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VOL. 128 | NO. 142 | Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Labor of Love

Memphis musicians juggle making a living with making music

By Andy Meek

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One morning a few days ago, Jeff Hulett woke up earlier than usual.

Jeff Hulett, communications coordinator for the Church Health Center, is also a drummer for the band Snowglobe, bass player with Glorie, and has his own one-man band.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

His days frequently are a blur of activity – given that he’s a PR and communications coordinator for the Church Health Center, as well as a husband and father – and on this particular morning he wanted to squeeze in some time to himself playing guitar.

He practiced for about 30 minutes. Weekdays are usually like that – not just for him, but for many of the city’s working musicians paying their dues while also having to pay the bills.

Hulett, whose musical tastes include Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan and modern acts like Beach House, frequently uses his smartphone to record snippets of things he’s working on. It helps to have a guitar at his office, as well as a fellow musician at the Church Health Center, communications manager Marvin Stockwell, who plays in the band Pezz.

“My wife knows this is a huge creative outlet for me,” said Hulett, who plays alone as a one-man band, as well as with other bands including Glorie and Snowglobe.

Venues he has played in recent weeks include The Booksellers at Laurelwood and the Three Angels Diner.

“It’s definitely something that’s a balancing act,” said Hulett of playing music and of honing his craft, while also swapping out all the personal and professional hats he wears. “It’s also a good way to earn a little extra cash.”

Music remains one of Memphis’ most popular exports, both across the U.S. and beyond. And musicians like Hulett demonstrate how, unlike the tangible exports built in factories or sold by small businesses, Memphis’ community of musicians usually don’t do just one thing.

For them, performing is their product. It’s what they sell, a labor of love they don’t always get paid enough to pursue full time. Often, it’s squeezed into the cracks of free time that fall between jobs running small businesses, waiting tables, painting houses and more.

Not that musicians like Jason Freeman complain.

He has been a tour guide at Sun Studio off and on since 2001 and says it’s the perfect job to have while pursuing his music career.

He loves his work at Sun so much, in fact, he shies away from even describing it as a job.

When Jeff Hulett isn’t playing drums with Snowglobe or bass guitar with Glorie, he can be found performing as a one-man band, as he did April 6 at Evergreen Montessori School's Evergreen Rocks.

(Courtesy of Evergreen Montessori School)

“Being that my passion is talking about and sharing music with people, working at Sun provides the perfect outlet,” Freeman said. “One of the most difficult things about being a musician and holding down a day job is trying to juggle your musical performances and work schedules. Often you might get a great show offer and have to turn it down because it conflicts with your work commitments. Luckily, the owner of Sun understands that and allows many of the musicians to have flexible work schedules so as to be able to pursue their creative paths as well.”

One of Freeman’s favorite tracks on his new album “Hex And Hell” was recorded at Sun by engineer Matt Ross-Spang. That gave the song a “classic, swampy, dirty Sun sound,” Freeman said.

Michael Graber, meanwhile, finds playing in a band to be the “ideal supplement” to growing a business.

He’s doing the latter as managing partner of Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. He and Southern Growth Studio co-founder Jocelyn Atkinson also are columnists for The Daily News.

Graber plays in the Bluff City Backsliders as well as in three other bands – Way Back When, Damfool and Fatback Jubilee.

“It’s a passionate avocation,” Graber said, before comparing his musical pursuits to the skills needed to grow a business. “You have to learn to master your skills, listening to others and the crowd, and also how to interact with team members in ways that make them feel completely a part of the whole.

“Sadly, I make less in a year in Memphis playing music in all the bands combined than a week of work, so making it a career is not really an option. The good news is that this frees up the musical expression. Because I am not forced to play anything I don’t love, I can play for the sheer joy of it.”

Like Graber, Hope Clayburn says she also finds it hard to make a living only playing music. That’s why she also has worked for several years as a registered nurse at The Regional Medical Center at Memphis in the trauma ICU.

“It’s tough sometimes to do both music and nursing, but thankfully nursing is a flexible career and I can usually work my schedule out to fit in gigs,” Clayburn said. “I feel music is a type of spiritual medicine that parallels well with my nursing career. I feel lucky to be able to have two jobs that fulfill both my monetary and musical needs. I admit it’s sometimes surreal to go from working in a hospital with trauma patients to then turn around and rock out in a bar, but such is life of a local musician.”

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