It doesn't matter how good your fishing pole is if you can't get near the water...
A friend of mine from work asked me one day "Have you ever heard of Susan Erwin?" Admittedly, I didn't know who Susan Erwin was at the time. The conversation continued, "You should hear her. She's from around here (Magnet Cove) and she's great! You'd really like her."
Of the many things I've done in life, I spent a few years booking music acts around Arkansas and the surrounding states. One of the many things I've learned from that experience is that everybody has a friend who plays or sings. And they're all "great." And I'd really like all of them. At the risk of sounding jaded, I was doing an internal eye roll thinking here we go again. Was I ever wrong.
I met Susan Erwin for the first time when she came on the Saturday Night Ramble radio show as my guest. I did a little background work on her prior to the show and found more than a talented, hardworking musician. With a 'girl next door' demeanor Erwin has been successful most of her life, all the way back to high school. She was a four sport letterman, valedictorian and president of her class at Magnet Cove High School. In college, Erwin was in the Honors College, played in the jazz band and served as the president of her sorority, graduating with honors and a degree in Pure Mathematics. She also competed in the Miss Arkansas Pageant. Twice. She has a pilot's license. She has her own skin care and fragrance line. And I haven't even gotten to her music yet.
Erwin plays around 250 dates a year all over the world. From Branson to the Caribbean, Los Angeles to Amsterdam, Las Vegas to Monte Carlo. Concert halls to cruise ships, private parties to night clubs. She's played it. With one album under her belt, 2014's Painting You Gone, Erwin is completing work on a second album/EP and has partnered up with Arkansas music icon, Butch Stone, to manage her. Her second album is set to release in October, 2015, with presales already started.
"I am going to reach out to my fan base again and sell ahead with cool offerings for my art as purchase initiatives. The title track, "Ain't My Baby Grand", was selected and pitched to me by my A&R creative director Herky Williams in Nashville. I met Herky through my manager, Butch (Stone). Herky was a sixteen year executive at ASCAP and has a great ability to develop artists. With him and management, we selected 7 songs for this album and recorded them at Beaird Music Group with some of the finest session musicians in Nashville. "Ain't My Baby Grand" is a perfect song for me as a bluesy singer and pianist."
Erwin is a talented songwriter in her own right but has enlisted the services of some pretty talented folks to fill out the songs on the coming album. Contributing writers for the songs on the EP reads like a who's who of Nashville songwriting royalty including Gary Nicholson, Bekka Bramlett, Taylor Hicks, Billy Burnette, Billy Mann, Tonya Arata, Brett and James Slater, Steve Diamond, Mike Reid and Billy Smotherman.
"For me, songwriting is therapy. I write to make something beautiful out of something hurtful, and I write to pen in time a happy occasion. I have loved to write since my first journal at the age of 8. I start with lyrics mainly. I'm actually more of a lyricist when it comes to song writing. Most of the time, the music and melody follows after I write the lyrics or at least have most of the lyrics finished and the structure of the song started. I am honored to have co-written with great songwriters in Nashville. I love to learn and collaborate with them."
Erwin will perform a showcase in October in Nashville this year with a lot of touring to follow. "We're releasing this album, pitching to labels and planning on touring it and continuing my momentum. It's about staying the course and following through. I truly hope one day to be on tour with a major act and to eventually be on my own tour in the larger venues."
Erwin's manager, Butch Stone, has been around the block a few times when it comes to helping artists break out. Stone's first major coup was in 1969 with an up and coming band from Arkansas called Black Oak Arkansas. He helped launch the career of Cheap Trick and managed Swiss rockers Krokus, among others. He has a number of gold and platinum records to his credit and has produced too many concerts to count.
"In the music industry it used to be that when an act signed with a record label they were basically given a three year deal," Stone commented.
"You'd make a record and then you would go through an agent who would put you on the road with a touring act to help you find your audience. It's not like that these days."
"With Susan, we'll have the best of both worlds," Stone continues.
"We'll be able to use the social media side of things and combine it with her touring to get her out there. I'll use my contacts in the business to get her on tour with as many national country acts as I can. We'll develop her audience that way."
Erwin started playing piano and singing when she was 6 years old eventually taking ten years of classical piano lessons. Her mother and gospel music helped plant the seeds for her musical roots.
"Watching my mother sing and play really inspired me," Erwin stated. "To this day, she is the church piano player in our little church in Magnet Cove, Arkansas."
Her father also had some sway in determining his talented daughter's musical tastes. With 70's rock and roll blasting away in the mornings, it was Erwin's father who was in charge of getting the kids ready for school.
"My mom would leave for work early so he was in charge of getting us up and ready for the school bus. He would pull the Creedence Clearwater Revival greatest hits vinyl out and blare it through our farm house. He'd sing through the halls at the top of his lungs, "I see a bad moon a'risin" or his favorite CCR song "It's Just a Thought". I can hear that bass lick and B3 on that song in my sleep."
"Willie's (Nelson) duet with Dolly (Parton), "Unclouded Day", was a big favorite of his, too. We'd drive down the road in his Chevy pickup truck and he'd sing and slap his dash to the beat. To this day a bucket list for me is to play and sing with Willie Nelson and have him look over and shout 'play it Susan' like he said 'play it Bobby' to his sister who was his piano player for years. Her style influenced me. Willie still moves my soul."
Erwin is smart, sexy, has a smile that will make any stranger melt and wraps it all up with a down home persona that sets people at ease when they are with her. She has a realistic outlook on where she's been and where she wants to go. Stone lauds her abilities and her willingness to take direction.
"Susan is a dream come true for someone like me," says Butch Stone. "She knows how to work hard, she listens and takes direction well. She studies this business. I expect good things from her as we move forward."
With her charm and smile, Erwin seems to be a natural when it comes to working an audience. She's at ease in a small venue or a concert hall. And her shows are always full of energy.
"I love to show out and make people smile," she says.
"When I'm behind a piano I light up. I'm at home back there as if it is just an extension of me. I remember as a little girl I watched an older girl play "Bumble Boogie", a boogie woogie adaptation of "Flight of the Bumble Bee", and I was hooked. I told myself I'd be a boogie woogie player one day. I entered talent contests and pageants and ultimately found my performance home in piano bars, dueling and solo, where I've honed my craft of performance for over ten years now. I'll stand on a piano, sit on it, play it with my feet, elbow. You name it, I'll try it."
"I added a keytar to my show. It's like a guitar but it's a keyboard. People love it. I think it's silly, but whatever works. Van Halen's "Jump" is my specialty on it, but I can also play it like a fiddle and do "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". The keytar allows a piano player who is normally stationary to be mobile and wander like a guitar player can on stage. I milk that for all it's worth and jump up atop my piano and play or wander through the crowd."
With a fan base that is, literally, world-wide, Erwin has played a few interesting venues through the years. She has played extremes for certain, from the back of a flatbed truck to a group of 'cow folk' to a private concert on a multi-million dollar yacht for a billionaire's family's Jewish holiday. Nothing seems to phase her when it comes to performing, especially adapting to on the fly changes.
It's all in a day's work for Erwin.
"They fork lifted a grand piano to the edge of the Caribbean Sea in the British Virgin Islands and I played it for an uber-fancy wedding. The bride was 20 minutes late to walk the aisle and I ran out of her chosen material so I started adlibbing Beatles songs in a classical style, changing them just enough that no one would notice. I even threw in some Metallica and Pearl Jam but no one noticed!"
Spending her time in the music business for well over a decade, touring the world and making her bones has allowed Erwin to see the music industry inside and out. She is self-made to a large degree, creating her image through hard work, networking and lots of experience.
"I love that I can be self-made. With this day and age of the internet, technology and social media, artists can reach their fan base all over the world on their own without the middle man. I was able to help fund my first album through a crowd funding campaign. It's awesome to reach fans and followers and connect on a grassroots level as an artist."
"On the flip side, there are challenges now today. The information and technology age has changed the playing field for the music industry for sure. Where labels could depend on mechanicals back in the day, that has gone to downloading and electronic purchases. It's shifted labels and artists reliance on merchandise and venue sales to really drive revenue."
"They say an overnight success is 15 years in the making. I think that is very true. It's a slow burn to the top. It's a marathon not a sprint. Those who think it's about going on a reality show and getting that big break need to have a back-up plan to really work at making a career out of music. I respect those artists who worked years and honed their craft to "make it". Don't give up on your dreams. Remember we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Pull your ego out, stick it in a quiet place and listen, watch and learn from those who you respect and want to be like. Study, study, study and practice. Don't be afraid. And don't forget, use the power of social media to build a fan base!"
"My manager Butch says "It doesn't matter how good your fishing pole is if you can't get near the water." When the time was right for me, I pushed forward, turning over every rock I could to get the attention of key players in the music industry. Nashville is a good place to start. I've always believed if you're talented and have a good work ethic someone will eventually notice."
With all her hard work and future plans it shouldn't take long for folks to notice this rising star. Catch Susan Erwin at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs beginning in October.
For more information go to www.susanerwin.com.