THE SOLO PERFORMER: What Happens After Perseverance
OK, so I didn't quit. It was all just a little head game I was playing. Every few years I torture myself with plans to leave this business and become an adult. Now, out of the doldrums and filled with optimism about the future, I feel a song coming on. So what.
There's an industry joke. The 5 stages of a career as seen by an agent: (I'd use my own name here but my esteem is up these days, so I'll use my newly created fantasy country hunk, "Justin Laredo." He has a boot endorsement, probably, and is on tour opening for Earl Buns, who has a Wrangler endorsement.)
- "Who's Justin Laredo," says the agent. (You're nobody—they don't book you)
- "Get me somebody just like Justin Laredo" (You're finally somebody—they try to get around your price)
- (not much later) "Get me a young Justin Laredo." (If you don't think there's such a thing as age discrimination just wait a little while)
- "Get me a sober Justin Laredo." (optional)
- "Who's Justin Laredo?" (Full circle—they never did book you)
One can be oddly, partially, almost famous for a long time. It's often a strange mix of people who come to my shows; moms and dads, bikers and bums, normal people, a few hat people from the country days and 5 people who drove here all the way from Ashtabula to hear the full blown orchestral versions of the pop hits from the 80s and because "You're God." I do love you. (I went to a Halloween party as God once. People were guessing "Duane Allman? Jerry Garcia?" They didn't know who I was OR who I was supposed to be—lonely little god.)
Growing up in the music business is scary. As a middle aged guy in a young person's business, you have to pick your shots because you have to be in top form more consistently. I don't casually accept a show offer any more. Gone are the days of 12 one nighters in a row, partying and chain smoking all the way, and making the next town looking like Charles Manson in the morning and Bobby Goldsboro by showtime. (He was a recording artist, Bobby Goldsboro . . . well, . . . he made records.)
I'm 53. A young 53. Nobody calls me "sir" or holds the door for me or anything. There are attractive women who show their appreciation (I love you too), but occasionally some young 20ish beauty looks me in the eyes and says "You know, my mom just loves your music." Maybe someday she'll say, "You know, my grandma . . . " It's the ultimate compliment and it's also disconcerting.
Prettiness, or hipness was always a factor; youthfulness however, doesn't have to be. Somebody famous (I don't remember who) said, "To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty. To be a poet at forty is another matter." I take pride in it. And 53 isn't as old as it used to be, thank God. (Wait a minute, I'm God.)
Some I know, who'd never admit it, fall for their own PR. It seems that the task of a long term "success story" is primarily that of continuing to seem successful. That kind of insecurity makes for lousy decisions and maudlin recordings.
I was in my twenties in the sixties and it was wonderful. Sex was good and the Russians were bad. Times do change. Living in this age of angst and otherwise suppressed emotions is difficult for a balladeer. My musical milestones and reference points aren't the recent ones, they're the ones who inspired the current crop. A couple of the new ones even sound like me. (Thanks.)
Having a somewhat known body of work and having to repeat those songs for years can be dangerous. You run the risk of becoming a caricature of yourself—the interpretations become habitual. No need to name names. You see them on TV and wish they'd retire. There always was Las Vegas for people who have arguably done their best work. Or Tahoe. And now we have Branson. Branson, Missouri has become the Catskills of Country, the place where retired people go to see retired performers play.
To have had past commercial success may not bring you favor today—in fact it can work against you. If your music doesn't age well you're seen as some sort of light weight sell out. (I'm still proud of "Bluer Than Blue" and consider myself wise not to have cut "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." Sing that five nights a week.)
Loyalties change. My teenage sons and their friends seem only to like regional promising punk bands on fledgling labels which are in trouble. If they get bigger than that the kids move on to find another struggling cause to champion. (One of the kids, who looked like he fell into a tackle box, ingratiatingly wondered if I'd met any of the Dead Kennedys. All I could think of was November 22nd.) There's no competing with that young, devoted, underdog philosophy.
My current peers may be 10 or 20 years younger than I, and steeped in an acoustic music world with more recent gurus than mine—wizards playing in tunings, capos chopped to allow open strings to drone . . . it's a different musical world, a wonderful one.
The challenge as always, and at any age, is to remain fresh. It has always been the boredom of a current show or song that gives me an instant deadline to make something new. Every tour tops out before it ends and sometimes it's difficult to get it up for tonight's gig, having conjured those particular emotions so often. Living in the shadow of a great show last night can be terrifying but it spurs me to write, arrange and make new music.
The venues have changed but the process of working them remains the same. To work the small acoustic clubs in the Northeast, for example, you have to frequent them—to hang, to become considered somewhat local. It's an investment in time and travel if you don't live there. Same story everywhere else too. And you have to return at the right time; not too soon, but not before they've moved on to other memories. Word of mouth is still the best advertising and so the name of the game is to come back for repeat performances, building an audience. Some people play everywhere once. That would be a bad sign.
So now what? No longer signed to a major label and no longer trying to be part of the big horse race is humbling at first and tremendously exciting later. There are smaller labels to haunt; offering smaller budgets and requiring, thank God, more personal artistry. There are young entrepreneurial record people trying to find ways to market this stuff effectively.
Your competition is the sheer volume of performers working—and a really bad CD looks just as pretty and full of promise when you crack it open as a good one does, and there are a lot of bad CDs out there. No revelation to you, I'm sure, but it jams up the works.
The times seem to produce soft guys and women who are rough, tough and tender. There are gentle male vocalists, wonderful poets like John Gorka or David Wilcox and, in the wings, the sweet, deep insights of Buddy Mondlock. Soft-voiced men and wounded but recovering women. Hard-edged beautiful young poets like Jonatha Brooke and Shawn Colvin—women with tough, survival oriented messages. These are cathartic times, and the women truly have the floor as far as I'm concerned. In country music the difference between boys and girls is much more extreme; the female message is by far the more progressive and intelligent one. The cowboys, if not hopelessly in or out of in love, or filled with insipid views of America's old days on the front porch, are pretty much still lighting farts and fixing their trucks.
My sons, the newest generation, don't care at all about any of this crap of course, and are in a band called "The Snot Rockets" if that tells you anything. I don't expect much sympathy there for a few years.
Some things never seem to change. I wish they would. The archaic, clubby patter of the 60s hangs in the air like an old cigar. At the Bluebird, on writers' night, you can still hear, "Well, it was in tune when I bought it,"—followed by indulgent chuckles.
The other arts take better care of their veterans, but the performing musician falls through the cracks. My latest statement from the Pension and Welfare cubicle of the Nashville Musicians' local says that if I were to retire now they'd pay me $19.35 every month for the rest of my life! Hey, cappuccino! The studio players can do well though. Luckily, I haven't been stupid. As a self employed person I have my little IRA account.
Other challenges are timeless too, but with changing faces, like finding the proper instrumentation that enhances rather than dilutes your cool guitar/vocal part (you remember, that thing the whole arrangement hangs on).
Current acoustic albums seem to favor upright bass and a kind of light, white Latin percussion groove to embellish your guitar. The accordion has emerged from its corny polka closet. No longer the brunt of the myriad of banjo or lawyer type jokes, the accordion has become the new acoustic synthesizer, inferring string lines and other washes of color. It's a wonderful sound. It's also everywhere and becoming predictable. I can already hear its entrance at the second verse. I guess I secretly hope for breakthroughs. Instruments, like artists, emerge and fall from favor. Remember the lyracon? Me either. How about the mellophone? I think it was a cross between a telephone and a trombone. Get me a young mellophone.
I've had great times. I've been able to travel the world and I continue to do so. I've got friends almost everywhere. We have breakfast or dinner.
It's an addiction. I get more work done in the hotel room with my laptop, than I ever do at home. I pay bills on the road and occasionally change clothes in the car. (There's that one move though, that you have to be careful about when putting on your pants; wait at least until after the school bus goes by). Showbiz.
I'm very busy and have a bright future. There is writing, publishing, producing, performing, commercials, industrial shows, phone shows, club gigs, house concerts, opening act shows in big venues. The famous clubs of the 60s and 70s are gone now, and the new ones struggle, but they're there. There's maybe a small record label to start, the digital studio to build—that mailing list I've collected for years and never sent a mailing out yet. There is the internet with its bright future and cumbersome, ineffective present. There are CDs to sell at the gigs.
I dearly love performing but admit to getting tired of packing. I look forward to two days in the same hotel room because you can actually use the drawers!
Like my friends, my career has been a series of unrelated events. There's no reason to expect it to change. I kind of like it that way. I know I'm not alone in my experience and I know I'm not so different from you. I'm no font of wisdom, just the guy who gets to write about it. Young or old, we are all an endangered species. The answer from radio is often the same: "Too 'folk' for Triple A, too Country for Americana, too hard for Adult Contemporary." Too bad for radio.
The successful acoustic artists these days are wistfully seen as the tip of an iceberg. The conversation that the big industry labels are failing and that this is all going to turn itself around soon and the big boys will begin to market many substantial songs and great artists "like the old days," has been going on for as long as I can remember. Country music may indeed have overextended itself, but they can rearrange the deck chairs on that ship for a long time yet. If you go back and see what else was on the air when your faves were happening, you see that there was, by and large, about as much smarm on the air then as now.
I am of the Bill Haley generation, the first generation to be marketed to from adolescence onward, and I'd love nothing more than to be part of the first generation to create a market and carry some kind of poetic message all the way out the damned door. Besides, I need the gigs and I can't sing love songs to teenagers anymore.
So here it is for me. Instead of waiting for the "Great Change In American Culture" it's time once again to deal with things as they are.
Break a leg. Mj
Michael Johnson has made 14 albums. As a popular artist in the 80s he had such hits as "Bluer Than Blue" and "This Night Won't Last Forever, " and had country hits with "That's That" and "Give Me Wings." He records for Intersound Records, has a new CD called "Then and Now", featuring "Whenever I Call You Friend", a duet (and video) with Alison Krauss. His website address is members.aol.com/mjbluer
Performing Songwriter - Volume 5, Issue 28 - January/February 1998
More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns