Honeyboy’s Grammy: A Moment for a Great American Voice

The legendary bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards received a lifetime achievement award at last night’s Grammy Awards ceremonies. One of the last of the first generation bluesmen, Honeyboy was a close pal of Robert Johnson and a contemporary of Charley Patton and other blues pioneers.

The 94-year-old Honeyboy was instrumental in establishing a unique American voice, one that was born of slavery and struggle, spirit and magic. It’s a rich history that begat rock and roll and even rap. Artists from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Jay Z emanate from those underpinnings, and many more contemporary artists have paid homage to this field of music from which they came.

If the blues seems like a quaint, dusty, irrelevant music genre, give a listen to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnson and Honeyboy. Listen long in the dark with your eyes closed and go on a journey to the center of the American music universe. And when you turn the lights on, read a copy of the late Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues,” a thorough primer on the music and its handprints on American culture.

Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, left, and Allen Shadow.

I got a chance to talk with Honeyboy after one of the many blues concerts I’ve promoted over the years that have included the likes of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Earl King, Little Milton, Odetta, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Honeyboy was as charming as he was informative, happy to tell stories of Johnson and the early days. I considered it an honor and was pleased to see this giant of American music recognized last night.
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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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