The challenges and triumphs of working in folk music after 50, after 60, after 70, after 80…
by Art Menius
At the South East Regional Folk Alliance (SERFA) Conference in May in Montreat, I looked down the line of the 70 years and older panelists answering my questions about their lives in folk music. Legendary songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler (“Jackson,” “Coward of the County”) is 84. Both fiddler Tracy Schwarz and Jim Rooney, who has done everything in the music business, are 80, while Schwarz’ wife and noted Appalachian singer Ginny Hawker is, well, over 50. Me? I’m 63 and in my 36th year working in the music business.
None of the four tended toward short answers, a delight for an interviewer, while all contributed a lot of humor. Younger than they, but hardly young, my mind would wander about working in the business during what Wheeler called “the back nine of life.”
I had contemplated this as a young man way back in my second year in the music business, specifically the folk/roots/bluegrass business, while not so far geographically from Montreat. Just to the north in Madison County, I had gone with public TV host David Holt all the way up to Sodom Laurel, to visit Dellie Norton. “Granny” in National Heritage laureate Shelia Kay Adams’ stories, Dellie was a primary source of the ancient ballads that predated the European conquest of America. Her songs told of brave knights, promiscuous queens, witches and murders – plenty of murders.
Like most of what folklorists call tradition bearers who pass along the folkways to younger generations, Norton’s professional performing career started a good score after she passed age 50. Singing those ballads at festivals and on TV and recordings provided a bit of income after her work – moonshining, cooking in logging camps, harvesting and selling ginseng and farming – had become too physically demanding.
“All I went to school in my life was three months,” she told me at age 86 in 1984. “I used to hunt, raise a little tobacco, had four or five milk cows. Now I got to where I can’t work no more.”
Norton had just making a few dollars as her goal. After 50, most folks set the bar higher, often unrealistically high. Even by folk music standards, few succeed in a new or reborn career in music as seniors. For most older musicians starting out, it leaves too little time to build a fanbase and the team (agent, manager, print and radio publicists, recording vehicle) needed. Or, like Autryville multi-instrumentalist Dennis Cash, they find transitioning to a new identity fraught with challenges. When working a day job, he had enjoyed a rewarding part-time career in a bluegrass gospel band. Post-retirement, he began working as a solo singer-songwriter. Despite his experience, excellent songs and relationships in the business, all too often promoters, who generally had hired his old ensemble Carolina Son, tell him how much they love his music, but they don’t think they can sell enough tickets to his solo shows.
Even those who have remained in the music business since youth face obstacles as we age. This is my own story. When I stepped down from the helm of The ArtsCenter in Carrboro in 2014, I opened a boutique shop to do recording promotion and career advising for folk music artists, event production and marketing for folk festivals. Much like Cash and despite being a well-known figure in folk music circles, potential clients hold a complex of incorrect perceptions. They cover the whole gamut from “I thought you had retired,” “Don’t you work full-time for [insert-name-of-past-employer-here],” “You’ve been around, but your shop is new. I wanted to go with a better-established promoter” and perhaps most relevant here, “How much longer do you see yourself doing this?” and “You’re a successful veteran, there’s no way I could afford you.” I’m both too new and too old at the same time.
Keeping up with the young, emerging artists becomes a constant challenge with age. No longer do I go to a different festival every other week – in part because gigs as an emcee have become rare – nor out clubbing. Albums appropriate for my radio show take up my listening time. At conferences like SERFA, I encounter so many old friends and potential clients that I never see as many performances as I intend.
Despite all my complaining, being in the folk music business post-50 is a good, if not particularly remunerative, life. I am aging, but I am still somebody. I enjoy the name-recognition that still opens doors. Younger people in roots music want to hear my stories about musicians they have only seen on YouTube and consume my free advice. I have deep relationships with business colleagues with whom I worked for more than 30 years. Conferences like SERFA remind me what a lovely community we older workers in folk music enjoy as we age in place in many different places.
As a gross generalization, the roots music community skews under 30 and over 50. As such, working therein can be both comfortable and stimulating. Those who have kept on pushing, especially as musicians, have experienced career breakthroughs as seniors or sustained success playing for those who respect all they have accomplished. Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame member Del McCoury, 79, seems just to get more popular as the years pass leading his eponymous band that itself is now 51 years old. He’s booked to be the singing voice of bluegrass music patriarch Bill Monroe in an upcoming feature film. Durham’s Alice Gerrard, once half of the now legendary duo Hazel & Alice, earned her first Grammy nomination at 80 and entered the Bluegrass Hall at 81. Banjo player Steve Martin, 72, better known as a comedian and actor in some circles, stands at the peak of his musical career as a player and composer.
Some already noted musicians’ careers blossomed after 50. Folk icon Pete Seeger was just recovering from being blacklisted when he turned 50 in 1969. The best years of his long career in activism and music came over the next 40 years. Monroe was 50 when he hired McCoury in 1963. Still struggling to recover from the devasting impact of rock and roll on his business and starting to be rebranded as “the Father of Bluegrass Music,” Monroe had little idea how his career was poised to flourish again as the bluegrass festivals began in 1965. Following his rendition of “Oh, Death” in the Coen Brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ralph Stanley became a star far beyond what he called mountain music a full quarter-century after he hit the half-century mark.
Growing older has numerous challenges, physical, mental and professional that most people share. The folk music business reflects that, but offers a wonderfully supportive community and the opportunity to do meaningful, creative work so long as able. At SERFA, Rooney, Wheeler, Schwarz and Hawker swapped laughs and stories. Although he had enjoyed far more commercial success and did not previously know the other three, Billy Edd quickly fell right in with them since they spoke the same language and shared similar experiences. They showed the audience the vitality of those aging in the creative environment and loving community of folk music.
Art Menius is a veteran folk music writer, promoter, and conference, concert, and festival producer. He was the first executive director of IBMA and Folk Alliance International. He lives in rural Orange County, just like his great-grandparents.