What is entertaining people on a mass level is no longer genuinely popular culture - but a pale eviceration, a pathetic dilution of a rich cultural tradition...It seems sometimes as if we have all been convinced that we owe it to ourselves, we must be entertained by whatever entertainment is most readily at hand...And yet I have seen clearly, I have witnessed that there are deep pockets of culture which are resistant to homogenization, there are still polyglot elements in our melting-pot land...To appreciate [this] you have to be prepared to make a commitment of your own. What is involved is a kind of leap of faith on the listener's part, a willingness to extend his or her own horizons and break out of the passive restraints that a technologically evolving society has imposed upon us.
What is involved is engagement.
(from the introduction to Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick)
I'll start with a confession.
Last night was a beautiful cool mid July night in Nashville. On any given night there are more than a handful of choices for outstanding live music, ranging from free honky tonk on Lower Broadway to pricey stadium shows at The Bridgestone Arena. I have no excuse if I whine and say "I don't have anything to do tonight" because at the very least I could just take a quick drive over to my neighborhood haunt, the haunt of most East Nashville musicians I know, The Family Wash, and for literally dollars in a tip jar I can see some of the best songwriters and bands around while sitting at the bar. Last night I was feeling rather lazy. And I got a text from my friend, a drummer from Austin, who happened to be in town playing a free show along the riverside with Hayes Carll, one of my favorite songwriters and rock&roll&country dudes. My drummer friend Mike even offered to leave a VIP pass for me so that I could hang backstage. The only hassle would be finding parking downtown and walking to the riverside. Not much of a hassle to be honest. But at 9pm, I was home and feeling tired from a day in the studio and the last episode of Season 1 of "Breaking Bad" on Netflix was calling my name and I texted Mike some lame excuse, like I didn't want to go alone. He texted back the name of a mutual friend who was backstage with him at the time. Hayes would be going on in 20 minutes. I was basically in my pajamas. It would have been so easy to just lie on that couch. But something nagged at me, some inner voice said "Tomorrow you'll be really pissed off you didn't go" and I got dressed really quickly and drove downtown. Parking cost me $20. I walked to the riverfront park, got there just in time to meet up with the mutual friend and sit on the banks that overlooked the Cumberland River and watch my friend Mike play a great set with Hayes. And I realized that was only the 2nd time I'd heard Hayes play a full set live. I have his records and I think I've seen him play a lot, but the truth is I haven't because everytime he comes through town I think, "Oh I've seen him. I'll catch him next time." But the truth is I haven't. And the truth is I like his music a lot and I always feel better after watching live music. It inspires me. I get ideas for songs of my own or for banter or I'm just really happy to be making a living playing live music and have friends that do the same thing. I feel more a part of the community. My life is enriched by getting my ass off the couch to see live music. I forget this when the Netflix pull is strong on a lazy night.
I played the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival last weekend in Okemah, OK. Quite literally a one-horse town. They just opened up the first real coffee shop in Okemah last weekend. It's a free festival in Woody's hometown and by free I mean not only for the audience, I mean no one who plays the festival gets paid a dime in performance fees. Everyone from Arlo Guthrie to me plays for free (our travel expenses are paid for and we are able to make a bit of money by selling our CDs). Which creates a unique magic for this festival. I play some magic festivals where the boundaries between audience and artist disappear at night around the campfires. But this one has a special kind of community where there are no stars there are no divas there are no emerging artists. Everyone is there for the same purpose: to share music and to share the spirit of Woody Guthrie. I loved every single minute of this weekend. Many of the performers are already friends of mine but a new camaraderie was formed in the late night jamming in the parking lot of the Days Inn, while playing our songs and having a legend like David Amram play whistle solos along with us in between his stories of his days trolling the country with Kerouac or playing music with Monk. 83 years old and the man could outjam the 19 year olds. This was engagement that was easy. This was a commitment to an artistic life that made me feel part of a whole. My Nashville neighbor Tim Easton, himself a Guthrie accolyte, took me to Woody's homestead, just a sunken-brick outline of a once-house. He played "This Land is Your Land" on my guitar while I gathered a handful of red dirt in my hand that I rubbed all over my 1942 Gibson, dusting my hair with the leftovers. Tim has a song that I heard for the first time at Woodyfest and it's too late right now for me to text him to ask him the lyric I need and I can't find it on Wikipedia, but the chorus inspires people to "Participate" rather than sit on the sidelines and complain. He's been tweeting this week as early voting starts soon in our town here. We musicians can be a lazy lot not voting in local elections, running around the world on tour trying to take over audiences in far flung places while ignoring our own districts right next door.
I guess what got me thinking about all this was a conversation I recently had with my good friend Neale about his House Concert. He and his wife have one of my favorite House Concerts on the East Coast and I booked a night there for the Fall and Neale told me that his audience was dwindling. He said, "Numbers are down, way down. I don't know why" and then named a prominent folk artist who'd recently played there to a 3/4 full house. It was depressing. And I've been thinking, as have every single one of my musician friends, how do we GROW our audience. But maybe the question is not about growth but about MAINTENANCE. How do we keep the ones who've been with us since the beginning ENGAGED? Because I know that ever time I've played a town to a very light audience, I'll get 20 Facebook/Tweet/Emails from fans who will ask when I'm coming to their town, that town that I just played the night before. And it would be rude for me to respond, "Where were you? Don't you read my Email Newsletter I sent you telling you I was coming?" And sometimes, these are the same loyal fans who will swear that of all the musicians they know from the scene they'd put money on so and so 'making it'. But then when so and so comes through town, that loyal fan might be Netflixing it away thinking, "Eh, I'll catch them next time." Well: what if there IS NO NEXT TIME?
So this is a plea to all of us, me included, the me that would have sat on her ass and watched TV rather than get up off my duff and go out and see Hayes Carll last night. This is a plea for engagement. This is a plea for artist and audience to know that we can't do it without your commitment to engage just as you can't be a part of our music without our commitment to making it for you. This is plea that when your favorite travelling songwriter comes to your town to play a House Concert or a Unitarian Church Concert Series or the local bar or the ticketed venue in town that you make it a point to go see them. And this is a plea to all of us troubadours to not be lazy and take for granted those people that buy tickets to come spend the night with us. This is plea that we all stay in active engagement. Let the Katy Perry's and U2's and Taylor Swifts have their mass markets. Those of us who play for 20-200 people have a unique life - we get to know you by name and you get to know more than just our name.
See, I saw Hayes Carll last night. And something that made me get up off my ass and go was that about 6 months ago Hayes Carll (who I'd never met before and we don't hang in the same circles and although I really like his music and think he's really cool, I don't know him at all) tweeted about my song "The Sea & The Shore" and then his wife tweeted about it. And Hayes Carll has about 26,000 more twitter followers than I do. And that meant something to me. It meant that by the next day, I had a few more followers based on Hayes saying he liked something I wrote. He didn't have to do that. But he did and that was cool. I have done that too - when I like something someone has done, I want others to know about it. But I really appreciated that little gesture from Hayes. So my getting off my ass was mostly because I like the dude's music but it was also a bit of a thank you gesture to him. He was getting paid regardless if I came or not because it was a free show for the audience, but I thought of that House Concert Host who said audiences are dwindling and I didn't want the conversation to end with me saying "Eh - I'll see him next time." Because it's THIS time that matters.
These are the Rules of Engagement. Participate. Live. In Person. If you like an artist, go to their show when they come through town.
And if you're near Sudbury, MA on Friday September 19th, I'll be at the Fox Run House Concert. I'd love it if you could make a reservation and join me at the home of Neale Eckstein & Laurie Laba. They don't get any financial benefit from opening their home to me and to the 70 people they can fit in their living room. They do it because they love music. Because they are engaged.