Joe Firstman bought an $18 cross-country Greyhound ticket from his home in North Carolina to Los Angeles, arriving with a beat-up guitar and head full of songs. He quickly found the big stage. It all happened quickly: first came the big Hollywood gigs, then the industry buzz, then the big deal with Atlantic Records and national tours with big rock stars like Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Willie Nelson. There was ego and excess and beautiful ladies and music, music, music. Firstman wrote it all down and sang his songs like his life depended on it.
“In the songs of Joe Firstman, sensitive young men prowl the hills of Los Angeles, searching for fame and beauty, only to find self-destructive behavior and egos gone wild…” wrote Jim Farber in the New York Daily News. “While Hollywood’s peaks and pitfalls have been prominently charted by songwriters from Don Henley, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne to Warren Zevon, Firstman aims to reinvent the milieu for his own generation.”
When the world stopped spinning, he’d landed a regular gig as the bandleader on the “Last Call with Carson Daly” show. For four years, this was his university – playing and writing songs in whatever style the show’s musical guests played and learning how to engage a studio audience, day in and day out. That gig ended in early 2009.
Joe Firstman’s journey began beside Big Daddy’s deathbed. He was 19 and leaving his native North Carolina for the first time, heading to California to become a musician. He had come to say goodbye to his grandfather, “Big Daddy” Earl Wallace. Big Daddy was the patriarch of a large family but he was also largely a mystery to those around him.
What Firstman didn’t know at that time was that when Big Daddy was a young man, he’d toured with an outfit called the Tarheel Ramblers that played “hillbilly music” before bluegrass was even born. But when the call came from Nashville, only his neighbor, banjo player Earl Scruggs, was called to the bigger stage. Big Daddy came home, made his living as a truck driver and raised his family. And he never touched his guitar again.
During their final conversation, Big Daddy seemed to size him up. “What are you up to, Joe?” he asked.
Firstman said he was leaving for California to pursue his musical dreams. He was shocked when Big Daddy looked him in the eye, softly nodded his head and gave his blessing.
When he got to L.A., Firstman quickly found the big stage that had eluded his grandfather. Big Daddy is long gone now, and his grandson’s dream is different than it once was. When Firstman’s gig on Carson Daly ended earlier this year, something happened: all these songs started arriving. Firstman had already left the Hollywood scene behind and moved to little surfing enclave south of LA called El Porto. Now, newly free from the industry and ready to start the next chapter of his life, Firstman sat down and wrote an album’s worth of material.
The songs – which will be released in a forthcoming album called “El Porto” that will be released on Rock Ridge Records in January – are sparse and comfortable, with a rough-hewn relaxed tone that sounds an awful lot like an artist coming into his own.
“I think this era right now will serve as a more prominent cornerstone that even the earlier music, because the earlier music is harder to define,” Firstman said. “This music, it’s easier to recognize the traditional qualities, and it’s easier to recognize even the sincerity. I feel like this is where it is all beginning, and it will all kind of orbit around this center, this nucleus.”
The songs on “El Porto” aren’t country. But they are indeed songs that somehow take you to the country. They’ve got space and ease and generosity. They are simple songs, simply sung. It’s music that Big Daddy would have recognized, all warmth and wood and melody and flow. It’s the sound of somebody coming home: the songs of a man who has rambled far and wide and has come full circle back to where he started, a bit older, a little wiser, with a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life.
“It takes experience to see the world that kindly and that considerably,” he said. “It takes a grown up. You have your own stones to upturn, but you also recognize what the masters were doing and how they did it, in some respect. And then to focus in – having not given up the whole way, which is crucial – and to be able to sit back and understand a little bit better, and by understanding, simplify it. It takes a lot of wisdom to simplify, to live your life simply. It’s way easier to live your life complicated.”
“The One That Makes You Happy” is one of those songs that seems like it’s always been around. It’s a simple love song, and it unfolds like an easy smile. Then there is the pure country poetry of “Only for a While”: “You were there when I was up in the sky/When I was down in the dust, you gave me a smile that said:/This ain’t nothin’; it’s just for a while/Only for a while….”
Firstman is currently touring with his new set of songs, and he’s finding an expanding audience. Some of the fans who first knew him as a young pop star have stayed along for the ride, but a wider and more loyal following has accrued.
“El Porto” is a culmination and a beginning. Firstman once travelled with Willie Nelson and his family band and had a glimpse of a way of living in music that was sustainable, built for the long haul, a life lived for the sake of the song. Now, he sees that road opening up before him. And he is ready to roll.
“I have no other choice but to start writing better songs,” Firstman said. “It’s the only game. Nothing works in my proverbial plan unless the songs continue to get better. And I feel at the very least that has happened with ‘El Porto.’ I think there were moments and glimpses over the past, over all my records, including Atlantic. I lump them all in together; it was one fluid flow of mania. But now, I think it all got better.
“What a beautiful thing to be able to get better at – writing, playing guitar, riding a horse, conversation. Come on, man, making love, all these things. Don’t you want to improve? This is a beautiful thing to be able to improve at. You never have to put it down. It’s a long journey.”
Joe Firstman will be performing at the Walnut Room with The White Buffalo & Ernie Halter on February 4th 2010