This is a response to a blog by Country songwriter Shantell Ogden, listing the “hard answers” to the questions that wannabes ask her most often. Her blog is here.
I’m not “Country” by nature; I grew up as a folk singer, went into “Jesus music” (before “CCM” all started sounding the same), and went back to doing “singer-songwriter” stuff after the kids got out of the house and I had a little more free time. That said, I tend to write “three-chorders” in D and some of my songs have appealed to Country musicians and fans. Plus I have had friends in the industry, sort of. So, hopefully this context will help you see why the following stories resonate with me, even though I’m not even a little bit “in the industry.”
Back around 1990, I got to know a C&W musician – Lenny Gault – who had “been there” for many other people for decades, and was constantly being told “It’s your turn next.” He’d gone from opening for “big acts” and providing studio vocals and tenor sax to hiring musicians for sessions, to “herding the cats” in the big room while folks in the little room took all the credit.
Even when he didn’t believe the promises that it was “his turn next,” he took them as a sign that folks appreciated his hard work and talent.
And he loved every minute of it.
Lenny never name-dropped except to “set the record straight” when some controversy emerged. For example, he went out of his way to tell me that one C&W singer with an angry public persona was the nicest, most appreciative person he had ever worked with. He also liked to promote up-and-coming younger acts he thought had promise. (I heard rough mixes of Rascal Flatts when the band was still in the studio, for example.)
Once I shared a song I had started back when I was a young man expressing my frustration with the “music scene” in the 1970s, and finished a decade later, when I was even more disillusioned. Lenny said, “That’s a great song. It really hits the mark, but nobody will ‘get it’ who isn’t in the industry.” He seemed to be considering one or two of my other songs for his next album project, whenever his industry friends’ promises materialized.
But, sadly, Lenny’s “turn” never came. Soon after I met him, health issues among his family began taking too much of his attention. The producers and promoters who had been calling him to help with their projects – and sometimes with their emergencies – sensed that there was something wrong and stopped calling him or returning his calls. Eventually his health broke, and he “retired,” more or less penniless, to his hometown in the Alleghenies.
The thing is, Lenny was ALWAYS kind. When someone devoid of talent would play him a demo and ask him what he thought, he would always try to be encouraging. “Well, there’s something there, but it needs a little more polish,” or whatever.
Offline, he told me “Never piss on another person’s candle.” The point was that – as far as he knew – the person was hanging by a thread and was probably used to doors being slammed in his face. It was possible that the slim, slim chance of validation as a musician was the only thing keeping the wannabe out of the path of the next Greyhound bus. Lenny didn’t want to be the last person who said he wasn’t “good enough.”
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he put up with me. 🙂
I lost touch a few years later, when we both had crises that kept us away from the industry and away from each other.
Sorry, that’s a long story. Lenny died in 2012, barely a footnote in the industry.
I have another (living) acquaintance I’ll call Bill who has been touring with Country bands – most of which he “headlined” – most of his adult life. He won “up-and-comer” awards years ago, has opened for the “big names,” and has sung with many of them at the Opry or on the circuit, but has never “broken through.” For all intents and purposes, he’s an “independent musician,” although he would resent that description.
Bill isn’t quite as “other-focused” as Lenny. I suspect that he doesn’t take me seriously as a musician since I don’t drawl and wear cowboy boots. But he is always positive about his prospects; every gig is a step up (even if it’s really a step down), and I expect him to stick with it until the day he dies, regardless of “breakthroughs” or lack there of.
I guess my point is that even if Lenny and Bill knew the end from the beginning, and knew they would never “break through,” they would still have done it for the love of it.
For them, the journey was/is the destination.
To quote a Jack Nicholson movie character, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
If your knee-jerk answer is that it’s not enough, consider quitting while you still have your health and time to start a 401k somewhere.
If your answer is that life on the edge (or the fringes of whatever industry or circle you’re trying to break into) isn’t quite your dream, but it’s still better than anything else you can think of doing for the next thirty – or fifty – years, roll up your sleeves and dig in.
Don’t say we didn’t “set expectations.”
P.S. The song I played Lenny back in 1990 is here. 🙂