The Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas has played a significant role in launching the careers of many musicians and songwriters. Buddy Mondlock was there when he called me recently.
“This is the best place to be in the world right now,” he said. “My professional career got started here, at least as a songwriter.”
Mondlock, who performs at the Virginia Beach Central Library Saturday night, is now a highly regarded singer, guitarist and songwriter living in Nashville. But 22 years ago, he was just another young wannabe with a guitar and a batch of self-penned songs.
“I came to Kerrville the very first time in 1986,” he said. “I had noticed on the schedule that Guy Clark was hosting this thing called ‘The Ballad Tree’ where anyone could sign up and sing a song outdoors on top of the hill under this big live oak tree. I had seen him before in Chicago and was completely blown away with the way he used words, his economy. I signed up so I could at least shake his hand.
“As it turned out, I played a song called ‘No Choice,’ and it just struck a chord with him. After the whole thing was over, he walked straight over to me and said, ‘Hey, I like that tune. Do you have a tape of that?’ And I said, ‘Don’t move! I’ll be right back.’ I was thrilled that he was even interested.
“A couple of weeks later I got back from doing the laundry, turned on the answering machine, and there was his voice coming out of it: ‘This is Guy Clark. I liked your songs. Give me a call sometime.’ I started sending him tapes, he made copies and passed them out to people he knew. You couldn’t have a better introduction in Nashville than to have Guy Clark passing your music around; he’s so well respected there. He really opened the door for me.”
Mondlock was surprised to find himself welcomed in Nashville’s music circles. He had grown up near Chicago, and was heavily influenced by that city’s once-burgeoning acoustic scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“I really loved the sound of the guitar,” he said. “I fell in love with it when I was just a little kid and bugged my parents until they finally let me take lessons when I was ten years old. Loving it that much, to be able to make some of those sounds myself was always such a reward to me.
“My parents were great about coming home with really cool stuff. What was coming out was The Band, Joni Mitchell, the ‘70s singer-songwriters and Crosby, Stills & Nash. And of course the Chicago guys like Steve Goodman and John Prine.
“Steve Goodman was a huge inspiration to me, and not just his songwriting. He was a master of engaging the audience with the stories he told, his humor and spontaneity.”
One of Mondlock’s fondest memories is opening for Goodman when he was 21 years old, New Year’s Eve, 1980-81. But it was Guy Clark who paved his road into the biz by sharing his tunes with Nashville nabobs:
“One of the people Guy had given a tape to was Bob Doyle, a representative at ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers]. One of his jobs was to meet new artists and urge them to join ASCAP. Bob called me in Chicago out of the blue and said he really liked my song ‘The Kid.’ We started talking and he said, ‘If you ever come down here, I’ve got an extra bedroom and I’ll be happy to introduce you to some people.’ And I said, ‘OK, here I go!’
“Another kid who wandered into his office around the same time was this kid from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks. Bob saw something in him that resonated, and he eventually quit ASCAP to manage myself and Garth.
“I couldn’t have arrived at a better time for somebody like me. The feeling on Music Row was that the next thing in country music was gonna be these singer-songwriters like Steve Earle, Nancy Griffith and Lyle Lovett. That seemed to be the direction country music might be going in. As it turned out, it was not the case; radio never really took to them. But they didn’t know that yet when I arrived in January of ’88.”
Ironically, his friend was one of the reasons country music went in a different direction.
“Garth Brooks changed things,” he acknowledged. “There was a whole infusion of money into town from him and other artists in his time frame. But the digital downloading thing has changed the whole playing field and they’re being a lot more careful about where they put their pennies. There’s not quite as much elbow room as there used to be.”
Mondlock has had a pretty nice ride himself. His songs have been recorded by Brooks, Clark, Janis Ian, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. Six years ago, he got to record and write songs with one of his idols, Art Garfunkel, for a CD collaboration with Maia Sharp called Everything Waits to Be Noticed. Their subsequent tour brought them to the Roper Center in November, 2002, where they put on a magnificent performance.
“It was a thrill to get to sing with Artie,” he said. “It’s such an amazing voice still. And that voice was such a part of my musical education, listening to Simon & Garfunkel and those harmonies that he was singing, and the way their voices were blending.”
With his airy high register, Mondlock has been compared to Garfunkel. His singing also reminds me of Iain Matthews. As a writer, his songs are literate and intelligent. His latest album, The Edge of the World, is excellent.
“I think sometimes people who write songs underestimate their audience,” he said, “or they underestimate the music business, so they think they’ve got to dumb it down. I think that’s a terrible attitude about making music or any kind of art. I want to write the kind of songs that I want to hear from other people. That’s what I’m shooting for.”
Saturday, June 21 – 7:30 pm
Virginia Beach Central Library
Contact: 626-3655; www.tffm.org
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.