It’s unfortunately happened to too many talented musicians. They release record after record and get good reviews, but — for reasons sometimes unexplainable — the albums don’t sell.
Consider Dirk Hamilton, who released four albums on big labels — two on ABC and two on Elektra — that were reviewed favorably in the 1970s but didn’t take off commercially.
Hamilton says he doesn’t know why they didn’t sell better. “People called Meet Me at the Crux [his 1978 release] a masterpiece,” he adds, “but Elektra quit on it after only two months of promotion.”
In 2010, No Depression published a review of the album after it was re-issued by an Italian label, and the review said Meet Me at the Crux had “a bunch of songs that have never been so organic, complete and enthralling.” The review cited “the semi-acoustic beating of the wonderful Dylan-esque ‘Santa Cruz Mountain Monologue’” and ‘Don’t Laugh at Me,’ a “tour-de-force in Van Morrison style.” The album’s songs, the review said, “deserved a public less vacantly absorbed by the punk explosion and more disposed towards a bunch of sublime songs, so vivid and shrill to resemble more a little concert than a studio record.”
Hamilton released a follow-up album in 1980, Thug of Love, then threw in the towel and walked away from the industry. He says being dropped by Elektra was “the last straw.”
“After four albums and six years in the big time, I was walking wounded. You go in an innocent and you come out the other side a grizzled casualty. Failure can kill you; fame can do the same. I just sat at a bar for a year or so. It took me a couple years to recover.”
Hamilton took a job counseling troubled teens in northern California.
“It was rewarding, but it was another thing that beat me up,” he recalls. “You find there’s only so much you can do for them. Once they are broken in childhood, they can never recover completely. Their suffering and my inability to fix them really started beating the hell out of me.”
While working that job, he joined a cover band. “I found much joy there,” Hamilton says. “We played whatever we wanted to play, and it was just pure fun. Eventually, new songs started presenting themselves to me unbidden. I realized I was born to do this work, and I needed to get back at it.”
His returned to music “as an innocent but armored,” he says. In 1991, he released Go Down Swingin’ on Appaloosa Records and then two subsequent albums on that label. A slew of other albums followed on small labels.
Last month, Hamilton released a new album, Touch and Go, his first studio album since 2012’s solo mono. The album has 13 songs, consisting of blues-based rockers and ballads. He says the final song, “Mr. Moreno,” is the most important.
It also, unfortunately and tragically, hits home for me, because it was inspired by the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. I live in Newtown, was the first national journalist on the awful scene and reported on the tragedy and its aftermath for years for USA TODAY. (Some personal reflections can be read here and here.) Take a moment to reflect on some of Hamilton’s lyrics within “Mr. Moreno”:
There’s a lotta talk of truth but so very few really live it
Every clown wants a crown and will stop at nothin’ to get it
Politicians talk of peace, dining with gunrunners in the Plaza
Sharing photos of their families and the missiles they are selling down in Gaza
And Mr. Moreno, in a sombrero, plays maracas
And 20 baby souls say someone has gotta step up and stop it
“Sandy Hook? It tore my heart out of course,” Hamilton says. “Then I got mad. I spend a lot of time in Europe. They don’t argue about climate change there. They trust the science. They have gun laws there, because they trust common sense. I couldn’t get the image of those beautiful little kids being slaughtered and their shining little souls floating up into the cosmos. The song just poured out of me. It’s hard to sing it without crying. I’ve had real trouble with that. You can’t sing and cry at the same time. Before I begin it, I take a deep breath and remind myself it’s important to show this song to people. I must keep my feelings in check.”
Besides spending a lot of time in Europe, Hamilton collaborated with an Italian band, The Bluesmen, and released, in 2013, Sweatshop Pinata: Most of the Best of Dirk Hamilton & the Bluesmen. He says it wasn’t a big change going from recording as a solo artist to recording with his band.
“I’ve been fronting the Italian band the Bluesmen for almost 10 years,” he says. “I used to tour Italy with my American band once a year, then return during the summers and front the Bluesmen. I have a live album with them, too, called ‘Sometimes Ya’ Leave the Blues Out on the Road.’”
Sometimes Ya’ Leave the Blues Out on the Road was recorded live in Ferrara and Castelnuovo Rangone, Italy, during a 2005 tour. “I haven’t had the American band over there since 2010 when we did the Thug of Love live tour.” Hamilton says. “The Italian economy has tanked liked ours, or maybe worse, and they just can’t afford to pay like they used to.”
I mention to Hamilton that my vague memory recalls wit, humor, and quirks in his 1970s albums. “Lots of my songs have humor and, hopefully, wit,” he responds. “I think ‘quirky’ is often mistaken for freshness, aliveness. I don’t much like that word. But I don’t know what to say.
If you’d take a year and really go deep into my umpteen albums, you’d find the same guy, the same spirit but always changing, evolving. But people don’t seem to be interested in going deep anymore.”
Which album does Hamilton view as his most accomplished? “It’s not my job to compare and contrast,” he says. “My job is to create. I don’t mean to sound smug, but it’s the truth. I really don’t judge and categorize my work after it’s done.”
Some critics have likened Hamilton to Van Morrison. “He was a huge influence on me. He taught me how to be loose and to improvise. You can still hear him in some of my stuff.”
Hamilton has described himself as a poet as well as a songwriter and a musician, so I ask him what are some of the most poetic lines in his songs.
“Again, that’s not my job,” he answers. “There’s lots of poetry in my poetry! Off the top of my head: ‘Below what you think you know, the real cosmic carnival is happening’ [from the song ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’ on Too Tired to Sleep]. Or ‘She don’t squash no bugs, she don’t eat no meat. Everywhere she go she go bare feet’ [from ‘She Don’t Squash Bugs’ on his debut album You Can Sing on the Left or Bark on the Right]. Shakespearean — right?”
Although he has “umpteen” albums in his pocket, including a new album released last month, Hamilton’s songwriting isn’t slowing down. He says he has already recorded two new songs and has others he hasn’t yet recorded.
“I will probably continue writing and recording ’til I drop,” remarks the 66-year-old musical veteran.
Hamilton was born in Indiana and grew up in Sacramento, California, where concerts were plentiful. “Everybody came through the Memorial Auditorium, starting with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars,” he says. “And the Stones — they killed me! All the British invasion bands except the Beatles played there, and I saw most of them. Before that, the Beach Boys ruled the land.
“Later, I lived in L.A. and now Texas for over 20 years. Shawn Colvin knocked me out back when she was touring solo and getting famous. I’ve always loved Greg Brown, the Subdudes, the Nevilles. Van Morrison has done some of the worst concerts I’ve ever seen, but he has also dissolved me into tears more than twice. He’s moved me in concert more than anyone. I have seen a lot of great concerts.”
He says the most memorable concert he performed was probably opening for Bob Dylan at the Pistoia Blues Festival in Italy in 2006.
“But the ones I cherish most,” Hamilton says, “are my own gigs — the ones where the whole audience lights up and magic happens. These usually happen at small clubs, and it happens a lot. Most people don’t even know about the real music scene. Most folks think music is The Voice and giant productions with huge video screens and Vari-Lites and all that. And, of course, it’s not. It’s in smaller places where intimacy and community can flourish. Everyone who reads this magazine probably knows that.”