Local singer and songwriter Susan Greenbaum originally scheduled her end of year concert at the Tin Pan for Dec. 3, aiming for a time before people got sick of seasonal standards. Then she got sick herself, losing her voice after catching something from a cute 3-year-old on Thanksgiving. Now the event is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 23, deep in the seasonal mix.
Dealing cheerfully with the unexpected is one of Greenbaum’s specialties.
Becoming a full-time musician wasn’t an obvious choice for the Harvard-educated business professional with minimal performing experience and even less connection to the local music scene. Outgoing, cheerful, and so petite she seems to be playing a giant guitar, she carved out a market niche so durable that 20-odd years later, and it seems like she’s always been here.
A decade ago, when she won a local arts prize, someone from the awarding organization questioned her eligibility, thinking she was such an obvious recipient that she must have won it before. “You go from being someone who is trying to make a name for yourself to kind of being kind of an institution,” Greenbaum says, adding jokingly, “and then maybe to being institutionalized.”
Originally from Kansas City, she says the only thing she knew about Richmond when she was recruited by a local company was that an old boyfriend told her Virginia was pretty, and that the city was mentioned in the Band’s classic song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “I came down here thinking there was no way I would get this job, but it would be good to have the interview experience,” Greenbaum says. “Lo and behold, I got the job and worked at Chesapeake Corporation for a couple of years.”
Her brother’s death from a brain tumor changed her perspective on a comfortable corporate life. “I said to my parents, ‘I don’t think I want to stay in this job anymore. I want to try to be a musician.’ They were supportive but worried. They knew it was going to be a long shot, especially because I was over the age of 17, or however old you have to be to be considered a viable starting artist.”
What she had was time, energy, and experience in getting things done.
“I had been working 70 to 80 hours a week. I didn't know anyone, so I didn't have a social life, but I did but I did listen to Page Wilson every weekend and so I knew that cool people came through town. I started going to clubs and bringing a CD, asking them if they booked solo acts. And that is really how it started.
Smaller gigs at venues like The Fox & Hound and Borders grew to larger gigs. Opening for Kenny Loggins at an Innsbrook After Hours Concert, she found her connection to the audience reciprocated. “I told people I had just gotten engaged [to husband and drummer Chris Parker] and people just went nuts. I have been playing long enough that I had a little bit of name recognition. It is really nice when it feels like people care about you.”
An attempt to score free Sarah McLaughlin tickets by showing up at a radio station and playing, got one of her songs, “Everything But You,” added to regular rotation. That led to a bump in local sales and being flown to New York for a major label audition.
“I'm just trying to play music for a living,” Greenbaum recalls. “So I just had no clue when I went up to New York, I didn't know what to say. I played the song that was on the radio. Then they asked me to play something else and I chose a slow song. It was a good song, but it was a really stupid choice. They were looking for something a lot harder rock for their Republic label, which is a lot harder-edged. The bands they signed were a lot different from me.” Greenbaum’s poetic a approach is more Carol King than Nicki Minaj.
“So, I'm not I'm not famous but I have managed to make a living at this for over 20 years now,” she points out. “I’m still grateful to anyone who shows up at a gig. I’ve made five CDs, and people buy them even though nobody buys CDs anymore. I am very, very lucky.”
The Tin Pan performance promises a mix of originals as well as Christmas material and a sprinkling of Hanukkah songs, including some that are a bit less frequently covered, like Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.” Greenbaum’s intent is to keep things fresh. “When we do something super familiar, we always try to have a bit of a twist. I really want it to be an upbeat and lively show. I may be Jewish, but I feel very strongly about the holiday spirit.”
“I also just love my band. [Lucy Kilpatrick on keyboards, brothers Ed and Mike Drake on lead guitar and bass, and husband Chris Parker on drums.] “Everybody sings, whether they want to or not. We have been together for over 20 years, and we still like each other. Which is a nice thing.”
The intent is a “constant flow of excitement and joy.” And, given how closely it came to being cancelled, a “Christmas Eve Eve miracle.”
Susan Greenbaum plays the Tin Pan on Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. Admission is $25