Dan Hubbard is a singer-songwriter out of Bloomington who has been at this whole rock-and-roll business for 10 years. This practically makes him a grandfather in music terms; either you and your band and your music career fizzles out in a couple of years or you capital-M Make It and make gobs of money until you get old and fat and your music sucks and your tours are nothing more than nostalgic circle jerks.
Dan Hubbard is neither of these: he’s among a rare breed of workmen who have been putting out records, wearing down tour van tires, and slogging their way through the bars and clubs of this great nation for longer than most of us have been able to hold down a single job. He epitomizes the working musician, and on September 24 he released Livin’ in the Heartland, an acoustic album that forgoes his usual alt-country crunch and instead stretches its legs out on the front porch with a pitcher of lemonade, thinking about what makes life, and this state we call home, so great.
He told me the album was a milepost of sorts, a celebration of a 10-year career as a musician, a chance to look back and reflect on how he got to where he was and what he values in his life. I spoke with him on the phone a few days ago as he was preparing to play in Champaign as part of his record release tour.
Smile Politely: You guys come to Champaign quite often.
Yeah, almost five years ago I started coming to Champaign, I started coming to Bentley’s, because they would have me, and they let me keep coming back and building up a following and I knew a few people there and so it was cool that they let me keep coming back even though I didn’t have a draw… I continued it at Memphis on Main where I’m doing this release show… I’m expecting all the people that were there from the beginning to be there.
SP: Yeah, Champaign seems to be really proud of its homegrown and local acts.
Dan Hubbard: Yeah, I’ve felt that Champaign has stuck to me from the start; it seems like a pretty cool place with good people and they appreciate their music.
SP: It seems like you’ve had to pretty work pretty hard… you’ve been doing this for what, ten years?
Hubbard: 10 years, yeah, I released my first record ten years ago almost exactly to the day, so it’s been definitely a period of reflection and it’s grown… from playing in my first bar… I’ve learned so much, and I feel like I’ve been able to become a great artist and people in the Midwest have supported that and have been there when I was starting that and crafting it, and they stuck around until I got good.
SP: How much do you feel that your business skills have improved, trying to get the word about yourself out there?
Hubbard: That has improved more than my playing. It’s been… something I never really wanted to focus on. My first thought was “if I just start a band, then I’m gonna make it. I just gotta play, that’s all I gotta do.” But especially with a family now, you have to do everything yourself, so I book and I promote and I’m constantly emailing people and radio stations and just trying to get my name out there and it all starts with grassroots; you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to meet people and you’ve got to be like “where should I be playing?” and you’ve got to build a following one fan at a time. I’ve done that and it’s been a really long process and it’s not anywhere close to being done but it’s also really rewarding when you’ve put the work in it in these different cities and you see it start to pay off.
SP: I think that’s good advice for artists who are starting out, because I bet the majority of people are like “Oh yeah, all I have to do is play and start a band and everything is going to roll in.”
Hubbard: Yeah, and there’s a billion bands out there now so you have to separate yourself somehow, even though your stuff’s out there for the world to hear but you’ve got to get it to them still; you’ve got to give them a reason to listen. I think it’s so hard; if you look at it from a fan’s perspective: if someone tells their friend “Hey, I know this really great musician who’s playing tonight,” it’s really hard to convince your friend to come and see this guy that they’ve never heard of, because it would be hard to convince me, honestly; I would be like “Yeah, right, he sucks.” So when it does actually happen, when people come out and they’ve never heard you before and they like you, it’s like a little miracle because you know how hard that is, for you just to like another artist.
SP: What is the heartland, in your opinion?
Hubbard: Well, it’s a couple different things. I consider it the Midwest, as in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, and… Kansas. It’s that, but it’s also like right here in the middle of Illinois, and I’m thinking of the Midwest and I’m also thinking of what people on the East and West coast think of people in the Midwest; there’re some people who think there’s not anything going on here, and if you want to be somebody you should be on one of the coasts, and to me, I’m like no, this is the heart of everything. And I believe that there are people who appreciate music everywhere and can make it from anywhere.
SP: You wear your Midwest roots on your sleeve. Do you see yourself as trying to explain the Midwest to people? How do you see yourself in relation to being a musician in the Midwest?
Hubbard: Well that’s what inspired this whole record: I was playing at a bar here in my hometown [of Bloomington, IL], and it’s near an airport, so there’re people in from all over the country, and there’s this guy from California, and I get done playing and he goes “Man, you’re great!” and then he goes, “What the hell are you doing here?”… It got me thinking, well, one, it’s family, and it’s also that I wanted to show… that Illinois or the Midwest can be really beautiful, like especially in the fall, which we’re in, and… I wrote [the new record] in the fall, so I just think that Illinois in the fall, and the Midwest in the fall is one of the best seasons around, and I wanted to show that too, and also to just say, “Who do you think you are, saying that all these people who live in the Midwest don’t know anything?” I mean, that’s basically what I feel like he’s saying. I try to respect everybody, no matter where they live, and there’s a lot of good people here, so why would you say something like that?
SP: What is the American dream to you?
Hubbard: Oh, man. Well, I’ve been really lucky to do what I love, so I would love to be the guy from Normal, IL who made it, but I also kind of have that blue-collar attitude where I also just want to be able to work, I want to be able to do this job and work hard at it and make a living and help support my family. It’s all we can really ask for, although you can’t help but have bigger dreams and be envious and jealous of people who have made it huge. But to me it’s always been being able to do what you love; if you can do that I feel like you’re a success.
SP: Who’s the female singer on your new album?
Hubbard: That’s Natalie Bratcher. She’s not a professional, she’s just a friend, I had all musicians play on this from Illinois if I could. She lives up in Chicago… she’s just a friend but she has sung in bands back when in she was in college; she just has a beautiful voice so she was my first call when I needed a female vocalist.
SP: And then of course your children make a guest appearance.
Hubbard: Yeah, I definitely wanted to let people in a little bit, and give them a glimpse into my home life and obviously they’re a huge part of it.
SP: How old were you when you gave your very first show?
Hubbard: I was in high school, I was 16 when did my first show. It was in my high school, it was called Pioneerpalooza and my band [was called] the Apology Note, and my mom tells me this story all the time because we had made a little CD and it was terrible, but we made this whole CD and we got done with the show and people are lining up to buy our CD and I’m signing autographs and stuff and my mom was at the show and she said that she could see in my eyes that this was something I was going to continue. I was… just kind of doing it for fun, but afterward I was like “oh yeah, this is pretty cool.”
Dan Hubbard plays this Friday, October 11, from 6-8 p.m. at Memphis on Main.