Interview | FFS5 Q&A with Lyman Ellerman

Photo: Larry Brake

The latest in our ongoing ‘For Folk’s Sake 5’ interview series comes from Nashville’s own Lyman Ellerman. In his ‘FFS5’ sesh, Ellerman tells us the captivating story of his growing up into the world of roots music and all of the moments to follow that have helped to define his life. He also dishes on the highs and lows of the music biz in his own eyes and offers up what inspires him creatively outside of music, as well, telling us to live “in” the moment and not just “for” it.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

Life started out for me in a small midwest town just outside Springfield, Illinois. It was a pretty typical upbringing for me along with my older brother and my mother. My father had been killed in a logging accident just before I turned two. Music as far back as I can remember has always been a part of my life, indeed, who I am. My mother played a little bit of guitar. And my father as I was told also played. Not professionally, but he wasn’t afraid to break it out and let go of a few if the notion struck!

One of my earliest memories is of an old Gibson archtop acoustic we had that belonged to my Dad. I’m pretty sure he had purchased it through a catalog of some sort, so it would’ve been a budget model. But from what I was told, he was “right proud” of it. My brother took to drums at around 13, but he still fooled around with the guitar as well. He eventually played drums in several area bands around our area for quite some time and quite regular as well.

I initially had my sights set on drums. Watching my brother made me think that’s what I had to do. My first band I was in I was the drummer and singer. It only took a couple gigs for me to realize I was quite limited as a drummer, but also trying to sing and drum at the same time. And it really felt like, through the eyes of an immature teenager, that the real fun to be had was on the front line!

So at right around 15 I coerced my mom to buy me a guitar. A cheap guitar—very cheap! $14.88 from K-Mart. Yeah, I remember the price. Whew, that thing was a beast. My mom then showed me a few chords, bought me a couple books at a local music store that had chord diagrams and some popular songs in them, and I was off to the races so to speak. That little cheap guitar was a life changer!

That was “the start” of my musical career. I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Not even if I tried. I wanted to play. I wanted to sing. And I wanted to have my own songs! I have no explanation. All I know is I knew that’s what I wanted. But it wasn’t for a few more years before I’d begin to hear music that was changing my perception and direction and understanding. I began to realize that songs can actually impact people’s lives. They can alter moods, making us happy or sad. They can upbuild us. They can expose us to truths and lies. They can also be full of nonsense and rubbish! It took me a lot longer to realize I didn’t want to be part of the latter.

One defining moment for me came when I had been doing some recording in Louisiana where I was living. I had come into contact with a producer in Baton Rouge by the name of Harold Cowart, who unfortunately has deceased, and I played him a handful of songs and he thought they had potential. Harold was the longtime bassist for the Bee Gees, and traveled the world with them on several tours. He played on countless hit records for not only them but numerous other legends.

We began to record and kind of shop around for some interest, and though we found some folks who showed interest, it was never enough to get the ball rolling. But, I felt like my writing was getting stronger at a rapid pace about then. I was making repeated trips to Nashville in search of interest and leaving cd’s here and there, knocking on doors, taking whatever meager non-essential meeting I could take.

Finally I got a call at home in Louisiana one evening from a guy I didn’t know but whom I had decided to name-drop in a phone conversation with a major label secretary. I don’t recommend this kind of approach at all in hindsight. He basically wanted to know who I was that I should be tossing his name around in such a tight knit community like Nashville. But he also told me he admired my enthusiasm, and assured me he would take a meeting with me when I made it back to town. He did, after some back and forth phone calls we met, he listened, didn’t care for anything he heard, at least nothing he could use at the moment, but did say he thought there was great potential.

He told me where I could send more songs to when I thought I had anything worth something. A few months passed and I was back in the studio working on a new album of fresh material. It was along about this time I had started to make a change in direction so to speak, in writing. I began to feel like I had things to say, and I wanted to say them, not just spin the cotton candy if you will.

I sent him three songs. I never heard anything. Months passed. Then one evening, after a long day of tile setting, I was relaxing at home I got a call from Mr. So & So, and he told me one of the songs I sent he absolutely loved and couldn’t stop listening to! He called me a few days later while I was working and said he thought I should consider seriously moving to Nashville and that while he could make no guarantees for placement, he did guarantee that he’d do everything in his power to try to help get something going on my behalf. And in fact, he did. I did move to Nashville.

He did help to secure me not one, but two (both at different times) co-publishing deals (contracts). And while I no longer have a publishing deal, those events were pivotal in helping me to jump into the “big leagues” if you will, and realizing just how serious this business of making music is. I learned more those first couple years in town than I ever would have learned on my own about creativity and songwriting. I was fortunate enough to get to write with some legendary songwriters who were at it long before the modern era of half-witted, mindless, meaningless, fly-away fluff we get bombarded with these days.

As an artist, how do you define success?

I guess success can have many levels. I’d say for me, it’s important to prioritize which of those levels are most important. It’s nice to receive compensation for your hard work. Heck, in this day and age, it’s good to break even financially speaking. But with that being said, it can never be about the financial gain or loss that motivates a true artist. Art is something that lives inside the person making it. It doesn’t recognize value in terms of dollars or possessions. The value can only be calculated in terms of quality for me. Is there substance? Is it relevant? Would anyone care to listen? Can I present it without feeling like I’ve skimped or cut corners lyrically or musically? Did I leave a piece of my heart on the page, on the track? Will someone else, anyone…., be able to identify with the piece of me I left there? For me, that defines my success.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Finding a place where I can put on a repeated basis everything I just answered in the aforementioned question. We live in a world, in a country, where values, valuable things, valuable ideas, valuable history, valuable morals, are losing any importance. It’s sad, and it’s sad that it’s happening in music as well. I’m not here to judge what others do, nor will I, but say what you choose, what some folks choose to listen to quality-wise is in a steep, dramatic, drastic decline. In my opinion, modern radio and the folks who promote what comes through there, are wasting the valuable time of some of the most gifted instrumentalists on the planet by having them contribute to the most lame songs I’ve ever heard. I should say, that there are a few contemporary artists that from time to time filter in some songs of consequence. So really then, in a world of “Let’s don’t attach too much seriousness or truth” or “Let’s don’t step on anyone’s toes” kind of attitude, it’s a struggle to be relevant and be heard at the same time.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

First, again, I think you have to have good songs. And by definition, I believe a good song is a song that people can attach emotion to. A song that makes them feel “something”. A song that solicits a laugh or a tear, or reflection to the past, or invoke someone to have an active part of what the future might bring for themselves or for everyone. I want to write good songs and perform them. I want to always progress in my artistic endeavors as a songwriter. I want to wake up every day no matter where this journey takes me and realize that there’s always room for improvement as a songwriter and as a human being. I believe learning is one of the keys to happiness and longevity.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Trying my best to live in the moment. Not just “for” the moment. Laugh the laugh, cry the tears. Experience life at face value. Absorb all it brings. Even though I may talk and sound serious, I believe in being serious when it comes to self-reflection and trying to be forgiving when it comes to looking at others. I think it’s ok to say and do what you think is right, but don’t hate others because they try to do the same. We’ll all face the same judge one day I believe, and we’ll all have to stand on our own merit. I like to help folks when I can, but I have no right to express hatred toward another individual on our shared planet. These things occupy a lot of time in my thought process. There is nothing more important than my relationship with our Creator and my family. It’s my life’s experiences each and every day and my view of the world around me that are responsible for about 90% of what I write. The other 10%, I try to make up. To me… they’re the weak spots.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm (@jfrahm_)

Photo: Larry Brake