Paying her debt

You know the music business stinks when Kathy McCarty, Texas' best singer-songwriter, can't catch a break

Kathy McCarty once shared a run-down house in South Austin with three other women. Two years ago, the owner of that house died, and the termite-ridden property was assessed at a mere $12,000. McCarty desperately wanted to buy it herself, but the stake was still too high for someone who could barely cover the minimum payments on her credit cards. Like many struggling musicians, she waits tables five nights a week at a fancy restaurant in order to pay off various debts. How much debt can a rock musician who eats Ramen noodles and wears junk-store clothing get into? This much: At the peak of her career, McCarty had a credit debt of $26,000, incurred while touring throughout the '80s with her never-made-it, now-defunct band Glass Eye. Most of the charges were for van repair.

So McCarty decided to take a gamble. One weekend in 1997, she flew to Los Angeles, paid for the whole trip, and set up two showcases in order to attract A&R notice, hoping to land a record contract. She also signed up to audition for Jeopardy. Such a proceeding was, she felt, her only hope of ever being given the quick influx of cash she needed to pay off those oppressive debts.

McCarty didn't make it to Jeopardy: Believe it or not, she was stumped on the practice quiz by a question whose answer was "Who is Celine Dion?" And no A&R dude walked up to her and offered her a recording contract either--although a bearded and bespectacled former rock critic came up to her shyly to rave about her music, confessing at the very end of the conversation that his name was Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

But unlike most deluded musicians who set up showcases in L.A. hoping for what ain't there, McCarty did--and still does--have some interest in her. After Glass Eye broke up in 1992, having released two EPs and three albums (including 1988's Bent by Nature and 1989's Hello Young Lovers, both still in print), she recorded a solo album called Dead Dog's Eyeball. The Hoboken, New Jersey-based indie Bar/None, Glass Eye's home, released it in 1994. The disc--and the subsequent Sorry Entertainer EP--contained nothing but covers of Daniel Johnston songs, and it received massive, universal acclaim from every possible quarter and was on nearly every critic's Top Ten list of the year.

In 1995, thanks in part to the buzz generated by that album, Geffen gave her a $5,000 demo deal, but never took up the option. Today, McCarty's still up for grabs, despite the fact that, in the interim, Lillith Fairies such as Paula Cole, Jewel, and Alanis Morissette have carved a huge sales-swath in a formerly hostile music industry.

Some people around McCarty attribute her lack of success to fear of failure, or self-sabotage. But McCarty denies that. "It's easy to look at almost any behavior and call it self-sabotaging if it didn't work," she says. "What I mean is, if I had gotten a record deal out of Dead Dog's Eyeball, then it would have seemed like a good move to make. But since I didn't, then maybe it was self-sabotaging of me to do a record of someone else's songs."

Locale--along with lack of personal income--is another detriment to McCarty's career progress. Glass Eye went into debt trying to stay on the road long enough to get popular, and McCarty is not willing to repeat that experiment, since few artists have fewer personal resources than she does. McCarty's family consists of her mother and a mentally ill brother, whose needs are a more important financial drain on the family's meager resources.

Still, given the plethora of folky female singer-songwriters in today's music world, Kathy McCarty's continued musical obscurity is so very puzzling. With her intense feminine perspective, fabulous voice, cred-ridden past, and acclaimed media profile, she would seem like a natural choice for a label to back. She writes complicated, deep songs, with pretty, folky melodies and weird twists and angles and fabulous imagery--the kind of stuff that haunts you and makes you hum and think at the same time. And McCarty is also a great and utterly unself-conscious performer: impassioned, charming, and likable, but not in any sense vain or perky.

I should add here that McCarty is one of my dearest friends. But I can't believe that's coloring my judgment of her music, not when I see the rabid faces of her fans, or read things other writers have said about her. And certainly not when I go to Austin each year for South by Southwest, attend her annual showcases there, and am once again reminded of her genius.

Currently, South by Southwest is one of the few places that an out-of-towner like me will ever see McCarty perform. She doesn't even play Austin, much less out of town. She doesn't even sell tapes at her rare shows, leaving audiences to enjoy only the echoes. Fact is, she can't afford to dupe the seven-song cassette she recorded from 1997 to '98, nor does she have much interest in finishing the half-recorded album Glass Eye abandoned in 1992. She wants to move forward, not keep looking back at what was, what should have been.

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