Will you find fame? Will your songs be sung by generations to come? Are arena tours in your future?
Or maybe you’ll be able to eke out a living playing gigs in bars and coffee shops.
More than likely, you’ll have to work at a real job and your music will be your avocation.
If you’re having trouble grasping that reality, you should watch the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. It’s about the artist known as Rodriguez.
Sixto Rodriguez recorded songs in the late 60s and early 70s, but his music went nowhere. Well, it did, actually, but he didn’t know about it. While living in obscurity in Detroit, his music became wildly popular in South Africa. It wasn’t until 1997 that he learned of his fame thousands of miles away.
Rodriguez has always made music, even while toiling away as a demolition contractor. No, he didn’t create beautiful works of art, he was at the bottom of the construction food chain, tearing out the obsolete so someone else could make something better. But he always had his music.
And he was content.
Yeah, he got his fifteen minutes of fame. And the documentary has given him more opportunities. But he would have been ok even if he had lived his entire life without critical or popular acclaim. His music was, is, and always will be a part of who he is. Even if no one else knows it.
So do your thing. Share your music. What will be will be.
She doesn’t drink. She’s never shot anyone. But her song is killer.
I’m 66 years old and first picked up a guitar when I was around 10. I’ve had a guitar in my possession most of my life, but it was only a couple of years ago that I started getting serious about playing and singing songs. Then I started playing open mics. I don’t kid myself. I can pretty much carry a tune, but my vocal range is limited, and my guitar skills are likewise limited. I’m too much an of old dog to be learning new tricks. And though my imagination and ambitions know no bounds, Clint Eastwood once told me that a man’s got to know his limitations. So true.
Since I started playing open mics, I’ve shared the room with some amazing musicians and singers. They make it look easy. Let me assure you, standing in front of a room full of people who are listening to you caterwaul and fumble through the chords is enough to make you lose your mind. The first time I performed at the local coffee shop – fueled by adrenalin and fear – I tore through my rendition of “Mrs. Robinson” like a car doing 60 in a 30-mph speed zone, bouncing off the curbs and barely staying on all four wheels. I forgot the lyrics of my next song and just quit in the middle. I fumbled through another song and vowed to never play in public again. I even swore to never again show my face at the coffee shop.
I was back the following week, trying again. And again the next week.
My friend Richard Hill is like me (except that he is a much better singer than I am and is vastly more entertaining). We go to a lot of open mics together, not with the idea that people are going to start asking us to play a set at their venue; we just want to have a good time and be somewhat entertaining. Richard plays good-time country music that always gets everyone smiling. I’ll play whatever fits my mood, from Foo Fighters to Simon and Garfunkel.
Here’s what I’ve learned. Singing in front of people is not easy. And through conversations with others who do this, I’ve learned that most everyone is dissatisfied with some aspect of their performance probably 80% of the time. I have no facts to back this up, but in my many years of observing people, the 80-20 rule applies to almost everything.
And here’s another inescapable truth. Some musicians are better than others. Rank amateurs like me hate to follow real talent. Most of all, we hate to follow Makena Hope.
I first heard Makenna Hope at the Coal River Coffee Company’s Thursday night open mic. Most of you reading this have heard her. But if you haven’t, Oh. My. Goodness.
Her voice is so strong. Her talent overwhelming. She’s one of a handful of artists at Coal River Coffee that set the bar so high.
Makenna has been singing most of her life. She’s been performing on stage in front of audiences since she was 7. At 18, she’s a seasoned veteran and has played countless gigs. And even though she has her own shows, she still goes to open mics.
There was one night recently at The Pallet Bar in Scott Depot, West Virginia, that stands out. The Pallet Bar is a little, upscale place, by no means a dive bar. Still, people go there to have a drink and meet friends. For most, live music is a bonus. And to be honest, for some, live music is an annoyance. On this night, there were maybe 20 customers and a handful of musicians, including me, Richard, Makenna, and a few others. We all sang our songs with respectable delivery and garnered polite applause from the few who were actually listening.
And then it’s Makenna’s turn.
She usually sings other people’s songs, with a few of her originals sprinkled in. And whenever she sings, she turns heads. People stop what they’re doing and listen. Richard and I look around the room and watch this happen. It’s like we’re privy to a secret weapon that’s being unleashed on these unsuspecting souls. Their lives are about to be enriched, at least for one night.
After two songs, she asks Sam Eplin to join her. Sam is one of those local musicians who set the bar for the rest of us. He has an amazing voice, is a great guitar player, and a very original songwriter. But tonight he’s backing Makenna on guitar. A few minutes earlier she had asked him if he could play the Radiohead classic, “Creep.” A few minutes of playing together outside and they had it down.
“Creep” is one of those iconic songs. It’s powerful. Other singers will “make it their own” by slowing it down or dialing back the power chorus. Not Makenna. She absolutely owns it.
I know what’s coming. So does Richard. “Hurt ‘em, Makenna,” he says.
The opening verse is familiar to most people and when Makenna starts singing, you feel a shift in the mood of the room. It’s a great song, but they have no idea what’s coming. They’re tuned in, willing to accept whatever Makenna has to offer.
By the time she hits the first chorus, they’re beginning to understand.
But I’m a creep I’m a weirdo What the hell am I doin’ here? I don’t belong here
She has them in the palm of her hand. She completely controls the room. She could quit right now and still own them. But the best is yet to come.
More verses, then the bridge. A simple bridge.
Run. Run, run, run.
If you don’t know the song, you can’t appreciate what Makenna did with that. One of those moments where people applaud in the middle of the song.
Then the chorus again, one last time.
But I’m a creep I’m a weirdo What the hell am I doin’ here? I don’t belong here I don’t belong here
And the room explodes.
We have Tyler Childers. Everyone and his brother cover Tyler Childers songs. Good songs made better by Childers’ gritty, soulful voice. The covers are fun but not really memorable.
We have Coalter Wall and his gritty, deep baritone singing about asphalt roads.
We have Sierra Ferrell and her quirky, new-grass songs.
And we have Makenna.
In some ways she’s a throwback. Her voice is pure and her talent natural. Check her out at age 12 singing at the St. Albans Riverfest in 2016.
When she was 15, her mother asked her to write a love song. She got together with Travis Vandal and penned a classic about a no-good, cheating man. It goes something like this.
The night I shot the whisky was the night I shot him down Caught him with some redhead Jezebel from out of town I put him in my sights and then I put him the ground The night I shot the whisky was the night I shot him down
It’s what I would call a power country murder ballad. It’s another showstopper. Have a listen.
So how does a 15 year-old come up with a song like that? And how is that a love song?
Well, it’s not. Ask her about love songs and she’ll give you an unenthusiastic bleh. So the song was a 15-year old sticking it to her mother. Teach her to ask for a love song. But in her obstinance she came up with an absolute winner.
So who is Makenna now?
There’s definitely some country in her songs. But then you hear her song, “Cookie Cutter Classic”, about growing up plus-sized in a world way too judgmental about what we look like. “Cookie Cutter Classic” talks about it.
Cause I’m not cookie cutter classic They’ll never get past it Only good enough to want then walk away But I’ll still put on all my makeup Watch what I eat But that’ll never make ‘em want me Cause I’m not cookie cutter classic
So here’s the thing. Makenna’s talent is undeniable. Anyone who hears her knows it. But Makenna is human. She has doubts. You can hear it in the melancholy of the song. And like everyone else who has ever performed in front of people, the doubts creep into her feelings about her music.
The name Makenna is of African origin and means “happy one.” With that name, you would think she’d be writing songs about rainbows and butterflies. Not that Makenna isn’t happy, but as a young woman still figuring out the world and its inequities, her music reflects this time in her life. She grew up in the oldest house in St. Albans, West Virginia, where she still lives with her family. It’s a warm and welcoming home where they frequently host summer get-togethers around a fire where friends – most of them musicians – talk, tell stories, and play music. It’s fitting that she lives in that old house, because in many ways, she’s an old soul in a teenager’s body. Though she’s still young, she also has wisdom that comes through in her songs, not just the ones that she writes, but in the ones she performs.
But she is also self-assured. You couldn’t belt out a rock standard like “Creep” without an abundance of inner-confidence. You couldn’t write a reflective, soul-searching song like “Cookie Cutter Classic” without the peace and understanding of knowing who you really are.
Makenna is a star. Not everyone knows that yet, but that’s only a matter time. Catch her while she’s still on the rise.
If you have read the story about her friend and frequent guitar accompanist, James Townsend, you have probably seen the clip of them performing “Hallelujah” on Main Street last summer. For those of you who may have missed it, here it is.
Many years ago, I got into some trouble. It started as a lark. A Halloween costume. Airline pilot. I had forgotten to pick up a few things at the mall before the party and I noticed the reaction I was getting from everyone. One thing led to another and before long, I was in the jump seat of a commercial airliner. Well, I thought, if I’m going to fly for the airline, I might as well get paid. So I started forging checks. I did this for a couple of years before they caught on.
So I moved to Atlanta, where I did the same thing. Only this time I was a doctor at a hospital. No actual doctoring, just supervising interns. More ill-begotten money.
Then I was a lawyer.
Eventually the whole thing came crashing down around me. I was caught.
I did hard time in prison. The clink. The hoosgow. Lock-up. I was on the chain gang, busting up rocks with a sledgehammer. The food was the worst. Nothing but gruel. But the dementors were the worst. I tried to stay away from the dementors, but they were everywhere.
So I started planning my escape.
Every night I would scrape away a little mortar in between the blocks of my cell. I replaced it with toothpaste so the screws wouldn’t notice. It took years, but I was finally able to remove the blocks and get out of that cell. I made my way to the laundry where I hid in a cart of dirty sheets and rode out of the rock. Free at last.
Oh. I almost forgot. Before I escaped, I had befriended the warden. He got me a job working in the prison library. That’s where I learned about haiku. Years later, I wrote this song. In haiku.
There was a woman Isn’t that the way it is And then she was gone
Seems so long ago And time creeps into the night So glad to see dawn
Verses come and verses go Did everything to forget you Strum the major sing the minor Even try to write haiku
Every song turns to thoughts of then And what we were when we were new Memories fade but oh so slow And leaves me lonely feeling blue
Life behind these bars| My prison with no way out My life as a con
No parole for me Dark are nights and darker days Because baby’s gone
I mark passing days As the years grind without you Pictures poorly drawn
Wish I wouldn’t dream Pray to die before I wake Lost in Babylon
So now you know my story, my sad tale of woe. Don’t believe everything you read.
copyright 2022, joseph e bird photo by Hasan Almasi
I park my car in the lot across the street. It’s not necessarily a bad part of town, but I look around for lurkers who might be waiting to knock me in the head and take my money. I see a guy in the parking lot on his phone. He doesn’t seem threatening so I approach him and ask if it’s ok to park in the lot. He’s wearing a Yarmulke. Not that that means anything. He shrugs his shoulders and says in some kind of European accent, I don’t know. It’s my first time here. Mine, too, I think to myself. I make sure my car is locked and walk across the street, again looking right and left. I open the door and go inside.
It’s a Tuesday night at The Empty Glass, a bar in the capitol city of Charleston, West Virginia. It has a reputation as a musician’s venue. Every Sunday night performers from Mountain Stage, the national radio show broadcast from Charleston, come to the Glass, as it is known locally, to play late into the night after Mountain Stage. The Glass is nothing fancy. It has a generous stage and a good sound system, but it’s still just a bar. By the time the music starts this evening, there are maybe ten people in the place.
I get a beer and make my way to one of the two long tables in front of the stage. It’s just me at the table, and two ladies seated in front of me. Now this may seem like an unfair stereotype, but the two ladies don’t seem like regular bar patrons. One looks to be 60-ish, the other maybe a little younger, and they look like they may have decided to skip Wheel of Fortune and go out for a drink.
It’s singer-songwriter night. Three performers, alternating, will sing songs they have written. At least that’s the intention. First is Katie Ann, a talented musician and singer, who on this night, accompanies herself with a ukulele. She sings an upbeat, happy song, and she garners generous applause.
Next was James. James Townsend.
James is a big guy, and his presence alone demands attention. But even though he occupies center stage on this night, he has an unassuming air about him. He just looks like a nice guy. He tells the audience that he mainly writes sad songs and he teases Katie Ann about her propensity to play happy ukulele songs. He’ll be a good balance, he says. His banter is genuine, not forced. Affable is the word that comes to mind.
His first song is one that I’ve heard a dozen times. Ring of Holy Fire. Inspired, he says by a dream he had after falling asleep at work. Spreadsheets will do that to you. In his dream, he was taken up to heaven where he encountered one famous dead musician after another. Jerry Garcia. Johnny Cash. John Lennon. It’s a song of strong wit with touches of humor. But it’s not camp, it’s not farce, it’s not comedy. It’s a damn good song. I watch the two ladies in front of me. As the song unfolds, they exchange glances and smiles, nodding in that unspoken language that says they both are really enjoying the song. They are discovering what I already know: James and his music are special.
I first met James at Coal River Coffee Company in St. Albans. He wasn’t playing, he was standing in line for a cup of coffee. He has been playing music for most of his forty-some years, but that day, I had no idea he was a musician.
James will stand in front of things and have his picture taken. In fact, he has a Facebook page, James Standing In Front of Things. Stores. Signs. Landmarks. He was featured on the news for standing in front of things. That’s how I recognized him in the coffee shop that day. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was a singer-songwriter. As a guitar player myself and a lover of music, I was pleased to meet and get to know a real musician.
Stephan Cotter is next. One of the most creative guitar players I’ve ever heard. He’s an entertaining performer and is fun to watch. Just a friendly, fun guy.
Katie Ann plays another song. And then it’s James again.
First a bluesy intro. You think he’s going to keep it going and sing about how bad things are. But no. He changes gear. Strumming in toe-tapping four/four time.
Well I grew up in a trailer went to school with lawyers’ kids I didn’t hate you for being an asshole I hated you for being rich
The song is Rich Man’s Game. Not a sad song, but one with a little anger. Sometimes he cleans it up to be family-friendly, and asshole becomes bully. Not tonight. He’s playing a bar, after all. And not just any bar. The Empty Glass, where, if you’re a real musician, you have to be honest.
We had three cars in the driveway One drove like a charm We used the other two for spare parts And I prayed the muffler stayedon
And after two verses, James is the underdog. It’s about as honest as you can get.
It’s a shame Playing the rich man’s game Ain’t got no money to my name Don’t got to sign it all away
It’s a catchy chorus and the two ladies are loving it. Again, I’ve heard the song a dozen times and it’s one of my favorites. He plays it with his band, Bread and Circus, and they really rock it out. One night at more upscale bar, the band brought the house down.
The song is autobiographical. James grew up in Charleston and attended George Washington High School, the school that West Virginia’s favorite daughter, Jennifer Garner, attended. Students from varying economic backgrounds attend GW. But let’s just say it straight. There are rich kids and there are poor kids, and plenty in between. The rich families live in the hills – South Hills to be specific – while those without money tended live down in the hollows. Or hollers, to use the proper vernacular. The Davis Creek area. And so there were hillers and creekers. But that terminology apparently came later. In James’ day, there were preps, creekers, and freaks. Though technically a creeker, he fit in more with the freaks. That will happen when you march to your own beat.
Not that James and his family were dirt poor. His father worked hard to give the family what they needed. The basics. And if James needed a guitar, well, his dad would find a way.
Well the rich folk lived above me And that ain’t a metaphor I literally lived down in a holler I could see them up from my front porch
One summer I needed a new guitar So my daddy worked overtime Spending all his hard-earned money So I could practice keeping time
James first foray into music was a lark. He needed to take an elective class in junior high and decided on band, even though he had never played an instrument. When asked what instrument he wanted to play, he said trombone, assuming they would teach him. But they didn’t, of course. He muddled through by watching the other trombone players and learned that a certain position on the slide corresponded to a certain note. He got by, and he credits that method of learning for enabling him to pick up songs quickly on the fly. When he got to high school he gave up the trombone in favor of the guitar. And he began writing songs.
His father was not a musician but enjoyed music. And loved what James was doing. He’d go to the music stores with him and tinker with the gear. And when he saw James looking at a particular guitar or amp, he set out to make sure James had what he needed.
His dad was a concrete finisher. Hard, back-breaking work. He went wherever the work was, including a stint in Arizona. But money was always tight, so to give James what he needed, like the song says, he worked overtime. He’d take a job pouring someone’s driveway or whatever he needed to do to get the extra cash for that guitar.
His father died a little more than ten years ago. Like most men, James and his father didn’t often express outwardly what anybody else could clearly see. The love of father and son. There’s another song James wrote, The Twist. The Chubby Checker song was a favorite of his father’s. Even in his last days.
It’s 2010 and dad has three months more Before the cancer in his body closes the door And I’m playing his favorite song
But on days when it’s quiet I can hear the faint tones Now he’s gone and I’m left alone But I hear his favorite song
Back at the Glass, James is finishing up his second song. He seems to have reached detente with the eternal struggle between the haves and have nots, though the gross inequity of the world today still bothers him greatly.
You know in the end I guess the rich folks They got problems of their own Like choosing which side of the plate To put their salad fork on
And whether that salad fork Is gonna be made out of ivory Or some exotic turtle bone Times are hard for all of us I guess
The two ladies at the table applaud with enthusiasm. Another round of songs passes and then Katie Ann sings a cover, a song written by someone else. When it’s James’ turn again, he says that since Katie Ann broke the ice, he would also do a cover. He mentions Leonard Cohen. And I know what’s coming. He names the song. Hallelujah.
One of the ladies in front of me becomes visibly excited. I lean forward and tell her, wait until you hear this.
Hallelujah is a great song. Not a religious song, as many people think, but a song that reflects Cohen’s own spiritual journey. It’s also a song that’s been done to death. Most covers of Hallelujah are unremarkable. But when James sings it, it comes alive. Every time I hear him sing it – every time – I get literal chills. It’s a long song, but early on, you hear the power of James’ voice. You don’t just hear the emotion, you feel it.
It’s one of the few covers James sings. You should hear him to do Uptown Funk. He prefers to do his own songs. As he noted earlier, most of his songs are not upbeat. He’ll say sad, but that’s not really accurate. They’re thoughtful stories about life, and sometimes life’s a bitch.
I recently played at an open mic at a local restaurant. James was there as well. At first the crowd was subdued, but as the night wore on and the beer flowed, the crowd became more lively. Near the end of the evening, the whooping and hollering almost demanded the rowdy beer-drinking songs. It can be fun, but that’s not what James’ music is about.
James is well into Hallelujah and his powerful voice is filling the room as he roars the chorus.
One of the women shows her arm to her friends. Goosebumps, she says. I know the feeling.
When I first heard James sing and when I first heard his songs, I was floored. But I’ve heard him so many times that that first feeling of being star-struck has worn off a little. But when I hear him in this little bar and watch the reaction of the two ladies, I’m reminded of how special he really is, and I leave The Empty Glass with renewed admiration. I wonder what the guy with the Yarmulke thought. I look around, but he’s gone. Too bad. More people need to hear James. His music is good for the soul.
A couple of weeks later there was another open mic in St. Albans. It was a warm summer night and the music moved out to the sidewalk. This time James is joined by Makenna Hope. You’ll hear more about Makenna Hope next time. For now, listen to the clip for a little impromptu magic.
If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it. – W.C. Fields
It was fun while it lasted.
I’ve spent more than a year pretending to be a musician. It started out with a few covers at the open mic of the local coffee shop. That first time was a disaster and I vowed that not only would I never sing again, but I also swore I wouldn’t even show my face at the coffee shop. But I was at it again the following week.
Yes, it got a little easier after that first time, but as soon as I started to feel comfortable with the whole performing thing, the bombs would follow. But I persevered.
I went to other open mics. I made friends, many of them fantastic singers and songwriters who were nothing but encouraging. They still are and I’m so blessed to have them as friends.
I performed short sets at festivals and other events. And I have written a few songs, words and music. I made progress, for sure.
I knew I didn’t have a great voice, but neither does Bob Dylan. I had hopes that maybe my songwriting would be engaging. Meh. Maybe the covers that I did would provide some level of entertainment. Not so much. I tend to perform songs of artists I like – Wilco, Avett Brothers, Foo Fighters – but are pretty much unknown to my audience. And when I do a Dylan song, it’s always an obscure choice.
One of my new music friends will admit he’s not the most accomplished guitar player but he is enormously entertaining. He bellows old country standards and writes clever songs. And he always has fun, which is contagious. Everybody loves him.
While my expectations were realistic and modest, my musical career has reached the point where the disappointment in my accomplishments has overcome the joy of playing music. As Mr. Fields advised, no use being a damn fool about it.
I find myself taking that advice in other areas of my life, but that’s another story.
For now, I’m going to refocus on writing. No more novels, which can be just as disappointing as music, despite critical acclaim. But I have several ideas for writing about music based on my new awareness of singing, songwriting, and the guts it takes to put yourself out there. Hopefully interesting to my faithful readers, and a little more satisfying for me.
I recently published Carnival Dreams, my collection of short stories, poems, and songs. The book title is also the title of a song I wrote. Friend and colleague, Warren Iulg, wrote the music and recently recorded it. Have a listen.