With an A-list of television writing credits from “Cheers,” “Bob Newhart,” “The Nanny,” and the “Drew Carey Show,” script writer Tracy Newman further gilded her resume with an Emmy and Peabody awards for the coming out episode starring Ellen DeGeneres in 1997.
Not only did Newman’s scripts bend gender barriers with barbs such as “men are funny to get women, women are pretty to get men,” but she stepped over age barriers with her major breakthrough coming at 46, a feat in a milieu notorious for scrapping writers after 35. Her Hollywood career, which began after the birth of her daughter Charlotte in 1982, took off with her re-entry into television with “Cheers,” renewed for another 16 years.
And then, at the top of her game, Newman chucked it all to live the dream she envisioned for herself as a teenager in the 1960s: writing and playing music. Today, she takes delight in seeing the reaction of young admirers when she confesses her first job success came at 46. “They are so happy, some are ready to cry knowing that they don’t have to do it all in their 20s,” said Newman, who quit television seven years ago for gigs in coffeehouses where she sings her own songs.
Next Tuesday night, Jan. 10, Newman and her band The Re-enforcements are featured guests of singer-songwriter Beth Fitchet Wood’s Songwriters’ Showcase, held every Tuesday at the Marine Room from 8-11 p.m. Band members include Gene Lippman, Rebecca Leigh, John Cartwright, John O’Kennedy and Dough Knoll.
Newman, 69, who has performed in Laguna Beach before, looks forward to backing Wood, who usually performs her own work, both new tunes and standards.
“It’s a more contemplative atmosphere. People come to listen, to be engaged, more than be entertained,” said Wood. “It’s not as loud as the rock nights,” she said.
Like Newman, Wood, 62, began writing later in life, at 35 when music that accumulated in her head wanted to be written.
Newman and Wood, along with their acoustic music peers, are both part of folk music history and an emerging trend among young bands veering away from synthesized sound. Folk inspired bands in the U.S. and Europe reflect that a genre that appeared dead instead has fragmented into contemporary niches: folk punk, social commentary folk rock and folk performance rock, such as Portland’s Decemberists.
Early folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, who wrote songs about unions, migrants and the first Great Depression, became torchbearers for ‘60s era antiwar protestors. Today’s folkies, rather than pen the anthem of the Occupy movement, address sundry absurdities of contemporary life.
Ellen Chase Harper, owner of Claremont’s Folk Music Center, says the genre is timeless. Her store’s customers reflect that dichotomy. “We have old folkies coming in and young people perhaps saturated by electronic music,” said Harper, whose shop offers lessons in playing vintage folk instruments.
“People are becoming aware that events shape music but that music can also shape events,” she said.
Even so, Newman cautions that acoustic folk tunes, whose lyrics are drawn from personal feelings and perceptions, remain a hard economic road for musicians of any age. She performs in Los Angeles several nights a week, drawing audiences of 50 or 60 people, she said.
At the Marine Room, for example, Tuesday night musicians work for tips alone, but most cherish the community the shows generates, said Wood, who plays 45 minute sets that are followed by a 30-minute set by the featured guest. “It’s hard to make a living if you play your own compositions,” she said.
Newman has yet to find the same success she experienced in television. “I have secured my future financially through television, but I was still insecure and scared when I first started,” she said. “I chose to play places where people were just starting out or returning to music and audiences were fascinated,” said Newman, whose first stage experience took place during her college years, but off campus.
She cut classes at the University of Arizona to sing as a busker on the streets of Tucson. Though bereft of formal musical training, she began playing clubs and coffeehouses in New York. There, a writing career crept upon her in-between performing and doing re-writes with The Groundlings, a comedy group featured on “Saturday Night Live.”
Newman’s career arc could serve as a contemporary twist on a folk refrain: music that led her to a sparkling land is luring her away again.