The music business is a tough taskmaster. Success can be fleeting, and stories of legends dying penniless are so common they sound cliché. Some artists figure this out earlier than others. Aware enough to realize that the powers-that-be can yank away their dreams without notice, these musicians cultivate outside sources of income and pursue their art in their spare time.
There’s no shortage of precedents for this avocational approach to making music. Charles Mingus took a job in a post office instead of facing the music business in the late ’40s. Famed Stax drummer Al Jackson Jr. bought a gas station, so certain was he that his success wouldn’t last. Over the years, countless pickers and singers in Nashville have held down day jobs, and the city still has its share of avocational musiciansartists who, despite considerable accomplishments, still keep something going on the side.
Roots rocker and actor Webb Wilder has released five albums and toured regularly since arriving in Nashville in 1982. Last year, however, he accepted a job as the on-air host of “Cross-Country,” a progressive country show on XM Satellite Radio. “The XM gig came at a time when I was between albums, and quite frankly, a regular paycheck with benefits looked good,” Wilder said. “But it also feels exciting not only to be getting in on the ground floor of a whole new technology, but to work on a commercial-free channel that plays good music. Plus, the job has gotten me back in the loop. It sharpens my ears and let’s me know what I’m competing with.”
Brian Siskind, the Nashville drummer and personal computer-based recording artist known as “fognode,” agrees there are benefits to the dual-career option. Siskind’s composition, “What a Day May Bring,” was the backing track to one of last year’s American Express commercials. Yet even with the financial rewards and opportunities that came with that achievement, he chose to keep his job as a computer tech.
“It gives me peace to have a steady paycheck, health benefits and stability, which only allows me to focus more on music when I’m ready,” said Siskind, who feels that artistic freedom is the biggest advantage afforded by his day job. “I don’t see having music in commercials as creatively satisfying.... I am very into the concept of sneaking strange sounds into something heard by a million people at a time, but it’s not my overall focus and can’t be.”
Sean Williams is perhaps best known as the frontman for the Murfreesboro alt-rock band jetpack, but he spends his days doing something that couldn’t have less to do with his life as a rock singer: By day, Williams is deputy press secretary for Governor Don Sundquist. Wilder and fognode are fortunate to have outside careers that relate to their work as musicians, but Williams has to stretch a little further to reconcile his divergent pursuits.
“First of all, the governor is extremely supportive of jetpack; he lets me take off work to make gigs and is always asking me how it’s going,” Williams said. “I’m often afraid, though, that I’ll be late for a gig and end up having to play in a business suit.
“I do think the two jobs enhance each other,” he continued. “At work, everything is so rigid. The message is so uniform; there’s not a lot of room to go nuts creatively. But then, when you get home at the end of the day, you have all this pent up energy to go nuts writing a song. If forced to choose, there’s parts of [the press secretary job] that I’d missthe intellectual challenges. But at the same time, the opportunity to do music as a full-time career is so tempting. Plus, I could always go back to PR work.”
Ultimately, it’s just this sort of redefinition of success that enables musicians like Williams, Wilder and Siskind to place artistic integrity before the fickle requirements of the music business, while at the same time remaining financially solvent. “The true artists that make it through amaze me,” said Siskind/fognode. “But I would rather sell a smaller amount of records and keep my integrity and [artistic] rights than be heard by everyone and be obliged to anyone else.”
Wilder agrees. “What it means to make it is to be able to make enough money to feel that you’re not scared to death and to be artistically fulfilled,” he said. “Good luck resolving the contradictions between business and music, but some people have just got to do it. Deciding if you’re one of those people, and then [deciding] how to go about doing it, that’s the quest.”
Ten mind-blowingly great, unjustly forgotten homegrown 45s from the 1960s
The 1960s might’ve been the height of the singles era, a time when just about anyone could create a three-minute flash of musical brilliance. Despite Nashville’s legacy as a country town, local musicians made their share of righteous rock and R&B records, the kind of stuff that collectors go nuts for today. Here are 10 of the best:
1. Larry Herman and The Fabulous Prophets Combo, “Gertrud” (Combo) Perhaps the great lost garage nugget from Nashville, this 1966 45 is one of the rawest, most manic bursts of rock ’n’ roll ever to come out of this cityand the combination of reverby guitars and wildly cranked-up organ makes it sound like no other record.
2. Earl Gaines, “The Door Is Still Open” (Deluxe) With a voice deep, rich and full of human warmth, Gaines just might be the best singer in the history of Nashville R&B. No record captures those qualities better than this mid-’60s side, in which he tells a wayward lover he’ll wait for her, his vocals brimming with both resignation and triumph.
3. Gene Allison, “It’s Almost Sundown” (Ref-o-ree) Allison had a late-’50s R&B hit with “You Can Make It If You Try” (later covered by The Rolling Stones), but this mid-’60s single is a chilling, wrenching acknowledgement of a failed relationship, at once fatalistic and cathartic. Given his apparent slide into drunken dissolution around the same time, “It’s Almost Sundown” functions as a farewell to his career too.
4. Ronny and The Daytonas, “Sandy” (Mala) This follow-up to the 1964 hit “G.T.O.” is as sublime as pop music gets, with singer-songwriter Bucky Wilkin’s bittersweet melodies providing the perfect foil to the sound of his breaking heart. Today’s generation of Nashville power-poppers could learn a thing or few from this record.
5. The Prophets Combo, “Lonely Am I” (Comet) The B-side of this amazing 1966 record is a rattling, off-kilter cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” on which you can hear the very process by which rock 'n’ roll came to be: A buncha white teens desperately want to ape their favorite R&B record, and yet they can’t quite get it together. Instead of swinging, they rock.
6. Little Rock Brotherhood, “Girl Watching on Broadway” (Ref-o-ree) A studio production from the late Nashville R&B arranger Bob Holmes, this punchy, horn-driven instrumental, complete with snaking, jazzy guitar lines, is so unrelentingly catchy it coulda been the theme song for some swinging ’60s TV show. Instead, obscurity saved it from that fate.
7. The Feminine Complex, “I’ve Been Workin’ on You” (Athena) It’s hard to believe that five high-school girls (from Maplewood and Litton, classes of ’68 and ’69) could sound so, well, womanly. But they’re helped by Rick Powell’s gloriously excitable production, which only heightens the yearning in lead singer Mindy Dalton’s come-on to the immovable object of her affection.
8. Charlie McCoy & The Escorts, “Screamin’, Shoutin’, Beggin’, Pleadin’ (Monument) McCoy was one of Nashville’s leading session players in the ’60s and ’70s. But before that, his combo The Escorts were one of the hottest in Nashvilleparticularly when songwriter-guitarist Mac Gayden loaned his talents, as his did on this peerless piece of blue-eyed soul.
9. Anglo Saxons, “Ruby” (Lucky Eleven) Before Kenny Rogers and The First Edition hit big with this song, Nashville combo The Anglo Saxons turned it into an organ-driven garage-rock lamentone that drives home a Vietnam vet’s tortured tale.
10. Roscoe Shelton, “I Have Some Crying to Do” (Sims) The late Shelton (who passed away earlier this year) never sounded better than he did right here, merging his stunning talents as an earthy blues/R&B singer and a torrid soul shouter.
To hear a tape of these singles, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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