Life sometimes takes us down highways we never expected to see. Many of us enjoy listening to country music while we travel, and as for the rest - well, I suppose they haven’t spent enough time on the road.
I began such a journey 15 months ago with a blog post like this one, in which I wrote about a talented but little-known country singer by the name of Artie Hemphill. I came upon him as I was searching YouTube for a music video of “Highway Don’t Care,” last year’s hit single by Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift. I did not find their version, but I found a cover that Artie recorded with Maddie Wilson, another artist who is very good but not widely known.
I was impressed by the quality of their music, the authenticity of their simple but well-made video, and the sophistication of the recording, which was produced a long way from Nashville at Sapphire Studios in Provo, Utah. Sapphire Studios is owned by Andrew Pulley, who also plays keyboards and sings backup vocals in Artie’s band. I liked the Hemphill/Wilson/Pulley version of “Highway Don’t Care” even more than the original.
“Such excellent work is not likely to go unnoticed, nor should it,” I wrote.
That blog post did not go unnoticed, either. Mark Adkins, who plays bass in the band, saw my post and sent it to Andrew, who called me a few days later to thank me and to find out just who, exactly, I was.
That first phone call from Andrew launched a solid friendship and working relationship. He is a smart, entrepreneurial, energetic young man who has ambitious professional goals but a modest demeanor - exactly the sort of person that my colleagues and I like to help when we can.
Not long after that call, Artie started a campaign to raise money on Kickstarter to finance the recording of “Country Soul.” I was happy to be one of his backers. It took about a year to record the album’s dozen songs, of which I believe only one, “Measure of a Man,” has previously been commercially released. That one was recorded in the 1990s by Artie’s good friend Kevin Sharp, who died earlier this year. Its place on the album is a tribute to Sharp.
I know nothing about music beyond how to listen to it, so I am not helpful in that arena. But I have built a business and managed people, two skill sets that are useful to an up-and-coming producer like Andrew. I met Andrew in person last fall, along with David Walters, who manages my firm’s office in Portland, Oregon. We began working with Andrew on business matters, and he kept us in the loop as the album took shape. On a couple of nights, Andrew set up private video feeds in the studio so we and other album backers could watch some of the recording sessions. He shared a few tracks with me as they progressed, and I tried to help him with media and other logistics where I could. As the album neared completion, I placed a large order to distribute to employees, clients and friends of our firm. I am proud that we played a small part in helping it happen, and the music is excellent. It demands to be shared.
I finally met Artie and his wife-collaborator-manager, April, a couple of weeks ago, at a backyard barbecue and acoustic concert they staged for the album’s major Kickstarter backers. The entire band was there - Andrew on keys, Mike Fjerstad on lead guitar, Mark Adkins (whom I had never met or spoken with, despite his role in finding my original post) on bass, and new drummer Andrew Glasmacher, who joined the band after the album was recorded. The rain obligingly took a break until the last notes of the evening sounded, the stripped-down version of the music just right for the setting. All the backers also received newly-burned copies of the album’s master recording.
An independent release like “Country Soul” is not a first-class ticket to fame and fortune. It’s more like standby: You might make it, but you should not count on it. While commercial success in the music business no longer requires a major label record deal - as Lindsey Stirling, among others, has demonstrated - a label’s backing can still make a big difference. Success in music is now driven largely by social media and by the algorithms governing the operations of streaming services such as Pandora and sales outlets like iTunes and Amazon. If fans who seek out Artie’s music also happen to like popular acts like Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean, then sites will start to offer Artie’s music to fans of the better-known artists. Exposure on national outlets such as Sirius radio, CMT and the Grand Ole Opry would also bring attention to Artie and his band outside the Utah-Wyoming region, where they already have a following.
It might happen. The music on “Country Soul” is easily good enough, in my opinion. But there is no guarantee that it will happen; the odds against it are daunting.
Still, the journey is often more important than the destination. Today’s close links between artists and audiences allow performers to make a living, or at least to cover their costs, while they make music for the sheer joy that it brings them to make it and their audiences to hear it.
I never expected to come along on this particular trip, but being in the passenger seat while Artie, Andrew and their friends made “Country Soul” has been a ride well worth taking.