Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.
Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.
Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records. Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization. Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.
So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.
Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He had cracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was well received by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”
Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urban hillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.
Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.
Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.
I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.
If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly!