Jason Spooner has won, placed, or shown in more music-driven competitions than four or five "American Idol" contestants.
Of the many differences between Portland, Maine-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Spooner and the TV idols and idol wannabes, the biggest is the fact Spooner is a working musician. The competitions he enters are directly connected to his troubadour life.
"You have to be choosy," Spooner said from a tour stop in Idaho. "There are a lot of contests and some are designed to make money. The other ones, like the Kerrville New Folk and the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, are an excellent way to get noticed.
"There's a lot of traffic trying to get on the highway and a lot of traffic clogging the on-ramp. The contests won't put people in the seats, but they are a way to get noticed. A win is a good entry-level way to have people give a listen to your work."
Spooner was a 2004 finalist in the John Lennon competition. In 2007 he won the Mountain Stage NewSong contest and was a national finalist in the Starbucks Music Makers competition. In 2003 and 2006, Spooner was a Kerrville New Folk finalist. He was a crowd favorite and ended up working the festival.
Sunday, Spooner, fronting the Jason Spooner Trio, will be back at Kerrville to kick off the final main stage concert.
"I've been a New Folk finalist twice, and we got invited back," he said. "The Kerrville festival is one of those things you have to see to understand. The people who go there are true music lovers and there's a true community around the campfires. There's a lot of kindness at Kerrville and a lot of people interested in mentoring new talent. You get these shots of confidence from a place with so many famous songwriters."
If Spooner lacks confidence, he doesn't lack much. He and his band, Adam Frederick (bass) and Reed Chambers (drums), are on the road with "The Flame You Follow," Spooner's second CD. An amalgam of folk, pop, rock and jazz with a touch of blues, its 11 tunes range from plaintive love ballads to downright disturbing murder mysteries. It's light vs. dark all the way through.
"I didn't start out to make a dismal record," Spooner said, laughing.
"I did set out to do a couple types of songs, the character sketch and the story song. That comes from me being a kid listening to my father's 8-track collection, listening to Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Jim Croce, Neil Young, people whose music could create such powerful pictures in my mind. People go through strife to reach truth and realization."
Just as he's had success with contests, Spooner has enjoyed a bit of success with airplay. "Black and Blue," the opening track of "The Flame You Follow," spent a couple of months on Triple A radio charts at the end of last year. At one point, it was No. 3 behind a Radiohead tune. XM Radio is spinning Spooner's cover of Talking Heads' "Slippery People."
"That got people asking, 'Who's this kid from Maine who's No. 3 behind Radiohead?' Airplay helps. We drew 150 people to a show in Missoula, Mont. Our show tonight in Sandpoint, Idaho, is sold out, about 200 people, and we've never been here. Success with Triple A radio is not a great way to get rich, but it's a great way to have people listen to your music."
Spooner has been around enough to know making art and making a decent living making art are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
"I would like to stay a serious songwriter," he said. "If my tunes end up on Triple A radio, that's great. I'd like to tour Europe. I want to continue touring the U.S. My goal is to have as many people hear my record as possible.
"I look at guys like Neil Young and Paul Simon. I listen to 'The Boxer,' which gives lessons about life in a three-minute song. Those guys have great success as serious songwriters. The best advice I've gotten is do it all. Don't say because you're on Triple A, you can't play folk festivals and don't say because you play folk festivals, you can't be on Triple A. Being a traveling musician can be a challenge. You've got to keep what you're after ahead of you, focus on that goal and believe in it."
The "American Idol" judges could have said it meaner or weirder, but they couldn't have said it better.
Kerrville at a glance
Where: Quiet Valley Ranch, nine miles south of Kerrville off Texas 16
Gate admission: $30 Friday, $35 Saturday-Sunday
Tent camping: $5 per person per night
Food/craft booths: Open at 6 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Kennedy outdoor Theater
The lineups, in order of appearance, starting at 7 p.m.:
Friday: Jon Michaels, Amilia K. Spicer, Small Potatoes, Kathy Mattea, Walt Wilkins/Mystiqueros
Saturday: Sally Barris, Trout Fishing in America, Terri Hendrix, South Austin Jug Band, Guy Forsyth
Sunday: Jason Spooner Trio, Anais Mitchell, Wheatfield, Bobby Bridger, Randy Rogers, 'Heal in the Wisdom' (finale)