Monday, December 2, 2013

Reclaiming Songwriters from the Past

If you're an ardent follower of singer-songwriters like me, you probably are always on the lookout for neglected talent. I specialize in combing over decades of music and making up for lost time by visiting a local record shop and buying the work of someone who I missed when he or she first sprung out of the recording gate.

First of all, I'm glad to report that at least where I live there are record shops to visit. Recently I visited one with my 13 year old son. Since I'd recently read the biography of Harry Nilsson and learned of his close friendship with Ringo Starr, I was on the lookout for the one Nilsson LP that I don't have in my collection (still haven't found it) and Goodnight Vienna, a Starr album he'd been heavily involved in.

Anyway I found deep pleasure in letting serendipity hold sway that morning. I stumbled upon a 1977 album by Keith Sykes - one of those neglected songwriters who I first caught wind of due to his association with John Prine. (A little over twenty years ago he'd released a set on Prine's Oh Boy! label that I greatly admired. I then purchased Sykes's two releases in the early 1980s.)

This "new" record of mine was a lovely reminder of what an extraordinary songwriter Sykes is. At the time he was very much in the Paul Simon mode of delivery: it's all feather-soft and acoustic, and his lyrics pour easily into your ear and mind. The Way That I Feel had two songs that Jimmy Buffett quickly snagged for his Son of a Sailor album (the sequel to his monstrously successful Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude): "The Coast of Marseilles" and "The Last Line."

My enthusiasm for Sykes was renewed. He'd been rolling around in a back chamber of my mind as an act that I'd love to hear live someday. I revisited his website and was reminded how difficult that would be. Yes, he does do house concerts - but he's a Memphis native, so getting him to do a show that's more than driving distance away from there was problematic. I could go on an annual cruise to Jamaica that he organizes in early March, or make my way to Hot Springs, Arkansas for his annual Songwriter Festival. But it's highly unlikely that I'll do either.

So then I find myself imagining that I could organize a concert series in my town called something like "The Killer Songwriter Series" or "The Recognizing Genius Series." I'd somehow persuade a corporate sponsor to help me pay the artists' air fare and underwrite paying them for their performance. All that would be left for me to do is to sell the series to the public.

That's one tall order, let me tell you. What's your message? "Come hear Keith Sykes - so that you can join the same pedantic circle I'm in." That's not going to wash because most people don't care to be specialists like me. "Come hear the man whose work has been recorded by artists like Jimmy Buffett and Roseanne Cash. The man who gave Todd Snider his start in the music business. A good friend of Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine.." Hey, am I gaining any traction here?

There's a lengthy interview with Sykes on YouTube. It only made me long to hear the guy more. Give it a listen. With his Southern intonation, he "talks Memphis" (as Jesse Winchester put it) and it's delicious, as are his stories of his early days in the music business. Then go to Amazon and purchase The Way That I Feel. (Rip those digits!) Let me know what you think of this guy!