When you look at the long list of performers who have recorded songs written by Steve Gillette, three names stand out. There, in the midst of folks like John Denver, Garth Brooks, Linda Ronstadt and Kenny Rogers are Jiminy Cricket, Dumbo and Winnie the Pooh.
“I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Gillette told me a few days into the new year. “My old friend Tom Campbell, who was the co-writer of the song ‘Darcy Farrow’---the first song that anybody else ever sang, in 1965---Tom at that time worked at Disney. He got to do some projects in the production department there. He’d written a children’s story and produced an album that Jiminy Cricket narrated, and he brought me in to write a couple of songs for some other projects too.”
Thus began Steve Gillette’s adventures in the music industry. He’s coming to Virginia Beach this weekend with his wife and musical partner, Cindy Mangsen, but like many of their folksinging brethren, they make their home in the wintry climes of New England. I asked why so many folksingers come from that part of the country.
“It’s a very interesting thing,” he answered. “I think the old coffeehouse tradition or house concert tradition came out of that first Boston settler thing. It had a lot to do with people traveling around sharing the news. I think it’s alive and well everywhere, but it does seem like there are a lot of good venues in a concentrated area in New England.
“Cindy and I live in the southwest corner of Vermont. It’s about a four hour drive to Boston, but then only four hours to New York, four hours to Montreal, and we can get to Rochester in four hours. In that circle there are quite a lot of places to play. And if you go a little further, it’s only eight hours to Washington, DC.”
Although the duo has called Vermont home since marrying in 1989, Gillette is a native of southern California, and he spent a number of years successfully plying his trade as a songwriter in Los Angeles.
“The biggest thing that locked me into that,” he said, “was in 1967, a group called The Sunshine Company---kind of a bubblegum group--- had a Top 30 record with a song of mine called ‘Back on the Street Again.’ What it did was to open up a lot of doors and give me an entrée into publishing and music, having an opportunity to show my songs to other artists. But it sort of locked me into a desk job.
“In some ways that was frustrating because I really wanted to live ‘the life,’ not just send these songs in through the transom. I wanted to be out there with the people, like in festivals and concerts. The tradeoff is that many people make millions of dollars so they console themselves with that. I had the swimming pool and the brand new XKE, but it’s hard to grow older in that environment.”
In fact, he’d always been a folksinger at heart, but the timing hadn’t been right:
“When Ian & Sylvia recorded ‘Darcy Farrow’ in 1965, I had been playing a lot in southern California, and I’d get to see artists who were based in the east and would come through. Then when I got to go east to the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1966 for the first time really being in the big folk scene, it was exciting. But that same night that I played, Jesse Colin Young and his band The Youngbloods played, and it was pretty obvious that that was where things were going.
“I came back around to it, sort of backed into folk music, when I left Los Angeles in 1984. I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas for the first time and I was amazed to find that so many people that I knew from the folk circuit were still very active, and that there was a real audience and a real community still happening. But I had been locked into the music industry in Los Angeles where everything was in terms of last week’s Billboard magazine. So that was all I needed to see to let go of my mid-life burnout relationship with the music industry and just get back to playing for people that listened.”
He began to reestablish his credentials as a folkie traveling around the country in the mid ‘80s.
“I was on the road,” he laughed. “I had this big old 28-foot Airstream Argosy motorhome, big and bulbous and clumsy. I didn’t have a home at that time; I was living in my funny vehicle. I had a post office box in Balboa Island in California and I would just make my circuit and pick up my bills---sometimes not in a very timely way!”
But after he met Cindy at a festival in Rochester, NY, he settled down with her. It’s been a successful relationship, romantically, musically and business-wise.
“Now that Cindy and I have sort of come into our own identity,” he said, “we support each other and we share a lot of the work and responsibility. We are able to do together what we were never quite able to do alone, which is to make our living and be completely self-sustaining. Now when we write, we write for who we really are.
“Like a lot of people, I was hoping that the world would embrace me heart and soul, and I saw that happening for a few of my friends, like John Denver. But what I came to realize was that it was as if my world was sort of compartmentalized: the music industry saw me as a songwriter and didn’t want to treat me as an artist; and the times when I really enjoyed playing for people were more in a personal, small concert setting.
“You have to accept the fact that it’s gonna be a smaller group of people, but they’re gonna be people who have some history with the music, they really know what they’re listening to, they listen very deeply, and they’re not into ‘the scene.’ They’re not only open to letting you be who you are, but they expect it.”
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.