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Making a living, playing the clubs - St. Louis musicians find hard work trumps glamour

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2008 - The music business is known for screaming crowds in packed stadiums, million-selling records and extreme behavior. But for many of its practitioners, it's a very different matter -- hard work, small pay and a lot of driving.

St. Louisan Michael "Supe" Granda , long a mainstay of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, may have put it best when he wrote a song called "Makin' a Living, Not a Killing" about his efforts to survive as a working musician, including this lyric: "I'm making a living, not a killing, in a nightclub with a low-down ceiling. And it's hot and it's smoky...."

In the St. Louis region, that spirit is exemplified by a loosely connected group of singers, guitar players and songwriters who perform as solo acts, duos, trios and sometimes with a full band. They tend to revolve around Scott Nienhaus, a St. Louisan who founded the fondly remembered group Acousticity and worked for years in Nashville as a member of some late versions of the Byrds. Now he lives in Bethalto with his girlfriend and singing partner Karen Crawford and tours the region with her and another longtime member of the Byrds, Terry Jones Rogers.

The threesome also are part of 4 + 20, a new band formed as a tribute to the '70s supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nienhaus and Crawford have also been doing trio work for years with another favorite St. Louis musician, Pat Liston, of the '70s band Mama's Pride. For his part, Liston has just recorded and released a new solo album, "Dreamer."

All of these people are trying to do the same thing: to make a living out of performing music. They've been at it for a long time, but there's no end in sight.

"You can make a living, as long as you keep at it, finding new places to play," Nienhaus said. "We rarely play two nights in a row in the same place."

Added Liston: "There are ways of making a living at this, and ways of making good money if you stay with it -- I think it's very possible."

From St. Louis to the Byrds

Nienhaus grew up in south St. Louis, graduating from Lindbergh High School and crazy about playing the guitar. His first band was called Masters of Confusion, and when they brought home $60 from their first gig, his family took notice. "My dad was stunned," he said.

He credits longtime music teacher Connie Hayes with helping him get started. Except for a short stint in a mailroom, he has always supported himself with music. In 1986, he began performing and recording with Acousticity, which toured with bigger names such as the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, the Outlaws and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and for a time they served as Nicolette Larson's backup band. He then worked in a version of the popular band Firefall.

In 1993, Nienhaus moved to Nashville and Granda introduced him to Rogers, a Georgia native who had been fronting a version of the Byrds featuring their original drummer, Michael Clarke. Nienhaus joined with Rogers in the Byrds Celebration, a group that included another longtime group drummer, Gene Parsons, and, for a time, bassist Skip Battin.

The group, which can be considered an early example of a tribute band, lasted nine years, touring in the U.S., Europe and Brazil, until another original Byrd, David Crosby, bought rights to the name. The final edition of the group, including Nienhaus and Rogers and two others, still gets together on occasion under the moniker Younger Than Yesterday, taken from an old Byrds album. Nienhaus and Rogers also worked as a duo, making the album "Empty Room" in 1995.

Granda recalls it this way: "I'd known Scott - and had been a big fan of his -- for years, having played all those Ozark gigs with his band, Acousticity. Then, when I started playing with Michael Clarke's Byrds, I met Terry. When I became better acquainted with his playing, his singing and his overall demeanor and vibe, I told him that he really should meet my friend in St. Louis, who had identical musical tastes.

"When I introduced the two - I forget exactly where it was -- I knew it was not only a match made in heaven but would lead to a wonderful collaboration. I absolutely love hearing them sing together."

A New Start in St. Louis

In 2002, Nienhaus made a connection with Karen Crawford, who had been working in the St. Louis area as a bartender, restaurant manager and occasional singer. After the Byrds Celebration ended, he returned to St. Louis to help his friend Liston record a solo album, "Blue Mist." Soon Nienhaus was getting some solo work, and when friends pushed Crawford into singing harmonies with him, something clicked.

"I was just trying to be the supportive girlfriend," she recalls. Crawford had sung at church when she was growing up in Tyler, Texas, and had stints with bands including a young heavy metal band called Illusion, so she wasn't exactly a beginner.

Soon enough, the duo evolved into two trios. With Crawford handling the hard work of booking, promotions and developing a web site (now operating at rncmusic.com ), they began performing with Liston in a group known as Liston, Nienhaus and Crawford, and with Rogers in a group called, appropriately enough, Rogers, Nienhaus and Crawford. Those groups have built followings at several taverns and restaurants in the region.

The two-trio arrangement worked out so well that Rogers moved to Bethalto, too. Places they have been playing recently include Chez Marilyn and Mac's Time Out, both in Alton; Meramec Jack's in Valley Park; Cleo's and Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville; TT's Bar and Grill in Granite City; Tuners Bar and Grill and Mac's C'mon Inn, both in St. Charles; plus Smitty's Food and Drink in Chesterfield and Bruno's American Grill in south St. Louis.

But nothing stays the same for long in the music business. In this case, Liston is using his new album, "Dreamer," as a way to build his solo performing career and is ending his trio performances with Nienhaus and Crawford. The parting is strictly amicable, and Liston remains a big fan of the other musicians.

"Pride" of St. Louis

Liston grew up in the Dogtown neighborhood and had success in the '70s singing and playing guitar with Mama's Pride, which he led along with his brother Danny. They made two albums and toured the nation, building pockets of fans in areas including Florida, New England and the Pacific Northwest -- meaning that many of the drives between gigs were long indeed. They have reunited frequently in recent years, including a Dec. 6 performance at the Pageant. Pat Liston later moved to O'Fallon, Mo. for a while, sidelined in home remodeling, and now lives near Worden, Ill., in Madison County.

His new album, entirely self-written and recorded at local studios, includes assists from Nienhaus, Crawford and Rogers, plus other local musicians including bassist Dickie Steltenpohl from Mama's Pride. The album is available on Liston's MySpace page, he is developing a website as well, patliston.tripod.com, and he is expecting to sell the album at the Slackers and CD Reunion stores.

The sales plan is in the do-it-yourself mode common among today's musicians. "It's just connecting," Liston said. "You can have the greatest music, but if nobody hears it..."

Liston played his last show with Nienhaus and Crawford on Dec. 28 at Chez Marilyn, but the trio with Rogers is continuing strong with 12 dates planned in January.

From Georgia to St. Louis

Rogers grew up in Macon, Ga., playing in bands such as Infinity + 3, Hawkeye, and the Pound and Rogers Band. He met the original Byrds drummer, Michael Clarke, in 1983, and in 1988 he joined the group, led at the time by Clarke and Battin. The version that Nienhaus joined was formed after Clarke died in 1993.

Rogers moved here from Nashville three years ago. Even though Nashville is the center of country music, he was working more in the St. Louis area. "I find it to be a very rich musical community," he said.

He, too, has been writing and recording new music, and says he is actually working on two albums -- one mostly acoustic and one more fully produced. You can hear samples on his extensive website, terryjonesrogers.com.

What has Nienhaus, Crawford and Rogers excited now is the prospect of their Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tribute band, 4 + 20. The group was formed when the trio teamed up with a popular rock band based in Alton, the Mondin Band, resulting in a seven-person unit capable of performing anything in the CSN&Y catalog, from delicate harmony singing to snarling electric guitar duels.

Nienhaus feels it's high time somebody gave that supergroup its due in the way that other tribute bands have recreated the work of the Beatles and Pink Floyd. "It's just music I love," he said. "The only thing better than listening to it is playing it."

The larger group has performed once already and has three shows lined up for the new year. Rogers said he will be singing songs by Neil Young and Graham Nash, including "Helpless" and "Marrakesh Express," while Nienhaus will lead numbers by Stephen Stills and David Crosby, including "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."

Said Rogers: "It's music I've always loved, and it's been a lot of fun putting it together and doing it properly."

Upcoming performances

Rogers, Nienhaus and Crawford:

  • Jan. 7 and 21, Tuners Bar and Grill, St. Charles, 8 p.m.-12 a.m.
  • Jan. 8 and 22, TT's Bar and Grill, Granite City, 7-11 p.m.
  • Jan. 10, Meramec Jack's, Valley Park, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Jan. 16, Paula's Landing, Glenarm, Ill. (south of Springfield) 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Jan. 17, Mac's C'mon Inn, St. Charles, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Jan. 18, Cleo's, Edwardsville, 7-11 p.m.
  • Jan. 30, Smitty's Food and Drink, Chesterfield, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Jan. 31, Benld Brewhaus, Benld, Ill., 9 p.m.-1 a.m.

4 + 20, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tribute band:

  • Jan. 23, Meramec Jack's, Valley Park, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Feb. 6 and 7, Mac's Time Out, Alton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.

Terry Jones Rogers:

  • Jan. 11 and 25, Benld Brewhaus, Benld, Ill., 5-9 p.m.

Pat Liston:

  • Jan. 10 and 31, Seamus McDaniel's, O'Fallon, Mo., 8-11 p.m.
  • Jan. 11, Cleo's, Edwardsville, 7-10:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 16, Seven Restaurant and Lounge, Belleville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
  • Jan. 23 and 24, Bubba & Doc's, LaBelle, Mo.
  • Jan. 30, Hazelwood Bowl, 9:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.

Carl Green is a freelance writer.