Rock stars don’t exist anymore. A musician is a person who works around the clock wearing many hats and must be a businessman, publicist and accountant on top of playing music. There aren’t giant record label deals in the future of many artists and chances are they have to be great at everything they do just to get by. Kansas City’s Ashley Raines is no stranger to these challenges and it is this side of the business that he struggles with.
His style of music isn’t the kind of you’ll hear on Top 40 radio and its commercial appeal isn’t as grand as what most people are doing. Instead he is violently realistic with his lyrics and has an amazing gift for creating a brooding mood to match his lyrics. Talking to Mr. Raines leaves the impression it has been far from an easy road. He records and tours just to keep a roof over his own head and at times has failed at that. He is a microcosm of a struggling musician, he is bursting with talent and has a staggering resume but still struggles financially to be a successful musician.
For a man who has released 13 records and been hitting the road for two decades it is a battle to keep perspective on what he does. “When you’re in live environments 200 nights a year, half the time you play they forget to turn off the football game audio.” Raines says, “So you develop things unconsciously in order to get over that stuff.” His frustrations contribute to his curmudgeoned outlook on the business. He is a true songwriter, not in the respect that he has written a good song but in the respect that he consistently write very good songs and composes strong records. Other artists have even covered Raines’ material and the strength of his material has allowed him to tour most of his adult life. His latest full-length album “After The Bruising” sees him exploring familiar ground with songs like “Work Like The Devil” and “Born In The Flood.” His songs are about adversity and conflict and aren’t the most uplifting music, making it not for the faint of heart.
Raines is working on the follow-up to that record after releasing a well put together 7 song EP with covers of songs by artists like Wilco, The Kinks and Bob Dylan called “I’ll Fight: A Collection of Cover Songs.” His goal is to shoot a little higher on this next release. He is reuniting many of the musicians that worked on his debut record under far different circumstances. “I put the team together that had done my very first record that we started in late 1998, so it’s been 18 years.” Raines says. “The guys that mentored me, who were my brothers in arms when I was young and green and earnest with all of it, it seemed like a good opportunity to get everybody back together.” Raines doesn’t feel like he hit the ground running as a gifted musician when that first record was made and didn’t have the benefit of classical training to help him along his way. “I can see the natural progression and I’m proud of that,” Raines says, “I never considered myself a natural talent and I had to work really hard at getting better. I think my early songs show that.”
He is aiming to capture not only his experiences he has gained since that first record but everybody else’s as well. “I was eager to have some other directions,” Raines says, “and to say ‘how can we flesh these out in some other ways.’ You work at what you do and you want to get better and the only way to do that is to get around some people who are better than you.” He is enlisting David Baerwald formerly of the popular 80s duo David + David and renown musician an producer Don Conoscenti to help produce the record to make sure it meets his high standards. He is trying to get the best performances he can on his next album and really lock in on the best music possible. He isn’t taking this record lightly and realizes the importance of it. “The album is a huge thing for me,” he says, “it’s a huge push. It’s sort of the culmination of my entire career.”
Being a live performer where the situation is far from ideal most nights to sing his songs makes it difficult to go into a controlled environment like the studio. “It’s tough to be the singer/songwriter and live performer guy, who has to get over the pool game, the Foosball and the guy trying to bang the chick with low self-esteem to being a studio guitar player, it’s a completely different animal.” he says. Because live environments can be so harsh it isn’t a part of the business that he loves either. He takes the stage with his signature Weissenborn, a lap steel guitar with a custom hollow neck, and bares his soul singing sometimes cringingly personal music. He is often greeted with a less than respectful response because of his quiet delivery and the quality of venues he sometimes finds himself in. Loud venues not designed for music are sometimes necessary to settle for when on the road. Because of this he is unsure about touring to accommodate his next release. ”I’m honestly not sure if I’ll tour the album, I’ve done so many dates for so many years and that’s that hard part to know how it will be released.” he says, “I wish I was in a financial situation not to be wealthy but to allow for myself to make smarter choices about the environments I take the songs into and it’s for that reason that I don’t know if I will tour it.”
The current landscape of the business is far from ideal for an artist like Raines. He is confident in the fact that this is his job and what he needs to be doing though. “There are people out there who do this because it is what we have to do.” he explains, “The gratification and ease of it all has filled the field with people who do it because it is what they want to do. There is a difference between us, the people who have to do it and the people who want to do it.” You could argue that the less dedicated musicians are littering the scenery of the business and making it more difficult for the truly talented artists to succeed. “I’ve worked hard to have a body of work I’m proud of, maybe in a different time I would have sold more.” Raines explains, “At the end of the day I was always honest about what I was doing, writing and playing and that’s the most important thing.”
This perspective keeps him going and lets him measure his success on his own scale, like a chef knows when he cooks a good meal or a welder knows when he makes a good weld. His interactions with fans enjoying his work is still absolutely essential to him monetarily being able to make it though and that is where the battle has always been. “Everything for me always came directly from one or two or three individuals at any given show that bought one or two CDs each that night and it’s been 20 years of that.” he says, “Not that I demand or desire more but things take their toll as you get older.” He maintains that it is important for artists to express their work though. The problem is that creative people are expected to wear all these different hats now and being an true artist isn’t enough. Instead you are forced to be a booking agent, publicist, salesman and many other things. “If I was going to do my own advertising I would’ve went to work on Madison Avenue” he says, “and if what you want that at the end of the day you are going to end up with records made by ad executives and not artists.”
In the end Raines knows his own harshest critic is himself, he needs to feel like he accomplished what he felt he was able to and if the music business is receptive to it is somewhat inconsequential. “My joy in it is knowing the that work that I did was honest and it was honest work to do.” Raines explains, “It is what I was put here to do. When I’ve finished writing or crafting something that I believe is good, that I’ve put myself into and I’ve not short-changed myself then I know that I did my job well.”