Makin’ Stuff Up: The Gold Rush
With the decade of big hair, padded shoulders and L.A. metal disappearing mercifully in our rearview mirrors – I’m referring to the 1980s here, kids – the extraordinary multi-platinum success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam kicked off a feeding frenzy for Seattle grunge. Major label Yosemite Sams raided the Emerald City, staking claim to Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, then spelunking behind every garage door, clamoring to sign any barely breathing combo of Gen X-ers who could play a couple-a chords or warble nonsense in a three-note range.
Saturday Night Live did a hilarious sketch about this irrational talent grab, in which a Hollywood A&R scout endeavored to negotiate a multi-album recording contract with the only un-signed Seattle-ite left – a beragged street person. Unbeknownst to the SNL writing staff, a similar phenomenon was taking place in Music City. But, in place of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it was Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus filling Nashville’s coffers with unprecedented lucre.
Pre-Garth, country records seldom exceeded Gold status. Thanks to the manic man from Oklahoma, platinum – often, many times over – was becoming a reasonable expectation for Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Tanya Tucker, Brooks and Dunn, Joe Diffie, Patty Loveless, etc. Then a cat named McGraw showed up. Whoa, Nelly! Most of these acts were crankin’ out an album every year. And, as they all needed material, pretty much any dude or dudette with a six-string, a Mel Bay chord book, and/or a rhyming dictionary was a candidate for a staff writing deal.
Major corporate publishers like Sony-Tree, EMI, and Warner-Chappell all maintained rosters of more than a hundred writers. In the mid-90s, it wasn’t unusual for even indie-boutique publishers or co-ventures to have a dozen or more staffers. At the peak of the gold rush, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 songwriters were collecting respectable monthly draws. And, not only were these tunesmiths all cranking out potential hits five days a week, many were doing full-band demo sessions every three or four months. The studios were humming. The players were booked. And, writers and song-pluggers were traversing the sidewalks of 16th Avenue, clutching fistfuls of cassette tapes, rushing from one pitch meeting to the next, flashing grins and harboring great expectations.
With the proliferation of easily crash-able parties and showcases, a savvy wanna-be could find a free meal almost any day of the week. Those of us who played the Bluebird on a semi-regular basis used the rear parking lot entrance unabashedly. Mark Germino always took the stool nearest the kitchen in his tattered straw cowboy hat to mumble his witticisms. One night, a dapper, smiling cowpoke in a black Stetson, creased Wranglers, shiny boots, and one of those Garth shirts – with the contrasting geometrical panels – walked in the front door. Spying the cowpoke’s get-up and mile-wide, big-toothed smile, Germino said to the bartender, “Another Bud Light, Tony.” I just about laughed my keister off. Sure enough, the starry-eyed feller bellied up and ordered – a Bud Light.
It wasn’t uncommon for every writer in the round to sport a cowboy hat. Extra poundage rolled over big belt buckles. Tattoos were scarce, usually only adorning military vets. Piercings were even rarer. Stocking caps? Never. Compositions tended toward story songs, with twists in the end. This was pre-Montgomery Gentry, so southern rock hadn’t returned to infect nearly every groove, musical mode, and ethnocentric attitude. Drinking songs were less about drinking and more about why the singer felt the craving for alcohol.
In 1998, with genuine excitement, Tony Brown put one of my songs on hold for Chely Wright. With the looks and the voice of a potential superstar, Ms. Wright had established substantial career momentum with “Shut Up And Drive” but had yet to crack the big time with “Single White Female.” At that time, of course, the prolific Mr. Brown was the presumed kingpin among a select syndicate of producer-execs who had a lock on nearly every project. But, even with Brown’s clouted urging, Chely refused to sing “Ask Me To Dance” (a song I co-wrote with Billy Sideman) – because, as she complained, the song takes place in a bar. It’s not even a drinking song. It’s a dare from a girl to a guy to put down his brew and give her a spin around the dance floor. With every other ditty on today’s Country radio chanting the virtues of weekend binging, Ms. Wright’s puritanical stance seems quaint in retrospect.
As the extraordinarily abundant ’90s drew to a close, Music Row began to see the writing on the wall. Radio programmers were adding fewer songs. Hit singles were lingering on playlists and hovering on the charts longer and longer. (A boon for publishers with current hits. Far more challenging, however, for companies between hits or struggling to get any cuts at all.) Fewer signed artists were making fewer albums for fewer labels. More artists were writing and/or co-writing. Publishing companies slashed their rosters. A trio of lasses from Texas called The Dixie Chicks provided a final multi-platinum hurrah to a decade of unparalleled prosperity.
Then, alas, the gold rush was over. Where writers and pluggers once rushed to pitch their wares, sagebrush rolled and dust blew. Only the fittest songwriters survived. The rest were waiting tables, hawking real estate, or maybe even pushing shopping carts down the blustery streets of Seattle.