It’s the first full week back to work after the holiday season and the New Year. Twenty Fourteen marks my 30th year being gainfully employed promoting music. Obviously now’s the time for a little reflection about what I’ve learned and what I may never fully understand.
First, I didn’t plan on working in music. Never even thought about it. It just sort of happened. Like most people in their 20s I’d gone to college, but it didn’t offer a satisfactory answer to what I should do with my life. After floundering a while, I was living in my rural Oregon hometown, the same place where composer Mason Williams had grown up and was currently living. He needed an assistant and I needed a job.
By the time I started working with him, Williams had gone through several phases of his career, having written what would later be documented the most-broadcast instrumental tune in history.
“Classical Gas” is known around the world by just about everyone at least 40 years of age. I remember seeing Mason play ‘Gas’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I grew up watching The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where ‘Gas’ debuted. Some of my generation know, too, Mason was the head writer on that show in the late 60s. CBS fired The Smothers Brothers for their controversial, and shall we say, smart ass defiance toward the cultural norm. They were pioneers in their comedy as variety TV hosts, a format that isn’t even close to being controversial by today’s standards.
Working with Mason put me in a group of people who’d been baptized by fire in a much more formal era, yet they were all accomplished, mostly iconic figures in contemporary culture. Among them, Ken Kesey, John Hartford, Tom and Dick Smothers, Pat Paulson, Hal Blaine, Jennifer Warnes, Ed Begley, Jr., Father Guido Sarducci, Byron Berline, Vassar Clements, Chip Davis, and a long list of cultural creatives — many I’m sure I’ve forgotten about.
These folks were hard core pros. They’d been put through some ordeals in their careers and come out the other side a little worse for wear, but brilliant by a standard that is a very rare commodity today.
My first project was working on the most obscure vinyl indie release you can imagine. It was a concept album about water and rivers on Mason’s indie label, Skookum Records. My first assignment: getting a review from Billboard.
That seemed so easy, my next assignment was to get the album in the hands of another ecological activist and industry insider, Robert Redford.
That took a little while longer.
I’m still not quite sure how it all happened, but one cut from “Of Time & Rivers Flowing” ended up as the opening preview to Redford’s video release of the movie, A River Runs Through It.
In this baptism by fire — typing press releases on an electric typewriter, one at a time from a kitchen table — I set up an entire distribution system and mail order division for the indie label. Various small labels would act as distributors for indies, and I worked with Sugar Hill and Rounder, to name a few, to get this indie release in major chains like Tower Records. Miraculously, I was able to connect with a company who put this album on a network of over 300 radio stations for airplay.
Mason toured with a large band – usually no less than five members – in support of not only this album, but he also appeared with symphony orchestras around the country playing what he called Symphonic Bluegrass, as well as shows that featured some of his classic pieces like “Sunflower,” “Vancouver Island,” “Chanson de Claudine,” “Jose’s Piece,” (written for Jose Feliciano), and a theme written for SCTV, “Doot Doot.”
A truly gifted comedic writer, Mason was periodically hired to write for television during this time. I was fortunate to be included in projects he wrote for NBC and HBO.
The biggest controversy in music at that time was the format was changing over from vinyl and cassettes to the compact disc. Not only did the CD change the way people listened to music, the technology changed from analog to digital recording, and it was a very, very big deal.
During this time Chip Davis at American Gramaphone Records (Mannheim Steamroller) gave Mason a contract to record several of Williams’ classic tunes including “Classical Gas” digitally. One cut off the album, “Country Idyll,” was a Grammy nominee in the country music category for Best Instrumental Performance by a Soloist. This album went platinum 20 years after the original acoustic release won three Grammy Awards.
By 1988 Williams decided he wanted to live in Los Angeles and I moved to Seattle to work for the largest concert promoter in the Pacific Northwest.
To sum up my initiation into the glamorous world of music, a quote from Mason’s satire needs no further explanation than his off-the-cuff, one-liner:
There is no abyssness like show abyssness.