(forgive the mis-spelling, bad grammer and typos, as I wrote this at 2am, half asleep and wide awake...)
There've been times when I meet people, or re-meet, whether its a family or college reunion, or just re-running into folks from my past, or meeting new people, who ask what I do and I say "I'm a folk singer-songwriter" and they get that look on their face, the screwed up one that you know means they're trying to make sense of the fact that you've just said that what you DO for a living is in a profession where you are evidently not FAMOUS and how is that possible because pretty much that's their compass for success in the performing arts. Its simple. Famous = wealthy (for the most part) and succesful. Not famous=you've got a dayjob as the fry guy and you're pretty much in a suspended state of adolescence and they can't tell whether to politely step back slowly from the lunatic dreamer or to say something slightly condescending, even if they don't really mean it to be, like "good luck". What so many people don't understand is that, well, you can eek it by in the arts and still be under the radar of the mainstream. There are journeyman actors and playwrights and singers and songwriters and all sorts of us who ply this trade for enough money to make our monthly payments, put a tiny bit aside, and its up and down but we'd rather be doing this than anything else. And you may NEVER hear of us. Unless you are one of the few hundred fans who attend folk festivals. A very tiny percentage of the general population. Hell, my friends Red Molly are practically rock stars in some circles. But totally unknown in most. That might change. Maybe. And maybe it won't, but I know my girls in RM pay their bills and do just fine with their little corner of the kingdom.
And its places like Wellsville, NY that make the difference. Its not New York City or Austin or Nashville.
Its towns like St. Paris, Ohio where a lovely couple with a large log cabin invite a folk musician into their home, set up a simple sound system, move some furniture and put up about 40 chairs, make some coffee and invite the neighbors over to bring wine and beer and desserts and pay pretty much what they'd pay to go see a movie to hear an intimate concert and mingle with their friends. And the troubadour can make enough money that night to pay for the gas it took to get there and pay their rent that month. And the troubadour might be tired and might not sometimes wish for the dressing room to escape, but in the end, there's that one connection, that one conversation with the kid who's come because he's in a band and he just wants to connect, to get a bit closer to the action, and that one conversation after the gig changes both the folk singer and the kid. And makes it all worth it.
Its Wellsville, NY which is lucky enough to have a couple who bought some raw space, transformed it into an art studio/school with a cooking school/restaurant with an attached coffeehouse/performance space just because they love art and music and food and wanted to share that with their community. And by the power of just saying "yes" to an idea, they made it happen. And thus, I was able to go to Wellsville tonight and play a concert and enjoy a wonderful dinner of duck and local wine and buy a few pieces of pottery from a local artist and sell some CDs and share a glass of blueberry wine later on and hear tales of world travel and the fluidity of life.
There aren't 700 people at these shows. Nobody's making it rich here in these small rooms. I don't even have much of a following in these small towns. If I had a dime for every person who, after the concert, said to me, "Wow. And I have to be honest with you, I'd never even heard of you"....
This is how you do it. You show up. You play for the 30 people who came out. And the venue booker most likely is a volunteer, someone like Mike at Cafe Veritas in Rochester, who is a musician himself, but now has a family but wants to keep connected, so he runs a folk series at his Unitarian Church and the sound person is Kyle, the volunteer who is also an Opthamologist. And the people who set up the chairs are volunteers. And you play regardless of the fact that as you walk in there are apologetic comments about ticket sales ("Oh, we're so sorry, the weather has kept people inside") and even though you have a right to wish that weren't the case, you get up and play to the 30, or the 15, or the 4 people, because that's what you do and you love it and those 4 people will hopefully come back with 10 more the next time.
And, yes, you've been doing this a while, and yes you've played to thousands at festivals and opened for famous people and yes, you have that moment of almost shame, like damn, you really should be able to draw more than 15 people after having been doing this for so long. But really, in the end, it doesn't matter. What matters is there is a place for you to play in a small town somewhere. And its there that you may make a friend in a booker or in the sound person or hear a story that might change you.
And one day, you come across a place like McCook, Nebraska, a small town, an unlikely town to have a venue for folk music. And the venue is sold out, standing room only, and you wonder where these people came from. Because, well, you're NOT FAMOUS. And yet, you went to McCook and you learned to fly a plane not because that's what you went to McCook for, but because everything was a SNAFU and the most extraordinary things happen when everything goes wrong.
And one day, you go to a town like Edinboro, PA and you meet Renee who runs a small coffeeshop and you play to a few disaffected kids not paying attention, but you meet this lovely woman artist who makes jewelry, little pieces of silver that enclose something organic, like shells of a birds' egg. And she tells you of how she kicked her husband out of the house by putting the couch on the street and locking the door. And you can see the couch and see the lines around her young eyes and you relate. And so you come back every 6 months for a few years to play Edinboro, not for the money, but to find out how this woman and the sheep farmer and Renee and the town are doing while you share some tequila at the smokey dive bar. And then 10 years go by and you don't see these people but their stories remain etched in you and you think, hell, I might just swing by for a glass of something and see if they're all still there.
And that's when you turn to the Andy's and Mike's and Barbara's and Renee's and Dale's and all those folks in the corners of the country that love this music and you thank them for being part of the great underground railroad of marginalized music because its not your playing for 5 people or 900 people that has made your life rich, but the stories they told you and the lives they led that brought you to these stories. You'll make your living by stringing together these small places and peppering in the bigger, more lucrative shows until one day you'll tire of the driving or the lucrative places will be the norm. Either way, you haven't lost time chasing a dream. You are inside the dream, just not champagne and cavier, but rather, Wal Mart and Costco. And that's good enough.
p.s. Wellsville, NY. Try the duck. I swear!