Hello In There, Souvenirs, Please Don’t Bury Me, Barbra Lewis, and Angel From Montgomery were all staples in my set lists. It didn’t seem to matter where I was performing, there would be a handful of enthusiastic John Prine fans who would simply light up when I played any of his tunes.

I got the chance to open a show for him at the Victory Theater in Dayton Ohio in the early 80’s. I met him after my sound check and we briefly chatted. The first thing he said after we shook hands was, “This sure is a pretty place” and then he asked me if he could bum a pick. I dug one out of my pocket, handed it to him and he held it in his hand for a moment then offered it back saying, “Why I would bust every one of the strings off of my guitar, Jesus this is too thick.” And we both laughed.

He was exactly what I expected him to be. Just a fellow who was stopping in another town to share his songs and honest observations with anyone who wanted to listen.

Forty-five years after I first heard John Prine, there are occasions when I shake the dust off of the songs I remember and play ‘em. It doesn’t seem to matter where I am, or who I am playing for, they are always well received. It is like he was everyone’s favorite songwriter.

On April 7th, 2020, John Prine passed away from COVID-19, and the nation lost a cultural treasure. I felt like I lost a relative I hadn’t visited with for a long while. And even though I hadn’t recently listened to him, there was an unmistakable feeling of absence in the family tree. 

When he died, I wrote a song I called Everybody’s Favorite. I was doing two or three Facebook live streams a week due to the Covid, and I played that song a time or two. It kind of sums up the deep emotions I felt for him and his work. He made me laugh out loud, ponder awkward personal situations, reflect on societal ills, and most importantly, how to embrace life.

I posted a simple video on YouTube if you’re so inclined to give it a listen here is the link.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2JMtHKfvvs


Enjoy every step on this hike.
See you on the trail!
S

 

A Fascinating Coincidence... The Harmony Patrician 

A fascinating coincidence 
I have been performing on some level since I was 13 years old and over the years I have had an adventure or two. On occasion, I have been known to forget something either going to or leaving a gig. I have forgotten a microphone, mic cables, mic stands, speaker cables, extension cords, picks, and capo’s. In other words just about every accessory that you can think of and use at a gig. Once, after a gig, I forgot to shut the rear hatch on my Volkswagen bus and drove nearly forty miles home with a stack of guitars on the rear deck. I was very lucky one or all didn’t bounce out on the highway.

One night I left three guitars at the Greenville in Chagrin Falls. Jimmy, the manager, was sitting at the bar with a grin on his face when I came in the next day. He said I figured you would show up as soon as we opened. I did.

This week was a new one. I drove 47 miles to play at the Jenks Building in Cuyahoga Falls. This is a new venue for me and I was excited to be performing there. The place is a hub for a community of artists, with gallery and retail space, and several performance areas too. It has a cool vibe and a well-deserved reputation.

As I pulled up to the building, I had a total energy collapse when I realized I had failed to put my guitars in the car. My stomach dropped, the top of my head lifted and I was just spinning. I texted MJ and simply said, I forgot my guitars.

I normally slow down my performance schedule in the winter months, but for some reason, I had booked five gigs in 8 days. It was akin to going from zero to 100 on the quarter-mile track. Maybe that full immersion into the deep end of the pool could explain this boneheaded move or maybe it was the shift in weather.

The temperature had dropped from 58 to 22 over a twenty-four-hour period, and I have to say, that kind of screws with me a little bit. Whatever it was, I was guitar-less and scheduled to start playing in 45 minutes. It was a 55-minute drive to get to the Jenks from my house.

MJ texted me back asking what could she do, and at the same time, I got a message from Katy Robinson telling me she was afraid she would have to miss my show.

Katy lives nearby and her text made me wonder if I could borrow a guitar from her, or anyone else in the area. As I was walking into the building, I tried to call her to no avail. I introduced myself at the retail counter explained my situation, and asked the lady if she knew anyone who could lend me a guitar. She asked me for any specific guitar, and I replied that I could make any acoustic guitar work. She said give me a minute. My mind was racing, and I wasn’t thinking about who I might know in the area, but I called Paul Kovac who might be able to refer me to some nearby players. I did not relish the idea of telling him I was at a gig without my instruments and therefore set myself as the subject for a lifetime of mild ribbing, but I was in a tight spot, and Paul is always good for a suggestion or two.

While I was telling him about my dilemma, and hearing the first “Oh wow, your first gig at this place and you forgot your guitar?”, and I heard someone say, “Hey Steve, I got a guitar for you. It is a Patrician.”

The Patrician.

Harmony made guitars for a long time. They are probably best known for their “Stella”. The Stella is a parlor-sized, simply made instrument that was often sold through mail-order catalogs. Harmony also made some higher-end flattop and arch-top guitars and recently I have been checking out arch-tops when they appear on Market Place. They are selling anywhere from $100 to 500. I missed a couple of good deals. The morning before my show at the Jenks Building, I saw a listing for a Harmony Patrician. Harmony had a whole line of Arch-tops ranging from entry-level to moderately nice instruments. I seemed to recall hearing that the Patrician was one of their higher-end models. The product description indicated that it was 1962, lightly played, and being sold by the original owner. It was listed for a little more than I wanted to pay, but I was interested.

Later that evening I found myself playing on a borrowed Patrician. What a coincidence!

This particular guitar played reasonably well and had that distinctive mid-range cut that arch-tops are known for. This one was pretty decked out too. It had to be a limited production model as it had ornate binding and in-lay on the headstock, indicative that this was indeed a high-end model.

When I got home, I sent an inquiry out about the Market Place listing and made arrangements to go see the guitar. Not that I am superstitious, but this was just too big of a coincidence.

Long story short, after a gig in Youngstown, I drove another 30 minutes into Pennsylvania and met Evan, the man who had listed the guitar on Market Place. He was brokering it for his 82-year-old neighbor, who had bought the guitar new in 1962 for his mother. She never learned to play, died a few years later and the guitar had been in storage since.

Evan had taken the guitar to a friend who had changed the strings and modified the bridge to improve its playability. I wasn’t too thrilled about the bridge modification, but other than that, it was in mint condition for a 1962 guitar. It is in incredibly clean condition, with hardly a noticeable blemish. It even had the original “How to take care of your Harmony guitar” brochure in the case, along with two Mel Bay instruction books.

So yes, I have another guitar. 

A Different Perspective From A Little Old Instrument  

Like many other musicians I know, I have a random collection of instruments I really don’t play. This includes a host of small percussion instruments, shakers, clickers, hand drums, a few kalimbas, a xylophone, a “can-jo” and some electronic music-making devices. Some of these I have purchased, but a great number have been given to me, including an old banjolele and a Loar mandolin.

The banjolele is a U-King, and was probably made in the 1920s or 30s'. It came complete with a heart, some names and the notes of the strings written on the calfskin head. For many years the banjolele hung on the wall or sat in the corner as a conversation piece, until one day I got the notion that I should string it up. Using a short wooden pencil as a bridge and some random (approximately gauged) guitar strings I did just that. I was surprised at how loud the little instrument was and decided that I would take it to a repair shop and have it properly reconditioned.

After a nominal investment, I was entertaining myself sitting around the house flailing away on this thing.

Now as I understand, these instruments were supposed to be vigorously strummed, but that was not the sound that was enchanting me. I was developing an approach that was sort of a hybrid between cross-picking and frailing. Cross-picking is how I play many songs on the guitar and involves using a combination of a flat pick and fingerpicking. Frailing is an old-style banjo technique often used in traditional or traditional-sounding songs. And that was the sound I was going for.

I was thinking about my song, Drake Hollow, and how I wanted it to sound. The story is set pre-Civil War so I wanted an “old-timey” vibe and playing the banjolele with this approach seemed to fit the bill. Before long, and after an upgrade from the original tuners, as the original ones just wouldn’t hold tune, I was experimenting with a number of my other songs.

When Bill Lestock had recorded the New Little Willie Blues, I had invited Mark Olitsky to the session to play old-style banjo, and Mark brought a wonderful musical lick to the song that was just perfect. It didn’t change the character of the piece, but added an authenticity that I didn’t even realize was missing. Mark, by the way, is a renowned old-style banjo player, and I was delighted he could participate in that project.

The story of The New Little Willie Blues, like Drake Hollow, takes place in a bygone era, and I am often looking for a musical technique or approach that helps illuminate that point. I loved what Mark was doing, but it never occurred to me to try to replicate that lick on the guitar, until I was playing around with the banjolele.

After some experimentation, I found that I was replicating, in a simple way, Mr. Olitsky’s banjo part, and feeling pretty good about it. But, as you might suspect, these little instruments have unique tunings, and while I was doing this musical passage correctly, it was in a different key.

One morning as I was practicing, I started singing along and discovered that, in this key, with this little instrument, the song changed once again.  I was motivated to work up a comparable arrangement on the guitar in the banjolele key.

This whole experience reminded me how important it can be to occasionally take the time to look at a situation from a different perspective. Even when things are good, a different view or approach can occasionally lead to a greater understanding, a fresh approach a source of motivation, or maybe just a little joy.

I am glad I got her back into playing shape.  

A Small Salute To Black History Month  

If you have heard me perform “Drake Hollow”, you have probably heard me share the story of how I wrote the song. At the risk of redundancy, let me chronicle that story here as well. 

We happen to live in a very special place. Our house is located alongside a creek that for a hundred years or so, was utilized to supply power to a number of mills. I won’t delve deeply into the remarkable history of the valley in this essay. Right across the creek from our house, there used to be a structure that was originally constructed as a boarding house for the mill workers. Ultimately, it was converted into a residence by Hawley Drake. 

Mr. Drake was an interesting character and a known abolitionist. He offered his residence as a safe house/stopping point for the Underground Railroad. The various Under Ground Railroad routes often follow waterways through Ohio and such was the case here in the valley where I live.

Although there have been 10 or more new houses built on the road since we moved here in 1999, there is still enough open space to sense the connection to the history of the valley. 

A few years back, I was taking an early morning walk and as the dawn was breaking, a fog was hanging over the creek. I stopped on the bridge and looked up the stream. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to slip away under the cover of darkness to begin an overland journey from the Deep South to Canada. 

In a matter of minutes, all of the elements of the song came to me. 

As the song began to evolve, I hoped to someday share it during Black History Month, and I finally made that happen this week. 

A studio version will be on my upcoming record, but I posted the version on YouTube that was recorded at Silver Maple House Concerts in November. 2023 .
 

https://youtu.be/9wRLRiho4nY?
 

I hope you enjoy it

 

A look upstream

Walking Toward The End Of A Project 

A Way To Listen

Most of my recent walking has been occurring on an indoor track this winter. I don't mind, but that setting falls a little short on providing inspiring writing themes. That being said, I find that this type of structured walking provides a perfect opportunity for a very focused listening experience. I often jokingly tell people that I have the attention span of a gnat because  I am easily distracted  

I try to walk three days a week, and as I am working on my fourth solo record, my walking days have provided ample time to review, then review, and re-review arrangements, the final mixes, and the sequence of the songs included in this project.  This requires a great deal of focused, un interrupted listening.

I guess I am a little old school but the song sequence on an album is a really big deal to me. Maybe I grew up in the heyday of the recorded album, when an LP would be put on, played continuously from one song to the next, and often flipped to side two and played from beginning to end. I came to appreciate a good album that would provide a listening experience that flowed from song to song. This flow was  product of the musical key, tempo, and the general feel and continuity of each song from one to the next.. 

In my mind, song selection and song sequence have a great deal to do with how a recording project fits together. The chapters in a novel are a good analogy. A chapter from a book might be able to stand alone as a story, but in totality the collection, and proper sequence of the chapters are essential to create a much greater, comprehensive story. . 

In today's world of digital streaming, the concept of an album has greatly suffered. Since the beginning of recorded music, singles have always dominated the market, and for several decades the 45 RPM record was king, providing a convenient medium for DJs and jukeboxes to play, and for school kids to buy one at a time. But for several decades beginning in the late 60s' albums were a predominate way for many people to enjoy music. In my book, an album has always been the ultimate listening experience. 

I always feel like I get a more personal connection with the artist, and in some instances, the recording engineers and producers when listening to an album.

On today's streaming platforms algorithms automatically group single songs, from multiple artists, based on similarities in listener demographics and preferences. It is very hard for an independent artist to get placement on an algorithm-driven playlist. 

Even when a recorded album of material is purchased and downloaded, listeners create their own playlists and in effect create their own themed albums. This is nothing new, just the process has changed. An argument could be made this first started when a sequence of 45's could be stacked on the spindle of a record player. Maybe this was the first "home made" play list. And this became more sophisticated in the late 70's when it became popular to make cassette mix tapes.

I would argue a playlist doesn't take the place of a selection and sequence of songs mindfully curated by the composer/performer and producer. So I spend a great deal of time thinking about this as I listen to the songs playing from one to the next. Then, I move them around to see if the mood or feel of the collection changes. And I do this until I find what I think is "right". It always makes me happy when someone tells me that they have listened to one of my projects from beginning to end, and I hope they enjoyed the collection as much as the individual songs.      

While I am fretting about the song sequence, I am also listening to the mix and arrangement of each song. That is the volume and blend between all of the instruments and vocals, and, when certain musical parts are added or muted, and how all these components work togehter.

I forward all of my notes to the producer that I am working with, Matin Stansbury who happens to live in the UK. We have an ongoing dialog about each of the songs and the project as a whole. And Martin is not only fun to work with but he is really quite brilliant. Advances in technology has made it possible to transfer large music files with few if any problems. I can record parts, or tracks, here in my studio and send them to Martin with no trouble at all. It's really quite remarkable.   

After the mix is solid and the arrangements are where they should be, the next step is mastering the recordings. That involves some final tonal adjustments and balancing the volume from song to song, but also the volume and tonality of the entire project. And we are getting close to the final mastering stage of the process. 

Once mastering is done, each song will have a digital code registered with BMI, which happens to be my PRO (performing rights organization).

These digital codes enable BMI to keep track of how often these songs may be played on radio or digital streaming platforms. And as you might guess, this is how royalty payments are determined.    

While Martin is finishing the mastering of the project, I will continue to work on the copy for liner notes, DJ "one sheets', and with layout and graphic artist to develop and produce all of the artwork associated with the album. 

While copyrights have been secured for all of the songs included on the album, I will file a copyright for the entire album as a collection. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, I can assure you it is. People will occassionally ask me if I make any money selling albums. For the most part it may be a break even proposition at best, and in reality, it is my local performances that finance my recording projects. 

So the next obvious question is, "Why do I do this?" And there are really several answers to this question. First, it motivates me to formalize the ideas I have for my original tunes, and this improves my live performaces. Secondly there is reward of creating something that is tangible on some level. Something that still exists after the performance is over.  Perhaps most importantly, it is a way of sharing this music that I create and perform. And sometimes, someone will come up to me and share something personal about how much a song means to them, and that makes it all worthwhile. 

See you the trail, (or track)

Steve  

 


 

 

The Faith Of An Artist  

An inspiration from my cousin Jay Madewell.

 

 

I really didn’t know my cousin Jay. Well, actually he was the son of my cousin, so I guess that means he was my second cousin. I never professed to master all the terms of lineage.

Jay was 16 years younger than me, and we never interacted as adults. The only thing I can remember about him was leaving a family event at my parents' house and Jay repeatedly running off the porch into the hedges. I don’t mean running and jumping off of the porch, I mean running full speed off of the porch and falling headlong into the juniper and yew shrubs. I told him he could get hurt and he should stop doing this. He didn’t.

Forty-plus years later I found myself driving to a memorial service for Jay. At fifty-one years old, his death was tragic and I wanted to show some compassion and support for his parents, and siblings. His folks had always been caring and helpful to my parents, and his sister has been close to my daughter. She and I have stayed in touch over the years. Losing my brother a few years ago is still an open wound. I simply wanted to offer a hug.

I knew Jay had been involved with music as a young adult, but I didn’t really appreciate the level of activity and devotion he had focused on performing arts. Reading his obituary and assorted Facebook posts I rapidly gained some insight into his engagement and presence in the southwestern Ohio music community.

The event I was driving to was being hosted at a Dayton music venue as a gathering of friends and family. I didn’t know if his parents would be there because it was being held at a tavern. Some of my family have very strong feelings about alcohol, and I had read that a subsequent service was being planned for a later date at a church.

When I arrived, there were already hundreds of people there, and I was happy to see Jay’s parent were in attendance. I got there just before memorials were shared by two of Jay’s closest friends and I am glad that I got the hear them.

From the time I had heard about his passing, to the instant I was hearing these shared recollections and thoughts, I had come to realize that Jay was indeed an artist and had devoted his life to this calling. He was a drummer, founded several bands, was a music promoter, and a DJ. He had owned a record store in Oxford, Ohio, and was involved with several film projects. He had clearly touched the lives of countless people. I heard stories of his mentorship to friends and protégés, financial help he had provided to artist in need, and the endless emotional support and encouragement he had given to others.

 

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People joked about being in Jay’s Lunch Club, a circle of people that Jay would occasionally take to lunch and share his thoughts on things they might consider doing differently, and the Room-mate Club, folks that showed up at his door when they needed a place to stay for a few days or a few months.

I not only heard about his passion, and his pursuit of excellence, but how he could be insistent, and most often, correct in his opinion.

Like most artist, he did things that some folks just couldn’t understand. He had rented a warehouse space that was full of not only his drum kits but dozens of keyboards, vintage amplifiers, and a lot of boutique gear. I supposed that he recognized these were important creative tools irregardless if he ever used them. To me, this collection was indicative of not just being an artist, but also someone who was a student and steward of the art of composing and creating contemporary music. Perhaps he didn’t want these tools to be lost and he was holding them for some future use.

 

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Like most artists, he appeared to be eccentric.

Our family at large,  was not very well equipped to support an artistic lifestyle. Both of my parents, as was the case with Jay’s grandparents, had come from very humble beginnings in rural Tennessee. By today’s standards we could say they were born into poverty, and through tireless hard work had found their way to a middle-class existence.

Such a life doesn’t have much room for the perceived luxury or art, and these values are often passed along from generation to generation.

It seems to me that being poor is a condition many people may not be able to escape, and consequently, must accept. But, if by a series of events, good fortune and hard work, one escapes the clutches of poverty, that person never forgets what it was like to be hungry.

Such was the case of my parents, and most of my aunts and uncles. They were consciously aware of the cost of everything, and the ephemeral nature of comfort. In that mindset, there was little room for luxury, as luxury could easily be construed as opulence, and opulence was wasteful. Waste can be a horrible notion for someone who remembers what is was like to be without.

A very important component to the path that led my parents beyond the limitations they were born into was their religious convictions, and for the most part, this was consistent through my father's side of our family. This included Jay’s grandfather. Religious faith was a huge part of our upbringing.  Fundamental religions expect a complete and total commitment. And for a large part, the reward for that commitment is the promise of a life in heaven.

Now the end game in this equation is the notion of eternal life, and by being devote, you could make it through the pearly gates. So from my perspective, this faith is driven by the promise of a personal reward. While at Jay’s gathering I found myself pondering faith in a much different way.

Anything beyond simple household decorations was just not a part of my upbringing. I am comfortable in saying this was surly accurately for my cousins as well.

For the most part, art was simply outside of the world we grew up in. That is not to say members of our family were not artistic, that is not the case at all. I am saying there was little to no understanding of how to support the pursuit of an art form and an artistic lifestyle.

Being an artist, does not allow room for much else. A great deal, if not everything, revolves around this calling.

Analyzing and trying to understand my own upbringing is exactly what made me feel so proud and emotional at Jay’s gathering. It was apparent that Jay was an artist and he had lived as an artist.

I have read numerous interviews and articles with, and about musicians and songwriters. Sometimes when they are asked why they do what they do, the answers range from, “This is my job”. to “I don’t know, it is something I have to do”.

 

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I think there is something else at play and that is the unquantifiable, inherent belief that this thing called art may touch the lives of others and may make the world a better place. Maybe by bringing forth an emotion, pain, joy, sadness, or laughter, or creating motivation or hope, or maybe calling attention to good or evil, an artist might make the world a better place. I think this is the unspoken, and maybe un described faith of an artist.

Certainly there are intrinsic rewards associated with being an artist. Emotional rewards associated with the act of creating. Accolades given from people who appreciate the work. Maybe even some financial return on the hours of time and money invested in this pursuit. But when all of the dust settles, there is something else that compels and artist. Maybe it is simply faith.

A faith fuels the deep drive to make and create art that may on some scale, on some level, make the world a better place.

Maybe that is why Jay did what he did.

And looking around at the tremendous gathering of friends and colleagues, it was obvious, Jay’s art and lifestyle had enriched the lives of so many. It certainly enriched mine. I wished I known him.

Photos from the Trolley Stop 2021