Winner in Great American Song Contest

Just learned I am one of four songwriters who won an Outstanding Achievement Award in Songwriting (Country Music Category) in the 21st Great American Song Contest, for my song “Is It Love Yet.” Last year I was selected as a finalist for this award. I recorded the song in Nashville in the late Eighties. Trisha Yearwood sang the demo; it was signed to PolyGram (later bought by Universal). It was later released as a single by indie artist JoAnne Redding.

You can listen to Trisha singing “Is It Love Yet?” here:

I haven’t written much about my Nashville years on this blog, so thought I’d mention that I also had songs published by other major companies, including SONY, Tom Collins Music, Shedd House and Tillis Tunes.

The 21st Great American Song Contest received more than 1,800 submissions from 40 countries. Here is a list of this year’s contest judges.

‘Poet in the City’: the Lost Gem

The following is from Mat Danks’ Excavation Tape Project, which attempts to unearth previously undiscovered musical gems:

Excavation Tapes #267: ‘Poet in the City’ by Allen Shadow

kks-album-cover Wow, this is dark. And very cool. Listen here.

It’s a creeping, haunting yomp over some brilliantly bleak, industrial clangy instrumentation. Perhaps, like a gothic take on John Cooper Clarke with some pretty obvious touchpoints of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

It’s from a 2002 album called ‘King Kong Serende’ and a bit of digging into Allen Shadow (see his blog here) suggests he’s a bit of a renaissance man. His Twitter bio states: “Novelist Allen Shadow (aka Allen Kovler) is also a music artist, poet, journalist & PR pro (APR) who blogs on writing, music and politics.” Which is what we like here on the Excavation Tapes.

If this project is all about unearthing really interesting and brilliant material lost in the banal mainstream crossfire, then we’ve got ourselves a gem here.

–Mat Danks

The War Wages on in the Media Biz

If there’s any doubt about the disarray and desperation afoot in the music business, just check out the Internet’s affect on the media business – music, print and broadcast – overall over the past decade. A recent article in the New York Times covers the waterfront on this issue quite well.

While the devastation of digital democracy vis-à-vis the Web made its first blitz through the belly of the music biz, the print media was next in line, and the battlefield there rivals Antietam.

As a journalist and PR man – in addition to my music career – I’ve felt the devastation first hand. I’m intimately involved in the newspaper field and have seen dozens of friends and colleagues tossed out on the street as media chains have filed Chapter 11 and newspapers large and small have folded. Some first class writers and photographers I know can’t get arrested in their field right now. Personally, it makes me sad. Professionally, it brings home the realities of what us music artists face as we search for a viable business model.

And it brings to mind post on Music Think Tank by Derek Sivers entitled “Unlearning.” In it, he claims everyone who says they know what the future music model is is simply “full of shit.” What’s significant about his colorful observation isn’t so much its tude as its truth.

Sivers has been around enough to know (even what he doesn’t). And his recent read on our industry resonates through the Times article cited above, from Rupert Murdoch’s shaky search-engine trial to the uncertain, even timid efforts of Time Inc. and the New York Times itself.

With the new decade upon us, we can only hope that a less bloody battlefield lies ahead.
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Breakthroughs, Bitterness and Biopics

Music biographies mesmerized me when I was a kid. Whether it was Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley, it was always the same fascinating formula: talent and tenacity leading to the precipice of success, with the artist always searching for that one elusive element to define his signature sound, to breakthrough. With Miller it was the addition of trombones. The proceedings always put me on the edge of my seat and the breakthroughs set me reeling. I guess it was in my blood.

It persists. The other night I watched two great documentary-style biopics on TV, one on Johnny Cash, another on Willie Nelson. Willie, as many of his fans may not realize, was actually a Nashville songwriter penning such classics as “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline etched into the music lexicon. Despite his preeminent status as a writer, Willie couldn’t get arrested as an artist in Music City. His quirky phrasing was way too off-beat for the 60s sound, which was infused with sweet strings and pop arrangements.

At the age of 40, Willie returned home to Texas. Such a move would have meant a life sentence selling insurance had history not intervened. As fate would have it, Woodstock Nation had opened the doors to multiple music movements by the early 70s, and Willie realized that such hippie hangouts as Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters were ready for a new kind of country artist. He enlisted his buddy Waylon Jennings, among others, and set about launching a novel sound to a new audience. His ultimate success turned country music, and the music establishment at large, on its head. Ultimately, he was responsible for redefining music, establishing its “outlaw” class and creating the Austin revolution as well as worldwide social activism that persists to this day.

Despite his huge outsider success, Nashville rejected this giant yet again. By the 1980s, you couldn’t find a Willie song on mainstream country radio, and forget about a major label deal.

Okay, let’s get right down to the hard part. Cash was just another music god to be tumbled unceremoniously from Olympus. By the 80s, he, too, was cast out like so much trash. His popularity was dwindling, and he was struggling to find an audience and make a living.

So these outlaw outcasts banded together, literally, forming the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. Talk about a Mount Rushmore of talent. They had taken fate into their own hands and, once again, set out to redefine the music scene, outside the establishment, all on their own.

A Bronx boy, I was still getting my country legs under me, when I hit Nashville in the late 80s. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the likes of Willie and Johnny weren’t getting mainstream air play, why I could eat lunch with Emmylou Harris but couldn’t hear her songs on country radio, why Nanci Griffith was considered a darling in all the clubs, to all the execs, but couldn’t get the chart toppers and eventually carped about it in interviews.

I was just getting introduced to the hard truth of the music industry: bitterness. Griffith was bitter, my friend Artie Traum (from back home in Woodstock) — one of the sweetest guys to ever grace the business — was expressing a degree of bitterness, too, in interviews of the day. I was just learning.

The songwriting trade in Nashville was rough. By year two, I was saying you had to learn to live on a diet of stones. Rejection was the blue-plate special everyday. It took me two years to get my first major song contract and more to get my first staff writing job and my first cut. Everyone who stuck with it had war stories: the song on hold that never happened, the artist cut that got dropped by the label or never got released as a single or didn’t make it above 20 on the charts. But, despite eventual successes and even industry support, I left after a decade to pursue a career as an artist, packing scars and wisdom, love and hate.

But back to Johnny Cash. One of the greatest artists to “walk the line,” he faced the pure pain of artistry more deeply, more movingly than anyone before him. Late in his career, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Johnny faced his inner darkness, his demons, his truth, his soul. With such albums as “American Recordings” and “Unchained,” he found a vast and vital new audience, just years before his death. His new material was so raw that family members had a tough time listening. They told him it sounded like he was saying goodbye. He told them he was.

Pure Johnny Cash

In the Cash bio, artists such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Vince Gill expressed the true painful tumble that all artists must face. Mellencamp himself recently penned a telling if rambling article on the biz in HuffPost, a blog post that established a wellspring of conversation in the social media sector.

So, this little Bronx boy, who reeled from the Glenn Miller story and cut and broke his teeth on Music Row, finally came to understand bitterness and the role it plays in any music career. No one is exempt. It may be (excuse me) a bitter pill to swallow, but I recommend downing it to develop a good artist-immune system. Another words, one has to learn to deal with it, embrace it, pain and all, and find a way to move on. Carry it on your back, in your suitcase, in your heart, on your skin — the rose tattoo of the music artist.

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‘It’s tough to beat up a guy that never quits’

Babe Ruth mouthed that ungrammatical gem, and a slumping Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees just invoked it at a critical moment in his career.

Hang with me a moment, and you’ll see what this has to do with us music artists. Swisher made the last out in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series the other night. It was a frustrating moment, since a hit in that spot could’ve finished off the Angels and put the Bombers in the World Series.

With otherwise-clutch Swisher having only three hits in 29 at-bats this postseason, the temptation looms to sit the right fielder for another player. But manager Joe Girardi is keeping him in the lineup for the next critical game, and his reasons are exemplary. Girardi had a number of examples but the best came from his own postseason experience as a Yankees catcher. Girardi didn’t have a hit in the Yanks’ 1996 World Series as they entered a pivotal Game 6. He came through with what was to become a legendary triple. That clutch hit helped put the game and the series in the team’s column and set the stage for a dynasty period: four World Series titles in a five-year period.

Like a baseball season, a music career is a real grind. Baseball players play 162 games each season and more in the postseason, if they get there. Each year, even the best teams have high times and low. They play loose and have fun in the successful stretches and get tight when they play poorly. For short periods, even the best player can look clueless at the plate, his mechanics all out of whack. Then, inexplicably, he gets a cheap hit, and his sweet swing returns along with his confidence.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Likewise, artists at every level have similar swings, if you will. But, if you’ve had successes and you simply stay in the game, you can bet you’ll have more to build on.

Is this a pep talk? Yes. I give them to myself all the time.
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Dog Guru

My wife, Roxanne and I saw Jamey Johnson last weekend in an awful club in Clifton Park, N.Y. Johnson’s a country songwriter cum recording artist who’s anything but awful. He’s one of those rare artists who come along once in a generation in a genre, in this case country.

He’s so raw and real it hurts. He’s of the outlaw breed, and his songs — even some of his hits – hold a bare light bulb to reality.

He’s a Montgomery boy, an ex-marine, ex-family man, and ex-rebel rouser, and his voice is as perfectly imperfect as his life. I’m not writing this to pitch Johnson, but country fan or not, this plainspoken poet is worth a listen.

I’m reminded of Steve Earle, who blew me away with his 1986 debut album “Guitar Town.” One literate bad boy with a voice to match. The first time I heard him I wanted to burn my guitar and typewriter (remember those), but eventually returned to my auteur senses.

Feels good to get a jolt of genius through your gut once in awhile. I find it inspirational.

What I love about guys like Johnson and Earle is their take-no-prisoners approach. They know who they are, and they live it no matter what, even if it means sacrificing at the altar of the hit-machine gods along the way.

We can all use inspiration on the long and winding road of music artistry, something or someone to keep us on the scent of who we really are. For me, it’s my labradoodle, Stella. She’s my guru. She knows things even Einstein couldn’t, but most of all she knows exactly how to follow her nose, and I follow her example daily.

Stella, my guru

Stella, my guru

Johnson follows his nose at all costs, even though there are risks along the way. His next album may not do as well. He may fade from the scene like many road geniuses before him. But, no matter what, he’ll have done it his way, and he’ll have lived a fully-realized life.

For me, it took a decade to discover my voice as a poet. In fact, when I was in college, I didn’t even know what that really meant. Then, it took yet longer to marry my poetic voice with my music, even a career as a Nashville songwriter along the way, an interesting and — as I once told New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles – circuitous journey. But I now know who I am as a recording artist and know exactly where I’m headed.

And Stella keeps me on track; and no matter what, I love the ride.
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You’re So ‘Yester-moment’

It’s no longer the flavor or the month or what used to be called 24/7 or wall-to-wall coverage. The new media cycle, at least for this nanosecond, is called “perpetual movement.”

In other words, spin or die. That’s the latest from Internet guru Michael Moritz, a Sequoia investor who backed Google, Yahoo and the Sugar Inc. blog-networks.

Quoted in a recent New York Times article, Moritz says:

Perpetual movement is the essence of survival and prosperity online. If online media and entertainment companies don’t improve every day, they will just wind up as the newfangled version of Reader’s Digest — bankrupt.

A second ago, it seems, we were talking about reinventing ourselves. But that’s so yesterday, or should I say so yestermoment.

What the Suger blog people have learned of late is that content on their successful networks must change constantly.

What this overall trend spells for us music artists is even scarier than the current biz model. Maybe the Web 2.0 atomizing machine will move us even further from the album, all the way to the ring tone (do not pass digital single).

Of course, I’m kidding, but only partly. After all, it is somewhat scary. The same warp-machine that devoured major labels, newspapers and publishing may chew us into yet smaller morsels.

For myself, I’m headed into my studio to record a new three-note masterpiece. Must adapt or die.
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