Published April 5 - 11, 2001

Anything but Typical
Ron Matthews' tale is unique, yet perfectly illustrates the life of a struggling Nashville songwriter

By Martin Brady

"What happens to a dream deferred?" Langston Hughes wrote in 1951. The great poet was speaking very directly of the struggle of young African Americans in 20th-century America. Yet the question is equally germane to Ron Matthews, one of the many Nashville singer-songwriters who have made the pilgrimage to this musical Mecca, sometimes on a wing and a prayer, but always with a vision. On a Thursday afternoon, Matthews, a Nashville musician waiting for a break, sips a Rolling Rock at the Sutler and ponders life "under the radar."

"At the age of 14, I always saw myself behind the podium accepting a Grammy as a performer. That's not to say that maybe writing isn't my better ability. But I would like the whole package." For the short term, Matthews does what he must: carrying his ever-growing trunk full of country-flavored folk-pop to open mics, writer's nights, and any other venue he deems useful toward achieving his goals. "Doing Time in Nashville" is one Matthews tune that usually grabs listeners' ears--a sincere but unsentimental portrait of an artist who knows there are dues to pay in the service of his music. More recently, he's been showcasing a very radio-friendly tune called "Anything but Typical" --the title of which serves as an apt description of his own journey to Music City.

Born in Greenfield, Mass., Matthews grew up in half a dozen different little towns in western New York state, following the trail of his father, a Baptist minister. "As opposed to the fiery Southern Baptists that we're familiar with down here, my father's church was more fundamentalist, more conservative, not very musically outgoing. Nevertheless, my dad had an old Gibson electric guitar. I picked it up about the age of 13 or 14, taught myself to play, and started writing songs."

Matthews' earliest musical influence was the Bill Gaither Trio, a gospel group out of Indiana. "Some of it was more upbeat than my parents liked," he remembers, "but most of it was allowed. John Denver's music was the only outside--that is, non-church--music that was acceptable in our home. And even his music was allowed with reluctance."

Exposure to the likes of James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot further shaped Matthews' songwriterly persona: the classic pop-folk balladeer. "I think they're calling it Americana now," he says with a wry smile.

But Matthews put his dreams of performing on hold and went to college in South Carolina, where he majored in music education. He married, had a son, and settled back in New York. He went through an assortment of jobs before finding work as a driver for Bluebird Coach Lines, a gig that saw him zigzagging up and down the East Coast at the helm of a tour bus. Of course, the road from Bluebird Coach Lines to the Bluebird Cafe can be a long one. But you've got to start somewhere.

In the early '90s, kicking against the personal oppression he felt, Mathews started singing and playing on weekends at the Country Lodge Texas Steak House in Lime Lake, N.Y. "That was my first non-church gig," he says. "I was paid a little bit, and was really grateful for the opportunity. I had free rein to sing and play what I wanted--originals or covers. By then, I was having serious trouble in my marriage, and I decided that it was time to come to Nashville. It was long overdue.

"I wanted to come to Nashville for as long as I can remember, but never thought of it as an option, mostly because music as a career was frowned upon by my family and church--show business was the devil's work. But there was always this yearning to come to Nashville. The country music genre is at least the closest to my style without going the way of the folkie. I never thought I would be comfortable in L.A. or New York City. Nashville was always where my thoughts were directed."

He arrived in late 1997. That first year wasn't easy. "I lived in Shelbyville, an hour away. I was working in a horse barn." Eventually, Matthews moved closer to town and started to make the rounds to bars and clubs. "It wasn't but four weeks into doing open mics and writer's nights that I knew this was not where the upstairs boys in Nashville were hanging out," he recalls. "But then, I didn't come to Nashville assuming that I would play out and in two months be presented with offers. I knew full well that the key to success is in the people you meet, the people you associate with."

Therein lies the irony for the struggling Nashville singer/songwriter: You need to play out, but what's the sense of playing out where the industry executives aren't? It's an endlessly mysterious puzzle that has frustrated and thwarted those who have gone before, and will follow after, Ron Matthews. That hasn't stopped him from taking his songs to venues such as the Broken Spoke, Boardwalk Cafe, and Douglas Corner--places where the relative Nashville newcomer can at least find an audience, however modest.

It's currently in vogue to decry Music Row's often unoriginal, song-factory mentality, which at its worst feeds lowest-common-denominator drivel to country radio stations that seem to want to play it. Like all writers trying to crack the market, Matthews makes the effort to stay realistic. "There isn't one person alive who likes everything that comes over the radio. The ideal would be if industry executives would come to the lower levels--to hear some of the original stuff that's out there. It would be great if they could tap into it. Because it's not inferior--it's simply not heard on a wide scale. They might find some gems--fresh, original stuff that doesn't sound like it was pulled off of yesterday's hit."

A day doesn't go by that Matthews doesn't grapple with the songwriter's great artistic debate: Do you write from the heart, or do you write to sell? This issue of direction seems especially pertinent in an age when every recorded note, word, and phrase is honed to achieve so-called perfection. Perhaps tougher still for the would-be Nashville performer is facing every day wondering if you've got the right look, or if you fit into the correct marketing niche--never mind not having the money to launch your own PR campaign. Alas, Music Row is about money. "We might be in an age of cultivating stars, not discovering them," Matthews says. "We could take the work that an artist is doing and say, 'This is good stuff, it has your signature, let's put it out there.' Instead, the hitmakers say, 'This sounds good, but it should be this way. This is what's gonna sell.' "

Not that Matthews has anything against commerce. He didn't move to Nashville to do construction and remodeling work--his current means to a living. "I know it takes time. I came here with a five-year plan to make inroads and get my hooks into the promise of more. If I get to the end of five years and I'm nowheresville, then I'll reevaluate."

Having all the tumblers of a music career fall into place seems so serendipitous--winning the Power Ball probably carries better odds. Still, Matthews perseveres. "What keeps me going is the fact that this is what I like to do, even if it never pays off. Also, I know there are people who like my music, who like my songs, who like my voice. I've got a little fan club back where I come from. Me being 900 miles away in Nashville means something to them. I'm going to give it my best shot, and I'm nowhere near being discouraged. I'm nowhere near considering the notion of walking away and saying screw this. I feel like I'm writing better than ever, and I truly feel that it's just a matter of time, of the right person hearing me at the right time. Plus, I still have that vision from when I was 14 years old. I can't shake it; I can see it just as clearly now as I saw it back then."

First published in 'Nashville Scene,' April 5, 2001. Used by permission.

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