Jim Marshall, courtesy of Mercury Records
The cover of Mother Earth's Living With The Animals.
A hook? A gimmick? A shtick?
What happens to all of those really talented musicians who have none of the above?
That's the question that came to mind on hearing Tracy Nelson again.
In the NPR story that aired last Saturday, she came across as a down-to-earth, no-nonsense person with an absolutely stunning voice. I mean just a knock you on your ass voice. So why isn't she famous? She's been getting critical attention since 1966, when the band Mother Earth first started performing around San Francisco.
Is it because there isn't a mainstream media-ready story attached? Recently, her house and studio did nearly burn down, so that gave me a lede when pitching the piece to show producers here.
But selling a story based on someone's impeccable musicianship is tough. When there's no drug addiction, erratic behavior, overblown stage persona, or life tragedy, there's no easy hook. It's easy to connect the listener to the music with a personal story — something that gives them something human to hang onto. People could relate to someone losing two pets and almost losing a home to a fire.
It's a crass business. As an editor, I jumped at the chance to tell Tracy Nelson's story again after Laura Sydell interviewed her for her 50 Great Voices piece on Janis Joplin and told me about the fire. Fortunately, there's a really good freelance reporter in Nashville — Craig Havighurst. The media stars aligned. It had been 14 years since I last assigned a story on Nelson. Back then there was no personal tragedy, just a new album — a standard media hook — but the piece got on the air.
For this past Saturday's story, I edited Craig's script and got ready to produce the piece — digging out my old Nelson LPs — having been a fan since the first Mother Earth record came out. I had all but one of the tunes I wanted to use on CD but I figured I'd dub the LPs first and relive a few memories.
Sitting in a little room in the NPR library with the only turntable in the whole company hooked up to our audio editing system (how sad is that?), I listened and pored over the album jackets. First connection: all of the animals — dogs and cats in all of the group photos. The first Mother Earth album is called, Living with the Animals. I love dogs. Not so much cats. Then there was the picture of a young woman named Tamarie Dean, to whom the album was dedicated.
"March 11, 1945 to July 31, 1968
22 years, 4 months, 20 days"
Who was she? What happened?
Next connection, of course, the musician performance photos. "Toad" Andrews playing his Tele with his teeth. Saxophonist Martin Fierro leaning left as he blows tenor in the center of the psychedelic swirl of a light show. Open the gatefold once more and there's the whole band, family, friends, and lots of animals filling the porch and spilling down the steps of some possibly incredibly cool San Francisco house.
Was it easier to connect with musicians when you could at least catch a glimpse into their world on something larger than a 5 x 5 CD or 8 x12 laptop screen with commercials running along two borders? When you could hold a representation of that world in your outstretched arms and get lost in it, did it somehow give music more meaning than just another tune on shuffle?
I gave myself lots of time to fully absorb the images — I couldn't help but listen to the music and that voice. Nelson wails to the crescendo at the end of the Memphis Slim song, "Mother Earth" (a song she later sang at the bluesman's funeral):
"I don't care how rich you are.
I don't care what you're worth.
I don't care what you're worth.
Well, when it all comes down,
You've got to go,
You've got to go back to Mother Earth.
Damn. Mixing it in the studio, the engineer and I were so taken in by the music we missed Craig's next track.
Let the disc roll through the end of side one and you get to her most famous song, "Down So Low." It just builds and builds and builds. But it doesn't release. Nelson just maintains a simmer that cooks you nonetheless. Unrequited love never sounded so ... unrequited.
I wound up using the LP dubs to produce the piece — they sounded great.
Today great music is all around us and there seem to be so many more musicians. The world population has, of course, exploded so even if the per capita percentage of musicians has remained the same, it stands to reason that there are more musicians than there were when that first Mother Earth record came out. They're all releasing their music. And we can access it all. And a lot of them are good.
For all of the wonders of the Internet — all of the connections it makes around the world — what gets our attention now — and how does it do that?
Tragedy? Big wigs?
How do we find the musicians with whom we can connect? How do you?