Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Leadership Bluegrass: Week of the Tornado

I’ve finally had a quiet Sunday to contemplate my Leadership Bluegrass experience. It’s been a crazy week in our household, with the tornado path in our neighborhood, the first Tennessee coronavirus confirmation, Cora’s school closure + subsequent talent show performance last night.

Neil Young sang, “Tell me why is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell.” When I was young, I didn’t get it. Now this very sentiment defines my daily struggle. I’m working hard to have a creative career. I’m a hands-on single mom, probably too hands-on (do I need to practice fiddle with the kids every night? No. But it’s the highlight of my day…). And as the kids have become more independent, my desire to give back to music and community has increased. How do I manage the trifecta of self + parent + service? Like Neil said, how can I make this arrangement with myself?

Last October, I applied to an intensive 3-day program called Leadership Bluegrass through International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) to find out. I asked for recommendation letters from Jack Waddey, Alison Brown, and Ted Shupe, all busy community leaders who stopped what they were doing to help a girl out. And, as Meredith Watson can attest, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get accepted.

I was accepted in December. So what next? I received emails explaining how I could mentally prepare for the experience. I began to realize there were many people working incredibly hard behind the scenes to plan for my leadership learning experience.

Upon arrival at the BMI boardroom on Monday, March 2, our 26-person class was greeted by volunteers from all over the country; they’d traveled to Nashville to run this program. I was floored by the amount of effort and care undertaken by Kathy Hanson, Nate Lee, Annie Savage, Nolan Lawrence, Kris Truelsen, Jordan Laney, Dustin Boyd, Ron Raxter, and Janet Brightly, as well as Paul Schiminger and Casey Campbell from IBMA. They had planned seminars, tours, panels, concerts, receptions and meals with the finest possible attention to detail. The authenticity of their belief in the program struck me on the first morning and resonated throughout my experience there.

The 25 class members I met had impressive resumes, yet each person was clearly open to learning. I realized that everyone had a different reason for being there, but everyone shared the goal of learning as much as they could.

Ned Luberecki pointed out that Leadership Bluegrass alums often have a difficult time summarizing the program, and now I understand why. This year, the program covered topics as varied as leadership, social media, music publishing and licensing, generational differences, entrepreneurial business tools, education, live music presentation, legalities for non-profits, and more. Panels were led and attended by top business leaders, executives and musicians. I was humbled by their achievements and their advice.

My leadership personality takeaway? I’m an “Orange,” according to our quickie litmus test. Only three other classmates joined me as Oranges. We are high-energy, enthusiastic, creative, skillful, flexible, and validated by visible results. Our little team created an “Art First Train,” signifying our Wild West approach to creativity and results. I really clicked with these folks, and now I know why.

My Orange traits came to light in the days following the program. I was pretty reserved when it came to thinking of topic ideas during the heat of the class. But after the program ended, in my own creative space, ideas began to flow. I had to start writing them down.

Each classmate, impressive in his/her own right, added an individual stamp to the week. Here’s a rundown, from my perspective:

-Worth Dixon: D’Addario Strings (NY). I’ve been a D’Addario artist since 2006, so I already liked Worth before I met him; I admire D’Addario as a company. Worth is unique and impressive with his background as an engineer. He approached me with the new XT Strings line and asked me to try them out…and he was able to explain the science behind the technology of the strings. I wish I understood! D’Addario is lucky to have him on their team.

-Brian Paul Swenk: FloydFest, Banjo Player (VA) I bonded with Brian over our shared “Orange” personality traits, and in another life he might become my therapist. With a warm and relaxed presence, Brian radiates the values of a life given to music on many levels. Or maybe I just liked him because he’s from the best state (Virginia).

-Suzy Thompson: Berkeley Old Time Convention, Old Time Artist (CA). I jammed with Suzy on Monday night, and I appreciated her fire on the fiddle. She personifies a life serving music well, and I admired her from the moment I met her.

-Rick Faris: Guitarist, Special Consensus (TN). A fellow “Orange,” I’ve long admired his guitar skills. We both recall a 2004 festival in Missouri when I followed him around and learned his guitar licks. He was vocal and added much insight to discussions.

-Jake Blount: Artist-banjo, fiddle (Washington, DC). Jake said some interesting things in class and then I got to hear him sing and play Monday night at the jam. Wow. He’s a timeless talent. I’m glad we became friends. During the Silent Auction, I had to let him have my desired item (a black hoodie) when he didn’t have enough fake money. I could tell he wanted it more than my son could want it! Good move on my part—I think it’s why we’re still friends.

-Marianne Kovatch: Old Time musician, Blue Ridge Music Center (VA). We jammed together on Monday night, and she exemplified Old Time etiquette, welcoming me into the fold. She was vocal and involved in discussions, and I admired the multi-faceted musical life she has created, which serves her community and others.

-Jen Danielson: Pandora (TN). I met her in the elevator on the first morning. She’s a badass overseeing Americana, bluegrass and country at Pandora after a decade at CMT. She was warm, friendly and involved in discussions.

-Greg Garrison: Bass player of ‘slam-grass’ kings Leftover Salmon, composer, music educator extraordinaire (CO). We’ve known each other from the Colorado music scene since my Boulder Hit & Run days in 2003. His perspective as a Rockies jam-grasser was a priceless addition to our group. He is a talented solo artist in his own right (check out his new album ‘Sycamore’ on Spotify) and knows what it’s like to be a single parent musician.

-Ned Luberecki: Sirius Radio Host, Banjo Player & Teacher (TN). I met Ned when we were both playing a festival near Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota, in 2004. I’ve always been a fan of his banjo playing and wacky personality, and I’m grateful of his generosity as a friend, as well. He serves music and community in many ways.

-Fred Knittel: Smithsonian Folkways marketing specialist + folk radio host. (Washington, DC). I sat next to him the first day; he was warm, intelligent, friendly, and involved in discussions.

-Dave Howard: Louisville Folk School Executive Director. I knew him from his days as a touring mandolinist with 23 String Band. I’m impressed with his “adulting” as a bluegrasser, and meeting people like Dave is one of the main reasons I wanted to attend this conference. He leads by example.

-Evie Ladin: Old Time Artist (CA). I jammed with Evie on Monday night, and we bonded as members of the “Orange” club. She always had a good insight in group discussions and was the leader of the “Art First Train” in our exhibit of wild and wacky Orange behavior.

-Thomas Cassell: Wonderful mandolinist/singer from the best state (Virginia). I presented his graduation plaque at the graduation ceremony and look forward to jamming with him in the future.

-Ethan Charles: IBMA, (TN). I think it’s pretty cool that Ethan came to IBMA as an ‘outsider’ (non-bluegrasser), and now he’s on the ‘inside’ (works full time for IBMA). He brought an outsider perspective to our discussions, and I think we need that!

-David Brower: Piedmont Council of Traditional Music (NC). David and I sat together on the first day, and I was pleased to get to know him a little better throughout the three days. I respected his insights and feedback during discussions.

-Michelle Lee: WOBL Radio Host (OH). I’ve known Michelle for years as she’s generously given herself to presenting bluegrass music on-air. I’ve always admired her passion for this music, and I now admire her even more for her persistence and achievements (IBMA 2019 Broadcaster of the Year Award!)

-Ed Leonard: Billy Blue Records President, Attorney (TN). Despite his impressive and intimidating resume, Ed is a human like the rest of us. I’m amazed that he was able to attend—he’s the father of nine children!

-Didier Philippe: La Roche Bluegrass Festival (France). It was a pleasure to spend time with Didier during meals and tours. We worked on a team during the business class, and I was impressed to learn about his many accomplishments as the coordinator of the most important bluegrass event in Europe.

-Natalya Zoe Weinstein: Artist, Zoe & Cloyd (NC). Natalya is a wonderful fiddler and mother of a 5 year old. It’s amazing what she’s able to pull off as a touring artist, educator, and mom, and I love meeting inspiring musicians of her caliber. I’m glad we were able to connect and play together at her show at the Station Inn on Thursday night!

-Lauren Price Napier: The Price Sisters (KY) Impressive young singer and mandolin player, Lauren is also an authentic, humble and likeable person. I am glad I was able to connect with her on several levels during team discussions and during meals. I can’t wait to see how her career unfolds!

-Ange Rees: Dorrigo Folk & Bluegrass Festival (Australia). Ange added such a unique perspective to the word “folk” music, as she comes from another continent. I always appreciated her input and feedback. Her presence added so much value to our class, in more ways than one. I drove 15 minutes to class, yet Ange traveled all the way from Australia to be there—I respected that!

-Ben Wright: Henhouse Prowlers, Bluegrass Ambassadors (IL). I had heard of the Henhouse Prowlers of Chicago, a successful touring bluegrass band. But I was unaware of and blown away by Bluegrass Ambassadors, a nonprofit Ben co-founded. The band travels as musical diplomats and shares music throughout the world, working with the US State Department. Ben personified the Neil Young message I mentioned earlier and was an example to many of us.

-Abi Tapia: Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum (TN) I met Abi many years ago when I was working the door at the Station Inn. She’s become an integral part of the CMHOF’s education program, and she’s a wonderful musician herself. I’m proud to know her and respected her insights during class discussions.

-Amanda Thompson: Frankfort Bluegrass Festival (IL) I introduced Amanda on the first day, so I learned that, like me, she’s a busy mom of two young kids and wears many hats. I admired her persistence in bluegrass and appreciated her time apart from her family to attend the conference each day.

-Roxanne Tromly: Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum (KY). Insightful, intelligent, and vocal during discussion, Roxanne inspired me with her resume and even more so in person.
Now for the follow through. Yes, I’m busy with the kids, with my new album, and with all of my boring adulting prerequisites like paying the insurance bill. But I leave this conference inspired by the many stories I heard and the people I met. These classmates and planning committee volunteers have found ways to serve music and community in their own ways, in their own communities.  I’d like to thank them for sharing their time with me, and to let them know that I learned a lot from their examples. Wish me luck as I seek my own recipe for the balancing act. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Meet-and-Greet Fail

My Fragile Ego: Meet-and-Greet Fail with Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem had me at “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” She was real. She was funny. She was smart and pretty. By the way, her book was called Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and was presumably a book about feminism, but that didn’t matter much to me. I was an impressionable 14 year old, eager for gals I could idolize and idealize. I was in eighth grade.

Annoyingly, I started incorporating her ideas into my English papers at school. Didn’t much matter what the paper was about; I was determined to prove to my teachers that I was an original thinker (and by original, it seems that meant transmuting 1980’s Gloria Steinem ideas into an analysis of Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

When I was a senior in high school, Steinem released Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. My spring term papers were thus loaded heavily with arguments from this well. My teacher at St. Christopher’s School saw right through the charade, and he asserted, impatiently, “So…if we all just feel good about ourselves, we’ll all succeed?”

When I landed in Ann Arbor freshman year, I didn’t know a single one of the 30,000 undergrads at University of Michigan. I introduced myself to a gal I recognized from orientation. Dana. Turns out she was from Toledo. “Toledo!” I exclaimed, excitedly. “That’s where Gloria Steinem is from!” She gave me a blank look and asked, “Who?”

Dana became my best friend. I dragged her, and several other freshmen women from our dorm, to the Michigan Theater when Gloria Steinem came to speak. I was excited to hear my idol in person, and I couldn’t believe my good luck when she announced that she’d be signing books after the presentation. We freshmen stood in line, edging closer in anticipation.

Finally, it was our turn. I shook Steinem’s hand and blurted, “I have read all of your books, I’ve admired your work for so many years, thank you so much for coming to Ann Arbor, blah, blah blah….” I ended the worshipful monologue with, “This is my best friend Dana, and she is also from Toledo!” Steinem barely glanced at me, turned to Dana and said “Wow! You’re from Toledo! That’s fantastic—it’s really great to meet you, Dana. What are you majoring in? Why are you here?” And so on. I stood there, the bump on the log, while Gloria and Dana had their moment.

Later, Dana and I laughed about the encounter. I made fun of myself for being the over-zealot. She laughed about her innocence (she’d actually never read a Steinem book, nor was she actually all that interested in Steinem—she’d attended the presentation to spend time with me).

But I never read another Gloria Steinem book again. And I lost touch with her work and her ideas. Not intentionally—not like, “Ha, I’ll show HER for ignoring me”—more like, a vague, unintentional disconnection took place over time. If I’d actually thought about it, it might’ve sounded something like this: “I’ve lost that special inner connection I thought I had with her. I thought her ideas were special to me, but I am not even connected enough for a brief, meaningful hello with her.”

Years later, I’m now a touring folk musician. In bluegrass, I’ve been through plenty of meet-and-greets. We call it the “Shake and Howdy” portion of the show. We wait in line to talk to bluegrass artists, and we have our moment—get the album signed, get the picture taken. I’ve been touring for a long enough to understand that it’s part of the show. Or, less euphemistically, it’s part of the…job.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? But some audience members seem to intuit this, and they give a quick spiel about how much they’ve enjoyed your work, or why they felt connected with a certain song. It really is a wonderful part of the gig—to meet people who’ve connected with your work. But if you’re at the level of someone like Gloria Steinem—a generational feminist icon—how on earth can you patiently trudge through all of the many self-respecting admirers, enthusiasts, casual attendees, and/or insecure over-zealots as each night’s meet-and-greet goes on, and on, and on, and on?

It was probably refreshing to meet good ol’ Dana, the pretty Toledo freshman who had never heard of Gloria Steinem a few months ago.

But, in your fatigue, is it okay to unintentionally alienate a true and honest young fan—someone who has waded through all of your literature and dragged a horde of innocent young bystanders (and potential fans) to the show, besides?

So this brings me to my proposition. There needs to be a “Fragile Ego” line at meet-and-greets. You are allowed to stand in this line if you have met these requirements: A) You have read all of the presenter’s works/ listened to all of their albums. B) You have studied these works with great intensity, fervor, and passion, and you have attempted to assimilate them into your own work or daily life. C) This meeting holds great importance to your self-worth, for you have wrapped up a great deal of your self-acceptance in how well you’ve assimilated that person’s work.

From a business perspective: good call, right? Who wants to alienate her die-hard fans--the ones who go great lengths to champion your work and spread your virtues? But…how was Gloria to know that she’d alienate me by blowing me off? I was one of thousands of handshakes on a long book tour. From my naive perspective, though, I didn’t realize that I was that unimportant to her.

For true fans, it’s not business. It’s passion, ideas, and connection.

I mentioned my Fragile Ego Line idea to a music biz friend the other day. Her face lit up in recognition, and she said, “Yeah! You mean those people who come up to criticize you after the show?” I said, “Oh, no, actually; my line is for the opposite problem. But, very good point. There needs to be a different Fragile Ego line for those people!”

Those people can be in Line C, for criticism. They’ll come after ‘normal’ people and the other innocent ‘fragile ego’ die-hard fans, and the artist can then run away to the green room before Line C gets their turn on the platform.  Problem solved?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Creativity & Connection. Thoughts about Allen Ginsberg & Elizabeth Gilbert's...Music

Great Literary Minds: Music and Connecting

Last week, I walked on a downtown Nashville sidewalk alongside Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. Well, me and about 487 other people, mostly women. We were walking to Hume Fogg High School, and we all wanted to hear what Ms. Gilbert had to say about creativity. Indeed, she’s a self-proclaimed expert: she is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 3 years, and now she has written a book about creativity called Big Magic.

She’s a tremendously intelligent and humorous woman, and I laughed through her feel-good, conversational book talk. After all, I attended the program only because I wanted to hear her thoughts on creativity: where it comes from, what inspires it, what to do with it, and so on.

So at the end of the program, when she told the audience that she wouldn’t be able to meet and greet after her talk—I didn’t think twice about it. I’d had my fill, and I’d learned quite a lot. But she then told the audience that “music is the greatest connector” and she’d like to have a sing-along. So with her arms around the shoulders of her awkward-looking literary compatriots Jane Hamilton and Ann Pachett, she led a darkly alto version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

The audience obeyed (she had asked everyone to look at the lyrics on their devices, so many folks were hiding behind their screens), and we all stood up and humored Elizabeth. Some folks got into it. Some folks just mumbled, embarrassed.

Was Gilbert trying to manufacture a “moment” with us? And was she doing it for herself (because she felt that we’d hate her for not doing a meet-and-greet)? Was she doing it for us? And…why did I even care?

Well, the moment struck a chord with me. It took me back, some twenty years, to an Allen Ginsberg performance I’d attended as a Birkenstock & bell-bottom clad, wide-eyed university student in Ann Arbor. I was a music and literature major, and along with my hippie, folkie, rootsy, band-mates (who were also literature majors), I would never have passed up the opportunity to see the great Beat poet.

The anticipation was magical; after all, I was part of a generation that worshipped the previous generation of literary and artistic greats. They’d broken down barriers with their anti-establishment views, and helped to bring Eastern consciousness to the West, and seemed to personify the ideals of what Woodstock symbolized. And so much more.

So when Ginsberg got on stage, and put on a musical…errr…concert of his poetry; well, let’s just say it was disappointing. Of course my respect for his literary accomplishments was not diminished, but my confusion about this choice of expression went something like this:

1) Wow. This guy really cannot sing and play in tune or in time. This is painful to listen to. And it’s so distracting that I’m not paying attention to his literary work, which is what I came to hear. My connection with his art is lost.

2) Ginsberg wants to connect with us. Perhaps he thinks that reading his works of poetry will be too limited and stagnant, or maybe that we won’t assimilate the works if they are read.

3) Ginsberg wants to have fun with this. He’s a genius and he can do whatever he wants. Music is fun, and the emotions it conveys are universal.

As I watched other audiences members (and especially my own bandmates) squirm uncomfortably in their seats while Ginsberg sang his poetry, my teenage mind came to some important realizations that evening. I was struggling with my own artistic direction and expression at the time. I was considering pursuing a career in creative writing, and was entering fiction contests. I was in a gigging band, majoring in music, and writing songs. I spent my summers at the School of Art studying life drawing and oil painting (and briefly considered switching my major to Fine Arts). I wanted to express myself, obviously, but you can’t jump from every window at once, right? You have to pick one.

That evening was a fine illustration of the power of music. Creators want to connect emotions and ideas with others. Here was a master of words and ideas; yet Ginsberg chose music to convey those powerful ideas. But why couldn’t his work speak for itself?

Both Gilbert and Ginsberg developed high-level, original creative ideas over time. I was willing to pay to sit there to listen to and assimilate their ideas, because they had value to me. Therefore it was confounding, and almost a bit condescending, that they presumably assumed that their audience came for a dog and pony show and thus they decided to water down their ideas with music that wasn’t up to the standards of their mastered art form.

So, bringing it back to Gilbert’s sing-along. Did we need that? Not at all—I think we’d have all been happy campers without the sing-along. Gilbert has a great mind: her novel Signature of All Things should have won the Pulitzer last year. Did Gilbert feel that she needed the music to make her presentation more connective, more potent, more like a “moment?” Or, maybe she just thought it would be fun.

As Gilbert says about the great paradox of creativity—it is so important that it means everything. And it is also so unnecessary that it means nothing at all.