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Acoustic Music and the Garth Factor

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
December 14, 2007 - 6:05 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Garth Brooks could make a bluegrass album and it probably would wind up being the biggest seller the genre has ever seen.

But would it be lonesome?

How could it be when his fame and fortune is galactic? Brooks recently sold out eight straight nights at a mega-center in Kansas City and had his fans weeping in the aisles.

That's not my scene.

Yet can't bluegrass and folk and related musical hybrids have just a little bigger slice of the pie so the acoustic music biz doesn't have to mean chronic financial hardship?

Or would the music we love suffer if that happened?

Most of us like living on the musical back roads away from undue hype and suffocating sameness.

My current favorite performance venue, Mountain Music Shoppe in Shawnee, Kan., holds about 60 people. Artists pick up a routing date in the middle of the country there. But I doubt if they pick up retirement money or a health insurance payment.

Most of us don't really want bigger crowds and more attention from mainstream media. But how do our favorite performers avoid poverty without them?

We're like trout fishermen that prefer a morning on the water with no others disturbing the purity of wilderness.

But without money from fishermen, there are fewer places to fish.

Without money and attention in the music biz, less music happens.

There's a benefit for music fans in the hardships of a professional acoustic musician's life. The poverty and grinding road life weed out all but the best performers, unlike country and rock where mediocrity is supported by record label money and hype.

But I bet diminishing returns kick in somewhere, and we've missed some really good music because of the hardships performers face.

I worry about how some of the newer acts that I admire, such as Kenny and Amanda Smith, can pursue a lifetime career with peace of mind.

And our acoustic music world is so far removed from the Garth experience, surely we could move a wee bit closer to middle ground without harm. Brooks' eight-night run in Kansas City was part of fulfilling a recording contract he had with Wal-Mart. He and his wife, Trisha Yearwood (opening act), flew home each night after the show and flew back to KC the next day for the evening performance.

Bluegrass bands are lucky if they can afford a decent minivan for all-night drives to reach the next festival, unless they have enough star power to afford a bus for all-night drives.

The reviewer wrote that Brooks' rowdy fans sang along with every song.

One night, as he sang "Friends In Low Places," the young woman sitting in front of the reviewer wept throughout the song.


Most of the final show was simulcast to sellout crowds in theaters around the country. You know there's got to be a DVD coming soon for sale.

It was incredible, millions of dollars being made in a week's time under the country music banner.

I don't begrudge Brooks this because he's simply providing what his fans want. He's prone to some good turns for good causes, too. He's milking a cow that needs to be milked.

But dang I wish professional acoustic musicians didn't have to rely on house concerts or love offerings collected during concerts in church sanctuaries to survive en route to their better paying jobs.

And paying for basic necessities, as middle class day jobbers know, is not easy right now.

I supposed there's a balance point where more attention and more fans boost the music without diluting it.

If someone knows the path to that point, let us know. It's an unmarked route for most of us.

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