Back in 1981, if someone had told my 18 year old, bass playing self that at the age of 34, I would put down the instrument that I picked up at age 13 and that I loved to play so much, in favor of becoming an acoustic guitar playing, harmonica-around-the-neck, gulp … Folk singer/songwriter, I would have laughed them straight out of the room. That was not the plan. The plan was to go to school for music, get a degree, put together a band, try to get signed, have a 5-10 year period of my life lived as a famous rock star, and perhaps acquiesce into a life of doing session work.
Some of the dream did happen – I played in several cover bands during college, but I always had the desire to play with better players, ones that possessed a higher level of musicianship and had as much drive and desire to “make it” as I did. To not simply be in a cover band, but to write our own material, record it, play as much as possible, tour, and hopefully sign a recording contract with a major label.
Right after graduation, I played in a cover/original band that I, along with two others members were plucked from to start a band called Babyblue with a popular local guitarist/songwriter. We stayed together for two years, splitting up after the second incarnation of the band just didn’t seem to click when two original members left after our development deal with Epic/CBS Records went for naught. After that, I played bass in a very popular local Top 40 cover band called Mirror, Mirror, but that only lasted a few months because I kept telling the lead singer her that she was better than singing dead on versions of Alanah Myles, Melissa Etheridge, Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks covers. Even though I was gainfully employed by this band (we played 3-4 nights a week, and I earned enough to not need a separate day job) my desire to be in an all original, signed band had me sending out my press kit to contacts I was making via subscriptions to music trade magazines and an acquaintance with Mike Varney, who had discovered several great unknown rock guitarists and was writing a column for Guitar Player magazine called “Spotlight”, which featured many of these unknowns, who he would often sign to his label, Shrapnel Records.
Not long after the demise of Mirror, Mirror, I married a girl I met while attending college, and shortly afterwards while working as produce clerk at a local warehouse club, I ran into Tom Barone, who had been the booking agent for Babyblue. He informed me that a friend of his who was an A&R person for RCA/BMG Records recently signed a band called Big House, that they had fired their bass player and that they were holding auditions. He provided all of the contact info, I sent them my kit, received an audition and beat out 40 other bassists for the gig. Without notice, I had to quit my job as a produce clerk, leave my wife of 6 months, and move to Toronto. I truly thought I had “made it”. We toured as an opening act for several major Canadian hard rock bands, and then suddenly, one day 4 months later, I discovered that they were holding auditions behind my back to replace me. I moved back home with my tail between my legs, and was grateful to be able to get my produce clerk job back. I managed to also get a very short stint with another Toronto based band called Naro, which was fronted by Phil Naro, who was previously the lead vocalist for a four piece version of bassist Billy Sheehan’s (David Lee Roth, The Winery Dogs) band, Talas. This didn't last long either as the commute to and from Canada for rehearsals and gigs did not bode well with the band having any kind of chemistry with me in it, and I was walking the fine line of losing my day job.
Fast forward through 7 years of playing bass in several cover bands, and a stint putting together my own original hard rock band….. I finally got sick of it. I got sick of trying to keep everyone on the same page musically, of trying to get four individual schedules to line up for rehearsals and gigs, and I wanted to explore something different musically. I discovered the music that would come to be known as “Americana”, and I immersed my musical self into it ……
So, here I am – two months shy of 53 years of age, almost 5 years divorced, with seven studio recordings, a long list of accolades, conferences, opening act slots, thousands of miles, hundreds of cities, towns and villages seen, and probably closing in on a thousand shows under my belt. But you know what? It’s still not enough. I’m still unsatisfied. I still want to write THAT song. I still want the career. I want to hear one of my songs in a movie or on a T.V show. I want to be completely self-employed touring songwriter without the need to play cover gigs in bars and restaurants. The drive and the fire still burns, but I also wonder if in the bigger picture, any of that really matters. And I sometimes wonder why, after all of this time, I wasn’t simply satisfied to do what my siblings, friends, and many of my former band mates have done – settle down, find a good paying career, raise children, own a house, take vacations, maybe play in a cover band a couple of nights a month, and work towards those golden years. I don’t think I’ll ever have a good answer for that question, but I do know this – I have a ton of great memories, acquaintances, and friends that I have made along the way, and in that regard, I have no regrets. I do, however, still suffer with visits from the voices of doubt.
Over the course of being a musician for well over 30 years, I have watched the business change from one where bands and artists were allowed time over the course of several albums to develop as artists, and build a following, to one where you have to be a hit right out of the gate. One where agents and managers would put in as much sweat equity as the artists did, because they believed in an artist and their work as much as the artist did. Now, an indie artist often has to wear the hats of booking agent, accountant, record company, travel agent, driver, and public relations person, in addition to writing songs, touring, and performing shows. Even in the fringe genres like Folk and Roots music, an artist now has to have all of the belief in oneself to sustain what they do, be the one who lays all of the groundwork, and starts to show financial evidence of having a promising/successful career before any manager or agent will add them to their roster. The money flow needs to be in place first – I know of very few independent artists who have a manager/agent relationship that is of a “start up” variety.
So, back in 1997, if I had a crystal ball, and could have given my 34 year old, song writing self, advice, I would have told myself to be prepared to wear all of those hats. I would have told myself to start writing songs earlier, to have developed the craft more seriously at an earlier age, to start attending conferences much sooner than 5 years ago, to have developed a network sooner, to have started touring extensively sooner. Maybe the career would be there by now, maybe it wouldn’t. But despite the occasional bouts with the dreaded “voices of doubt”, I know I’d still be trying. Because if there’s one piece of advice I’ve never tired of giving myself, it’s “don’t give up.”