The sun shines on a dreamer Shines a light on you when you listen to your heart Livin’ on sponge cake, watching the sun bake
I’m coming down fast, but I’m miles above you
What I’m working for is something more than free
I know it’s everybody’s sin , You got to lose to know how to win
This summer has been one full of music for me. Not out of the ordinary for a hardcore music fan such as myself. But, this summer has provided a variety and breadth like few others I’ve experienced. I’ve seen everything from buskers to a Beatle. Early on in the planning and purchasing of tickets, the notion of the wide swath of notoriety among the acts I would be seeing over the course of 2 months struck me.
This particular musical journey began back in early June at the Wade Bowen Music Fest. The bill included the namesake alongside writers like Jamey Johnson, Paul Thorn, Shane Smith, Will Green, Brent Cobb, Randy Rogers and Kevin Fowler to name a few. The first degree of success that struck me was that Wade Bowen has achieved a level high enough to throw a benefit charity show in his hometown, have thousands of people come watch it and call up enough buddies to fill out the roster with a hall of fame lineup each year. It’s also enabled him, like so many A list Texas music stars, to employ a cottage industry of support team and support a dozen families. There’s a pressure to that, but it’s a certain level of success that few singer/songwriters achieve. Things like that happen in Texas.
The following weekend we attended our first Jimmy Buffett concert. What an experience that was. Few songwriters have achieved the amount of success that Buffett has. He has built an empire off one of his songs. His net worth is over half a billion. Buffett started out as a journalist and novelist who wrote songs on the side and parlayed his songwriting into mogul status. Relatively peerless in this regard.
The week after that, I lived out a childhood dream as I was able to take in a show from Paul McCartney. The Beatles are a foundational building block of all music that’s come out post 1964. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t ignore it. Fortunately for me, I love it. I was raised with a healthy appreciation of the Beatles and the inheritance of my mom’s vinyl collection. Macca was my mecca. McCartney may be the peak of living songwriter success. Part of what is respected as the greatest songwriting duo ever with Lennon, his songs weave the tapestry of our lives. His lyrics and melodies are as omnipresent as trees and grass. It’s just part of the human experience at this point. I’m not sure there’s a songwriter alive that has had such a global, lasting impact.
Up next on my tour of songwriters was the modern pinnacle, Jason Isbell. Isbell has elevated himself from alt-country guitar slinger to American poet. He’s as big and great as it gets in 2019. The way he weaves story with melody, pain with joy, imagery and detail is sublime. He does it all on his terms too. In the modern streaming world, he’s not beholden to label pressures and he doesn’t write anything he doesn’t believe in. He’s never had to write a Badonkadonk alongside an “In Color” to survive. But, you damn well know he could. Instead, he writes his truth, makes a nice living, can play when and where he wants and has industry wide respect. Enviable for sure.
America’s birthday took me to Sin City and a date with the Toxic Twins. Joe Perry and Steven Tyler have long been the USA’s answer to Jagger and Richards. That’s a hill almost too high to die on, but Aerosmith has fought valiantly over the years. I was able to take Aerosmith in while inside an arena not much larger than Moody in Austin. A true spectacle. Before their late career turnover to the likes of Diane Warren and Desmond Child, Tyler knew his way around a pen like few other rock frontmen ever have. Tyler can move from the stadium to the studio to American Idol to tour to a Vegas residency with equal ease in each situation. He’s the coolest cat in whatever room he enters and if he’d never written anything after “Dream On”, he’d still be on this list.
I returned from Vegas just in time to kick off River Jam 2019. 30 of the best songwriters in Texas in various stages of career and performance. If we put them on the bill, it’s because we believe in them and think others will dig them too. Kevin Galloway kissed the Americana mountaintops in Uncle Lucius with a voice as big as the Palo Duro and songs that touch the soul. He stepped back from the jam band touring life to be a family man troubadour and, for him, the move is as successful as Jimmy Buffett writing about a tequila based concoction.
The weekend also featured upstarts like Juliet McConkey. A Virginia native who has been in Texas less than 12 months and has found enough success that she’s already become known well enough to play the Bowen Fest and River Jam. With regard to level, that’s no different than McCartney taking a baseball stadium victory lap.
The anchors of our River Jam event have long been Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider. Their acoustic duo act has been the cream of the songwriting crop in Texas for several years now. Nobody does it better. These guys can write from any perspective or genre and then when they perform they actually put on a show. Some songwriters prefer to stare at the floor and mope through life. Not these guys. Even when singing about dark subjects, their vibe and energy remain light. The way they kind of do what they want and how they want reminds of Isbell. They’re universally respected and recognized among their peers, but the larger mainstream doesn’t exactly know what to do with them. They’ve had some minor hits and a bit of name recognition but you won’t always hear them on the radio.
Songwriters achieve success in any number of ways. Getting a cut. Selling a million records. Opening a casino. Heck, for some just getting a gig. The key is in them recognizing that success and continuing to move forward. All the big acts I saw this summer have enough skins on the wall to sit back and rest. Yet, they’re still chasing it. For the sake of the song. Just like the guys and gals down here in Texas. Success is relative, but it also keeps you chasing the ghost.