Music, for the luckiest among us, is rhythmic, melodic and harmonious thoughts we carry around in our head which are far best expressed through the heart.
Sad to say, but too much of the music I hear around me doesn’t come from the heart.
Instead it sounds like product – not unlike soap or canned goods or beer — to be packaged and sold.
A few years back I attended a three-day songwriters’ workshop at the Community Arts Cafe downtown, which featured professionals from all facets of the Nashville music scene. There were songwriters, producers, performers, even song pluggers who made the trek up I-40 from Nashville to inform aspiring songwriters willing to shell out $300 how to make it the business.
Their main message was how hard it is to make it in the business, and what was required to do so. Yeah, they said, talent and ability might come in handy, but nobody makes it in Nashville without patience, perseverance, pluck and most of all, luck.
What they were selling was a dream, a dream I’ve had since I first recognized that my favorite musicians – giants like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and the Beatles – were those who wrote their own songs. I learned to play guitar at age 15 for one reason only, and that was to write songs.
But here I was 45 years later being told that if I wanted to make it in Nashville, that, along with my house, I would also have to sell my soul. The only songs Nashville was interested in were those that would sell X-amount of units – again, not unlike soap, canned goods or beer.
Looking back, what they were telling me made total sense. The music industry is, after all, a commercial endeavor that requires a return on investment.
Besides, there are already thousands of songwriters who have chased their dream now starving on the streets of lower Broadway. So these fine folks from the industry – several of whom I got to know fairly well and like — weren’t really looking for anything new and fresh.
By the third day, with most of the Nashville players on stage wrapping up the workshop, I experienced an epiphany. I asked myself, would I change my life as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal with theirs, a songwriter in Nashville writing songs for the sole purpose of making enough to eat and keeping a roof over my head?
If you wonder about my conclusion, go back and read the first graph of this post.
Music has to be about more than making money or it’s not worth the bother of tuning a guitar. And when it’s good, you don’t know it in your head or even your bank account. You know it in your heart.
Susanna Clark, the long-time wife and muse of one of my favorite songwriters, Guy Clark, might have penned it best in the song she wrote with Richard Leigh.
“You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
Love, like you’ve never been hurt,
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,
It’s got to come from the heart,
If you want it to work.’’
This past Sunday I cruised downtown to the monthly open jam at Liberty Arts Coffee House ram-rodded by two good buddies, Richard Boyd and Billie Feather. Richard, who sings like I sing in my dreams, is the front-man of the killer rockabilly outfit The Bo-Stevens band which features the multi-talented Billie on bass.
For two glorious hours about a dozen of us, old friends like Jeff Wall and Cindy Taplin and brand-new friends like Mike and Lisa and Debbie and John and Dennis, sat in a circle and passed songs around like a bottle of the best brandy. Billie had her bass, Lisa played a dobro, Mike a banjo of some sort, John a mandolin, Dennis a harmonica and Richard and Jeff and Cindy and I strummed along on our guitars.
A couple of originals were trotted out, but most of our time was spent playing the good old-time songs everybody knew.
Nobody was there to sell a song, or even sell themselves. We were there to make music with friends and celebrate the opportunity to do so.
It was the same kind of celebration you can experience weekly down in Bethania at our Thursday Night Open Mic at Muddy Creek, one that has me waking up every Thursday morning with a smile on my face.
So if you want to hear the best music that can be made – music that comes from your heart – don’t bother with Nashville or any place dependent on a recording industry. Head on down to Liberty Arts Coffee House at 2 p.m. on the first Sunday or the month, or down to Muddy Creek Cafe any Thursday at 6:30.
Thank the ghost of Hank Williams that there’s real music to be heard.
Anyone looking can find it all around them.