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PHILIP MARTIN: Halfway from Nashville

by Philip Martin | March 10, 2020 at 3:20 a.m.

A week ago on Super Tuesday, Sean Harrison came down from Fayetteville to play a show at the Whitewater Tavern.

I've known Sean for about 30 years, long enough to have forgotten how I met him. He was a regular in a Sunday morning basketball game I used to get into (before sensible voices convinced me that if it meant I had to use a cane to walk on Monday I shouldn't be playing basketball on Sunday). I knew his writing. And I admired his father, William Harrison, who along with Jim Whitehead and Miller Williams (who came along a little later) was one of the big dogs who founded the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas.

William Harrison is probably best known as the author of the short story "Roller Ball Murder," which has been made into two movies; he also wrote the screenplay for the (much better) 1975 version which stars James Caan. His best novel might have been 1982's Burton and Speke, about Sir Richard Burton and the 1857 expedition to find the source of the Nile he undertook with dyslexic aristocrat John Hanning Speke. (Burton and Speke were like the Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of 19th-century British adventurers--despite their considerable mutual accomplishments their relationship devolved into fractious enmity. Someone should write a song about Burton and Speke.) He also wrote the screenplay for the Bob Rafelson movie of the book--retitled Mountains of the Moon--that came out in 1990.

Sean's a singer-songwriter--formerly a journalist at the Arkansas Gazette--who recently released his first album Halfway From Nashville on Cosmic Cowboy Records. It's produced by Ben Meade, the Fayetteville-based filmmaker (2015's Woke Up This Mornin' in the Arkansas Delta and dozens of others) and cultural gadfly, and it's really good. Sean's a fine singer with a pleasant rye grain to his voice and a great observational writing style that works a vein of Southern American music you could call country or Americana (not that the labels matter much) that I'd situate somewhere between John Prine and Tom T. Hall and, to invoke a couple of other second-generation writers, Lucinda Williams and James McMurtry.

Sean asked me to play with him--it was his idea to make it a songwriters' round, which means we'd sit around and talk and play our songs. He asked me to suggest a third songwriter and I thought of Jim Hathaway, a lawyer here in town who, like Sean and me, has a journalistic background. I love Jim's songs, and the way he delivers them; there's an Elvis Costello meets Randy Newman on Michael Nesmith's front porch feel to them. Every time I hear Jim play, I want to drag him in the studio and get some of this stuff down, just so I'll have a record for myself.

And since most of my songs tend to require little prefatory notes (the subjects of the songs I played the other night included 18th-century British poet/fraud Thomas Chatterton, ill-fated Frank Lloyd Wright client Edwin Cheney, boxer Davey Moore, and Karl Rove's political mentor Lee Atwater), it's a better format for me than just standing up and banging out a 30-minute set.

So three middle-aged white guys commanded the stage in the Whitewater Tavern the other night and had a great time. Nice guitars were on display (a couple of limited edition Martins, a beautiful Gibson J-45). The crowd was not large but was appreciative. We made enough to cover our bar bills. I'd do it again.

But I'm lucky I don't have to.

Actually, none of us do, though Sean is trying to sell a record and is playing all over the region. His stake in this stuff is bigger than mine or Jim's, and that's why it was generous of him to share the spotlight with us. I don't think he has any illusions about how the business is these days, but he's giving it a go. He might try cowriting with some established Nashville writers, but understands his music is more idiosyncratic and complex than what winds up on the big Spotify playlists. We no longer have a music industry that's actively looking for artists; we have a music industry that grooms kids for stardom.

I'm not complaining; just saying it is how it is. Today almost every hit song has a progression that includes the I, IV, V and VI chords. Lyrics are simple and minimal. Everything is loud. That's what sells, and that's what the big labels get behind. Sure, there are exceptions--Jason Isbell, Allison Moorer--but even the new Dixie Chicks' single "Gaslighter" has been touched up by hit-maker Jack Antonoff. (That's not a bad thing; "Gaslighter" is a four-chord song that's plenty sophisticated lyrically, and lead singer Natalie Maines' snarling vocal is tremendous.)

But nobody is going to give Sean Harrison a million dollars to make a record. That was the record industry of our youth. That was before the digital revolution. That was before, in T Bone Burnett's memorable phrase, the record companies found out how to sell music to people who don't really like music.

Those days aren't coming back.

But the good news is that technology has made it affordable for just about anyone to record their own music and to publish it digitally. It's a lot harder to get rich this way--my latest release made $11.04 off streaming and a few downloads in its first month. I'm sort of tickled by that, but if I counted on music as a revenue stream I'd be in trouble.

I'm no recording artist. I'm a songwriter who records as a hobby. But Sean is the real deal; he could be on stage with anyone. And while he's reconciled to the way things are, I think the rest of us are poorer for having marginalized this class of artists. The whole thing about the gig economy is that it was designed to benefit big multinational corporations and not the independent contractors it un-yoked from the oppression of wage labor. Freelancing, whether you're doing it as a journalist or as an artist, is a tough gig.

Anyway, Halfway From Nashville is a cool little record. And if you subscribe to one of the streaming services, it won't cost you a penny to check out. So please do.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 03/10/2020

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