Segue 61: You Must Be Present to Win
When Damon Atkins walked into my office on the campus of Catawba College in December, 2015, the words he spoke left me speechless, a foreign state for me. “Whatever you tell me to do next, I’m going to do. I think I want to quit school now and go try to be a performer.”
I’d gotten to know Damon, a gifted and growing guitarist, pretty well. His proclamation as junior-year exams wound down put me in a perilous position with no counselor training and the start of our progressive Segue 61 music-industry connectivity program still 55 weeks away.
We talked for over an hour, during which time I treaded through a minefield of well-crafted concerns he had, until he included information that gave me my foothold to a more logical future idea than academic defection. “I know I should finish because I’ll be the first one in my family to get this kind of a college degree.” I then made my case for a compressed concept that reduced three remaining semesters to two and a December 2016 graduation, just in time for consideration into our Nashville-based Segue 61 that seemed tailor-made for his talent-level and old-soul sensibility. My relief was considerable when he agreed, exited my door with Christmas best-wishes, and disappeared down the hall.
It seems like a logical time to see how Damon’s decision is playing out in real-world terms. He completed his undergraduate requirements on schedule (a semester early). He was accepted as one of the inaugural class for Segue 61 for January and made immense creative gains during his 32 weeks of intensive engagement in the Segue 61 curriculum with the program’s roster of music-industry mentors who help mold the students’ gifts and goals toward a more informed entry into the business industry.
Through the program, Damon has forged a series of synergies with both his S61 partner group on their creative journey as well as gifted artists/talent in the marketplace not involved with the program, including Jack Pearson and Charles Treadway (if you have to look them up, you don’t need to know). And he’s performed live shows around Nashville with singer Rylie Bourne, herself a Segue 61 Year 1 graduate currently working on content for her second album. They’ve even begun touring outside Music City together, doing a series of fall dates across the Midwest and mid-South.
He’s adopted quite seriously the value of the visibility/relationship-building mantra preached by legendary bassist Michael Rhodes to generations of aspiring younger artists who come to Nashville with a big dream but not much of a clue . . . “You must be present to win.” So, he has been, damn near everywhere there was a note being played live in Music City. Absorbing everything his senses could capture.
AND so also he was . . . to begin his Segue 61 “spring break” on May 6, when he was invited on-stage mid-set at the storied Station Inn—The Carnegie Hall of Bluegrass—to join a veteran group of Nashville first-call musicians, including Segue 61 team-mentors Guthrie Trapp and Pete Abbott as well as program mentors Mike Bub and Jimmy Stewart.
Actually . . . it was mid-solo when Atkins was summoned to the stage by Trapp, a guitarist with myriad talents and tones, as well as blistering singular moments of genius, almost weekly in some live venue around town. No pressure here. Take the wheel, young man, and jump into the rolling current of this blues piece we have going. And stay in key. “What IS the key, Mike?” Atkins asked the versatile bass player Bub as he jumped onto the moving musical treadmill. He held his own.
In his nine months in Nashville, Atkins had been to the Station Inn a dozen-plus times to see a stellar array of artists in one of Nashville’s final, original canvasses for musical creativity. Though small enough to host a church canasta tournament, its stage has hosted almost every relevant acoustic star in the Nashville constellation during its 43 years, including Dolly Parton, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Reba McIntyre, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. And as it holds its own to survive the real-estate tsunami in Music City’s red-hot Gulch neighborhood, the Station Inn can add another unknown (for now) musician with unlimited hope and horizons to its list of performers: Damon Atkins.
And on Saturday morning, May 13, Atkins put on his cap and gown, and then later participated in the Catawba College graduation ceremony he was destined to attend. But he was very different from many of his music-track peers accepting their diplomas from school President Brien Lewis on that stage. His Segue 61 training to that point had accelerated Damon light-years further than he could have dreamed had he not moved to Nashville and engaged in the mentor-driven connectivity Segue 61 is providing . . . a tether that has pulled him up onto other stages of his dreams since January, including one of the most iconic anywhere in the music business exactly one week before his graduation.
It was a Graduation Day of celebration for the Atkins family, who were there in force on the Catawba College campus. Every one of them. Because Michael Rhodes is right: You must be present to win.
Read Bill Armour’s previous blog posts, “A Perfect Metaphor” and “Vision . . . Required (& Delivered).”
SEGUE 61 is a unique preparatory program in Nashville, Tennessee, that offers promising musicians, songwriters, producers/engineers, and music business hopefuls from all genres an advantage in launching their careers. The inaugural class of 10 elite students from six states began their real-world, hands-on training in early January with a roster of esteemed mentors currently active in all areas of the music industry, at Segue 61’s workshop/studio location in the creative Berry Hill community. The instructors range from Grammy-winning songwriters and producers to first-call musicians and career-crafting music business executives, as well as members of both the Songwriters and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame. Segue 61, a certificate program of Catawba College (NC), is currently accepting applications for its third class (starting January 9) now.
Nashville was chosen as the home for Segue 61 for definitive reasons: the city’s density of music industry activity is currently 20 to 30 times as great as that in New York and Los Angeles and the core employment in Nashville’s music industry [per 1,000 population/1,000 total employment] (4.19) and earning quotient (4.30) exceeds all other U.S cities including Los Angeles [1.61] and New York [1.13] by 2.5 to 4 times. Two years of focus group interviews with a myriad of Nashville influencers—as well as with young graduates struggling to establish themselves in the field—produced a consensus calling for a new form of practical career preparation:
- Many of those trying to enter the music industry lack the essential soft skills of communication, teamwork, problem-solving, professionalism, and tenacity.
- Gaining “street smarts” can take a heavy toll as individuals make costly mistakes that could have been avoided through proper mentoring.
- Gaps in job preparation are often found among university graduates who have studied popular music, engineering/production, and music business.
Segue 61 is distinct from, but complementary to, other higher education programs when it comes to addressing this instructional void. “Segue 61 is exactly the kind of program that I used to dream about experiencing when I was growing up studying music,” said Warner Brothers recording artist and Segue 61 mentor Charlie Worsham. “It doesn’t just rattle off a bunch of tips and facts for you to figure out on your own as you are launched into real-world business. Segue 61 integrates the same kind of true-to-form scenarios in which you find yourself when you move to Nashville. It also happens to be perfectly and uniquely crafted for the music industry of Nashville, centering its focus on the men and women who make the wheels go ’round every corner of the business here. You won’t find this opportunity anywhere else.”
Bill Armour is a member of the Give a Note Foundation Board.
Bill currently serves as Special Assistant to the President at Catawba College, a small private school in Salisbury, North Carolina, with an aggressive popular & traditional music curriculum. He also serves as Executive Director for Segue 61, a unique preparatory program based in Nashville, Tennessee, that offers promising musicians, songwriters, producers/engineers, and music business hopefuls from all music genres an advantage in accelerating their careers through a mentor-driven eight-month curricular structure. The program launched in January 2017 in its studio/workshop complex in the Berry Hill area of Nashville.