Gurf Morlix, Kevin Gordon, Phil Lee and Johnny Dowd may not be household names but all of these singer/songwriter/musicianss have found creative ways to make a career work well into the age when most folks are planning to retire. Don’t be surprised if none of these guys ever hang it up.
Their careers have drifted from Buffalo, New York; Monroe, Louisiana; Durham, North Carolina and Fort Worth, Texas. They have won Grammy Awards, played living room concerts and everything in between – rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards, Neil Young and Charles Bukowski. What they have in common is a rare combination of talent, grit and tenacity that defines their songs. They all have new cds out or on the way.
Gurf Morlix’ new album Eatin’ At Me is out now. At this stage of the game he sums his career thusly, “Honestly, I have never enjoyed life more. My career, such as it is, has been a slow build. I’ve been producing albums for some of the best songwriters in the world for the last 26 years, but it’s the songwriting I am concentrating on now. I’ve been writing songs all my life, but it’s only been the last 8 years or so that I have felt that I have been writing songs that people respond to. Now, all I want to do is go out there and play them for anyone who wants to listen. I know that they will feel be moved. I think with every album, the songs get better, and the sounds get better. I just want people to come find me and listen.”His process for a new album is a basic one. “It somehow seems to be organic, he said. “I don’t have to plan and plot much at all. I write a lot. Every chance I get. Not every song is good, but somehow I manage to figure that all out. By the time I am ready to record, I usually have enough songs for 2 albums. Then the job is to figure out which of those are worthy. That can be difficult, sometimes. Somehow, the day job I have of being a record producer fits into the schedule, and any album that needs to be made will be made.”
These artists built their careers working in band situations but time and wisdom suggested a more lean operation at times to press on.
Phil Lee’s philosophy was humorous and quite simple. “I fired everybody. I fired people that didn’t even work for me. It got good to me all that firing. Then I had to figure out how to do it alone. That was tough. I knew I’d suck for a while until I figured it out or at least got used to being onstage alone…I learned to finger pick. I became more wardrobe savvy. Spruced up the in between song patter and I found out quick the difference between a real song and an ‘I wish I hadda song’…it was all a challenge except for the splitting up the money at the end of the night part. That part I liked. There’s also satisfaction in getting the job done all by your lonesome…Oh yeah, I kept the booking agent. Her I didn’t fire.”
Relying on his self-deprecating wit, he defines his current status – but read between the lines. “I could make a good case for failure…I’m working, well equipped, highly mobile and there are future gigs on the calendar…Bingo! I never knew not being rich and famous could be so rewarding. Let’s face it, I’m pulling down on a good day, maybe 27 cents an hour, but considering how satisfying it all is, I’d probably do it for less…
His recent album Some Gotta Lose falls into his philosophy. “Mainly I got the idea from never having a snappy come back to the query, “you’re so dang fabulous (I paraphrase) how come it is I’ve never heard of you?” (That with the implication it’s somehow it’s my fault. The noive)…My pat answer became ‘Hey, some gotta lose’”.
Kevin Gordon sees taking advantage of new formats as a way to keep fresh material in front of his listeners. “I really feel pressured to release tracks more often–with the short-attention-span theater out there, you’ve gotta do it just so people remember that you exist, because so much information is thrown at us all every day.”
He also has adapted to solo gigs to balance full band situations. “The move to touring solo allowed me to get out there more–and it’s also been good for me as a musician. When you’re up there alone there’s nobody else to look at when something goes wrong.”
As Gordon readies his next album (scheduled for a May release), which was subsidized by fans via crowd funding, he grasped the reins to bring his project to fruition. “My own experience has been overwhelmingly positive, he said, “though as much in intangible ways as the tangible aspects of the funds raised. When fans participate, a certain bond is created that wasn’t there before–a more personal relationship, I suppose. I didn’t expect that, but it’s been a powerful unifying force among the fans, and between them and me.”
Morlix also offered his take on the state of the music biz and crowd funding. “I’m kind of torn on this issue. When I was young, you kind of had to get a license to make an album. It was called a “record deal”, and it involved some company with a lot of money, some of which they would give to you, as if it was yours, and you would go into a very expensive recording studio, roll the dice, and if you were lucky, come out with something that you were proud of. Hopefully a little piece of art — that you no longer owned. It belonged to the company store. And from how many sales you might have generated, or not generated, depending on the gods of luck and commerce, you would never see a single penny of profit.
No matter how many you sold. Those were the good days. “ he said.
“These days there is fan funding, but you better have some fans, and you better have given them good reasons to invest in you. This is a good thing, and a lot of albums get made that wouldn’t, otherwise. However, the other side of the issue is that it enables almost anyone to make an album. And they all do. Part of me misses the days when you had to get a license.”
Gordon’s perspective on career challenges could be shared by the others. “Oh, survival, mainly. I turned 50 last year, and with that it seemed like some things I used to kinda laugh off became not so funny anymore–the extremely mercenary gigs where you’re encouraged to feel lucky that you’re being guaranteed the same money you were getting in 1995, that sort of thing — incompetent sound engineers. Just the ancillary jive that can surround you in this line of work.” But things keep getting better, overall.
As iconoclastic as his peers, the Ithaca, New York-based, Johnny Dowd plays music that might be described as Country-Western influenced gothic R&B with a seriously dark sense of humor. He may be better appreciated by fans in Europe than his own backyard – which is our loss. Consider the first time I saw him play with some Mekons in a corner bar in Milwaukee, Dowd had a iron C-clamp attached to the headstock of his Telecaster.
Also consider his new album is titled That’s Your Wife on the Back of My Horse.
Dowd is also matter of fact if a bit tongue in cheek. “I’m not sure I would call it a career–it’s more an all consuming hobby/vocation/calling. Ii make a record once a year–it’s a kind of snapshot of where I am at musically at that time–it’s a way of emptying the trash so I can move on to something else. If I can be home home by 9pm i will play free–after that you have to me–at this point i take what i can get.”
“I look up to anybody who is doing what they are doing just for love of it like Sun Ra or Captain Beefheart, “ he said. “The challenge is to be like the shark– keep moving and avoid the harpoon.”
While the music business has evolved to the point where most artists are forced to take the reins to keep their careers moving forward, Lee provides a sagacious mantra. Recognizing the worth of his self-optimism, he says “I’m pleased with my improvement as a musician. I’m finding it’s never too late to buckle down and learn something. My one man circus feels like it’s getting better too. I am proud of that. At this age, I’m finding it’s easier to accept this- You’ve got your good days, you’ve got your bad days and you’ve got some days you can’t even tell what the Hell it is. It’s a day though. I’ll take it. A lot of my old pals, these days, they’re not getting any days at all.”