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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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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Viral, Schmiral (‘Greatness’ Pt. 2)

Baimurat Allaberiyev – a YouTube sensation – has a major record deal but still has few teeth, literally. And those teeth are planted on the cutting edge of the latest boom-and-bust trend in the music industry: viral-video microfame.

So, let’s get real about the sobering statistics of enduring Web 2.0 success among music artists. To that end, I will explore the verities of the viral-video trend.

But first, this exploration is not meant as a discouragement. It’s simply a reality check. Like a sound check, it gets us in tune, so we can perform at our best. And, as with the old industry, the new music model presents real, if limited, opportunities for enduring success. So, as in the past, the motivation for the serious artist is the very challenge of the overwhelming game itself.

Now, back to Allaberiyev, a former sheepherder from Russia who sang renditions of Bollywood songs all the day long, not unlike early American blues singers who chanted field hollers while picking cotton in the South. Some traditions never die.

Writing in Friday’s New York Times, Ellen Barry, tells how one of Allaberiyev’s signature performances was captured on videophone, eventually making it to YouTube and viral nirvana. But, while this music 2.0 fame led to a record deal with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in London, his manager Ilya Bortnyuk offers the sober summation:

“If there will be disappointment, it’s no big deal. It’s show business. There is glamour; there is disappointment. No big deal. I’m used to it after 20 years.”

Barry goes on to cite examples of viral video flameouts like Tay Zonday and Chris Crocker. She quotes Bill Wasik, author of a new book on viral video and Internet celebrity:

“Virtually all of them have found it hard to parlay the experience into a lasting career… Even a short ride is a kind of gift.”

Allaberiyev’s challenge: his charisma must translate into U.S. sales, since world music doesn’t sell in Russia, the environs of his initial following. Because Bollywood show tunes won’t do the trick, his handlers plan on transitioning his repertoire to Afghan and Central Asian folk songs. So, does the man on what feels like the top now find himself with another uphill climb? Certainly. Does he feel like Sisyphus? Yes. Haven’t we all? Yet, that should serve to raise the fighter mojo in him even more. Let’s face it; only heavyweights will win at this game. It’s the same in the new model as it was in the old. Some traditions never die.

And to rally Allaberiyev (also known as Tajik Jimmy), one of his supporters, Yelena Mirzoyeva, has this encouragement:

“A person that feels he is a star; that person will really go somewhere.”

Wasik himself recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed piece making a case for the Internet as the new New York for aspiring artists. He compares making it in Gotham with getting “the big break” on the Internet. The article weighs in with sobering data, which in the end, appear no better than the old music-biz model.

A senior editor at Harper’s and author of “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” Wasik discusses the recently depressed prospects for artists seeking fortune in the Big Apple, and turns his gaze to the Internet, saying:

“Meanwhile, another destination beckons, a place that courses with all the raw ambition and creative energy that the hard times seem to have drained from New York. I am referring, of course, to the Internet, which over the past decade has slowly become the de facto heart of American culture: the public space in which our most influential conversations transpire, in which our new celebrities are discovered and touted, in which fans are won and careers made.”

He cites such Web successes as the The Gregory Brothers, whose humorous YouTube series “Auto-Tune the News” has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans.

But, in the end, Wasik also concludes:

“Microcelebrity is now the rule, with respect not only to the size of one’s fan base but also to the duration of its love. Believe it or not, the Internet is a tougher town than New York; fewer people make it here (New York), but no one there (the Internet) seems to make it for long.”

As I follow the limited cases of significant Internet success, Bon Iver comes to the fore. Yet, keep in mind that his notoriety was spawned from a combination of both viral and print-media attention, including the Wall Street Journal, with one rolling into the other. Some traditions – in this case, PR-wise – never die.

So what statistical sobriety supplies us artists is the tired-but-true principle: the path to success is fraught with frustration and limitation. Same in the new model as it was in the old. So, buckle up, batton down and stay the course. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t star in the movie version.
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Musician: Why Your ‘Greatness’ is Missed

As music artists seek notice from fans and the industry, it’s vital to observe a key factor concerning peoples’ ability to recognize talent, even greatness.

You may have already read about the social experiment the Washington Post conducted two years ago with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. It was actually Bell’s idea to perform undercover as a street musician for a day at a Washington Metro station. What many don’t know is that the Gene Weingarten story earned a Pulitzer Prize that year for feature writing. What many do recall is the fact that a venerated violinist went virtually unnoticed, unappreciated and unrecognized.

What the public took away from the story — rightly so — is the fact that people pass up life’s jewels, even when they’re right before their, well, ears. But this tale holds a much greater meaning for artists of all stripes.

Center stage for artists sits the concept of context. What does that mean? For decades, I’ve observed that people, music industry pros included, often don’t recognize greatness in its raw form. When it comes to music, listeners need to have a song or an album framed for them in a validated form.

There are many examples, but here’s a case in point from my own experience as a songwriter and recording artist. In the late 1980’s, I began a ten-year stint as a Nashville songwriter. The first two years were rough, but when I got the hang of it my material and demos became street-ready, as they say. A number of those demos were sung by Trisha Yearwood. Then, she was known as Trisha Latham (her name from her first marriage), and was unsigned and unknown. The first demo I heard her sing on left me slack-jawed, and not just because of the material, which did eventually get signed to what was then PolyGram. By the time she hit the first chorus, I knew I was hearing a major star in the making.

But here’s the point. As I played those demos for music publishers and A&R execs, it amazed me that not a one commented on the singer. So I started what was to become an experiment of my own. I’d ask, “so what do you think of the singer?” They’d invariably say, “who is she?,” to which I’d reply, “Trisha Latham.” Then, they’d say something like “never heard of her,” and that was the end of it.

The reason they never heard of Trisha is because she was being developed privately through Garth Brooks’ camp. A&R in any music town expect to see upcoming talent in the clubs, so the assumption (as it was with Trisha) is: “if I don’t know her, she can’t be any good.” Again, it’s all about context.

Several months later, Trisha’s first single – “She’s in Love with the Boy” — came out, making Music City history for duration at number one for a female artist. By then, she had returned to her maiden name, Yearwood. I made the rounds of many of the same offices again, playing those Trisha-sung demos. This time, by the third note, I’d hear, “That’s Trisha Yearwood!,” to which I’d reply, “yeah, so where were you last year?”

Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of how most famous artists have their walls lined with record-label rejection letters, and, if you’ve paid some dues in the biz, you likely have a collection of your own.

So what’s the point of all of this? People – pedestrians and pros alike – miss greatness all the time. Even in the biz, there aren’t that many John Hammonds, Ahmet Erteguns and Russell Simmonses. If it were that easy to spot top talent, A&R would be a cinch.

So how is this study of use to the music artist? Simply as a point of reference, to understand why some audiences, some pros have been missing your best stuff. Maybe you’ll never write or produce a truly great song. But, if you work hard for a long, long time, chances are very good that you will come up with one, maybe more. For that reason, it’s vital to be armed with such perspective.
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