No genre of music ever actually dies—though disco came pretty close.
Instead, genres like swing, folk and disco trail off into near obscurity. Only genre heavyweights, diehard fans, and late-coming new artists are left to keep it on life support until a resurgence can be forged. Look no further than the hyper comeback of bluegrass for proof that it happens.
Currently, one of those struggling genres is the sunny folk-reggae sound made popular in the early 2000s by artists like Jack Johnson. And one of those late-coming new artists attempting to carve out a bit of what's left for himself is former Bend, now L.A.-singer Franchot Tone. His first step in doing so is the release of his debut album Thanks for This, which he will celebrate at McMenamins Old St. Francis School on Jan. 2.
I fully expect to get a ton of letters, or the 21st-century equivalent—comments online—about the claim that the Johnson style of pop rock is pushing up daisies. But realists understand that the genre isn't drawing in new fans. Johnson's last album To the Sea failed to go platinum—a first for him. And even though Matt Costa showed a ton of promise after touring with Johnson in 2005, no one even paid attention when he released his third album a couple of years ago. No one other than his fans, that is.
Tone's problem isn't that he's entirely late to the pop-reggae party, it's just that he took too long to take center stage as a solo artist. For the better part of the last decade, Tone has been contributing to other bands and artists rather than pursuing a solo career.
Not only has he collaborated with the aforementioned Johnson as well as Canada's Bedouin Soundclash, he has helped up-and-coming-artists get their moments in the sun. Case in point—his work co-writing with former Bend singer Reed Thomas Lawrence, who now records out of Nashville.
"I owe so much to Franchot for all the motivation he delivered to me," said Lawrence. "Through him, I was able to meet so many individuals that have assisted with my career. If I had not met Franchot, I would still be in Bend playing little cafes."
Though work like this meant Tone wasn't developing a singing career of his own, he still found it rewarding.
"I love being in a supportive role and helping other people realize their dreams," said Tone in a recent interview with the Source. "With Reed, we took his career to a whole new level and that was great."
Tone—who also forms one half of the reggae-inspired group Culver City Dub Collective, albeit the very shy half—eventually had the motivational role flipped on him. Several people took Tone to task on why he wasn't the guy front and center getting all the attention. One voice in particular from that group stuck out—his friend and movie producer Jimmy Cummings.
"Jimmy sat me down and insisted I start singing," said Tone. "He said every time he saw me play in a band he intuitively knew I should be the guy singing. It terrified me, but I trusted him."
While it wasn't easy for Tone to get the ball rolling, he does credit his time in Bend for helping him get over his fears.
"I started doing open mics but didn't want people to know until I saw how it went," said Tone. "The loving and accepting community in Bend made it much easier. Had I started this down in L.A. it would have been much more difficult."
And now, Tone has a debut solo album to show for his work.
Thanks for This has spry beach guitar, bouncy reggae beats, soft vocals and lovely change-of-pace horns. It's fun, lighthearted and delightful. And because of his connections as a band member and producer, it's chock full of awesome collaborators like Beastie Boys percussionist Alfredo Ortiz and Jason Mraz pianist Chris Joyner, just to name a couple.
Hey, the genre may have stalled out at acquiring new fans and being relevant in the eyes of any serious music publication. That doesn't mean Tone can't put out something worth listening to.
Tone is more than an ample steward for pop-reggae rock. He is fully capable of seeing it through to its next heyday from both the production and performing ends. Though based on his debut album, the genre might make a quicker comeback the more he stays behind the mic, front and center, in the spotlight.
Franchot Tone | CD Release Party
7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2
Old St. Francis School
700 NW Bond Street
In 2009, the then arts and culture editor for the Source Mike Bookey, wrote an article about Franchot Tone's band Culver City Dub Collective. The online version of the story inspired a lone comment from an astute observer using the moniker "Cooley." Cooley couldn't believe something had been written about a singer named Franchot Tone—a unique name to be sure—without mentioning the famous actor and star of 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty who bore the same name. There had to be a connection, claimed the commenter. Well, there is. Franchot Tone the elder is the grandfather of the younger pop-reggae singer.