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Journeyman musician Doug Deems scores Folklife Festival gig
A Federal Way resident since 1969, and a musician his whole life, Doug Deems is itching to play the 40th annual Folklife Festival in Seattle on Memorial Day weekend.
For someone who’s been grinding away at the music business, the nod from the Folklife organizers is certainly a big tip of the hat.
“I’m a white guy with an acoustic guitar,” Deems said. “I’m ubiquitous. There’s thousands of me. So for me to be selected ... it’s somebody nodding and saying ‘listen to this.’ That’s real stuff.”
Deems’ story begins in White Center after World War II. The child of a Scottish woman, Deems said music was a constant from the earliest days he can remember.
Another piece in the creation of Deems as a musician was the lonesome but musical cowboy character popularized by Gene Autry and John Wayne.
“They vanquished the bad guy, got the girl, dismissed the girl, and then sang a couple of songs,” Deems said.
While the musical influences from his mother and pop culture certainly helped shape Deems, he said the Wild West aspect of White Center also helped mold him personally and musically. Deems gave a brief history lesson on White Center, describing it as an outpost for boozers and musicians and anyone who was wondering where to go to have a good time. The placement of a bus route out to White Center was important in shaping the town, he said.
“You could get on a bus from anywhere around here, and boom, here was party city,” Deems said.
As a kid in the 1950s, the honky tonk, rockabilly wildness of White Center really made Deems want to be a part of those who got to put on the show.
Deems said the explosion of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll and other contemporary music of the early 1950s grabbed his attention immediately.
“From then on, I was involved. I was singing doo-wop at six, seven, eight years old. Doing Elvis Presley imitations and all of this. I think our first band was in eighth grade,” he said. “Someone else bought the guitar, but I had the balls to get up and sing. I did fair enough, and that set the course.”
For Deems, hearing The Beatles was mind blowing.
“Wow, that was songwriting,” he said. “I had never really considered that, and I found I was pretty good with words.”
After spending a year in Vietnam, Deems continued his musical exploration, finding inspiration in Bob Dylan, The Byrds and similar musicians of the time.
“From then on, having something to say with music was very important,” he said. “That kind of set a political agenda for me.”
Although music was always playing an important part in the background of his life, Deems attempted to live the life of a “normal” person. A self-described “entry level” guy, Deems said his employers always found his work satisfactory, but found him to be unreliable.
“I got the job done,” he said. “But I was just never a reliable long-term guy. I was always leaving to go do one more music project, or this and that.”
In the past few years, Deems has been able to make music his main moneymaker. With almost daily performances for local senior centers and his involvement with Internet radio station Tacoma.fm, Deems’ path took a while, but he feels he finally got there.
“At 64 years old, I can look you in the eye, can look anybody in the eye, and say I’m a poet,” he said. “At this point, I can look anybody in the eye and say I’m a musician. I make my house payments by playing music.”
Deems said the music he plays for local seniors is mostly pop standards from their youth, anything from the 1920s to the 1950s. He calls his traveling show “Frolic Tunery.”
Tacoma.fm is another beast entirely, he said.
Originally brownspointradio.com, tacoma.fm is an Internet radio station that showcases local talent. He started with a program called Underground Spring, which was essentially a podcast in which musicians got together to talk shop. Once the .fm domain name became available for use, brownspointradio.com became tacoma.fm.
The local Internet radio station is going strong.
“We’re still developing it, but we’re on air 24/7. We have announcers from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said. “At some point, we hope to get a terrestrial frequency (mainstream radio frequency), but that’s an expensive proposition.”
Over the last 10 years, the music industry has undergone a radical and painful transformation. From the original troublemaker Napster, to iTunes and now apps like Pandora Radio, the music industry has been reluctant to become a part of the Digital Age. For Deems, the digitization of music is a blessing for aspiring musicians.
“I see the future of music as being niche,” he said.
Deems described another way music is changing, and from his point of view, he doesn’t see it as a negative for the industry.
“I was up in Alaska and a guy came to pick me up. We were talking about music, and he was talking about how he’d just recorded some stuff. And I said, ‘Wow, I’d like to hear that.’ So he pulls out his phone and he plugs it into his dashboard and coming through the stereo in his car is a very good quality recording. We’re listening to tracks that, in 1970, would have been done in Capitol Records studios with $40,000 worth of equipment.”
Deems feels the Internet has given musicians a chance to create and connect with their own audiences. Through sites like Amazon, CD Baby and others, the potential for musicians to find an audience, and put some money in their pocket, is greater than ever before.
While he’s not a multi-millionaire living in the hills of California, surrounded by buxom beauties and mountains of drugs, he is a musician — and that’s good enough for him.
“For an old hippie musician in his 60s, I’ve had it the best it could be,” he said. “I’m a legend in my own mind, and I’ve got enough people around to confirm it for me. I’ve lived the life of a poet. It’s been interesting, man.”
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