Six years ago, William Fitzsimmons was a graduate student who had written a few personal, heart-wrenching songs, recorded them at home with a tape player and put them on MySpace. When a rep from Los Angeles contacted him to say she'd discovered his songs and wanted to use a couple on "Grey's Anatomy," he thought it was some kind of scam.
"I like telling it as if it's some great mythic story ... success from nowhere. But it was," Fitzsimmons recalls. "I literally had a microphone dangling over my grad school books. I had no thought that this would become a career. I went into it with no expectations and pretense. I just wrote a bunch of very sad, depressing songs. I just thought it was dumb luck."
It had to be a little more than that when several more TV shows - "Brothers and Sisters," "Army Wives," "Teen Wolf," "Life of Ryan," "One Tree Hill," "Jersey Shore," to name just a few - wanted his songs.
By now the Illinois-based artist has lost count.
"I think what's happened over time is, I'm in somebody's 'sad ballad' folder on their desktop and it's just been passed around," he joked.
But one round of significant exposure leads to more sets of ears and with more ears there comes more opportunities for further exposure. Which happens to be the philosophy behind the Vilar Performing Arts Center's Underground Sound series.
Surfacing and soaring
The Underground Sound series, in its third official year, has a way of landing artists right before they get huge. And just as a testament to the series' pull, it usually has at least one ringer ... someone who is already very much above ground and has been soaring steadily for quite some time.
The names you don't recognize now, you are likely to in the near future. The beauty is that for seven weeks of an otherwise slow season, there is a masterful performance afoot at Beaver Creek, and if you buy a pass to all seven it works out to be $14 a piece ... including a drink every time.
"This is for the people who are here, who are really locals," said Vilar's Kris Sabel. "They have a little less cash in their pockets, less shifts, but they still want to see some great music. I love it. I feel really blessed that we're able to do it and that it's been well-received. We've scraped together a way to showcase these great artists and we have the perfect hall for this kind of intimate music."
When Underground Sound pass sales quadrupled last season, iconic folk star Shawn Colvin kicked off the series. Last weekend, Paula Cole kicked off this years series. Fitzsimmons performs Sunday night and next week, on Oct. 7, is an artist who truly embraces the "underground" nature of the series and of the music industry in general - Leon Redbone. Although the 63-year-old guitarist is highly recognizable in his Panama hat, shades and thick moustache and has a cult following that has spanned four decades and 15 albums, has appeared on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" numerous times, he has remained largely under the radar in recent years.
Breaking into the big time
On Oct. 14, Colorado-based South African native Gregory Alan Isakov brings the series back to the realm of up-and-coming with his rich vocals and multi-instrument folk stylings. His music has also been picked up by several high-profile entities, such as Showtime's "Californication" and also McDonald's, which approached Isakov with a large sum of money to use his tune, "Big Black Car," in a TV commercial, a request that the artist initially turned down.
"I was an organic farming horticulture student and it felt weird to me," Isakov said of the McDonald's offer. "Then we were like, what if we just did it and used the money to help this organic farming association ... so we donated all of it and it was really fun."
Isakov said he consequently received some hate mail from fans accusing him of selling out, but now that he is working on his third album (following 2009's "This Empty Northern Hemisphere," featuring Brandi Carlile and recorded at her house), he has rethought the value of spreading his art through various vessels.
"When I was a little younger I used to have strong opinions about that sort of thing," he said. "Five years ago the band was at the airport in L.A. and someone was like, 'Would you ever sell your record at a Starbucks?' and we said no way. But recently we were in Iowa and saw a Starbucks - now they've borrowed some songs from us - and it was like, 'finally some decent coffee on the road.' I realize that people are people. We're all doing our art. There's so much great music out there, however you can get it out there is amazing. I don't know how I feel about a lot of the commercial stuff. You have to laugh at yourself and take it lightly. When it comes down to it, we write songs in the kitchen and we make art and that's what we're doing. We're not trying to make a political statement. However you can get your music out there and do positive things is all you can really hope for."
More positive things in store for the Underground Sound series comes in the form of young, Fort Collins-based folk singer and ukulele-picking storyteller Danielle at the Sandwich on Oct. 21 followed by a 14-member Halloween bash with The Motet on Oct. 28 and wrapping up Nov. 4 with jazz singer Jaimee Paul, whom Sabel selected single-handedly after being blown away by her voice when she performed at the Vilar as one of Wynonna Judd's backup vocalists.
"I was in my office, I have a speaker there - all of a sudden I heard this incredible voice in sound check. I said, 'that's not Wynona.' It was this young gal with long wavy hair, with this captivating voice. I went down and talked to her," Sabel said. "She said, 'this is what I'm doing to pay the bills, but I'm a jazz singer.' By the end of the night, I booked her to come back to do a private event for my donors. They loved her."