One of Grand Rapids’ most beloved singer-songwriters shares the frustrations, snares and joys of making music and touring in a guest column for Local Spins.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This Spins on Music guest column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians on topics dear to their hearts — assessing the music scene and their craft, in their own words.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
I have been blessed – or am stubborn enough – to have made a living in music for over 13 years.
There have been times when I have won awards and times when I have heard the words, “You suck.” Oddly enough, both sentiments have at times been expressed for the same song.
There have also been times when the business of music has felt like walking all the way to California through the dust bowl. Times when it felt no one cared at all about the songs, and those precious times when someone would tell me how the songs had touched them. Times when my bank account looked like a healthy harvest in the barn, and times when I was so thankful to sell a few CDs so I could keep my cell phone on, catch up on the rent or pay the light bill.
Along the way, there have been several part-time jobs in there as well: I paid for my 2005 “Immigrant Son” record by selling lawn mowers at Sears.
That reminds me of a story about a woman who came to pick up a new lawn mower at the store. As I was loading it into the trunk of her car, she said, “Hang on a minute. I have to move Ed.” I inquired, “Who’s Ed?” She picked up an urn from the trunk and replied, “My husband.” She explained that she was going to spread his ashes up north on the property he loved. I couldn’t help but ask, “And you stopped by to pick up the new lawn mower on the way?” To which she retorted, “You didn’t know Ed.”
There’s a song in there somewhere. Maybe not a good one.
I have played for sold-out houses, in nice theaters, in folks’ living rooms and back yards, on main stages, side stages, no stages, big music festivals, barn dances and even driven 14 hours to find only six people in the audience. That was just last week, in fact. “Hello, Fargo?”
FROM HEARTBREAK TO SOARING EMOTIONS TO A FLAT TIRE
I’ve been heartbroken about where my career was or wasn’t, and have been over the moon when I signed my recording contract with Red House Records. The reality of that moment was that the signing didn’t happen in some fancy boardroom but alone at my kitchen table. Afterward, I rode my bike to the downtown post office in Grand Rapids to mail the contract and got a flat tire on the way home. You just had to laugh at the scene: the guy with the new record contract pushing his bike up Leonard Street hill.
Honestly, the past year has been a doozy. It has been the best year of my career and the hardest year of my personal life, dealing with recovery due to lots of drinking and bad personal decisions that led to some very strained relationships, a divorce and plenty of amends to be made.
The road is a great place for addictions to flourish, by the way, because you think that no one knows you out there and you can get away with that sort of thing. Just so you know, it’s not true. And then I got sick. I was diagnosed with a rare disorder called achalasia – a serious condition of the esophagus – that resulted in major surgery.
The year has also brought some wonderful surprises. The surgery was a success. There are new healthy friendships, stronger old ones, and a relationship with a wonderful woman who makes me happier than I ever knew I could be.
John asked me to write this article in the midst of the biggest time of self-doubt I’ve ever had regarding the music business. I’ve been at it a long time and I’m tired. The gigs seem to be getting harder to find and fewer people seem to be coming out to them.
The president of Red House told me when he signed me a couple of years ago that if “Tilt-A-Whirl” had come out 10 years earlier, “You would have been a star.” I replied, “Can it come out now, and I can just make a living?”
As I sit at my computer staring at a blank page, my inner editor is at it big time. What in the world could I even say that could help anyone? How do I write this without sounding like a self-absorbed over-inflated egotist? “Really, who do you think you are? It’s not like you’ve written a hit or something.” That is just the way my mind works.
FINDING INSPIRATIONAL MOMENTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
I remember on a tour of the United Kingdom, I played in Liverpool at a place called Grateful Fred’s. There was a table of younger, rough-looking kids, all leather and boots, who sat directly in front of the stage. You could tell they didn’t have any money because they had two pints of beer to share among four people.
That editor in my mind started working. “What do you have to offer any of those kids? You sing songs about small towns and these Liverpool, tattooed rockabilly cool cats will hate you.” But I got up on stage, said hello to the audience, feeling grateful for the spotlights hitting me in the face so I couldn’t see anyone. I was sure they hated me before even singing a note, so I closed my eyes and started to play.
I don’t remember much else until the break, when I went outside in the alley to have a smoke. One of the tough guys from the table came out bumping into the door jam like he had a bit too much to drink. I asked him if he was OK and he mumbled something back that I didn’t understand because of his thick Beatles accent. So I asked again. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve never heard music that made me cry before.” It looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself. I was stunned. He went on to say he wanted a CD but didn’t have any money. I went with him to the merch table and gave him a copy of every album I’d made, along with a T-shirt. Not wanting to insult a working man’s pride, I told him, “When you get some money, email me and I’ll send you my PayPal. You can pay me then.” I didn’t expect to hear from him, but about a year later, I received that email. I never took his money, but I did take away an overwhelming love for people and respect for the power of music.
NEVER KNOWING WHAT YOUR ‘DO’ DOES TO PEOPLE
A Native American friend of mine always tells me, “You can know what you do but you can’t know what your do does.” It’s true.
I really don’t know if I’ll continue to make music my profession forever. I do love building instruments and maybe I’ll try to do more of that and see where it takes me. The career I thought I would have and the career I do have are very different. Deep down, I’m thankful not to get the one I thought I wanted.
I hate little blurbs of philosophy that are watered down to the bumper-sticker level, but it really is about the journey, not the destination. I wish I would have enjoyed the journey more, but it’s not too late to keep trying. When I pack the car in a few days for my trip to St. Paul to play the Landmark Center, I’m going to be excited, no matter the size of the audience.
Maybe I’ll even make someone cry.
About Drew Nelson: Through his songs, Drew Nelson exudes the life experiences of the common man, the struggles of every-day existence, the power of simple yet meaningful gestures, of love, labor, pain. The much-admired, award-winning Grand Rapids singer-songwriter was signed to the Red House Records label in 2011, joining the likes of internationally renowned Americana stars Greg Brown, Eliza Gilkyson, Loudon Wainwright III, John Gorka and more. He has plenty of his own life experiences to call upon for the compelling material found on his albums — the independently released “Immigrant Son” and “Dusty Road to Beulah Land” and his “Tilt-A-Whirl” Red House debut. From his modest Kent City roots, to a stint in the U.S. Navy, to working in construction and odd jobs, to embracing Native American traditions and causes, to touring the United States and Europe, to his affection for fly-fishing and building acoustic guitars, Nelson captures the essence of human frailty and passion. As producer Michael Crittenden once told me, Nelson feels the characters he writes about and has become a “master of singing from their perspective.” For more about Nelson and for links to purchase his albums, visit his official website at drewnelson.net.
Email John Sinkevics at email@example.com.
Copyright 2013, Spins on Music