Everything Is Free with Greg Parker
February 2006

Nashville, Tennessee, has produced, in my estimation, some of the best American music of the 20th century. Out of all this great music, to me, Hank Williams is the transcendent figure. Like so many others throughout the years, I have spent many, many nights alone in a room, or making a long drive in a car, listening to his sad, beautiful music that speaks to those old feelings of regret and loneliness like nothing else. Even though he’s been dead over fifty years now, I feel like I know Hank, and he knows me.

Then there are those who followed in Hank’s footsteps. Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Don Gibson, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins, and Jim Reeves are just a few of the artists from country music’s unquestioned zenith who followed Hank’s musical formula in their own way and made great music with a lot of help from the growing music machine in Nashville.

Nashville once produced scores of records on an annual basis that have stood the test of time. This is no longer the case. But it was once my opinion that, although we will never return to the golden age, we might be able to recapture a little bit of it.

As I have discovered, Nashville’s golden age is ancient, ancient history that a scant few of its current musical practitioners and citizens are concerned with. Lured in by its legacy, as well as its proximity to where I’m from, I moved to Nashville in June 2002 after graduating from college. Instead of doing the smart, relatively safe thing and getting an editorial job somewhere, I moved here with hopes of carrying on the Nashville tradition in my own way. Nearly four years later, I look back on this decision as one of the most ill-advised moves I have ever made.

I grew up in Knoxville, a college town about 180 miles east of here. I finished my college career up north, and longed to get back south. While I was away at school, I was consumed by music. I had dabbled in it from the time I was nine years old, but out of loneliness, homesickness, and need for release, it became my primary creative outlet. Incidentally, I was listening to a lot of country up there, especially Hank Williams. I learned how to play about 40 of my favorite Hank songs. It was amazing how quickly my singing and writing ability improved during this time.

Meanwhile, my identification with Hank progressed into something deeper, something rather fantastic. I began to feel the sensation that he was watching over me. Every Friday night I would come home drunk from a party, intent on crawling into bed. Instead, I would pick up my guitar and play a few tunes first, one of which was always “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” It was a rather pathetic scene, and I could hear Hank admonishing me for spending my nights drinking too much. “Boy, don’t do this no more. This won’t get you nowhere.”

So I came to Nashville to chase this ghost and this dream. Hank’s ghost, and my own will to create and sing, would not otherwise let me live in peace.

I knew that things here had changed drastically since the days of Hank, Ray, and Faron, and I even knew that things had changed a lot within the last five to ten years. Garth Brooks and Shania Twain probably did more to change country music than any artist since Hank. They both sold an unprecedented amount of records by crossing over to an audience impervious to real substance and emotion. Ever since then, the brain trust on Music Row has sought out similar artists who appeal to similar audiences, with hopes that they will be able to replicate this success.

The Dixie Chicks were the last act to come close. Ever since then, it’s been a steady succession of moronic dimwits, each more moronic than the ones preceding them. I’m still waiting to see what they will come up with to top Big & Rich, the latest in this chain, a digression into absurdity beyond the scope of anything I could have fathomed four years ago. (For those who bask in ignorant bliss with regard to Big & Rich, they are a combination of the worst type of country and rap, featuring midgets on stage. One looks like an average cowboy type, the other like a bad LSD trip.)

Unfortunately, I underestimated just how much things changed here, as well as the degree of difficulty that awaits someone who cites the Louvin Brothers as a bigger influence than Toby Keith. There are a lot of music publishers here -- the types of operations that typically employ several writers on staff in order to produce hit songs. So when I moved here, one of the first things I tried to do was get a publishing deal with my songs.

I only met one publisher from these efforts who was able to get past my stylistic leanings, and he didn’t think I had honed my “craft” enough. That’s where we differ. Music publishers seem to consider songwriting a craft on par with knitting a scarf or paint by numbers. I consider it an art, and a lost art at that. So whether I’ve honed my art enough, well, that’s open to discussion.

There is a decent-sized Americana and alternative country scene in Nashville, and I have found a home with those artists and promoters. It is a struggling scene though, even in an industry town. For starters, the industry wants very little to do with it. When the “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack sold millions of copies in 2000-2001, outselling every other country album during that time, the industry here was shocked.

It was as if you proved to them that two plus two equals 918, or that their SUVs are actually powered by Rice Krispie Treats. They considered it an aberration. Surely people just enjoyed the movie, and they only wanted the soundtrack as a memento. Surely it couldn’t be because they actually liked the music.

So instead of taking a cue from the “O’ Brother” soundtrack and trying to find artists who produce music with real emotion again, the always-stubborn industry went in the opposite direction, signing a succession of acts even more mentally retarded than the ones that came before them.

Five years later, there are not very many people in Nashville who make any money off of Americana music. The Music Row establishment did very little to try to capitalize on the success of “O’ Brother,” and the smaller operations have not capitalized either.

I pin most of the blame for this on the artists. Fewer and fewer of them are musically engaging enough to sustain a successful career. There is something to be said for the ability to construct a clever, catchy three-minute song. Sadly, few of these artists have this ability or proclivity, and fewer still have the ability to make a good record out of such a song.

That being said, many of my friends and acquaintances here are Americana artists. Adam Hill is one of my favorite songwriters, period. Stacie Collins has a unique rock-country-blues style, puts on a great show, plays a convincing blues harmonica, and has Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites in her band. Elizabeth Cook has been on the Opry over a hundred times and is the complete package of singer, songwriter, personality, and image. Her husband, Tim Carroll, was on the cover of Billboard several years ago. Chelle Rose is the Bobbie Gentry of our time. These are all great artists. As of this writing, none of them have label deals, indie or major.

As for my own career, I’m one of thousands here who can say that it hasn’t quite gone as I envisioned. I self-released an EP two years ago that was supposed to be a springboard to a full-length the following year. It has received nothing but great press, but has sold in the low three figures.

The industry as a whole is in a lot of trouble right now. If you’re an artist who is lucky enough to sign a major-label deal, good luck making it work. It is widely acknowledged that a million records is now the break-even point for a major label release. Last year, only 28 new releases -- major and indie -- received platinum certification for selling a million or more copies. This is out of thousands and thousands of releases.

This is assuming that you’re lucky enough to have your album released. Many bands get dropped from their labels before their first record comes out. A small minority last long enough for a second release -- usually those that go platinum or come fairly close. There was a time when major labels would give an act several albums to establish themselves artistically and commercially. This is no longer the case.

Indie labels were once an alternative for artists who wished to avoid the machinations of the majors, but these are much harder spots to get these days as well. Indie labels, much like their larger competitors, now generally expect their acts to have toured extensively, released records, and built up a large following on their own before they will sign them.

So today’s artist is expected to continue to improve as an artist, while at the same time booking shows, playing shows, promoting shows, touring, recording, and performing all the other miscellaneous functions that come along with being a self-promoting artist. Throughout all of this, they typically have to continue working another full-time job, as they will likely lose money on music. It is a rare individual who can do all of this successfully.

Over the last couple of years I have discovered that I am not such an individual. During this period, I have spent too much time on the business end of music, and not enough time with actual music, and I have very little to show for it. It has almost burnt me out to the point where I have contemplated quitting altogether.

After taking a bit of a breather recently, I have been reminded me why I got into this in the first place. My current attitude is best stated in the song “Everything is Free” by Gillian Welch, a fellow Nashvillian who knows how to write a hell of a three-minute song:

Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I’ve ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay

I’ll let the other folks worry about trying to make money off this. I’ll do something else I like to get that. I like to write, as you may have figured out by now. I’ll give that a try. In the meantime, I’m going to keep playing my music, try to get a record done this year, and avoid as much of the business side as I can. And I’ll do this because it lifts my spirits, not because of lofty aspirations.

Also, once a month I’ll come here to share my notes, memoirs, and conversations with Hank. I have received his blessing to share our dialogue. He is concerned about today’s youth.