Above images submitted by artists, from L to R: Barry Lee, Scott Hrabko, Lindy Griffith, Howard Eisberg and Scott Easterday
If you look around Kansas City’s music scene, it’s not uncommon to see musicians who are barely old enough to drink, performing alongside those who are double, sometimes even triple their age.
“If someone is born creative, that spark generally doesn’t go out as they age,” said Barry Lee of country-tinged rock group Broken Arrows.
But there are common misconceptions that exist around artists of a more advanced age. When you walk into a club and see a group of white-haired musicians on stage, your perception may be skewed before you even hear a single note. Those musicians might be looked upon as less willing to take creative risks, less willing to break out of their shells of nostalgia. But in Kansas City, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you unearth.
“I think older musicians are less prone to imitation than many younger musicians,” said singer-songwriter Scott Hrabko. “We’re more comfortable with who we are because our music is more lived in, less about striving to be noticed than having a little history and something to say about it.”
Hrabko made his mark in the ’80s with his band The Splinters, and released his first solo album only three years ago. With his backing band The Rabbits, the songwriter takes cues from country and folk, but establishes a melodic complexity and lyrical density that separates his music from falling into conventions. That, according to Hrabko, is a direct result of his experience.
“For a long time the question was, ‘Where does my music fit in?’ until the answer came to me — it doesn’t. Once I learned to take that as a blessing rather than a curse, I could move forward,” he said.
“A lot of people like staying in their comfort zone, but I try to be as open-minded as possible.” said Lindy Griffith of Crybaby Ranch. Griffith, who is 60, has also weathered the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. In part, she does that by eliminating genre and gender boxes. “I have a Western soul version of ‘I’ll Be There’ by The Jackson 5. I just love taking a standard and making something totally new out of it.”
Howard Eisberg has been one of KC’s most admired songsmiths for more than three decades now. With his ongoing project Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, he has collaborated with dozens of musicians of disparate ages and stylistic leanings.
“My own trip has been to record songs of mine with many local musicians through the years, most of whom were considerably younger than me, often by decades. Working with young people reminds me over and over again of the joy of having fun with music,” said Eisberg, who recently turned 70. “As you get older, you get exposed to more in life. Appreciation for craftsmanship and for kinds of music you dismissed when you were younger take the place of trying to make breakthroughs.”
And Scott Easterday, who recently assembled the third incarnation of a project he began almost 20 years ago — Expassionates — admonishes younger musicians not to dismiss the importance of creating quality art.
“Some musicians, when they are young, bite off a huge chunk and can’t continue to serve their craft with the same fervor and accuracy when they age,” he said. “One has to create art with study and craftsmanship, not just extravagance and showmanship.”
But this wisdom also puts an obligation on the part of the seasoned performer, who understands the realistic boundaries that come with age. Many of them make conscious efforts to conserve energy between gigs and perhaps think twice before taking that extra shot at the end of the night.
“Your body can’t take the same abuse it did when you were younger, and the abuse you inflicted on yourself adds up, like a hideous golf score,” said Hrabko. “When you’re young, you only think you’re getting away with it.”
And in an industry often considered to be a young person’s game, there is also an imperative for the long-time musician to approach their discipline with enthusiasm and freshness.
“It’s very easy to coast through songs as you get older, because you’re technically proficient enough to pull it off without too much sweat,” said Lee, who co-founded Broken Arrows after performing a one-off Neil Young tribute with his bandmates, all of whom have years of experience in power pop, jazz, country and garage rock bands. “Most of our members have played with bands that were pretty strictly pigeonholed, musically, so it’s a great relief to stretch ourselves out.”
Lee went on to cite several examples of artists whose work continued to mature as they aged, including David Bowie, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop — artists who were able to take what they had learned and harvest something entirely new out of an evolving craft and passion.
“I can show you bands like The Rainmakers, who play just as hard now as they did in their younger years. Other musicians like Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escovedo haven’t mellowed out when they play these days,” he said. “Sure, there are some bands just coasting along. God bless ’em, but that’s not what I want to do.”
For the flip side of this perspective, check out Dan Calderon’s piece in Flatland this week, about how his 6-year-old son came to love music.
— Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, and plays drums with Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @michelleobacon.