Very few great artists burst fully formed onto the scene. Most have served time woodshedding their craft by apprenticing with a mentor. In the past this meant literally working under the direct tutelage of a master of the craft. It’s a well known fact that some of the work originally attributed to Renaissance masters was actually created or contributed to by apprentices in their studios. The Guild system of master/apprentice has existed for centuries to ensure the passing on of skills from one generation to the next.
Many of the greats followed this path either formally or from a distance:
The Nobel Prize winning writer Samuel Beckett served as James Joyce’s secretary and was, for a time, ridiculed for imitating him in his writing style and even how he dressed.
Hank Williams credited the largely unknown black bluesman Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne for his rapid stylistic development commenting, ”All the music training I ever had was from him.” He also admitted to combining the vocal stylings of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Jimmie Rogers to create his own distinctive vocal technique and sound.
Bob Dylan worshipped Woody Guthrie and borrowed heavily from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s style and technique in the very early part of his career. He, too, was initially ridiculed for so closely emulating his mentors.
Nowadays, working directly with a mentor—especially one from the top echelons of the craft—is pretty much out of the question. That said, there is a time-honored approach that I can unequivocally vouch for—because it’s how I learned.
Steve Earle and Me
Steve Earle was my mentor when I was first starting out. But don’t ask him about it. He’s never heard of me.
Early on in my career, Steve Earle was a huge influence. So much so, that when I was first showing up on the local music scene playing open mics and cafe gigs, I was often referred to as “Oh, you mean that guy who sounds like Steve Earle?” And I still get that from time to time: “You remind me of Steve Earle.” I take it as a compliment.
My approach to turning Steve Earle—without his knowledge—into my personal songwriting mentor was simple: I studied just about all the songs he’d written, learned how to sing and play them “just like the record,” took some of those songs onstage, began to mess with them to give them my own spin, and then began to write some of my own “in the style of…”
In time, my own style and voice asserted itself. As my experience and confidence grew, so my own sound emerged. This last step of finding your own voice and style is critically important, particularly if you apprentice yourself to a mentor. You must cut the cord.