This blog is the outgrowth of a songwriting workshop I conducted at the 2006 "Moograss" Bluegrass Festival in Tillamook, Oregon. It presumes that after 30-odd years of writing and playing music, I might have something to contribute that others might take advantage of. If not, it may be at least a record of an entertaining journey, and a list of mistakes others may be able to avoid repeating. This blog is intended to be updated weekly. In addition to discussions about WRITING, it will discuss PROMOTION--perhaps the biggest challenge for a writer today--as well as provide UPDATES on continuing PROJECTS, dates and venues for CONCERTS as they happen, how and where to get THE LATEST CD, the LINKS to sites where LATEST SONGS are posted, and a way to E-MAIL ME if you've a mind to. Not all these features will show up right away. Like songwriting itself, this is a work in progress. What isn't here now will be here eventually. Thank you for your interest and your support.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


WHAT MAKES A GOOD SONG? "I dunno" probably isn’t a good answer–this is supposed to be a WRITER talking, after all.
There’s an old science-fiction story (by, I think, Alfred Bester) called "The Ultimate Melody." The theory is that there is a melody so compelling that if you ever heard it, you would be unable to think of anything else (including things like breathing, which means you would die). In the story, of course, a song does hit on the Ultimate Melody, and he dies, too, because he becomes unable to think of anything else. The goal of the songwriter, by these lights, is to come as close as possible to the Ultimate Melody without actually getting there. That’s what the songs "I just can’t get out of my head" are: they Got Close.
I myself maintain LYRICS are the most important part of a song, but I’m a writer, after all. And I don’t write my own music, per se: it’s already there, playing in my head like 24/7 8-track tape–the infamous Soundtrack from God. Like Bob Dylan once said, I don’t write it–I just write it down. The MUSIC, then, is just a delivery system for the lyrics. But note that’s where we’re trying to get close to the Ultimate Melody, so the music is important. We want people to sing this stuff.
Is the rest really mostly editing? Maybe so. The lyrics get edited for TIME (to try to song fit in that magic 3.5-to-5-minute "window" beloved by record companies, radio, and the makers of song contests), for STRUCTURE (to see if they’ll fit The Rules–though more often than not, I’m deciding which of The Rules I’m going to deliberately violate), and for IMPACT (to maximize the meaning, placement, and sound of every word–because words are weapons, and we’re using them surgically here).
The music gets tweaked a little, too. It can’t sound exactly like something that either I wrote before, or something somebody else already wrote; with country music, that’s a bit of a challenge, because there do seem to be a limited number of melodies (I haven’t hit whatever number that is yet, however). Sometimes, just adjusting the tempo is enough to make a difference; I have one melody I’ve actually used 3 times, but you’d never know it, even if you listened to all 3 songs together.
THE 21ST CENTURY ARRIVED this weekend, in the form of high-speed Internet, finally available in this forgotten corner of rural Oregon after years of waiting. Took an Internet-savvy friend to help configure things (the phone company is and was less than helpful), but it finally does all work. Three computers can be on line simultaneously, and we can still get phone calls.
UPDATES: The "Joe is great" brochure is done; it’ll go to Prairie Home Productions with cover letter asking where and to whom to send the CD. Includes some concert photos (must remember to always have someone take some photos at concerts), some comments (mostly off Soundclick), cover of the "Santa’s Fallen" CD, and of course the famous "Wanted in 6 States for Playing Bad Country Music" photo by my daughter on the cover. If there’s a way to replicate the brochure for postiing on this site or the upcoming Website, I’ll do it. It wasn’t a bad design job–though the real proof of its effectiveness will be if I get any business out of it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Practiced last night with "The Risk-Takers," the in-house band that’ll perform at the annual CCIS insurance conference in February. 4-hour set, that will include 4 of my songs. Since we have 2 mandolins in the group, the performance will include a lot of bluegrass music.
As we were going through my stuff (it’s rather a thick stack, now), I got asked the inevitable question: "Where do you come up with this stuff?" That’s asking where inspiration comes from, and I don’t know. All I try to do is create the climate in which it CAN happen, and hope it does. I try to keep eyes and ears open, and confront myself with new experiences as much as possible (that’s where playing with The Risk-Takers came in–it was Something Different)–and always try to keep in mind that the world is a very strange place, and people are very weird critters, and both should be approached accordingly.
"Inspiration" comes from the old Latin verb "inspiro," to breathe, and that suggests two possible answers to the question. First, it’s everywhere, all around you. It’s like air. Second, it’s natural; it’s like breathing. Don’t forget to inhale.
The songs of mine The Risk-Takers are going to do, by the way, are "Armadillo on the Interstate," "Duct Tape," "Eatin’ Cornflakes from a Hubcap Blues," and "Naked Space Hamsters in Love." They may add–they’re still thinking about it--"Dead Things in the Shower," which I wrote with Bobbie Gallup
I was also asked where I come up with the weird titles for these songs. That answer’s easy. I mostly don’t. When I write a song, it’ll have a working title, but when I perform it, I’ll almost never mention a title. I want to see what the folks in the audience call it, when they request it again. (If they don’t request it again, I’m probably not going to worry about it.) So those titles are THEIR titles. And I think they did a tremendous job.
Now, in order for this request thing to work well, you need repeat engagements, and I do work at that. A sideline source of encouragement for me is if a venue wants me back, it means I did them a good job. Last year was the fifth year I’ve performed at the "Moograss" bluegrass festival in Tillamook (OR), the third year at the Harvest Festival in Neskowin, and the second year for the Grassroots Festival in Union and the Union County Fair. I want to make sure all are repeat engagements in 2007. And then there’s the Friday Night Group, which are the "home base": I’ve probably played with them roughly every other weekend for the past five years, and they’re my main testing ground for new material. (And the audience, bless ‘em, keep coming back anyway.)
Every now and then, someone will suggest "your songs would be perfect for...," and it really is something that has to get followed up on. Happened twice this last week. I was urged to pitch my stuff to Garrison Keillor’s "Prairie Home Companion" radio show, and to the Austin Lounge Lizards, a relatively well-known working band with Nashville connections. While I don’t have a lot of hope it’ll turn into anything, I have to make the approaches–if somebody besides myself saw the potential connection, then it’s possible the "target" may see it, too. I have a book, called "Expose Yourself": it’s a promotional manual for working bands, done back in the 1970s, with a lot of good (and I think still applicable) pointers on how to promote, and I’ll follow their suggestions. In this case, what’s apparently needed is a letter, on Band Letterhead (which I have designed), asking permission to send a CD (and asking whom to send it to so it won’t get ignored). This being the 21st century, I’ll precede the letter with an e-mail, just in case.

Monday, January 15, 2007


It’s a holiday, so there’s time to do an extra post. It has been a good weekend. Got to do music for another song of Diane Ewing’s, and it’s a heartbreaker–"The Alabama Blues." Came out as a two-step, with a very minimalist (but kind of bouncy) lead–trying for the "Country music is pain you can dance to" mantra. Diane liked the music; next step is to figure out where to post it, and then do the usual promote-the-heck-out-of-it routine. This is one I’d like to perform (and I don’t usually perform other people’s music). It felt really good to produce something good–and being a good confidence-builder, it may help other material get out of the box, too.
Why are collaborations important? In a business that depends a lot on mutual back-scratching, it’s important to be able to do things for people. This is something that (surprisingly) I can do. Country music especially insists writers be able to "play well with others"; even though I pointedly ignore the Industry, I can say that yes, there are about an album’s worth of songs where I’ve either written the music or helped write the lyrics. From my end, it’s good for dealing with writer’s block; if words are hard to come by, I can always write music for someone else’s words, and not feel like my creativity has totally disappeared.
Finally got an acceptable recording of "The Abomination Two-Step," too, and it’s posted and got some good comments–a lot of them of the "Don’t worry about them fundamentalists" variety. It’s still not going on a record, but it’s nice to have it recorded after two years. On Soundclick, Lou Quarmwater did an introductory Rap to his latest song, and mentioned me in it as the source of the idea. Weird to think of myself as a Role Model.
"Oil in the Cornfield": Talked to the guy who reportedly had the recording equipment, and he doesn’t; he also has a Tascam, and his setup is more primitive than mine (he dumps to a cassette tape, and I do a computer chip and can burn CDs)–and when he needs a demo, he goes to a commercial studio, too. In the Big City, at the end of two hours of bad road. Reportedly, there are a couple of local musicians who are building studios for their own use, and might be interested in doing work for others when they’re done. For this project, though, it looks like the options are either Judy Skye’s little 6-channel garage studio or re-convening The Collaborators, whichever can happen first.
The lack of any commercial studio facilities near where I live, and the presence of a plethora of studios in the Big City, may be a good reason to join a songwriters’ or musicians’ group in the Big City, and start dropping in on their functions. For me, that’s the Portland (OR) Songwriter’s Assn., which I’ve thought about joining for a couple of years. Intent would be to get over time a group of good musicians familiar with the material, and be able to get THEM into a studio to record when needed. If they’re in Portland, and the studios are in Portland, that sounds more doable. I’d be the only one having to deal with a 4-hour trip on bad road.
The Sunday paper’s "Travel" section had a list of festivals over the next couple of weeks in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; this is a good reason to read the Sunday paper–nobody appears to maintain any comprehensive list of these events on line, and this’d be an opportunity to assemble one. Many of these festivals hire live music; the ones in Eastern Oregon are potentially real fertile ground, because I may have a Reputation from having lived there and played there the last couple of years.
Actions: From their Websites, find out who books the talent, and mail a Press Kit consisting of (I think) promotional photo, brochure, and copy of the CD, with a cover letter on Music Letterhead. I have everything but the brochure, but it may not be too hard to assemble one–I have some concert photos, a couple of press clippings, and quotes from some folks saying generically wonderful things about my music, and all that will work. E-mail the talent-bookers, too, to let them know the package is coming; that’s not in The Rules, but it feels like a good 21st-century thing to do. Now, this is pretty long-term stuff; any gig isn’t going to happen until a year from now–but if the organizers know their stuff, they’ll start working on next year’s festival as soon as this year’s is over.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Got the entry forms and specs for the Woody Guthrie Songwriting Competition. I know which song I’m submitting: "Oil in the Cornfield," the closest thing I have to a social-justice song (which is what they want). I was going to enter it in 2004–which was the year they didn’t have the contest. Deadline for submissions is in April. And the first, second and third prizes are (besides the cash) the ability to perform the song on stage at the Festival in July–in Okemah, Oklahoma. Didn’t want to pass that up then, and I don’t now.
I have learned, I think, from previous submissions to song contests that one should not enter a simple vocal-and-guitar tape if the contest is going to be judged by Industry professionals (which this one is). One should have a Real Demo performed with a Real Band. (One just shouldn’t invest a whole lot of money in it.) I have a recording of the song, but it’s just a vocal-and-guitar tape. I’ll need to re-do it.
But how? Where I live now, the closest pro recording studio is in the Big City, at the end of two hours of bad road. I’ve got musicians here who could do the music, but not make a four-hour drive to do it. There are four possible options, I think:
(1) Judy Skye did the original vocal-and-guitar recording in her little garage studio, and she’s got a good ear. I think she can do up to 6 channels now. The space is small, but if virtually everybody is "inputted" through cords and is listening through headphones, there should be minimal bleedover. Doable if Judy is willing (I might have to provide some extra headphones). I’ll do rhythm guitar and vocal; from the Friday Night Group, I think I can extract electric bass, fiddle (or harmonica), and maybe banjo–5 inputs. We’ll do it live, of course (but maybe record the fiddle and banjo separately because of bleedover). If Judy doesnt have 6 channels to work with, it may be possible to use my old Sony mixer, which does.
(2) I can do it with the Tascam if I have to (though it’d be a pain in the butt); the Tascam has only 4 channels, and you can’t record more than 2 simultaneously. In addition, the Tascam has Volume Issues–you virtually have to use 2 tracks for the rhythm guitar, or it’ll distort. Nonetheless, it could be done with plugging the 6-channel mixer into one of the channels on the Tascam. It’d just involve a lot of time setting levels–which would be hard even if I weren’t tone-deaf.
(3) Third option is to re-convene The Collaborators, or create something like them–an Internet band of talents, where we’d collect the various tracks in one place and somebody (ideally not me) would mix them. The Collaborators would be ideal for this, but they haven’t played together in a long time, and may not play again; like the song says (one of mine), "...much too busy now, got their minds on other things." The product would be an *.mp3 file, which is supposedly lesser quality–but the input would be such high quality nobody might notice.
(4) Fourth possibility I heard about today–a local grade school teacher who has some recording equipment. I don’t know if he knows how to use it; there’s only one way to find out–both I and the heavy-metal bassist who told me about the dude will call him. Might be an opportunity to grow our own local-area recording engineer. In this case, as in (1), I’d use folks from the Friday Night Group for the band.
The lesson? (There are always lessons.) There is always more than one way to skin a cat. What you want to do–what I want to do, anyway–is assemble collections of tools that make sure the cat gets skinned, and skinned on time, one way or another.
Why is this project important? It’s potentially a way to tap into a whole additional market. The top 3 prizewinners in this contest get to perform on stage (the first prize winner gets to do a 20-minute set). It’s not that I’ve never performed in Oklahoma (though I haven’t), but more that the festival will draw people, who will leave clutching memories, or CDs, or both, and I’d like them to be of me. Like Pineyfest two years ago, it’s also an opportunity to meet people–and maybe establish an excuse to come back. Having demonstrated a certain reputation as a writer in my home area, I need to push that further, and garner some evidence that what I write is marketable to people in other areas as well.
UPDATES: The "Prehistoric Roadkill" song got a first verse (I think); that puts it ahead of "Always Pet the Dogs When You Meet Them" and "Lord, Let Her Feet Be Real, Real Small," which still have only choruses. Can’t hurry these things, but sometimes wish I knew how to. Recorded "The Abomination Two-Step" (might as well alienate the religious folks thoroughly), but I think I want to re-do it–it was cold out in that garage, even with the heat on for hours, and I think the recording reflects it. I still haven’t got the MySpace site to play the two songs I posted, and it’s been a week; my only option may be to cancel the whole thing and start over. And the City-County Insurance Services band ("The Risk-Takers") are getting together to practice this week, and have invited me to play with them; they want to perform one of my songs ("Duct Tape")–and I like to take advantage of opportunities like that whenever they present themselves.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


New blog. New Year's resolutions. These are not in order. Some necessarily have "must do by..." dates, and some do not. One needs goals in order to be able to measure progress. They also provide a tentative focus, to minimize the risk of getting distracted.

(1) Another album of "keepers" (10-12 songs) by the end of the year.

(2) Enough new collaborations (4-6) to fill out a "Joe Plays with Others" album. By mid-July.

(3) Record the Christmas Roadkill CD. With The Band. (There are already enough songs for this one.)

(4) Attend Pineyfest.

(5) Spend an extra couple of days in Nashville and perform at a couple of writers' nights.

(6) Record the "Joe Plays with Others" album with a band of Pineyfesters.

(7) At least one new (and ideally paying) gig for Concert Season, in addition to the regular ones.

(8) Join a new group of performing musicians (and, if one exists, a writers' group) wherever the new job is.

(9) Keep up memberships in N.E. Oregon Folklore Society and Blue Mountain Flddlers, and arrange to perform at at least one each of their shows in 2007.

(10) Enter songs in the Wheeler Co. Bluegrass Festival and Woody Guthrie Song Competition.

(11) Start a Music Savings Account--so much a month out of the paycheck that'll only be used to support the Music Habit.

Pretty hefty list for a part-time gig, isn't it? It's part-time because I don't make a living at it--and I've insisted the Music Habit support itself. #11 on the list above is a step away from that--creating a source of outside money that isn't income--to allow the process to be accelerated. We'll see how it works.