Oct 9, 2020

How I was influenced by Fredric Dannen & John Prine

Back in the early 90’s, I was living in Columbus, Ohio working as a chemical analyst.  Sounds fun doesn’t it?  Well, I too thought it was inanely boring:  the job and the town.  So what was a young man to do but pursue a career in music.  But unlike attending The Ohio State University for a doctorate in Chemistry, the only way to make this career happen was by way of street cred:  pen some tunes, find some bandmates, record an album, gig, gig, gig and promote, promote, promote.  This was a lot easier said than done.

But kids don’t know.  They can only guess.  How hard it is to wish you happiness.

Well, I penned the tunes, found a bandmate (Dave Powers), recorded an album and promoted, promoted, promoted.  What happened to the gigging?  Sadly there was only one; Dave wanted to play Jazz and not sully himself with the likes of me, this arguably inferior musician.  There’s another notem in there to address the world of the musician’s ego.

Now let’s move on to promoting.  Back in the day, promotional music sites like CDBaby or the social marketplace,, did not exist.  All we had was the hope that an AR exec would find their way to our town, hear us and give us a record contract.  Another option, albeit an extremely unlikely one, is that a radio station played your song.  Sure it was the way Elvis became famous, but this was over 30+ years later and all too many radio stations were owned by the large conglomerates:  Clear Channel comes to mind.  These guys were not in the discovery business.  Nope!!! They were in the making money business; music was only there to support the commercials.  One of the last options to be discovered and to get that coveted record deal was CMJ, College Media Journal.

From what I remember, CMJ was like this great, or perhaps last, beacon of hope where you would meet all sorts of industry folks to whom you could plug your wears.  Moreover, the three-day event that CMJ put on was scheduled sometime in October on the ground floor of one of the World Trade Centers in NYC.  The trip alone would make you feel special/alive certainly compared to living in Columbus, OH working as a Chemical Analyst.  Anyways, this is where Dave and I headed in October of 1991.  

Reflecting back upon that time, there are two overriding events that come to mind:  meeting Fred Dannon and meeting John Prine.  Both of these men changed my life.

Fredric Dannen

70c572b9c6e1c5b11605136371281.jpgDannen had just penned his book, Hit Men, a behind-the-scenes investigation of the dealings of the major American record labels in the 1970s and 1980s.  Moreover, he was one of the keynote speakers at the annual CMJ Music Marathon.  Coincidently, I purchased and was in the process of reading his book during the trip.  I don’t really remember any of the details of his speech but the gist was advice more than anything else: “Don’t hang your hat on this industry”.  After the speech there was a bit of a meet and great where I was milling around perhaps waiting to get an autograph.  One of the other attendees decided to challenge Dannon on his depiction of the industry as not being as bad as he described it.  His response was what most telling; He shrugged his shoulders and stated something to the effect “You can believe what you want to believe.”  Just that simple statement and the stories told in the book made me realize that the music industry, from an artist’s perspective, is not the career path for me.


John Prine
f9cf7c3a50a98f911605136371250.jpgAs a CMJ Music Marathon attendee, you had the option of attending a number of scheduled talks all throughout the three-day event that included the keynote presentation.  There was bound to be something that would pique your interest, some talks more than others.  Talks for producers, record executives, lawyers, you name it, they had it.  For many of us, this event gave us the perspective that anything was possible.  Moreover, you did not have to become the next great somebody; you could get a job in the industry and have a life filled with song.  
I attended a number of these talks. However, only one really stood out:  the songwriters forum.  From what little I remember; I attended this meeting because nothing else grabbed my attention.  Man am I glad I made an appearance.  
Picture an elongated room at one end of which was a U-shaped configuration of tables where the meeting panelists sat and the rest of the room was filled with fold out chairs for audience members.   Strangely, nearly all of the chairs remained empty as there were more panelists, approximately six, than attendees. This made for somewhat of an awkward gathering, one for which no one was prepared.
As a result of the low turnout, a decision was made to have an impromptu question and answer session, followed by an introduction and performance from each panelist that showcased one of their songs.  Timewise, this filled the hour-and-a-half long meeting.  

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~ Maya Angelou

Ms. Angelou’s quote really resonates with me.  None of the first four panelists said or played anything worth remembering.  As to the last two discussants, it wasn’t the song that the second to the last songwriter played; it was what he said that captured my attention.  He spoke mostly about his little dog named RatFucker and the impact that dog had on him.  When asked about the dog’s name, his response was something to the effect that the dog’s size and demeanor made him a candidate for cross-species copulation.  That bit of humor has gone a long way.

 The last singer/songwriter, was not much of a talker.  I remember him to be a very unassuming individual, who spoke rather softly.  None of that mattered though.  It was when he played his song, that I realized I was witnessing something that was almost divine.  Someone who captured the hurt of a lifetime in a three-chord song.  The lyrics and the way he sang left me with a lump in my throat.  It took a lot of concentration for me to not start tearing up.  That song, All the Best, will be forever etched into my heart. 

I wish you love
And happiness
I guess I wish
You all the best
I wish you don't
Do like I do
And ever fall in love with
Someone like you
Cause if you fell
Just like I did
You'd probably walk around the block like a little kid
But kids don't know
They can only guess
How hard it is
To wish you happiness
I guess that love
Is like a Christmas card
You decorate a tree
You throw it in the yard
It decays and dies
And the snowmen melt
Well I once knew love
I knew how love felt
Yeah I knew love
Love knew me
And when I walked
Love walked with me
And I got no hate
And I got no pride
Well, I got
So much love that I cannot hide
Yeah, I got
So much love that I cannot hide
Say you drive a Chevy
Say you drive a Ford
You say you drive around the town till you just get bored
And then you change your mind
For something else to do
And your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you
Well it's a doggone shame
And it's an awful mess
I wish you love
I wish you happiness
I wish you love
I wish you happiness
I guess I wish
You all the best

I wanted to talk to John in private, to ask him how he could write such a beautiful song and still manage to capture a record company’s attention.  Remember, this was during the times of Madonna and the CD where album sales reached a new height arguably at the expense of many a great artists and songwriters.  Joni Mitchell’s comments say it all:

Madonna has knocked the importance of talent out of the arena, and that: She’s manufactured. She’s made a lot of money and become the biggest star in the world by hiring the right people. ~Joni Mitchell

What I remember of the conversation is that we were standing outside of the room for nearly half-an-hour discussing his life, the music industry and how he earned a living.  Know that I had no knowledge whatsoever of this artist.  I did not even know his name.  But the story that unfolded, like the song, was telling of the depth of this man and his honesty.  He described the early stages of his career, how with little-to-no money he wrote, recorded, produced and then marketed his music. 

What was so refreshing to me was that he did not allow himself to be bogged down by the details.  He wasn’t focused on building a brand, having the right look or meeting the right people.  None of that!!  All he seemed to have cared about was performing his music.  I could not believe that he sold cassette tapes of his recordings, not LPs, via mail order.  Imagine that, mail order and cassette tapes to boot! Wow, I had no idea that there were such committed fans.

 My takeaway of the conversation was this:  follow your bliss and do it on your own.  Don’t be wed to a bandmate, a manager, a location, a whatever; you don’t need a wingman!  That conversation boded well for me in the years to come:  earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering, founding and building a successful software development company, creating a wonderful CD of RnB/Rock/Jazz music that CDBaby described as one of the best in their 250k+ CD catalog and having a wonderfully great relationship with my wife.  Wow, I had no idea that a brief conversation with an unassuming musical powerhouse could have been so impactful.

The Concert
Several months after the CMJ event, I, along with my girlfriend, went to see Leo Kottke, a preeminent folk guitarist (He was inducted into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame in 1978 and scored Grammy nods in 1988 and 1991).  He was the warmup act for a guy named John Prine.  Whatever!  I’m here to see Leo.
Leo’s performance was stupendous.  What else can be said.  His guitar playing was not blazingly fast like that of the hairbands back in the day; he just hit plenty of the right notes.
After the intermission, the lights were dimmed and a spot light was placed onto this figure representing the headlining act:  John Prine.  The closer this person came to center stage, the more it started to dawn on me; he’s the guy that I spoke with in NYC!  I could not believe it!  This was a sold-out show with over 4k people in attendance.  I imagine there were all there to see him.  Wow, I had no idea he was that famous!

Soft Falling Rain
In tribute to John who passed away earlier this year, please listen to the Song Falling Rain.  I penned it around the time that I met him, and I imagine he would think it to be a nice homage.

Still it’s not over
Until we both see
How much this love has touched you and me
Once forever
Is now a Soft Falling Rain
These feelings
That we once shared
They don’t easily disappear
Once together
Is now a dying flame
We’re not ready
To part ways
A sea of memories
What did we gain
Once forever
Is now just drifting away
These changes
That we don’t see
So much in you
Too much in me
Now together
Is just a Soft Falling Rain
Still it’s not over
Until we both see
How much this love has touched you and me
Once forever
Is now a Soft Falling Rain


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