Why we make music
Three singer/songwriters share the successes and struggles of making a living the only way they know how.
Think about the best song you've ever heard.
Maybe it's a powerful rock anthem with screaming guitar solos. Maybe it's a soft lullaby sung before bedtime by your mother. Maybe it's a soulful blues number wafting over the audience's heads at a jazz club.
We each have our favorites, and our taste in music fluctuates with our mood. The singers and songwriters who combine lyrics with melodies to create poignant tunes understand that. They draw on their own experiences and translate depression, joy, pain and love--all in three-minute bits.
"Making music is a very motivating process--we get instant feedback and continue to strive to produce that wonderful sound," says Mary Ellen Wylie, president of the American Music Therapy Association and professor at the University of Evansville. "When people sing or play an instrument, several areas of the brain are engaged. There's quite a network at work."
The 812 area nurtures and cultivates artists. The rolling hills and lush forests inspire songwriters, and the area's musical history can't be denied: Hoagy Carmichael, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, John Mellencamp and David Lee Roth all called Southern Indiana home at one point.
Wylie says music and memory are inseparable. "There's an emotional pull from music for us in our frontal lobe, where the memory locale rests. We'll use music to help people identify and express their emotions and understand how they're feeling."
812 found three musicians with pride in their regional ties who look to memories, experience and heartache to write and sing about what they know best.
"There's freedom down a dirt road, like you ain't ever known. There's a little piece of heaven where that muddy river rolls. If you never stole a hayloft kiss while the sun sets in the distance, you don't know what you're missin'." -- "What You're Missin'," Clayton Anderson
The Bedford native broke into the country scene in 2008 after winning a contest to open for superstar Kenny Chesney. Although Anderson moved to Nashville, Tenn., two years ago to pursue a full-time career performing, he always returns to his memories in the 812 area for inspiration in his songwriting. A passion for music runs in Clayton's family: his mom's an Elvis fan, his dad listens to KISS, his Conway Twitty-loving grandmother bought his first three guitars, and his cousin Peanut used to croon at family reunions. Anderson, whose easy-going attitude comes across in his laid-back, good-time songs, stumbled on his first gig at Rusty's Bar in Bedford by accident when he filled in for a last-minute no-show. He's been playing ever since.
Any time I hear a song, I associate it with a memory, place or time. Good, bad, sad, happy. There's a song on the record, "What You're Missin'," written by a friend of mine, Rhett Atkins. The first time I heard it, I thought, "Holy cow, that's me." I've never chewed tobacco, but everything else in that song is Southern Indiana.
You gotta write about what you know. You can't just make stuff up. An idea or melody will pop up, and the great part about writing with these amazing songwriters is that they'll take that idea in and make it even better. I'll usually just be rolling down the road and a little idea will stick in my head. I'm working on writing more of my own songs.
I've been lucky. Audiences have been receptive to my music, and living in Nashville keeps me surrounded by passionate people. Growing up, I never wanted to leave Bedford. My sister was the one who wanted to leave. I ended up being the one to go, and she ended up staying.
When you go to places in the Southern Indiana area, people are like, "Oh, it's so boring. There's nothing to do." But I'll go all the way to south Georgia to play a show, and they think the 812 is a mystical place. I've always been proud to wave the Indiana flag. It resonates well. People know I'm from around there, and you sing and write about what you know. I'm hoping they get me.
I got hooked the first time I ever played. It's addicting. Performing is almost like a drug. It's a natural high that you can't get anywhere else. But it's competitive -- there are so many talented people. You have to be all in to succeed. I think about Hernando Cortez, the conquistador. His men were struggling in battle and weren't winning, and he told a guy to go burn their boats so they had no way out. If you leave yourself no other route, you're going to figure out a way to succeed.
I'm lucky because a lot of people support me. My biggest fear is still that people aren't gonna show up to the show.
On the other hand, if I don't say yes to a gig, somebody else is going to. It's tough. I'm an awful friend, I'm an awful everything because I'm always cancelling and missing out on big events in the lives of the people close to me. I do it hoping that one day, though, we can have a really big party.
I don't know what my music does for other people, but I think for me, my live show is a release. If you're stressed out, come see me play, and I'll take you away from your worries for a little while.
Hear Clayton at http://www.claytonandersonofficial.com/.
"Pink Houses" by John Mellencamp: "I listen to that song just about every day."
"Set 'Em Up Joe" by Vern Gosdin
A little bit of Nellie
Sharlee Davis, Davis + Devitt
"To soar like a bird, be skipped like a stone. The freedom of movement out here on my own. The water won't bruise me, there's nowhere to fall as I glide through the darkness to the pale light of dawn." -- "Body of Water," Davis + Devitt
Sharlee Davis and her music partner, Will Devitt, have been performing together since 1990 when they began playing in a five-piece country dance band based in Bloomington. Davis, however, had visions of singing as an acoustic duo and claims she dragged Devitt "kicking and screaming" to play sets with just the two of them. Eight albums and 15 years later, Davis and Devitt have opened with their Americana sound for big names like folk-rocker k.d. lang and headlined venues around the region, including Serendipity in Bloomington, the Thomas Family Winery in Madison and Chateau Thomas Winery in Nashville. Davis was diagnosed with Retinis pigmentosa at age 21 and lost her vision seven years ago. She recorded her first songs at age 5 on a little red tape recorder with her brother and doesn't let her disability keep her from creating powerful melodies.
I'm not sure if there's any specific moment that defines my songwriting. I've had difficult periods and moments in my life, and those moments force you to look inward. For me songwriting is a good release, a way to communicate my feelings. Sometimes that's much easier through music.
About 15 years ago, my husband committed suicide. I wrote a series of reflections on that -- I wanted people to relate, but you can't dwell on one thing too much. I've written a couple songs that deal with losing my vision, but I see more of that coming in the future. Music's about being able to look around and appreciate your surroundings and appreciate what you've gone through and know that you're still alive, you're still kicking.
Losing my sight was no issue at all for playing and singing -- the only thing that made it difficult were logistics. On breaks I can't just walk through the crowd, but people will come up to me. Once I was talking to a man on the break who came up and said, "I've been watching you for two hours and I had no idea that you were blind." I laughed to myself and thought, "How can you not?!" But I feel really at home on stage, maybe that's why they can't tell.
What's the alternative? I could sit in the corner and mope. I have my days. Everybody's got something they're dealing with, mine just happens to be more visible to people. It's not fatal, I still do the things I love to do and it's okay. I don't have to see litter, I don't have to see dirt, and nobody ages. They're just about how I saw them seven years ago. I had time to emotionally get ready for it, and it's just not the worst thing in the world. My hearing and my sense of touch are definitely more in tune because of it.
I really enjoy the writing process. You have to work at it. Sometimes a song comes easy, and others take two or three years. It's fun to take a song that you think is done and rip it apart and change it up and not get so emotionally attached to what you think is a fluid piece. Throw it up, let it fall, and try it again.
I also consider myself a song interpreter. I do songs from other people, and I enjoy making songs my own. If I take a song that everybody knows, I can maybe emphasize it in a different emotional way. I'm not scared to do anybody's songs. We have a good time taking iconic songs and putting our own spin on them. People really enjoy it.
If Willie and I can go someplace and give people joy and let them holler and stomp their feet, I feel like I'm contributing. It's very satisfying.
Music is a real celebration for me. Sometimes I'm on stage and I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this. It is work, though. People mistake that -- you have to tear down, set up, play for four hours. People will say, "But you were just playing," and it's much more than that.
I've been performing for so long that it's just so much a part of me. I'm sure I could do something else, but I don't know what it would be.
Find Sharlee's music and tour schedule at http://www.davisanddevitt.com/.
Pink: "She's really matured nicely."
Corey Frye, The Main Squeeze
"Stop right here, this is perfect. Let's enjoy this. Nights like these don't happen in this city -- Shhhhhhh, listen. The water's calm and the storm is weeks away so let's just stay." -- "Where Do We Go? (Interlude)," The Main Squeeze
Over the past four years, The Main Squeeze has added an impressive array of venues to its list, from frequent shows at the Bluebird in Bloomington to performances at Bonnaroo, Summer Camp and GLOWFest and a first-place finish at the Rolling Stone Superbowl Competition in 2012. The funk band's energetic music also encompasses the sounds of hip-hop, jazz, rock and R&B, making The Main Squeeze a favorite in clubs and bars. Corey Frye, lead vocalist, found his bandmates after a stint performing on cruise ships. Everything came to be in Bloomington "a magical place" for Frye. He shares the songwriting mission of an ever-evolving group on the brink of national success.
It was middle school when I first wrote the lyrics to a song, but I really started keeping a notebook once I got to be about 14 or 15 years old. It was this thick old notebook that I had forever. I've been writing ever since then -- putting different things down when they hit. Sometimes full songs, other times little paragraphs that turn into full songs. Being in the group with The Squeeze, everyone is so dedicated. We'll be playing a melody and all sit down to discuss what that melody's about. Sometimes we use lyrics that I've written, sometimes we write both the melody and the lyrics. I like to use whatever method is necessary to get a song done. We don't shy away from any message -- sometimes it's words, sometimes it's a melody. We're not tied down to one method.
You definitely want to think about a song -- is it something I want to relate as much as I can? I'm a very truthful writer. The things I write are very to the heart, everyday things that go on in my life. You get a lot of your words from your everyday experiences. I get it down and work from there.
Most of our stuff is "feel good" music. There are a lot of life lessons, a lot of fond and good memories in what we sing. And when things might not be so good, it's the encouragement of making the most of any situation you're in. That's the vibe we get off. Dance and have a good time; don't be afraid to love. In life, there's bad. But we try to make it about the feel-good situations, about getting through the tough times to get to a better place and enjoy what it is that we do.
I think music plays the ultimate role in our lives. Music can mean to any individual whatever they want it to. It's so different and so eclectic that there really is something out there for everyone. It's what you relate to when you fall in love and what gets you through when someone dies. Even people who say they can't sing or play an instrument can always relate to a melody or lyrics. I need it as much as anything -- eating, breathing, sleeping. And other people are just as passionate about music as anything else in their lives, and it's not even their priority, like it is for me. That speaks volumes for how much it can mean to an individual.
Music's a passion. It's the passion of doing what I love to do, and that's all I need. We're doing what we love and hope that translates to someone who can leave and say, "Wow, that was really an experience. Those guys really try at what they do." We want to go out, have a great time and let that message convey to the audience. It doesn't matter if it's an audience of one or one million. We're going to put on a quality show to leave people with.
If you can't have fun with what you're doing, it's not really worth doing at all.
Check out The Main Squeeze at http://www.mainsqueezemusic.com/.
Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" album: "That disc will tell you more about me and my influences than anything else."
John Mayer, "3x5"
Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album
Babyface's "Seven Seas" album