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.
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.
I’ve been writing less these days and playing more music. I’ve been a regular at the open mic night at Coal River Coffee, and though I have no misconceptions about my musical abilities, it’s been a blast performing songs that mean something to me. I never would have done this if not for the encouragement of James Townsend. James is an accomplished singer/songwriter, as you can see if you watch the Press Room Recordings below. He’s also an excellent writer. He’s writing a serial story about Billy the Kid and is currently writing a musical on the same subject.
Of the songs in the Press Room Recordings, my current favorite (my favorites change frequently) is Wars and Rumors.
One of the nonsensical (at least for me) Beatles songs that I added to my set list after watching “Let It Be.”
I subscribed to Disney+ just to watch it. I loved almost every minute of it.
Much has been written about it. Here’s an excerpt from an article written by Jill Lawrence for USA Today, speaking specifically about the concert on the roof.
“That mini concert, and this maxi documentary, underscore for all time the truth and universality of advice I’ve had posted on my bulletin board for years, from the late New York Times media critic David Carr: “Keep typing until it turns into writing.” For the Beatles, that translates into keep playing and singing until it turns into music. For politicians, keep negotiating until it turns into a deal. For scientists, keep experimenting until you get a vaccine. For my husband last week, it was keep trying until that box of boards, screws and what-not turns into an ottoman.”