Ballad for a Plain Man
Jeff Finlin might be one of the finest American troubadours since Bob Dylan. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or director Cameron Crowe. So why is he scraping by on the Front Range, playing gigs on a cracked guitar?
Aidan clicked the mouse a few times and a frantic house beat came thumping from the speakers. Over the shuddering thump thump I asked Aidan what he thought of his father's music. Again he answered without looking up.
I phoned music industry experts and put it to them: With so many new avenues for musical artists, with iTunes and MySpace, "American Idol" and YouTube, why can't Finlin find an audience? They said he might be too old, might have the wrong look, might just be unlucky. But they also said I shouldn't buy into the myth that more avenues means more music gets heard. If everyone can be heard, they said, no one gets heard. The democratization of music can create a deafening roar above which original voices have trouble rising.
People familiar with Finlin's work said his lack of success was a sin. "He's the great lost singer-songwriter," said Nick Stewart, former director of Rhino UK. Granted, Stewart was biased. He'd overseen several Finlin records. ("They did terribly badly.") But he swore his judgment was objective. No matter who you are, he insisted, "you couldn't possibly not get Finlin."
Mary Martin, a former record company executive credited with introducing a young Dylan to his band, recalled the first time she heard Finlin. "I was astounded," she said. "So absolutely in love with his poetry, his unique voice."
Finlin reminded Martin of legends she'd known. Not just Dylan, but Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison. So strong was her belief in Finlin that she briefly agreed to manage him several years ago. The first thing she did was arrange a showcase for music industry big shots. Finlin gave an "astonishing" performance, Martin said. And the big shots?
Martin didn't know. She guessed, she worried, that Finlin was too literate. His lyrics, she said haltingly—they're deep. Nuanced. Salted with allusions. In a culture growing less literate by the minute, she said, a well-read troubadour is a tough sell.