Singer-songwriter, entertainer, and tour leader
Part 1 of the audio interview… yes we discussed a bunch of stuff.
Part 2 of the audio interview.
Crow: Welcome everybody. This is Crow Johnson Evans, and I’m coming to you from Auntie Crow’s Corner today. We’re going to do an interview with a wonderful singer, songwriter, and performer, Chuck Brodsky. And I’m really excited about it. I think we actually met because of the Zassafras Music News which was a fanzine that I did years ago. And then we met in person at Kerrville Music Festival.
I absolutely love the newest album Gravity, Wings, and Heavy Things.
Crow: Welcome, Chuck.
Chuck: Hi! Crow! Nice to be with you.
Crow: I’ve got five or six questions. I’ll try to stay on track, which is tricky for my monkey mind. Were you raised in a musical family? Were you encouraged to pursue the performing arts? And if not. How did you come to be where you are now?
Chuck: Well, I wouldn’t say I had a particularly musical family, although I did have an aunt who was musical. She played the piano and frequently came to the house, or we went to my grandparent’s apartment, where she was living in her younger years, and my grandparents had a piano. I would gravitate toward it. This would have been as an infant two years old, or three years old. My parents saw this, my aunt saw this. My grandparents saw this, and so I was encouraged for sure. I enrolled in piano lessons when I was five, and took lessons throughout most of my childhood, although I can’t say that I use anything really or very much of what I learned back then. But I think it was very clear to my family that music was in me.
They definitely encouraged me. As far as becoming a performer for a career, I don’t know that I was necessarily encouraged, but it certainly wasn’t discouraged. I think the toughest thing for my parents to grasp initially, was that it was a long-term proposition. So I literally put myself on the Ten-year plan. When I first decided that this was what I was going to do, I knew I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I knew my skills weren’t there yet, and my songwriting wasn’t there yet. But I figured if I kept working hard every day, ( I was already seeing measurable improvement,) I could just project ten years from that point maybe I’d be ready. That was a tough thing for my parents to grasp because here I was declaring I was going to become a performer, and then ten years went by, and they were wondering well why aren’t you out there performing?
I knew I needed to be playing open mics three or four nights a week developing my craft, honing my skills, and the time when I would be ready would be down the road a ways. And eventually, things did work out, and maybe the greatest payoff of all was having my parents say to me a few years back “You knew what you were doing all along” That meant the world to me. They trusted me, but they weren’t getting anything. I didn’t have anything I could show them.
Then I was able to show them press clippings. I could show them that this was real.
Crow: You certainly have made it real. How many years is it now that you’ve been performing?
Chuck: It’s thirty years. Thirty years full-time.
Crow: If you are a singer-songwriter listening out there, hang in. Keep at it. Be vigilant. Chuck, your music strikes me because you land what I call “truths like little bombs” without picking a side of an issue. And it seems to me that you’ve taken the 1960s protest songs and turned them into a whole, another layer, a whole new thing. No one likes to be preached at but there’s no feeling in me that you’re preaching when you entertain. There’s humor– and a lot of humor in normal humanity there. How in the world do you describe your music to people?
Chuck: Well, that’s always been a tough one. Obviously, I’d much prefer that people listen to my music and decide what it is to them and what they want to call it, because labels are very subjective. We don’t always agree on what a particular label even means or what it refers to.
I suppose I would call myself a singer-songwriter or a folksinger, but even that might not be that accurate in certain senses, and in another sense it is. It is in the sense that I feel like I’m rooted in a tradition that goes back well over a thousand years. You know this isn’t pop music, this isn’t some recent trend. This is music that’s endured, and it’s endured for a reason because it’s real and the song’s subject matters.
The songs are always about something in real life, whether it be a little tiny snapshot of something that maybe could be looked at in a bigger way or social situations. As for not wanting to preach well to me, that’s very obvious, and in real life, it never works. You can’t change anybody’s mind about anything. Unless you lead by example. I really truly believe that.
If you just set a good example, maybe it will rub off on others. Maybe they’ll see that and want to identify with that way of going about things, but as far as “the little bombs of truth”, it’s not like that.
I’m not deliberately trying to drop bombs. It’s just the truth, and the truth is, the only thing I’m interested in these days.
I guess a very common theme for me would be how divided we have become, and my role that I feel best suited for is a unifier, or that’s at least what gives what I do, meaning,.for me to go get up there and do what I do.
Of course, it’s entertainment. I want to be as entertaining as possible. I want everybody to have a good time, but I mean everybody, and I don’t need to know what anybody’s politics are for who’s in my audience, and I certainly don’t want to limit the positive experience only to people whose politics line up with my own.
Crow: This is very noble. This is amazing because it works, and the fun thing is that in the middle of your songs the listener sometimes will go “Well, wait a minute. Is that me? Or is the other part me?” To give people that kind of perspective is awesome.
Chuck : Well, it’s all of us– both sides are all of us. Today on this particular issue It could be that that other person is being a jerk about it. But you know what on other occasions it’s us who are jerks about it. We all get very selfish at times. We don’t always operate with the best for everybody in mind.
Crow : I need to mention that you’ve made a name for yourself with baseball songs. I don’t know how that started, and I wonder to what extremes it has taken you.
Chuck: Well, it’s been an amazing thing. It’s a very funny thing to me because it was never planned. I never had the intention to start writing baseball songs. I wrote my first one, Letters in the Dirt, probably in the early 1990s and it was a song that I wrote to my father. It’s more about the values that a father can pass along to his son than it is about baseball, although the baseball element to that song had to do with racism, and it was set in the early to mid-1960s when there was quite a lot of racism still in the world, and still in baseball. My father led by example, and that’s really what the song was about. But it was set in a baseball setting.
I thought people were going to be a little put off that I wrote a song that had sports in it. I thought maybe they would think it was trite, even though the song really is about a much bigger and more important message.
That was the first one, and then a second idea came along to write a song about Jackie Robinson. I went down to the old Borders books chain. There was a local branch near my parents’ home. I went down there one day looking for a book on Jackie Robinson to do some research on the song. I flipped through a book on him and came upon a little footnote, just a couple sentences about a white man named Eddie Klepp, who had played in the Negro leagues. The same year that Jackie Robinson crossed the color line the other way, I realized that was the story that I wanted to tell.
I wrote that song, and suddenly I’m being referred to in the Folk Music world as the songwriter who writes about baseball, and that was with two songs. That was just two songs, and only one of them was intentionally about baseball. But I realized that people were taking notice. Of course, this was something that I loved baseball, and I just couldn’t believe I could get away with it, incorporating it into my songwriting. But I tried another song, and again it was really well received, and I think by this point, either by the third, if not the third, then the fourth one that I wrote, I started thinking long-term and that it would be really cool one day to have an entire album of baseball songs. I didn’t think anybody had ever done that yet. At this point, I’ve got two albums out of baseball songs, and a third one that is just one song shy of being ready to record. It’s led to some amazing things, some really fun things.
I’ve met ball players and managers and coaches, and I’ve gotten to sing at Ballparks, and I’ve performed at the baseball hall of Fame a few times. That’s awesome, you know? I just had some really really cool, wonderful experiences through baseball, and yet it’s still just a small side of the overall picture of what I do.
Crow: You’re telling stories about human beings and their emotions, and you could use baseball. You could use tennis you could use tiddlywinks, for that matter.
I’ve asked this next question a number of times, but I think the answer is always informative, at least to me in my life journey. What has your lowest point been so far? And how did you make your way out of it?
Chuck: That’s a really good question, and it’s a really difficult question. But I would probably have to say the Covid shutdown. That nearly devastated my career and a lot of other people’s too.
Even at this point, three years later the circuit is in shambles, and several venues have disappeared. I gravitated more towards house concerts in recent years, and a lot of those are afraid still to bring people into their houses and have people sitting close together. So a lot of the gigs that I’ve relied upon over the years aren’t back yet, and it’s incredibly hard to put a tour together also with the increased cost of travel.
In fact, I’ve been live streaming for the better part of two years, but it’s gotten to a point where people watch but don’t want to offer anything. They enjoy it, and they comment, and they write, you know, “a wonderful show today. Thanks.”
I wonder if it is even feasible to survive as a singer-songwriter these days.
Crow: As an audience, we probably need to be re-educated about what a singer-songwriter’s life is like.
Chuck: It would be great if that could happen, but it can’t come from a singer-songwriter because it’s gonna sound like whining. But the truth is up until about 2008 CD cells or sales of our recordings equaled almost fifty percent of our income. And now it is close to zero.
So almost fifty percent of all of our income disappeared just like that over a couple of years.
I do have something going on. That’s I’m very fortunate. I’ve got group tours to Ireland and now to Scotland. They make up for a lot of time I would have been out on the road.
Crow: So it sounds like fun.
Chuck: It’s a lot of fun. It’s phenomenal. Actually, it’s really great, but it’s allowing me to see a way forward.
Crow: Since I asked about the lowest point I need to ask about your highest point so far. And was it brought about through luck or serendipity, sweat, hard work, or foolishness?
Chuck: I’d say the high point also would have to be the Covid shutdown.
I was in Florida, the last of the last dates of a tour. As the lockdown occurred, I drove back to North Carolina, and I remember distinctly driving up my driveway with an understanding that things will never be the same again, and I actually knew it was going to be at least two years. Most people were thinking one, but I knew it was going to be two. And so I drove up that driveway to my house, knowing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for a long, long time, and I did not know how I was going to survive.
I mean I didn’t even have time to panic. It was just. Oh, my God! What’s life going to bring next? I made a decision right away that I wasn’t going to roll over and play dead. I was going to get out of bed every day. I was going to shower, face the world, go to work, and do whatever I could. Meanwhile, all of a sudden money started showing up through PayPal donations. People let me know that what I did matter to them, that they cared about me, that they loved me to a degree that you would not even believe, Crow.
I mean several people sent me one thousand dollars each. One person sent me five thousand dollars, lots of one hundred dollars, two hundred dollars gifts, lots of twenty dollars gifts. This is in addition to any money that might have come in as tips from live streams. I’m talking about people just sending me money to support me.
I still can’t believe it now. It touched my heart in such a way that I’ll never be able to fully explain, and it also was incredibly validating.
It showed me that the thirty years I’ve put into my music have reached people. It is not just happy-go-lucky pop music entertainment! But I must have given some people something of value, and that felt really good to know that.
Even more important, even sweeter than all of that is the fact that my parents are still alive, very big supporters of my music, of me, and they got to see this. They said to me from the start, don’t worry, you know we’re here for you if you need us, but I didn’t need their help. And this was the miracle they got to see for themselves what my thirty years of being a performer worked.
Crow: Being recognized as someone who’s made a difference. There’s nothing like it. There are lives that would have gone in a different direction, or would not have been fulfilled the way they were.
Chuck: I could never presume that my music touches anybody. I’m always delighted to find out. Whether that be on the level of one single individual or a whole room full of people, or a giant venue full of people, it’s all the same, it’s someone letting you know that you’ve touched them, and that’s always wonderful. But to find out like in your moment of need, at a time when you just can’t possibly imagine how you’re going to survive.
To have hundreds of people suddenly appear as your angels and let you know that you matter to them. It is beyond belief. Unquestionably it’s the greatest reward I’ve ever had. It’s so validating.
Crow: And this is a hard question to ask because it’s almost too basic. But what drives you to live a creative life?
Chuck: I can answer it in a lot of different ways. For one thing, It’s very similar to what it felt like when you were five years old, and you put a bunch of building blocks together, and you called it a house, and you were so proud of what you created that you stepped back from it, and you looked at it, and you felt really proud of it.
That’s kind of what writing a song is like for me, anyway, building something. I’m moving a lot of parts around. Sometimes I see this needs to be patched, or this isn’t ready, or whatever.
For every single live stream I’ve ever done there’s that feeling of pride that I’ve taken on something, I’ve stuck with it, and I’ve battled it through to the end.
My songs go through many, many, many revisions, and I tinker with them, and I keep re-writing and editing. But at the end of that process, I know how much work has gone into it. And ah! And I feel very proud of that. I can’t imagine not being a creative person.
I can’t imagine being only a cog in the wheel of the corporate machinery. You have to walk the walk, and you can’t preach. You can only lead by example.
Music offered me a way of doing something where maybe I could bring my best gifts to the table.
Crow: I think creativity gets blocked by the voice in our imagination that says “You can’t do this or it’s it’s It’s not going to work the way you think it will work”, and they get stopped rather than just giving themselves permission to explore and to keep going and keep pushing and to change that song around, so that the first part maybe ends up at the end, or whatever.
I think you’re absolutely inspiring, and you always have been. I loved your performance at Kerrville this year. I was glad to be there for it, and look forward to what you’re going to be doing next.
Before we end this I’ll play some music of yours, so people will get an idea rather than just hearing your voice and your ideas. They’ll hear some music too
Chuck: Great. I have to say that you played a huge role in my early development, Crow. You may not remember the details of this. But Pierce Pettus was a mentor to me very early on, when I was still just an open-mic -er, and I would go see Pierce, and I talked to him after the show, and he encouraged me to send a tape to Crow Johnson of Zassafras Music News, and so I don’t even know It could very well have been a home-recorded, handwritten, cassette tape. It also could have been the first one that I put out, you know. Yeah, a live cassette. But you reviewed it in ZMN, and then you and a few other people strongly suggested that I go to Kerrville.
I mentioned to you that I couldn’t afford it, and you were kind enough to offer me a position volunteering in your booth in your Zassafras music booth at the Kerrville Folk Festival so that I could get in on a Guest pass.
Chuck: You are why I was able to make it to Kerrville for the first time. And I’ve only missed two years since 1992.
Crow: So yeah, that’s neat. Well, thank you very much. I had forgotten parts of that story. so what I would like is to look forward to our listeners finding you refinding. It’s just been a delight to do the interview, and I appreciate it so much.
Chuck: It’s been a delight for me, too. Crow. Thank you for asking.
Thanks for joining us. This is Crow saying take care until next time.