Everyone has a passion. Like a bellybutton. Mine has always been music. In some ways its one of the least realistic passions a person can pursue. It has and always will be an emotional rollercoaster me. As an insecure kid who lacked confidence, performing in front of people seems an odd occupation. I've seen some incredible highs and..... well. In between those euphoric moments, is the daily grind of the day job hustle and the dreaded down-time that makes me wish I'd learned to make pottery or be a painter or something less stressful.
People say to me all the time - "Why can't you just play your instrument for your own enjoyment like my uncle Lou did with his piano?"
Why? I'll tell you why. Because after you invest 15 or 20,000 hours in becoming competent at something, you have a insatiable desire to share it. Like owning a Corvette and leaving it in the garage and playing with the radio. I have heard myself play and sing 9 million times. Unless I'm working on a new song, it doesn't entertain me much. All I hear are the flaws. The energy that is present when you peek out from behind the curtain before your set and hear the din of the crowd chatter? That's the life-juice. That fear & excitement is something I live for. It's a high. Like a skier standing at the top of the slope right before they push off. The fear of potential failure is almost overwhelming at times. But the adrenaline from the risk is worth it. The knot in my stomach that I used to untie with bourbon. That one. The connection I sometimes make after I calm down from the first song, the connection that keeps me from selling all my instruments and learning to golf.
Music is not unlike any other creative personal interest, whether it be painting, pottery, crafting, golfing, etc. Mine just so happens to connect me to people, and make no mistake - there's major power in music which in and of itself is very addictive. You have the power to connect with strangers & change how people feel. And they'll willingly let you do it. Not too many other hobbies like that, unless hypnotist is your hobby. It's why 81 year old Bob Dylan still accosts unassuming millenials with his shriveled, nasal voice and moribund piano playing. If it weren't Bob, they'd hurl things at the stage. It ain't about you. It's for - him. And I get it.
I have performed for over 3 decades in all sorts of various places, big and small, fancy and...let's just say some were 'eclectic'. Chicken wire we'll call 'eclectic' for the moment. I've been booed, cheered, mocked and ended songs that were intimate and meaningful to me only to hear deafening silence. It hurt. And it made me determined not to suck that bad again. I learned that the threshold for entertaining people and not being noise or a curiosity is one not passed easily. I got my first guitar in 1989 because I thought it would help me get laid. Didn't take long for me to realize I actually had to actually be fairly good at playing before any woman's clothes would magically fall off. Being "fairly good" takes a really, really long time. I once sang a song in a bar and someone walked over and put money in the jukebox. Humility is an easy thing as a musician. It gets delivered for free.
I moved to Pittsburgh in 1997, and after my first child was born I opted to use my music ability in local churches, as they were safe places to be a musician and still do something with your craft. I will say I've never played for a more demanding and difficult crowd than a corral of stone-faced, Altoid sucking, sleep-deprived churchgoers. I was happy just trying to be a decent dad. I didn't feel like the late night pub crawl was something I wanted to be doing while my kids were real young. I feared drifting back into that scene for reasons outlined in previous blog-a-stories. Once my kids were older, I started back into the local music scene in 2009 with the help of some friends I still have to this day. I quickly discovered Pittsburgh wasn't like San Francisco or Atlanta or even West Virginia for that matter. There's a couple kinds of music here and you either play that or you don't exist. You have to cope with the bizarre and yet still mostly unexplained connection between Bruce Springsteen-rock and middle aged Pittsburghers. Yinzer rock or CMA country. Or a Rolling Stones cover band. Take your pick. You have some decent blues bands, and they can be quite good depending on the band, but I'm none of those things. I try to imagine John Prine or Jim Croce trying to make it in Pittsburgh or really any other mid-sized non-music city. They would have departed after the 100th wobbling drunk mumbled 'hey yeh know any good Stones songs? Mind if I see yer guitar?'
The groups that still own the music scene in this area haven't had a charting song since Bill Clinton was president. And that's exactly how they like it. It's their city. I'm the outsider. 'Yinz all heddin dahtan t'see deh Clarx?" Scott Blasey a legit genius songwriter, but still lives in a non-music city. Sad really. His solo album 'Don't Try This At Home' is one of the most underrated albums ever released in my opinion. Masterpiece of songwriting. But not released in L.A.
Lots of talented folks making noise, but nobody really going anywhere not named Gabby Barrett. There's the occasional pop-tart or country diva that has emerged from the metro area, but they've mostly done it with significant financial support to push them to a national level and they promptly leave for greener pastures. Don't believe me? Name one band from Pittsburgh that has been on national radio in the last 15 years. I'll wait here. All music acts now are following a pipeline that starts with a select handful of agents, promoters and PR gurus. A handful of labels who work with streaming services and dictate the songs that appear on playlists. No successful artist is bouncing around to craft breweries singing on gravel patios to people swilling IPAs and eating fish tacos. There's people FROM Pittsburgh who've been very successful, but they had to leave first. That same story is true in all but roughly 3 cities. If you aren't lucky enough, or unlucky enough to live in those cities (Austin, Nashville, or LA) you can't exist on the national landscape. You can spend all your time and resources trying to gin up local interest and create fans, but and unless you somehow get on a TV singing competition show and win it, you will be deeply disappointed in the results of your labor. Even if you are really really good.
Back when I was a kid, before the wheel, it was special just to own an instrument, let alone play it at a professional level. I remember how unique my dad was because he could play the piano. He's even more unique now, since no one plays piano anymore. If you could do that back then, you could still spend your entire life trying to make it in Nashville and never hear your voice on the radio except in your dreams. Now? You can get your music on streaming services without too much effort, but a cabal of curators controls who gets on the coveted playlists, which is exactly what happened in the 1970s with DJs & radio stations. Except you can't send a leggy bombshell into the radio station with your album....
In 2015 I came close to buying the farm after I ignored a seemingly harmless dog bite too long and it became sepsis, nearly killed me graveyard dead. Short time later in 2016 I was laid off from a high-stress, middle-management job. Those 2 events helped me realize the utter futility of being a corporate creature, and helped me shed my fear of making mistakes or taking risks. My identity changed back in some respects to the person I was decades earlier. Gone was the complacent corporate ladder climber, and back was the masochistic writer with a chronic case of wanderlust. I still visit with that dangerous and unstable person from time to time. Usually right after I open my guitar case. He helps me with my hair....
Those back-to-back events gave me a renewed sense of purpose, and shook me out of the daily grind that had numbed and dumbed me down into a routine-addicted, NASCAR & cable news junkie. I had devolved into a 60hr a week, stressed out tool for my employer. A serial work addict who's identity had been co-opted and transformed by mindless careerism and false notions of job security. It spurred me to take some risks, knock on some doors. Write some new material.
For someone who is allergic to conflict and rejection, I forced myself to pretend I was worthy of a listen. Serendipity's only requirement, is the act of participation. The last 6 years have been magical at times. No way to describe how being part of a label and having amazing people surrounding me has enriched my life. When you see and experience others doing amazing things, it rubs off.
But the in-between times....the clock moves so fast. The saying "all things come to those who wait" was said by a very naive person. Life is for the takers. Just reality.
There really is a point where you have to sort of **** or get off the pot though. And the fear of that arbitrary milestone is sometimes nearly debilitating. In music, being old isn't a sin, however looking or acting old is. A few years ago I asked a famous music legend for any advice for an aspiring 50 year old songwriter. His reply? He smiled a fatherly smile, came over and gave me a really long hug...and said nothing.
The years drop so fast now, I agonize at the passage of them. The inevitable what-ifs rear their ugly heads during slow times. The self-imposed pressure to make up for 2 decades of not doing the necessary footwork required to be a 'successful' performer nags and irritates like a rock in my shoe. Just being happy with the now becomes so challenging. I still have so much to say. I have songs that I knew darn well were good years ago but was afraid to share them.
I'm not afraid of that anymore. The only thing I fear is time. And my accelerating hearing loss. I have been wearing hearing aids now for 5 years. Most people don't know I struggle to hear basic conversations. If you aren't facing me and I can't see your lips, I probably won't understand what you're saying. I have to plug my ears in a certain way to get the internal bones of my face/ear canal to resonate so I can tell if I'm singing in tune. You'd be surprised what you'll come up with when you are desperate.
I'm not at the exit of my road (I hope) but at 53 I can see the lights of the City from here. The accelerated expectations of myself and the subsequent ones I place on others can be a brutally unrealistic. I can become a taskmaster one day, especially if there's some goal or target on the horizon. The next day I'm thinking about selling my guitar collection. It really is a type of madness or schizophrenia-lite.
A Nashville publisher offered me a contract for my catalog of songs back in 2018. Told me that my songs were marketable, but I was way too old (48) and wouldn't look good in skinny jeans and an earring. (Aren't we all glad that fad is over?) I explained to my jaded & arrogant new friend that I was not a "country" singer, nor did I have any desire to be classified as one. I asked him if he liked John Prine, and he said yes, that's 'country'. I can only talk to a wall for so long. After a dear friend reviewed the contract and advised me to decline, I never went back to Nashville for anything. But here I sit. Waiting on time. In music purgatory.
The material I have I believe is as good as any Nashville hit-maker. Every songwriter believes that. But I lack the willingness to drop everything and spin that wheel.
Let's be honest - To willingly do any sort of live performing or really anything that subjects you to any real public scrutiny - makes you different than most others. Most people wouldn't consider being paralyzed with fear in front a crowd of potentially unfriendly strangers something to look forward to. It's not nice fear at times, it's terror. Let alone have it be the driving purpose of your life. I mean pottery, or golfing or Harleys are less stress. You don't realize it, but you're wired different.
After a particularly grueling show this past April, I closed the pub hustle door after 33 years. It was sorta worthwhile 20 years ago, but once you have a certain level of exposure in a given geographic area, it stops being a conduit for new fans and becomes a side-job in some ways. And the competition for these local venues is something I would classify as - absurd. You end up competing with 3 chord cowboys who know parts of 2 Neil Young songs and maybe 2/3 of Wonderwall. I'm not a superstar, but I don't stand and read from a music stand for 3 hours. I care about my audience. You paid money to hear me. It needs to be good.
I'm also no longer hauling $4500 of gear and guitars out to chase a pub owner around to pay me for a $150 gig. Especially after I just made them $2500 in food and booze patrons. As if they're doing me a favor letting me entertain people and keep them in their seats eating & drinking for less than it costs to mow their lawn. I've grown to despise restaurant and pub owners. Seriously. How they disrespect legitimate musicians, and then look down their nose at me as a folk artist. Also, the physical toll begins to be an issue. The difference between age 43 and 53 is significant in terms of stamina and energy. But I still enjoy doing special events that are for real music fans. But I can't haul stage gear anymore. Can't do it. And it was the right decision, even though I truly miss the human connection. The Grass Roots Festival a few weeks ago was just amazing. But there are times I really do think about when to close this chapter of life. Then I go get my guitar out of the case and sure enough it still shouts and whispers secrets to me in the terms of madness all over again.