STREET SMARTS: Facing an Audience

Thirty-eight years ago I sang professionally in my last honky tonk, a bar in Addison, Ill., called the Moonlight Lounge. The next year I moved down to Nashville. I never thought I could sing worth a toot, anyway. So I decided to become that most Music Row of creatures, the non-performing songwriter.

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Staying away from the stage was a great move. I concentrated on writing songs and reaped a few rewards along the way. But there was a price to be paid. Somehow I got disconnected from the audiences that my songs were supposed to entertain. I learned to write songs that would occasionally excite publishers, songpluggers, even A & R people and producers, but I never got the chance to sing songs into the faces of real folks. Once in a while I’d get invited to play my “hit of the moment” at some music business event, but even then, the audience usually consisted of songwriters or fans of songwriters. Then the hits went away and so did I. Got to the point where I seldom lifted my guitar out of its case.

About seven years ago or so I was hired to run a publishing company, which got me back into music, back into songwriting, but not into singing for people. Without any real vocal confidence, I found that when I sang a line for my co-writer, my voice wiggled and sagged. Singing had become embarrassing for me.

Then last summer I had open heart surgery, and a couple of weeks after I got home I decided that singing might be good for my breathing. Every day for an hour I sang. My voice got strong, my chops got better and I found that on a good day my wife could tolerate the sounds that were coming through the bedroom door. But wait! There was more. The little town we live in had a beer joint, and once I had fully recuperated I let the proprietor talk me into playing every Saturday night. I did that for about three months. The crowds weren’t huge but the folks that came often came back. I played old country, or pop and rock standards, with one or two of my own, and they paid attention. I put a lot of effort into my singing and got results. But most important, I watched them while I sang, watched the effect particular songs had on them.

Folks who were too young to know “You Win Again” or other Hank Williams songs were fascinated. I played “Blue Skies” and found that Irving Berlin could still captivate 40-year olds in a Kingston Springs saloon. Same with “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Crazy” and “Bye Bye Love.”  I wasn’t fooling myself. It was the magic of great songs. The business has really changed, but the classics stay with us. Singing songs live to real people, not just music people, I rediscovered the desire to write a song that moved real people, not just a song that could make an industry professional believe radio might play it.

I think it’s hard as hell to write a song that moves real people, but it’s worth trying. If we can’t do that, the least we can do is try to write a song that moves us, and let fate take care of the rest.

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