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FDL Movie Night: “Troubadours, The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter”

In Troubadours, The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, our guests, director Morgan Neville and producer Eddie Schmidt, have created a vibrant film full of music, history and anecdotes. The film is an intimate and illuminating, funny, sad and cautionary tale that chronicles one the most important cultural movements of the past sixty years–rise of the singer-songwriter–troubadours–framed by the history of the still-extant club that launched their careers, Doug Weston’s Troubadour.

Founded by Doug Weston in 1957, the Troubadour, a nightclub located in West Hollywood–then itself not a city, but merely an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County–became the nexus of first the folk and then the growing singer-songwriter movement.

With his club, Weston created a crucible for musicians who wanted to do more than just play traditional folk or sell their songs to performers. These were artists who could and wanted to sing what they wrote; whose songs reflected the changes in society and the world around them; and whose music formed the California Sound, and thus rock n roll’s reactions towards and against what the music and lifestyle supposedly represented. Intensely personal, while profoundly universal, these artists have continued to inspire generations.

Troubadours follows the careers of Carole King–a divorced mother–and James Taylor, along with other Troubadour legends–Jackson Browne, the Byrds, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Martin (who started out playing banjo there and one night was approached by Betty White and her husband, actor/gameshow host Allen Ludden. “We think you’re very funny,” White told Martin), Cheech and Chong, Kris Kristofferson, and Elton John. Along with vintage performances and interviews from many of the subjects, we are treated to King and Taylor performing at the club and during the 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour, as well as interviews with journalists and music industry figures who give us a sense of the club, the artists and their importance in cultural history.

Yes, sex and drugs play a part in rock n roll (don’t they always?), and with the success of the club and its denizens came, as David Crosby points out, “too much money” and Mamon’s attendant problems. Taylor succumbed to heroin addiction; Crosby’s excesses increased exponentially; and Weston, the club’s owner, became more and more out of control and unpredictable. Other changes happened: James Taylor got clean and moved to Massachusetts; Carole King moved her family to rural Montana; Jackson Browne had a son.

While the club had once been a haven to artists, performers began to see the onerous contracts that Weston required (artist had to appear at the club a set number of times for a number of years after they made it big) as albatrosses around their necks. In reaction to the excesses and perceived bad business practices, music producer/entrepreneur–and one of Weston’s good friends–Lou Adler opened The Roxy on the Sunset Strip, just blocks away. The Roxy was an instant success, and quickly pulled audiences away from the Troubadour–as did the change in musical tastes. Glitter and glam artists (who also wrote their own music) were replacing the thoughtful Los Angeles singer-songwriter, with punk and metal approaching with breakneck speed.

But, like the music it nurtured, the club survived. I first went there once I turned 21–seeing local bands and touring acts. Yes, I admit I saw the Bullet Boys show circa 1986. In recent years the club has become a preferred venue for showcases and radio promo events, as well as bringing a host of new acts to the public’s awareness.

Troubadours, The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, an official Sundance 2010 selection, airs Wednesday March 2 on PBS at 8pm (check local listings).

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.