It seems that everywhere I turn these days folks are eulogizing the music industry and what I think they're doing, me included, is eulogizing their own hopes and dreams....the dream of the big hit, the cash bonanza, the big burrito full of cabbage. I even heard millionaire and legendary songwriting icon, Smokey Robinson, the other day on TV saying that we've gone back to 'the era of the minstrel, where everyone is making music but no one is paying for it.'
So, in minstrel times like these, my thoughts turn to Larry Jon Wilson.
Now, here was guy who could write like an angel and sing like The Lord On High, a vivid and gifted storyteller who could mesmerize a crowd with just a few, simple words and leave you breathless and buzzing on his artistry. He was a salty and masterful guitar player and admired by the top professional musicians in Nashville and across the country. Yet, he never had a hit. Never enjoyed the big burrito.
In fact, after his record deal played out, he returned home to Augusta, worked a job and, for years, rarely performed at all. But even through all of that he still committed himself to excellence in his craft and his work...his gift. When he did return to the stage, we all laid palm fronds at his feet and declared him a legend but he usually only played very small venues and house concerts and waited nearly 30 years before making a modest 'comeback' album.
My new friend, Duke Lang, hung out with Mr. Wilson at The Mickey Newbury Gathering in Austin back in 2008, right before Larry Jon was to take the stage. They started talking about the biz and, I quote Mr. Lang here, "He said he would not have made any different choices if he could do it all again because he was simply incapable of being less than his complete, beyond-category self. And, he was deeply disgusted and saddened by how marginalized genuine artists had become in (American) society, but that it just wasn't in him to stop sharing what gift he had. He went on and gave a remarkable, spontaneous, and spirit-fueled show, one I'll always remember."
So, here we are in 2010, staring at the new frontier of net marketing and sluggish sales and I really do feel hopeful that we can make a nice, boutique industry for ourselves. But right now, I'm not too concerned about that, really. I'm concerned about craft and joy and integrity of purpose...the thrill of moving an audience to tears and laughter.
I think that was Larry Jon's secret. It was the song and the song was king.
One of my favorite Larry Jon Wilson quotes goes like this. He was being asked about his early days, shortly after college when he worked a very lucrative job in the textile business. He shucked all of that security and comfort to come to Nashville and begin his now famous struggle. He said he really enjoyed working for the textile industry and made a lot of great friends there. Wistfully, he looked off into the horizon and said, "Yeah, back then I was making money. Now I'm making music."
I'm making music too. How about you?