Paul Emery: Immersed in music
Special to The Union
Country crooner Kenny Rogers sang “you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run,” a sentiment well-understood by Nevada County music promoter Paul Emery.
Even after nearly 20 years of regularly bringing top-tier music talent to these parts, turning a profit is never a sure thing, Emery said.
Emery, a longtime member of the KVMR family and its current acting news director, served as the executive director, then artistic director for Center of the Arts in Grass Valley from 2000 to 2007, a time during which he estimates having booked several hundred shows into the Main Street location.
For the last two years, Emery has been what he describes a “one-man operation,” booking shows under the auspices of Paul Emery Presents, along with a dedicated crew consisting of house manager Robin Karistedt, Peter Wilson doing marketing, Michele Schiro handling the box office, soundman Felton Pruitt and volunteers Linda Stanley and Helena McDaniel.
Emery’s schedule of upcoming events shows the eclectic nature of his musical offerings: rocker Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, Van Morrison’s daughter Shana in October; folkies Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky in November, as well as blues artist Chris Cain; and Zydeco master Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys in December.
“I’m not what you would call a big-time promoter,” Emery said. “But I concentrate my efforts on presenting significant music.”
For much of his life, Emery (an accomplished singer and guitarist) has immersed himself in music, first deciding in the mid-’70s to launch his own career as a full-time musician,.
“My first contact with Nevada City came in 1972 when I promoted a show in the Nevada Theater for a group I was in called the Carmichael Traveling Street Band,” Emery said. “We played there three times … In ’76, I decided to become a full-time musician and realized I could be based anywhere, because I would be traveling a lot, so I chose Nevada City.”
He estimates that between 1976 and 1979 he played at least 200 shows a year, most of them as part of a duo called the Foothill Flyers.
“We played country bars in small towns between Northern California and Portland,” Emery said. “In those days we would draw a blend of hippies and rednecks.”
In 1979 he decided to team up with singer Anni McCann, traveling extensively through Europe.
In 1981, Emery changed musical gears again, this time as part of Backwoods Jazz, a project he started with McCann and longtime friend Tom Schmidt.
“Of all the musical adventures I’ve had, Backwoods Jazz was probably the best-known,” Emery said. “It lasted from ’81 until 1992 in various forms and incarnations. We traveled up and down the West Coast and also toured Europe.”
Emery promoted shows in the 1980s between breaks in his own career, one of the highlights being booking Taj Mahal into Cirino’s restaurant in Nevada City.
Mahal enjoyed coming to Nevada City and Emery was able to bring him back for concerts at the same venue for five consecutive years.
He also headed the production of the North Columbia Folk Festival, bringing in artists like Doc Watson and Holly Near.
Much of the 1990s, he immersed himself in the business of KVMR, at one time being its program director, and did little in the way of promotions, but joining Center for the Arts at the turn of the millennium changed all that.
Emery looks back on that time with fondness and pride.
“Bringing Booker T (of Booker T and the MGs fame) to town, just about put me into seventh heaven,” Emery said. “I booked Irish singer Paul Brady, who was my absolute hero, after seeing him in Europe, We brought in old blues players like Honey Boy Edwards, who had played with Robert Johnson and Pine Top Perkins. We also did all-ages rock shows. I loved it that the Center made itself available for teenagers and high school kids. It was great that the kids had a place to play, could be loud and obnoxious and have their own scene.”
After leaving the Center for the Arts, Emery took a short break from promotions then re-emerged in a big way when he brought Richie Havens to the Miners Foundry in March 2009.
His formula is to promote two to three shows per month, running September though May to avoid competition with the summer festival season.
Last year, he also branched out into theatrical production with the presentation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Nevada Theater. The play enjoyed a three-week run and has been nominated for six Elly awards, the Sacramento region’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony awards. Emery plans on producing two more plays in 2011.
“You have to decide why you are doing it,” Emery said. “The surest way to be a loser in promoting shows is to make the love of the music your primary cause. What will happen is that you will find some wonderful, but obscure musician that you bring to town, no one will go out to see them, you’ll lose money, the artist will feel responsible, you won’t enjoy the show and you’ll wonder ‘why doesn’t everybody love the same thing I do?’ But that being said, I’m not interested in booking schlocky stuff just to sell tickets.”
Even with his experience and expertise, Emery knows that the best-laid plans sometimes go awry.
He remembers a show in Sacramento when the headliner called him just minutes before he was to go on and announced that his manager had mistakenly booked him on the same night for a show in Palo Alto and that he wouldn’t be there.
Or the time when he decided to perform alone as the opening act during one of Taj Mahal’s appearances and was forced to extend his opening set before a puzzled audience until Mahal arrived at the last possible second, avoiding disaster.
“Promotions really is a form of legalized gambling,” Emery laughed. “But I know music really well and I know this community and the list of performers you can successfully bring back here every year or so. I know the expenses associated with running a show and how many people you need to draw to break even. The key is to develop a steady income and develop a little bit of a bankroll, so that you can survive the occasional hit.”
Based upon his track record, it would appear that Emery has survived quite nicely.
For more information about Paul Emery Productions and to see a complete list of upcoming shows, go to http://www.paulemerymusic.com.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer based in Cedar Ridge.
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