Thursday, July 7, 2011

Meet the Beckers. They have an "Offer You Can't Refuse"

You often hear of people moving to the beach to escape the corporate rat race. But, it's not often you hear of someone packing up the wagon and heading for blue water to escape a musical one. That's basically the story behind Tom and Michelle Becker, the award winning musical duo known as Latitude, and the force behind the Margarita Mafia and annual Trop Rock Music Awards in Key West.

Pedigreed musicians in their own right - Tom was once a member of the New Christy Minstrels and an established solo artist and Michelle was making a good living as a songwriter and singer in mid 90's Nashville when they got an offer from a resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to come spend the Summer performing there. While, for many, playing as many as eleven shows a week might not be called a "break from the daily grind", for the Beckers it was the down time in between working shifts that offered them a new perspective on life. "We were away from Nashville for an extended period of time...and found we didn't miss it!" That's how Michelle put it in a recent phone conversation I had with the dynamic duo. "We were really looking to make a change, we just didn't know it," she continues. "Coming here to the beach gave us some time to look at our lives, what we were doing, and decide that we needed to make the break." In the following interview, I spoke to them about their music, the Margarita Mafia, and the future of Trop Rock. You should know that, when you talk to the Beckers, their combined enthusiasm and energy means it's often difficult to separate the point at which one stops talking and the other starts. It's more like "layers of conversations"! That explains why many of their answers below are attributed to both Tom & Michelle.

At the time, it wasn't being called "Trop Rock". But, were you two playing that type of music back in the 90's and early 2000's?

Michelle" "Being in Nashville I was writing mostly for country artists. Some of the songs would now be called Trop Rock, I just didn't realize it at the time. I knew that the artists weren't 'getting' some of my material, and those songs I kept for myself".

Tom: "Later, when we moved to Myrtle Beach, we discovered Carolina Beach Music (Tams, Drifters, Chairmen of the Board, etc). I knew the artists, just didn't know all of their songs."

T&M: "After living here for a little while, we started writing new material. And, as I'm sure many artists who write and perform the type of music we do will tell you, we were influenced by the surroundings - the water, boats, beaches, etc. It wasn't long before we started attracting local Parrot Heads, who encouraged us to write even more of our own original songs. Then, a couple years later, we went down to Meeting of The Minds in Key West - not with any plans to play, just to see what it was all about - and that changed everything for us. We were introduced to a whole world of people and other musicians. So, it wasn't like BAM, we're now Trop Rock artists! It was more gradual. But, definitely a direction we moved in naturally. We find things work out if you'll just get out of your own way."

The term "Trop Rock" didn't come into popular use until just a few years a go, and you two were instrumental in coining that term...

T&M: "We were in Put-In-Bay, Ohio, at the Phlocking of the Phaithful a couple years ago. It was Sunday, the event was over, and a few of us were sitting around with some boat drinks talking about the music and how we could help it grow. Jerry Diaz was there, DK the DJ, and some others. We decided that one of the first things we needed was to come up with what to call the type of music we play - beyond just 'it's like Jimmy Buffett'. There were terms like 'Caribean Country' being used, but no one way to describe it. Nashville artists like Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, and others had the 'Muzic Mafia' ("Big & Rich termed the creative collective 'music without prejudice' - a place where saxophones and conga drums can peacefully coexist with fiddles and steel guitars", according to - Fred) so we came up with 'Margarita M.A.F.I.A. MAFIA being an acronym for 'Musicians Artists Fans In Alliance'. That's really how that got started. It was a way to get everyone who does original music in this style on the same page, an umbrella. A high tide raises all ships."

From there came the Trop Rock Awards. When did you decide to start those?

T&M: "People had been pushing for some type of Trop Rock awards for years, to show people that there is such a large universe of this kind of music, lots of different people involved - and reward those people for their efforts and hard work. But, if you're going to do something like that, you need the people there who are going to receive the awards. Being that many of the people involved don't do this full time - they have other jobs and responsibilities - they can't just pack up and fly off to an awards show. Meeting Of The Minds in Key West was the one place that we knew we could have most of the artists and other important players in one place. We held the first one at Durty Harry's in Key West during MOTM and we've kept it going since."

And it keeps growing...

T&M: "Yes, it does. Because this is a song driven format, we added a category for "Songwriter of the Year" last year. With the popularity of house concerts, we added a "Best House Concert Venue" And, this year, we will have categories for small, medium, and large market radio stations - to recognize commercial stations like Southernmost Radio and Steven Youngblood's station in Panama City Beach (Trop Rock 1290 - Fred) that devote at least some of their weekly programming to this type of music. As Trop Rock expands, so will the Trop Rock Awards"

Are you still looking for sponsors to help with the costs of the awards show?

Tom: "Yes, we are. Anyone who is interested can go to the Margarita Mafia website (see below - Fred) and they'll find a link for sponsorship there."

You mentioned house concerts. There is no doubt they are growing in popularity, with new venues popping up all the time. Does Latitude do alot of house concerts?

T&M: "We're doing more all the time. As songwriters, we love doing them. It's a chance for people to hear the stories behind the songs. And, as far as the Margarita Mafia goes, any time we can help find new places for artists to play and get their music heard, that's a good thing. One thing we want to get across to people is that 'house concerts' don't have to be only in houses. They can be held in an apartment complex's club house (many of the Atlanta Trop Rock Alliance's shows are - Fred), any relatively quiet place where you can host a group of people. The Truman Shows in Northern Virginia started in the back room of a Mexican restaurant!"

Back to your band, Latitude, which has won a number of Trop Rock Awards for Duo Of The Year and, Michelle, for Female Vocalist Of The Year. Any new music you're working on?

T&M: "We are working on a new cd. In a perfect world, we'd have it ready for this year's MOTM. But, it's tough. We're so busy in the Summer - with at least one long road trip a month - and, in the Winter, we spend most of our time down in Southwest Florida. But, our studio is here. We already have some songs written and recorded, are working on some more and would like to have some guest artists play on them."

The name of this blog is "Beaches, Bands and BARS" so I always like to ask people about some of their favorite  beach side places to hang out and/or play. What are some of yours?

T&M: "Around here (Pawley's Island/Myrtle Beach, SC), we play most Thursday nights at a place called Creek Ratz. It's in Murrell's Inlet, on the Marsh Walk - in the middle of alot of restaurants and bars. It's a great place. And down near our Winter home, the Nav-A-Gator is one of our all time favorites. We bet you hear that from alot of Trop Rockers. It's just a quirky, fun place. We're professional musicians and we do this for a living. We play places that want to hear Jimmy Buffett and other covers and we're happy to do that. But, as songwriters, we also like any place that really support the artists - that encourages original music. We also feel as though we're ambassadors for Trop Rock and we have a responsibility to help introduce it to new people. Like here in Myrtle Beach. We play a place at Boardwalk on the Beach, a Buffett night. People who come there expect to hear Jimmy Buffett and we give them that. But, then we also slip in some of our own songs. Sort of an 'if you like that, you'll also like this.'"

And you do a yearly cruise...

"This will be the fourth one we have hosted - in February of 2012. The 'Aloha Cruise' and this year we're going to another one of our favorite places in the world - Hawaii. Sunny Jim is coming with us and will also be performing. There are only about nineteen cabins left. One of them has your name on it, Fred!"

What about "Back Home Again" - the John Denver Tribute show you do?

T&M: "We do about seven or eight John Denver Tribute shows a year - including one in September up your way, in Covington, Georgia! We have a great band - Jimi Pappas and some guys from Sunny Jim's band - and have alot of fun doing that. We actually just signed with a management company out of Nashville to help us promote that show."

I have this conversation all the time with people who live and love Trop Rock - just earlier this week talked to Jimi Papas and "DJ Jeff" about it...What is next for Trop Rock in general?

T&M: I think some times we get caught up in the big picture and long term goals, and that's important. But, at the same time, we have to look at what is right in front of us. I'd like to know that, twenty years from now, Trop Rock has grown and we're still part of it. But, the immediate goals need to be smaller. Production has got to get better for all the music - and we include ours. A professionally done, quality, syndicated radio show that could get on commercial radio stations around the country would be the next logical step. More commercial radio stations playing it - and then a weekly or monthly chart. But, for that, we as artists would have to be in the 'singles' mindset and we're not. We all release cds to outlets and say 'play whatever you want'. We talked about Beach Music and you know it - you lived here on the Carolina Coast and play it now as a dj. They have radio stations playing it, charts, magazines and newsletters devoted to it. We look at that as a model, as what Trop Rock could be. We also have to expand it outside of the Parrot Head world. We know Parrot Heads like Trop Rock, now we need to introduce it to other people  - people who like the beach, flip flops, etc - but don't even know this music exists, other than Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney. That's why it's great when, at house concerts, people will bring friends and co workers out. And, then there is the question of age. We need to make sure we're cultivating the next generation of Trop Rockers - fans and musicians."

Thanks guys, and I'll see you in Georgia in September - and then in November in Key West!

For more information on booking Latitude or Back Home Again - A Tribute to John Denver, joining the Margarita Mafia, or on any of the people or places mentioned in this interview, please see the links below.