Roots rock weirdo Mike Plume finds the sweet life in Nashville

Photo by Gordon Anderson

Mike Plume illustrates the dilemma of a lot of guys in his situation – as a recording artist who decides to retreat behind the scenes to make a living as a professional songwriter in Nashville.

We’ve heard rumour of these songwriting factories down South that churn out bushels and pecks of radio ready hits for country stars too busy to write songs themselves – and this former Edmontonian has been working on the factory floor for the better part of a decade.

“I do have this one song,” Plume says. “Should I give this to a hard core country guy because it would be such a hit or should I record it myself? I don’t know. It’s a beautiful country song about a conversation I overheard years ago. There were two guys talking, and one was obviously going through a nasty divorce. And one guy said, ‘she took everything but the blame.’ And I thought, oh my God, what a great line. So I wrote that. It’s like one of those hard-core cry-in-your-beer country songs. The song just feels like a hit.”

Hmm, sell it to Kenny Chesney …

Plume, like many of his peers, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He still wants to be a “roots rock weirdo” – his words, sing them to the tune of Jukebox Hero if you like – under the name he started making for himself in Edmonton in the ‘90s. He’s an alt-country artist in his own right, bucking the hot country trend by writing and recording his own, somewhat quirky material. Perhaps best known for blast of Canadiana called “8:30 Newfoundland” that became a hit during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Plume plays the Pawn Shop Saturday night – one of a very few shows he’ll do this year.

So he wants to play his own music. On the other hand, he wouldn’t mind selling a bunch of corny country songs to people like Kenny Chesney. His friend and sometime collaborator Kieran Kane sold one to Alan Jackson that “kept him in beans and biscuits for a long time.” Meanwhile, Plume bites the hand that feeds, says that much of what’s coming out on commercial country radio is fake. They can’t all be truck-driving, right-wing Christians, he says. It must make his head hurt.

“I think country music is in an awful state,” Plume says – and that state is Tennessee!

Just kidding. Tennessee is a lovely state. Plume settled down there with his wife and daughter several years ago. They live right next to Vanderbilt University, where his wife works, and where Plume coaches his daughter’s hockey team – that’s right, pee-wee hockey is alive and well in Music City, USA. The singer-songwriter works from home, under contract to deliver about 25-30 songs per year to his publisher, which then takes ownership of them. Some are pitched to country stars, some make their way into TV shows or feature films. The FX series Justified contains one of Plume’s tunes: Mine All Mine.

“I get paid to write songs – and that’s my gig. I’m far removed from being the road dog of yore,” Plume says. “Last year I did 3 shows. Back in ‘99, I did 249 one nighters. The reason I slowed down is that I hate being away from home. I hate being away from my family. It drives me crazy. The first time my daughter scored not one, but two goals, I was stuck in a hotel room in Dryden, Ontario. Really? This was worth it?”

Life is sweet now, he hastens to add. Sure, there may be things to complain about, or at least laugh about: Like the weekly “Row Fax” that comes out listing all the stars looking for tunes to express their deepest feelings. Plume ridicules some of the descriptions: “So and so, and I’m not going to name her, ‘looking for a song that shows off her true personality’ – well, then write your own damn song!” Plume also notices an increasing demand for “positive, faith-based” music, so he’s thinking “She Took Everything But the Blame” might not be such a hit after all.

He could complain about having one’s creative efforts taken away, about not being able to record a song you’ve given to the publisher even if the publisher hates it. He could go on – and has, but that was the old Mike Plume. The new Mike Plume declares he’s not the curmudgeon he used to be.

He says, “What’s the line from Dylan? I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now? There were times when I hated everything. I meet a lot of musicians now who hate everything and I think, my God, was I that annoying? It did me no good.”

Plume says he has plenty of new songs – songs “there’s no way in hell” he’ll give away – but has balked at the idea of putting out another album. “Do we even release CDs anymore? It’s a great thing to have at shows, but it feels like it’s 1965 again, right before the Beatles put Revolver out and LPs became all the rage. It’s a 45 world again. You can just put out a digital 45 every six weeks, maybe put out an album when you have enough songs … I find it a very interesting time, and I’m not sure we’ve quite figured out the new blueprint for the music business.”

He’s working on it.