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.
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.