We've all done 'em, the ubiquitous open mic nights that spring up in likely and unlikely places all over the world. Some of 'em are fantastic, some of 'em suck, but the successful ones, the ones that become legend, are a treasure.
There's been a lot of chatter recently on Facebook about how open mics abuse professional musicians by lowering expectations and making it “okay” to play for free, while providing super cheap entertainment for whatever venue that hosts them. That does happen a lot, and I go back and forth on my position about it.
Open mics are supposed to be fun, a chance for people who don't play professionally to play their music for their friends and families. They're especially useful for songwriters, both the newbies and the old pros, in different ways. For me, a really good open mic is a safe place to try out new songs—play stuff that I've never played in public before and get some solid feedback from some educated ears. At the best open mics, every musician is equal. We all play our three songs, and we all talk to each other about them, and everybody has something to contribute. It's a chance for the “elder statesmen/women” to be mentors to the next generation of songwriters, and to be amazed, humbled, and delighted on a regular basis by hearing something extraordinary and unexpected.
A Live Legend Lives
There's a venue in Stone City, Iowa, called the General Store. It's a gorgeous limestone building, made from stone quarried across the road. Grant Wood painted the view from the Stone City Road, and you can see the General Store, along with many other limestone buildings that are still there today. The General Store sits on a bend in the Wapsipinicon River, better known to locals as “The Wapsi,” and has been host to innumerable concert events, including Doc Watson, Pierre Bensusan, Leo Kottke, Norman and Nancy Blake, John Hartford, Bela Fleck, and Tony Trischka and Skyline, and once played host to a remarkable afternoon of phenomenal guitar music during the first ever Iowa Guitar Summit. For years it was a popular destination on the Midwest circuit for acoustic and original musicians, and the spirit of the place, and the billions of notes played in that hallowed room, have engendered a deep reverence in the local communities.
A dear friend of mine who passed away back in 2007 started an open mic at the General Store—I can't tell you what year it was, sometime back in the 1980s. Jody Kotz was a songwriter, a Vietnam vet, and one of the sweetest human beings ever to walk softly on the sacred earth along the Wapsi River. Jody was a tireless supporter of young songwriters just learning the craft, and a relentless cheerleader for those who he perceived to be masters of it. His open mics were wonderfully run, almost always on time, and the performers were treated like professionals, whether they had never been on stage or had been a thousand times. He was never afraid to walk up to a table and explain what the open mic was about and ask them to be quiet. Some people would get huffy and leave, but some would shut up and start listening—and voila, new acoustic music fans were almost always made.
Jody's rules for his open mics were simple but powerful, and should be the model for open mics everywhere:
1. Shut up and listen.
2. Be on time.
3. Respect everybody.
4. Don't put up with any crap.
5. Encourage, applaud, praise, thank, and invite back.
When he suffered a spinal cord injury in a near-fatal car accident in the mid-‘90s, it seemed that the land itself suffered with him. The music scene went into a decline, gigs for folks like me dried up, and we suffered long, harsh summers followed by long, painful winters. His open mic languished. But one day at a festival nearby, Jody came out to see me play, and the man who lit the heart-fires of countless young Iowa singer-songwriters somehow re-lit his own fire from my music, which is an honor that brings me to tears to this day. He knew he'd never play the guitar again, but he could teach others to play his songs, and he could sing them again. He could encourage others to keep writing, keep playing, keep the flame alive, keep the torch moving from heart to heart until the heartland was brilliantly lit once again with the fire of pure creation. And he did, with a little help from his friends. He enlisted some young musicians to help, and within weeks, word spread out that Jody was doing the open mic again.
When he passed away, it took a while to get the open mic solidly established again. Many people have run it over the years in a few different venues, trying to be true to Jody's original mission and vision. The General Store itself has opened, closed, been remodeled, turned into a private home, remodeled again, reopened as a bar, and finally, returned to its finest purpose with an active concert hall upstairs, and restaurant and bar below.
A Great Way to Spend an Evening
Jody was in the room with us on September 11, 2011, as musicians from all over Eastern Iowa gathered to revel in the living folk tradition, share songs, trade licks, jam in the General Store's generous side yard right along the Wapsi, and eat some of the best pizza I've ever tasted. Raldo Schneider came down from Cedar Falls with his band and reminded me what a powerful, both-feet-on-the-ground songwriter he is (Raldo and I both had our first gigs at the General Store back when dinosaurs swam in the Wapsi and the stage was at the other end of the room). My old pal Uncle Chuck came down, too, and there was not a single face that wasn't lit up with a smile and a laugh for his artful but utterly warped songs. The new generation of musicians was well represented by the presence of Kodiak Flats, a young progressive bluegrass band, who simply killed with some smokin' hot stuff that put me in mind of both Vince Gill and Hank III.
Part of the beauty of a quality open mic is when a player gets to stretch and test him/herself in a variety of different genres, and try things they may have never tried before while having a hell of a lot of fun. Sometimes you find out you're good at something you never imagined. There are some regulars that are asked to sit in with anybody and everybody, because they're just that good, shape-shifting through the genres like magic. One is John Waite, a great flatpicker who has a velvet-smooth, lively and syncopated style that reminds me of Doc and Tony at the same time. He played everything from folk-rock to bluegrass to country blues, played it all gorgeously, and was a joy to watch and hear.
I was honored to be part of the line-up, testing a piece of gear for Premier Guitar and trying out a couple new songs in front of an educated and forgiving audience. It went well. It can't go any other way in that room.
Gayla Drake Paul is a guitarist, songwriter and writer, working as a soloist and with the Gayla Drake Paul Trio. Her CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, is in the Ten Essential CDs for Acoustic Guitarists at digitaldreamdoor.com. Her new CD, Trio Plus Three: The Luckiest Woman, can be purchased at CDBaby.com.
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