“Back when we were playing, we didn’t realize that we were making history, but we were.”
~ Art Stamper
A film dedicated to Constance Tina Aridas: “If you join the dancers, you must dance.”
Shooting began in April of 2002 at the Grand Opening of the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, KY. Additional footage was shot on location in the buses of the pioneers, at their homes and backstage at bluegrass festivals across the US. Release date: July 22, 2013; run time: 84 minutes.
In early 2002, I was sitting in my office in Brooklyn and realized what a loss the bluegrass community had suffered recently with the deaths of so many legends like Benny Martin, Pappy Sherrill, Jimmy Stoneman, John Hartford, and Bill Napier to name a few. I remember saying to my partner, Tina, “It’s a shame that all of these pioneers of bluegrass music are passing away and their stories may never be told.” And we got to thinking about all the unsung heroes of bluegrass that have died, with barely a ripple in music circles. What stories would they have told about the early days, about the big name stars, about their love of this music? So we thought it would be amazing to be able to talk to these remaining pioneers and share their thoughts and insights with future generations.
When we received an invitation from the International Bluegrass Music Museum for their Grand Opening in April of 2002, we realized that was a perfect opportunity to kickoff the interview process with some of the first generation bluegrass greats. Since I had no filmmaking background, I contacted a friend in the film industry to help and off we went to make a splash in bluegrass history.
We took a roadtrip down to Owensboro KY, and with a handheld video camera, started interviewing and filming legends that had gathered together to support the museum dedicated to the preservation and promotion of bluegrass music. Then we started contacting pioneers in Nashville and surrounding areas, going to their homes, riding on their buses, and talking to them backstage before performances. Everywhere we went, we were not only welcomed but embraced…they wanted to share their stories and their love of this music.
One of the most important excerpts from this film is an interview with Patsy and Donna Stoneman from the Stoneman Family. Few people realize that before the Carter family, there was Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, his wife Hattie, and their family. Their music spanned old time country music to what eventually became known as bluegrass. The Bristol, TN sessions from 1927 are often credited as the earliest country recordings. But starting back in 1924, Ernest Stoneman had already cut two unissued songs for Okeh Records followed by more than 100 other recordings over the next 3 years, including string band standards such as Old Joe Clark, John Hardy, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, The Long Eared Mule, and Going Up Cripple Creek — all prior to the Bristol recordings. Patsy and Donna were visibly upset because Poppa Stoneman wasn’t even in the Country Music Hall of Fame [he was finally inducted in 2008]. They worried that the entire legacy of the Stoneman Family would be forgotten and were anxious to talk to me…to preserve their family history.
I remember sitting on the porch of a log cabin in PA with Kenny Baker talking about his music and realizing that his story and his association with Bill Monroe is just as important as Bill Monroe’s story. Kenny worked with Bill for over 25 years, playing longer than anyone else as a Blue Grass Boy, before moving on to release albums of his own. His insights into Bill Monroe’s music and the tunes that he helped Bill create, like Jerusalem Ridge, are some of the rare gems collected by this film.
Driving down winding roads back into the hills and bouncing through creeks to interview some of these reclusive musicians, I was struck by how many of them felt that nobody was interested in their story. To see their eyes light up as they talked about their contribution to music they love made it all so real to me. Time after time, they reiterated that one man didn’t create this genre, it was born from the dedication of many old time musicians that took their licks and gave them right back again in the form of their music.
After gathering a number of interviews on film, we started thinking about how this should all come together. We found an editor, Joe Coppa, and pieced together a 20 minute preview which was released in 2005 with our CD “Troubled Times”. That sneak peak generated a whole pile of cards and letters from all kinds of people, including Art Stamper’s widow, thanking us for the memories. The outpouring of love and encouragement from the bluegrass community was invigorating. In fact, the International Bluegrass Music Museum even contacted us about contributing to their Oral History Project, which shared many of the same goals that we had for our film. So, we agreed to conduct additional interviews with Frank Wakefield, Walter Hensley, Roger Sprung and Pete Seeger that can now be seen at the museum.
In post production, everything that could have gone wrong, has gone wrong. The film industry went bust with the recession and advent of Internet based materials, so funds dried up. Technical difficulties mounted. And then, in 2011, there was the death of my partner, Tina Aridas, who was a huge influence on and a major supporter of this film. One of her dying wishes was that this film would be completed.
I’m celebrating 20 years as a bandleader in 2013. My music career is going strong and I’m again collaborating with legendary musicians making the music I love. I want so much to be able to share these interviews with fans everywhere and thought that my 20th anniversary would be perfect timing for the film’s release.
Everyone who truly loves this music should want to hear the stories from not just the big names in our business but from the likes of Bill Yates, Art Stamper, Melvin Goins, and Kenny Baker…words preserved now in this documentary, honoring their legacy. “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” proves that their lives are no less important to how bluegrass got started than the major stars. If you want to hear stories from the heart, captured by a fan and fellow musician, this is a great place to begin.
I hope everyone is safe during these times. Part of the truth of life is we feel compelled to pursue our goals, despite what may be happening around us. Sometimes we feel nervous, stretched, or even at risk, maybe that lets us know we’re on the right track, or in the right boat. Filming this documentary felt like that at times.
I had some doubts and fears when we started making the documentary. Yet my heart kept telling me what an amazing opportunity, to be able to tell a story of survival, an inspiration for those who think “not me”. We all fear, but that can create growth and change.
Musicians of all genres and levels, from the small time troubadour to the international pop super star, spend time traveling up to play shows for the good people in all corners of the world. From huge festival stages to tiny coffee houses and everywhere in between, musicians hawk their wares in hopes that audience members will take home a piece of the evenings magic in the form of a CD, t-shirt, or even a vinyl record, that leave will them wanting more and eagerly awaiting the time you’ll bring your show back to their area. This merchandise serves as a business card of sorts, and getting a calling card in the hand of as many people’s hands as possible is the key to continued success. Though the initial sale puts gas in the tank and food in your belly, these reminders of you can provide you more opportunities to share your music in performance in the future. Are you looking for tips on how to improve your presence in the music scene? Having trouble making the connections? As one travels and learns through trial and error, this process becomes easier and your skills sharpen through years of experience. While there’s no substitute for getting out there and learning from your own mistakes and successes, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in my years on the road that I hope will help you with a head start on your music journey.
While I hope to share more experiences as this blog grows, there is on evening that stands out in my mind in my journey to learn about connecting with people and building an audience. Some years back, I was promoting a show in Ohio. Travelling to Ohio to fulfill these commitments was no small undertaking, and considering the extra travel and expenses, I was banking on CD sales to beef up my profit margin. After making the trek to Buckeye State, I was disappointed to learn that the show had not been promoted to the extent needed for a successful evening. The posters I sent the venue were never posted, and except for a small newspaper ad, no one in the area had any way to know about the show. When it rains, it pours, and as fate would have it, a major storm hit the area on the day of the show. Most of the people who might have attended stayed home out of the weather, and the show was surely going to be a flop. With hopes growing dimmer by the minute, I started to panic. However, drawing from the advice of mentors and my own experience, I determined that I must act fast if I were to going to be saved from a major financial setback. Marketing is about message and movement, so I jumped up from behind the merch table and began connecting with the folks seeking refuge from the storm outside by browsing the bookstore. I politely introduced myself, and to my surprise, many had heard about my performance, though they had not originally planned to attend. After making these connections and staying at the venue for longer than I had anticipated, I was able to sell all the CDs I had at my table. Though all hope seemed lost, I was able to salvage the evening through merch sales. This evening, along with countless others over my years of traveling, have taught me that while you need to have a good product to sell, human connection is the key to greater success in the music business.
Whether you are getting ready for a major tour or a set at your local farmer’s market, here’s some helpful hints to consider for increasing your success:
First and foremost is the promotion of your event. If no one knows you are performing, how will they know to show up? There are many ways to promote your performances, both conventional and some that are less obvious. Posters, newspaper ads, and plugs on your own websites and newsletters are some of the most obvious ways to get the word. Being in touch with local media outlets, including local daytime TV programs and radio personalities who specialize in your type of music, will help promote your work. With social media becoming a prominent part of modern life, you promote your event via Facebook for little to no money as effectively you could through many more expensive outlets. Cultivating a strong social media presence is a must for success in the modern entertainment industry.
2. Show up early and stay late
Putting in the hours are key to success, and the music business is no exception. Show up early and establish good report with the venue staff, and a show a willingness to help. Being timely and easy to work with are marks of professionalism, and this makes the process easy for everyone involved. Being a pleasure to work with strengthens relationships and increases your chances of being asked back and good recommendations to other venues. Arriving early and staying late also allows you more time to connect with your audience. Audience members will be more likely to buy your merch and continue supporting you if you make them feel like you care (and if you don’t care, I’d suggest finding other work). If you are in a rush, experiences with audience members can easily turn sour, thus hurting your efforts. Allow yourself time to do your best work.
3. Workshops and Jamming
Being accessible is a key element of making connections that will lead to your continued involvement and success in the music. Workshops allow you to share your knowledge with up and comers seeking to hone their skills, but it allows gives fans new insight into what you do. A new understanding of your work may help gain you new followers. While the goal is to make money playing music, getting out and playing for fun with fans and potential collaborators builds connections that will allow you to keep coming back to events. Events are always eager book retuning “Fan Favorites,” and this is a good way get yourself in the good graces of fans and promoters alike.
4. Make friends
Building an audience and moving merch is much easier when you have plenty of friends in your corner. Establish a good relationship with venue owners and promoters before the event. Send them promotional material ahead of time and help promote their venue on your social media pages. Get to know the folks beforehand as well as you can, and it will be like meeting up with old friends by the time you make it to the venue. Being friends with writers and disk jockeys will also help spread the word, as they can get written promotional material in the front of the eyes of countless people who may otherwise miss you, and perhaps most importantly, get your music in the ears of radio listeners who can turn into fans and friends. Stop by radio stations that play your music when you’re in the area, and be sure to thank them for their support, both via written word and in-person visits. Cultivating meaningful friendship with other industry figures is critical for moving up in the music business.
5. Remember the bigger picture
While some events may not be the biggest money makers the day of, never lose sight of your larger goals. Working with venues large and small to provide them with a service that meets their needs will certainly help you continue your involvement with any scene, but remember, instant gratification seldom pays. As you build a following at venues, your ability to attract customers should eventually lead to a larger payout. Perhaps more importantly, if you can get your product in front of new people who will continue to support your efforts beyond that venue, that adds to the sustainability
6. Take names
If you have a way to get in touch with people once the book event is over, get as many contacts as you can. I would always recommend getting names and contacts from anyone that visits your record table and signing them up for your mailing lists. A presence in their email inbox will help you stay on their radar and keep them interested in your work. Giveaways are another good way to collect new contacts, while giving folks a thrill with the potential for winning a special prize.
7. Show Appreciation and Be Grateful
As you build an audience while working with venues, remember that your success is largely created by fans and venue owners. After a performance, it is always a kind gesture to thank as many people as you can. Send a thank you email to the new who have registered for your newsletter, and in case they missed it, offer them any special deals you were running at your performance, which could lead to more sales. In addition to fans, thank the people who worked your event. Tell venue owners and employees thank you in person, maybe drop them a handwritten thank you note later, and spread the love on social media. These are all great ways to leave a good impress for a return visit.
These tips are just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope these will help you in your journey down the road to success in the music business. Do you have a success story or a memorable experience selling merch you would love to share? Whether it’s about tricks you learned or tips on what NOT to do, I’d love to hear what works for you! If you’re serious about taking your CD to the next level and want to learn more beyond the bounds of this article, I’d love to chat about it with you!
Every year I get so excited as the Park Slope Bluegrass, Old-time Music Jamboree approaches! This year is no exception. We have a great family-friendly event planned for folks in the Brooklyn area. It’s so heartwarming to see all the kids come out to this event, some of them have instruments that are bigger than they are! But that doesn’t deter them one little bit, nosiree! We’re happy to support their efforts and encourage them to continue pursuing the bluegrass music that we all know and love.
So I’m thrilled to have 12-year old banjo champ, Nora Brown, performing as part of the Saturday evening concert lineup (9/16) which also includes Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys. Nora just took the blue ribbon at the Appalachian Stringband Festival and she is an amazingly talented performer. Reminds me of Hazel Dickens. You folks are in for a treat Saturday night! Plus Nora has graciously offered to lead a workshop earlier in the day geared to young banjo enthusiasts and I’m sure it will be a popular choice among event attendees.
We also have a special kid’s presentation from 3:15 to 4:15 that will include songwriting and a performance of that song by all those who attend the presentation! So bring your young ‘uns and enjoy a wonderful day on Saturday, Sept. 16th, at the Old Stone House located at 336 Third St. in Brooklyn. Click here to download the 2017 Schedule. See you there!
I’ve been keeping pretty busy this summer with the movie project but we’re still hitting the festivals and performing in concert! The west coast band just got back from the Wildlife West Music Festival, a great event near Albuquerque, NM and earlier in June we performed at the Route 66 Bluegrass Festival in Victorville, CA.
The east coast band will be in concert at the historic Tompkins Corners Cultural Center in Putnam Valley next weekend and, of course, we have the Park Slope Jamboree coming up on September 15th and 16th.
It’s been a travel-packed summer so far with more on the horizon, but you’ll have to wait until later to read all about that! Hope you had a fun-filled summer vacation!