At 50, most people have settled into a routine of work and family. They can see the horizon in the distance and expect few surprises between 50 and retirement. Well, that ain’t Pismo Spanky.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SPANKY STYLE : Greg “Spanky” Baldwin plays among the tangle of his equipment, his Coors Light a constant companion. See him March 30 at the SLO Down Pub.
The local music icon is instantly recognizable to local music fans. He’s been playing around here for decades, mostly with Grateful Dead tribute act Skydogs or old-timey music trio Three Legged Dog. In short, he’s always played somebody else’s music, but last year he was sort of shamed into trying to write some songs of his own.
At a party attended by Tim and Nicki Bluhm—he of the Mother Hips, she of the Gramblers—they asked him about his songs, and had nothing. So he decided to step up and penned 10 songs for his debut album, Coop’d Up. They were surprisingly good!
Not to rest on his laurels, this year—which marks his 50th birthday—he penned eight more and recorded COOP’r DEUXper. Then he did the unthinkable: He booked 50 shows across the United States and back. He’s about to be a 50-year-old surf rat in a van crossing the country and playing his original music for people from sea to shining sea. Take that, 50!
“Actually, I have three more dates to fill,” Spanky recently admitted before his opening set at the SLO Down Pub. “I’m having a tough time in South Carolina. If all else fails, I’ll play a convalescent home. Convalescent homes love me.”
Amazingly, almost every gig pays between $150 and $200, and since he’s mostly sleeping in his 2000 Toyota Sienna and will be bringing CDs along to sell, even with his estimated $2,100 in gas costs, he should come out ahead. He updated his AAA membership to “Premiere,” so as long as his van holds out, he should be OK. Most of the drives between gigs are doable, though he’s got a couple long hauls.
“”I drive from Joshua Tree to Silver City, New Mexico, and Little Rock, Arkansas, to Lubbock, Texas. Both those are nine or 10 hours,” he said.
So how did a guy who’d never written a song a couple years ago become a country-crossing troubadour? What changed?
“I think all this stuff came together: time, the will to do it,” he said. “I never wanted to write lyrics, but once I started, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’”
Spanky, born Greg Baldwin, writes Americana-style songs and accompanies himself on 6- and 12-string guitars, banjos, and ukulele, and he’s a pretty damn good picker, though he doesn’t think so. He’s one of those players who knows what “great” is, and he doesn’t think he’s quite there yet. But he’s wrong. He’s got really unusual chord progressions, unforgettable melodies, and a nice, crisp playing style. His low rumble of a voice is resonant and playful, slipping over your ears like a worn Stetson hat.
“Yeah, there’s still a ton of doubt,” Spanky revealed. “Are people going to like it at all? Are people going to be offended? I’m still not confident in my playing abilities, and until I started writing my own songs, I never knew my voice until now. When I’m singing someone else’s songs, I’m up there squeaking away, but once I started writing, I discovered my voice.”
Spanky is proof positive that it’s never too late to try something new. It just takes guts and determination … and legwork! To book 50 consecutive dates required a Herculean effort.
“Probably the most valuable tools are the search engines reverbnation.com and indieonyhemove.com. You can type in a city and a radius of miles and it pops up with a bunch of music venues,” he said. “I would then try to find the music venue’s website or Facebook page and search through their calendar, pictures, and posts to determine if they booked acoustic music. So from each city you search, you may find 50 to 100 spots of which you weed out 80 percent and are left with 10 to 20 spots to call on. Then just repeat that for a couple hundred cities. It’s all I did from November to January. On my previous tours, I had relied on e-mail correspondence only, but I found that often I had the wrong e-mail address, or the wrong person, and of course a lot of ‘no’ replies. I figured I was gonna change that up a bit. I mean, it is a business and the best way to conduct yourself is to talk about it.”
In many cases, all he needed to say was, “I’m Spanky from Pismo Beach, California, and I want to play your venue,” and they booked him on the spot.
“Probably the funniest thing was booking the gig at Traders on the Causeway in Spanish Fort, Alabama,” he said. “After spending time being as polite as I could to the kind folks of the south, the lady at Traders asked what I do. I replied that I play guitars, banjos, and ukulele, and look pretty. Her reply was, ‘I’ll bet yer the ugliest motherfucker I’ve ever seen in my life.’ I told her she was correct, and she gave me the gig without me even whistling her a tune. It was the funniest thing. She was all crusty sounding.”
Look out, America! Here comes Pismo Spanky!
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.