He may not want his son to become a musician, but Ben Friedman can't picture doing anything else with his life.
Ben Friedman is not a household name and his band the Cigar Store Indians is not at the top of the charts. But like many who rock the bars around the country night after night for uncertain rewards, Friedman pursues his life's path with a stubborn dedication.
By phone from his home in Crabapple, Ga., the songwriter admits the road is a rough run. But after 16 years in the business and nine years with his current band, Friedman speaks for many struggling players when he says that despite the pitfalls, music is his life's choice for keeps.
"I look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, 'What am I doing?'" the 39-year-old songwriter says. "But I can't go out and become a computer geek. This is what I have to do to eat. ... It ain't a cakewalk [but] we've been very fortunate to be able to make a living."
This living relies on a tough and intriguing sound emerging from a rhythmic diversity that embraces everything from rock 'n' roll to song-oriented pop to swing, Latin and polka beats. Fueled by a full-throttle party attitude, the four-piece band may not be mainstream commercial or popular with big record-label executives, but the mix has found a grassroots home with those open to more than the latest fad. The band has just wrapped a live CD set for an early October release and Friedman points to one cut in which the band combines Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" with the Ramones' "I Want to be Sedated" as a good example of the band's eclectic approach. Some of the tunes are acoustic, some are stone-cold rock. "In some kind of way," the bandleader explains, "we're just a melting pot of all that kind of stuff." Richmond music fans get a chance to hear the band's broad-based style Thursday at Swingin' On the Tracks.
Friedman and longtime band mate Jim Lavender have mixed these influences for the past nine years, building a career and reaching a level of success that allows them to carry on. But like so many hardworking groups, it's sometimes two steps forward and one step back. There's no record-label support money. Sometimes no one pays much mind no matter how hard you play, and often the money isn't great. As the father of a 20-month-old son, Henry, Friedman says frustration rears its ugly head occasionally, and he most certainly will not recommend his boy walk in his musical footsteps.
But there's a pure practicality of perseverance and a magic in the music that keeps Friedman and his mates gigging at clubs across the country. The nightly surprise of newly discovered sounds and new friends in familiar venues are the bright lights along the road. Fresh songs are born, and even if they are not heard on the radio, the tunes can be ends in themselves. One takes the rewards where one finds them and a musician learns not to count on much.
"It'd be nice to have somebody drivin' us around [and] you think to yourself 'What the shit am I doing?'" Friedman says in a quiet drawl. But reflecting further the singer falls back to the only thing he knows: "It's a good life. I'm not bellyaching."
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