A D.C. musical reality

I’ve seen The Grandsons play music dozens of times over the years, back to the early 1990s when they called themselves The Grandsons of the Pioneers (which is its own story) and were at the head of a very hip little local alt/Americana wave. I saw them again Friday, when they filled the Barns at Wolf Trap for a dance that’s become an annual post-Thanksgiving tradition, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Why aren’t these guys treated like local royalty?”

I know the answer to that already. This area has cranked out generations of really talented blues, roots-rock, Americana and bluegrass musicians who face a cold reality: Washingtonians don’t support live music with the enthusiasm and raw numbers a musician can attain in any decent live music city.

Seriously. If the Grandsons lived in New Orleans or Austin, they’d work several nights a week and would be revered local treasures. Bill Kirchen — a Grammy nominee and player of perhaps the most famous Telecaster lick of all time — left town and got more work; Danny Morris is still burning up Florida a decade after he left The Nighthawks, who still kick around here but make their real living on the road; Roy Buchanan stayed for a while but hanged himself in a Fairfax County jail cell; Danny Gatton had trouble getting steady work and put a gun to his head; blues players Bobby Parker, Memphis Gold and the Big Boy Little Band, among many others, can’t break out of a few small clubs here; even a local bluegrass treasure like the Seldom Scene is indeed seldom seen in the D.C. area outside of the Birchmere.

And that is such a shame. I think often about the things that give a city its character. Washington has a reputation as a transient factory town, with the “factories” being politics, media and technology. That’s not really much to brag about, when it comes right down to it.

People here work hard, make their professional reputations, come and go. They don’t really play hard. Many don’t play at all. And yet generations of musicians somehow rise up in this environment, play incredible music and are paid pitifully to perform in tiny bars to crowds of two dozen.

Local musicians in some other parts of the country may not get rich, but they can scratch out a reasonable living. Here, that’s next to impossible, leading to an old joke: How do you get a musician off your porch? You pay him for the pizza.

The problem with that joke is that it’s not funny, once you think about it.

Anyway, as they’ve done for the past several years, the Grandsons and Kirchen are playing at Alexandria’s First Night, down at the Torpedo Factory. They’ll alternate sets. Tickets to see them — and dozens of other bands, scattered all throughout Old Town — are all of $15. Do them all a favor and spend a few bucks.


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