Jonathan Ross, Hence the Blues Album Review

Jonathan Ross, Hence the Blues

Jonathan Ross

Reviewed by Art Menius, January 31, 2012, for

Hence the Blues proves a promising debut for Houston singer-songwriter Jonathan Ross featuring acoustic and electric material, plenty of guitar and fiddle, drums and bass, and the occasional banjo. With a nice hand for clever couplets and a facility for finding a good, vaguely country groove, Ross compares well to Jonathan Byrd.

Despite nine original songs ranging from professional to very good, the absolute killer track on Hence the Blues is the only cover, the traditional “Coo Coo.” Ross reconstructs it, much like Fairport Convention was doing four decades ago, into an angst-driven, rocker.

Other standout cuts include “Heavy Load (Gone, Gone, Gone),” a conventional, semi-acoustic blues that is as close as Hence the Blues actually comes to the blues. This is a serious concern since some folks may buy the album thinking it is blues and others not buy for the same reason. “Suzanne Gold” falls easily into classic acoustic singer-songwriter or Americana, while “Hence the Blues (Lady Adelle)” proves not a blues at all, but an excellent country rock with the first electric guitar appearance on the release. “Up and At Em” features bluegrass banjo rolls throughout the song, giving it an up tempo, lighthearted mood that contrasts with darker lyrics. “Covenants are for Killjoys” proves an engaging, fun electric honky-tonker with some electric guitar riffing (“Covenants are for Killjoys/They hold you as you run”).

The rest of Hence the Blues suffers from a simple lack of originality. “22 Miles” sounds took much like Guy Clark wrote it. The closing “Songbird Classic” returns to mainstream singer-songwriter with a nice melody and excellent groove lost to lyrics sounding, again, too much like Guy. “Highway Mama” proves a pleasant but pedestrian Texas campfire sing along, while “Pasadena Rose” – standard Americana fare.

Ross exhibits substantial skills as a songwriter and singer, with a nice ear for both language and melody. For me, the electric guitar pieces seemed more original and better realized than the more conventional Americana songs with acoustic guitar lead. Ross has a way to go to mature fully as an artist. I look forward to his development.



music revenue slow industry density high and it Ain’t the Pirates Fault

Web music revenue growth stuck in single figures – Yahoo! News.

By Art Menius 1/23/2012

The level of stupidity in this short AP story proves remarkable.

First, in this global economy 8% growth isn’t bad.

Second, and much more troubling, these global brand managers seem to think they can make as much money selling digital albums for $8.99 as with CD’s at $15.99. That is ludicrous.

Third, and most disturbing of all considered the compensation these folks receive, they still seem to have hopes of restoring music industry profits to what they were a decade ago. That is not going to happen any time soon, I’m afraid. The world had fundamentally changed. Digital music sales are not going to replace fully hard copy media sales. Nor will there be a boom of folks buying downloads to replace CDs, like happened with LP to CD. Folks are just going to rip the CDs they purchased. If income  can be fully replaced, it will require sources other than digital music sales

It doesn’t take an MBA to see this much, just simple math skills.

They still blame pirates??

Piracy is only a small part of the story, IMHO. While it has some truth to it, it is mostly an old tired excuse.

There was shrinkage at retail as long as there has been retail.

There is so much more to this than piracy, especially disposable income and the vast difference in price points between mp3s and CDs.

Even that, however, is not the biggest problem. Remember this if you remember nothing else ole Art posts here.

YouTube and Pandora have taken us through the looking glass that is Spotify.

Pirates ain’t nothing compared to people legally listening to music without stealing it.

The real problem is that people no longer need to own music. The Internet has become a free, legal jukebox paying painfully small royalties to the IP owners.

We have moved past instant gratification through an 89 cent download.

People want to hear a new tune. They find it on YouTube and watch, or they listen on Spotify, radio on demand is a jukebox.

Compare the 12,000,000 Spotify users with the number of people stealing music on a daily basis. RIAA estimates the number of tracks stolen from 2004 through 2009 (and this would be the highest reasonable estimate) at 5,000,000,000 per year.

If those Spotify users listened to an average of just 3 tracks per day, that would be 13,140,000,000 tracks per year.

Pandora passed 100,000,000 users (more than 8 times Spotify) last summer and they now enjoy unlimited skips. 100,000,000 listening to an average of 5 tracks a day for ten days hits 5,000,000,000.

Perhaps more important as a legal (some of the time) (and often industry supported) source of free music on demand is YouTube. Adele “Someone Like You” 103,025,245 views.

It is there, to listen whenever you want, for free, almost as convenient as music you have purchased. I can throw it on the big screen and through my best speakers.

Grascals “I Am Strong” 130,993 views

AKUS “Paper Airplane” 584,945 views

This is not being in heavy airplay. This is on demand and free.

The RIAA website says that 13,000,000 different titles are licensed for legal use on 400 different such services worldwide.

These folks have downloaded not an illegal file. They have played by the rules. They used legal means to avoid buying music. And that is the whole where the bulk of the income disappears.

Even if the actual damage from piracy is far greater than I think it was in terms of genuine lost sales, piracy has functioned as a red herring. Piracy has distracted the industry, IMHO, for looking at many other problems that I believe are more pernicious in effect. The RIAA has led this charge in one direction in a multifront war.

If piracy were the primary source of industry problems, as RIAA claims, then why have a decade of efforts not produced the desired results?


Why doesn’t Washington understand the Internet? – The Washington Post

Why doesn’t Washington understand the Internet? – The Washington Post.

This piece does the best job that I have seen at exploring the underlying issues that create poorly thought out Internet legislation rife with unintended consequences like SOPA and PIPA.

In that regard, the editorial ran on Jan 20 on the Post’s website and Jan 22 in the hard copy paper.

Note that Congress has yet to deal with a 1987 law that renders email left on a 3rd party server, like Gmail, more than 180 days is considered abandoned and may be examined by law enforcement without a warrant.

Linda Chorney Don’t Put Her Down You Put Her There

By Art Menius, January 21, 2012

Original publication on

Update 1/23: Read the thoughts of FAI Executive Director Louis Meyers here.

Update 2/12/12: And as it turns out veteran among veterans Levon Helm wins.

The Grammy controversy about Linda Chorney brings up a number of fascinating topics of which Ms. Chorney herself is the least interesting. Suffice to say for me, the nomination doesn’t bother me much, but a win would.

In case you are not obsessed with who wins the Grammy for Best Americana Recording, in which she is nominated, or any of the folk/roots categories that remain after the recent contraction, let me briefly explain with links to more.

The journeyman Ms. Chorney, 51, has managed a living as a singer-songwriter for 25 years, self-releasing five previous CDs before the Grammy nominated Emotional Jukebox. None have sold out their initial 1000 copy pressing. The cover for Me So Chorney, features her dressed like an Asian teen prostitute. I get that it is a joke, but still…. At the time Emotional Jukebox moved into the third and final round of the Grammy balloting against the latest projects by granola legends Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm (winner of the first Americana Grammy in 2010), and Ry Cooder, the CD had sold not one copy recorded in Nielsen SoundScan system. By her own cheerful admission, the nomination resulted from aggressive social networking Grammy 365, a site set up exactly for this purpose.

For more on how she did this, read the Billboard article here.

The music industry reaction is described in this AP story.

A “fair and balanced” defense of her right to be a nominee by Kim Ruehl appears on the No Depression website.

The many more interesting matters brought up by the Chorney affair include, to me:

1) We are in a period when people with social networking skill and chutzpah can make things happen. Social networking remains a new technology, and that is when unusual things can happen. Ms. Chorney reminds me of Julia Allison, the Twitter queen of 2008. If you’ve forgotten, you can read the Wired article here. Ms. Allison became famous for having lots of Twitter followers because of her facility for self-promotion on Twitter. She made it on to the cover of Wired and into real world friendships with traditionally famous people simply for her ability to tweet herself and use that as a tool for social advancement. Her blog peaked at 10,000 daily readers of reports on stuff she did that day.

It is not like this began with the Internet. Was ole Thomas Paine any different, finding in the American Revolution a vehicle for self-advancement. Much more recently, witness Chloë Sevigny, who would become the middle wife on HBO’s “Big Love.” Five years before “Boys Don’t Cry” made her an art house film star, Ms. Sevigny was already legendary in Manhattan for…. Well, the best anyone could come up with was “her fashion sense” and that she was always at the right place at the right time. Fame ain’t fair.

I said all that to say this, social network promotion is an essential element these days. It is more than fair to criticize Ms. Chorney for releasing far less than the best Americana recording of 2011. Her website provides more than reasonable evidence of a certain self-absorption (even she notes it), so she can take that rap, too. It is patently unfair, however, to attack Ms. Chorney pedal to the metal networking efforts to get in on the ballot. It is hardly her fault that she could achieve the final ballot. Which leads us to….

2) The Grammy Process. This assumes, for purpose of discussion, that Grammys still matter in an era when Pitchfork (also see this 2012 piece) is far and away the most powerful review medium for recordings. Her success should not be too surprising, especially in the second round. A Grammy win for Emotional Jukebox would show that folks are either asleep at the wheel or voting in categories for which they are not qualified in the voter-for-one, winner-takes-all final round.

The second round of Grammy voting is more like the primary. More aberrations occur when one can vote for five, similar to independents voting in partisan primaries. Often in a category one knows something about, a voter will see 2 or 3 titles she or he actually heard and liked. Then, after marking those two or three recordings, the voter looks around and sees not another CD that fills both criteria, heard and liked. Sometimes, people vote for a record they heard and didn’t particularly like. More often, people fill in those last couple of votes based totally on name recognition.

And that is what I believe happened here, same as it always has, except that her networking campaign created the name recognition that caused her to move to the final ballot. “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of Linda Chorney.”

That will exist as long as folks self-police in which nine categories they vote. She just worked the system that was there.

If those two matters were all there were to this (and they are for the mainstream music industry), I would not have bothered to write. I am riffing on Linda Chorney because the reaction to her nomination reveals the less appealing side of the folk-roots-Americana world. This is the community where I live. It concerns me because our community carries the historical burden of being better than that. Ours is the music of the labor movement, of coal miners facing Pinkerton agents. Our community brought “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights movement and provided the soundtrack for it and the first half of the anti-Vietnam War campaign.

3) The Americana community is clubish and inward looking, especially in Nashville. This is my home and my friends. I know whereof I speak. So was the Greenwich Village folk scene fifty years ago. It is a pretty natural development among emerging communities. The controversy and our reactions to it – including mine – treat Ms. Chorney as an outcaste, as not part of our club, as the other, not the we. If one of our friends had done this, we would have thought it was cool, that he or she was fighting the power and beating the man at his own game. An editorial in Cohesion Arts explores this aspect in depth.

Instead, a stranger from the northeast made the final ballot. An actual complete unknown who has survived for close to three decades taking the gigs, such as cruise ships and resorts, that many think below us or what initiates do.

Other than Kim Ruehl, we have reacted not by asking what we can learn from this but by trashing Ms. Chorney’s efforts and spreading pretty bizarre rumours about her on the Internet. We have not shown ourselves to be open and welcoming.

4) Even more disturbing, the reaction to the nomination has brought up divergent perceptions of class strata within the folk and roots community. Within our ideal, classless group, we have as many differing perceptions of haves and have nots as we have people in our community. For millions of people, any one of us is a have because we manage to scratch out a lower middle class living in this field. For others the haves are those who have any kind of management and an agent, maybe a publicist and a recording label. I have been around a long time and think of the haves are those on labels with national distribution, and big name management, booking, and media representation.

It is as shifting as it is pernicious. The one thing, I submit, that we cannot do in this community is permit the perception of “The Other,” for us to think our differences are greater than that which we have in common. We can not vote for Ms. Chorney without putting her down. We can praise her opponents instead of tearing her down as if we were a bunch of Republican presidential candidates. We can explore how we can use tools like on behalf of ourselves and our friends.

We are in this together from all aspects of the performing folk arts. The enemy ain’t each other. Nor is it a minor singer-songwriter who manages to get on the ballot.

The enemy is human nature, our propensity for imputing bad motives in those we do not consider friends. Our tendency to divide rather than unite, to see allies and enemies. Our foolish concern with who gets to wear the biggest headdress.

As the folk community, annealed in our desire to use the performing folk arts to build a better, more justice, equitable, and diverse society, we have a responsibility to humanity to model better ways of thinking about the world, to frame issues for the “both and” not “either or.”

We have the capacity as a community to change the world not just through our art but with how we look at the world.


And now it is Etta James

By Art Menius 1/20/2012 for

Yesterday I did a brief blog about the passing of Johnny Otis. One of the links was to the LA Times obit whose lead noted first that he wrote “Willie and the Hand Jive” and secondly that he “discovered Etta James, Little Richard, and Hank Ballard.”

Today we mourn Ms. James.

For the Reuters story click here.

For the CNN story and some performance video click here.

As the Daily Mail noted in this obit, Etta James was one of the original rock ‘n’ roll “bad girls.”

Best known for the iconic “At Last,” this R&B pioneer was only 73. She struggled, paradoxically, with both morbid obesity and heroin addiction (hepatitis C was among her compications). Despite the eating and the shooting up, Etta James could soar.

She was the bridge between classic pop and R&B the same way her contemporary Patsy Cline (tell me there was no influence on her from Etta) connected classic pop and country. Each added lush strings during the early 1960s. How many folks could claim to be Minnesota Fats’ daughter, collect a half dozen Grammys, and perform with the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead?

Like Johnny Otis, her mentor, Etta James came from specific times, places, and circumstances unlikely to be replicated.


Johnny Otis

By Art Menius 1/19/2012

Word this afternoon is that we lost another pioneer of 20th Century American music at age 90.

Calling Johnny Otis “The White Godfather of Rhythm & Blues”  or the composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive” hardly does justice to a life led fully, robustly, and well. Otis was came as close as anyone to being a Renaissance man during the last century. Otis kept a performing career as band leader and piano player going for 70 years, just like his marriage. He played on records from folks ranging from Lester Young to Johnny Ace. When he cuts his 16 piece jump band down to a small ensemble, R&B was in full form. His “Harlem Nocturn” was one of the first hits for the new form in 1946.
Otis was a father with Shuggie achieving his own fame as a musician.
He bagan his career on radio as an R&B DJ in the 1950s and moved on the LA TV, then spent thirty years hosting an oldies show on Pacifica’s KPFK until 2005.
Along the way he had time to work as a preacher during the 1970s in addition to being a serious visual artist (paintings and sculpture). He even found time to serve as deputy chief of staff for a US Congressman.
Concerned for the environment, in his 70s, Otis became a large scale organic farmer and opened an organic grocery.
Otis is one of the last exemplars of Americans of a certain generation born between the wars who embraced African-American life, who, in Otis’ words became “black by persuasion.” This effect of the Jazz Age was an essential forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement.
Johnnie Otis was a social activist and author whose four books addressed topics as diverse as his musical career, cooking, and the Watts riots of 1965. The latter was a supportive note from someone who has suffered through the KKK burning a cross on his lawn. His activism, according to NPR today, prevented Otis from achieving the mainstream success of a Dick Clark or Kasey Kassem.
Johnny Otis was the epitome of a certain kind of brave, visionary 20th Century American.

Read the LA Times obit for Johnny Otis here

Read the NY Times obit for Johnny Otis here


Building Audiences

Update from the National Arts Marketing Project 1/20/2012 – click here for another vital audience development resource A free e-book download. Plenty of other material here. Sign up for their enewsletter.

Link and Thoughts posted by Art Menius 1/19/2012

The Wallace Foundation has made available four free downloads of case studies in audience development. You can get them here as PDFs:

Building Arts Audiences: Wallace Foundation Studies of Four Arts Groups – The Wallace Foundation.

The Wallace Foundation has been investing heavily in the theory and practice of audience development in the arts. The roots, folk, and bluegrass presenting community has made far too little effort to learn from arts, rather than commercial, audience development methods. Commercial methods, in my opinion, focus too much on marketing individual performances or events. Arts presenters provide stronger, more durable methods for building audiences for your presenting programs. Is not the Holy Grail for audiences to trust the producer’s choices rather than attending only shows by names they recognize?

Wallace commissioned these studies in response to public participation in the arts dropping to their lowest levels since the first such survey 30 years ago. Wallace believes that we are undergoing a generational transition in arts consumption. These free downloads address how to reach younger audiences during this fundamental shift.

The 4 organizations in these studies (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Boston Lyric Opera.) deal with audiences and art forms quite divergent from bluegrass or folk.

Nonetheless, these ideas are inspirational and can get roots presenters thinking in new ways. The study of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for example, directly addresses drawing new audiences for music about which the general public has a stereotype. Sound familiar?

Beyond that, Wallace researchers have identified five overarching principles common to all four successful programs:

1. Market research can sharpen engagement-strategy development
and execution.

2. Audiences are open to engaging the arts in new and different
ways. We have to provide and promote new entry ways to events rather than waiting for new audiences to find bluegrass, folk, blues, and old-time.

3. Participation-building is ongoing, not a one-time initiative. This is particularly true for the roots music fields. We are far too prone to rest rather than pushing 24/7 to build larger audiences.

4. Audience-building efforts should be fully integrated into every
element of an organization, not a separate initiative or program.

5. Mission is critical.

These four downloads prove just the latest of many free publications about audience development Wallace Foundation offers. The primary gateway to this wealth of information than bluegrass, folk, and traditional presenters can use is here.

Many more resources about audience development, from the arts world largely, can be found on the Internet.

The League of American Orchestras provides information here.

Audience development consultants ADS blog here.

This column from last spring concerns applying AD concepts in new ways.

From Scotland, a broad overview slideshow on cultural audience development, especially cultural tourism.

That is just a start. Much information about audience development exists that we can use far better to build our audiences going forward.


New Josh Hisle Video for Occupy

By Art Menius 1/18/2012

My buddy Josh Hisle has toured with Neil Young, Graham Nash, and, this fall, Stephen Stills, while recording for Young’s label. A Marine combat veteran who channels his experiences into his art, Josh posted this video just now on his Facebook page. Parental advisory language.

Click below to view

A tribute to the Occupation from Josh Hisle. Bail Me Out was written after Josh’s return from his second tour in Iraq.
Josh is one of the strongest young artists I have discovered this century. Check him out.

Culture Desk: The Master from Flint Hill: Earl Scruggs : The New Yorker

Culture Desk: The Master from Flint Hill: Earl Scruggs : The New Yorker.

Steve Martin continues to spread the gospel, this time with a lovely blog about Earl Scruggs in the New Yorker website. Martin has done more than I can express for promoting banjo music. This is just the latest, but I certainly love seeing Earl in that New Yorker font!