It Ain't Over Till It's Over: From Comedy to Country
One of the reasons I started my website, Marlothomas.com, is that I wanted a place for women (including me!) to come together and dream. Women should know that they don’t have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them – that there is always time to start a new dream. In that spirit, I’m so excited to introduce a new series called It Ain’t Over, profiling women who have pursued -- and fulfilled -- their dreams and passions, no matter what their age or circumstances. I find these stories endlessly inspiring. I hope you do too.
By Lori Weiss
There are some in Hollywood who might call it a minor miracle. Tracy Newman broke into the testosterone-charged writing rooms of television comedy at the age of 46 -- an accomplishment that doesn’t go unnoticed in a business that’s said to age out at 30. But it was the moment she walked out onto the Kodak Theatre stage, to accept an Emmy for her work on the ground-breaking “coming out” episode of Ellen, that she realized the world was at her fingertips.
Yet still, as she took her place in the spotlight at Kulak’s Woodshed, a 49-seat listening room in North Hollywood, she felt herself shaking.
“To go from a situation where people are doing things for you-- people are taking care of you,” Tracy recalls, “to being on stage, singing in coffee houses -- well, you can’t say, 'You’re gonna like this, cause I had this hit TV show.'”
At 63, Tracy was picking up where she left off in the 70’s, when she put down her guitar, walked away from the career she was building in the music industry and took a job teaching nursery school.
“It all became too heartbreaking,” she says. “I had great opportunities in the 60’s, and when you’re young, you think the opportunities will always be there. They dwindled because I didn’t know how to take advantage of them.”
Tracy had begun singing and playing guitar as a teenager-- dropping out of college in Tucson, Arizona, to play on street corners -- until her mother dragged her home and quickly introduced her to a psychiatrist.
“He was an older man in a business suit and I was a girl from Beverly Hills who wanted to be a folk singer. I never told my mother, but he’d fall asleep in my sessions.”
Undeterred by the sleepy shrink, Tracy continued to sing. She went on to perform with the Christy Minstrels, appeared as a solo artist on the Tonight show and eventually published more than fifty songs.
“EMI owns those songs now,” she says with regret. "I signed a bad deal. A lot of artists in the late 60’s and early 70’s made a lot of bad decisions. We saw that the money was in the writing, but we signed our rights away. I just couldn’t figure out how to make a living making music.”
So instead of singing on stage, Tracy sang to her young students and, in her spare time, joined a fledgling improvisation class, where her classmates were Craig T. Nelson, Pat Morita and her sister, Laraine Newman, who went on to become a big star on Saturday Night Live. Eventually the group became better known as The Groundlings – the jumping off point for some of the most famous comedians in the world. And that's where Tracy met Jonathan Stark, the man who would become her writing partner.
“Someone at Cheers suggested that Jonathan write a spec script, and he asked me to do it with him," says Tracy. "Writing always came easily to me and Jonathan was fun, so I thought I’d give it a try. They didn’t hire us based on that first script -- but we submitted another one a year later, and that’s when we got hired. Getting that call was second only to having my daughter.”
One year at Cheers led to two seasons with Bob Newhart, another as consultants on The Nanny, a long run with Ellen Degeneres and, ultimately, a development deal with Disney, which led them to create According To Jim. But for Tracy, the songs always continued to play in the background.
“Even when I was working in television,” she says, “if we needed a song for the show, I’d write it. The day after I left According To Jim, I was in Nashville taking a class. I was done with TV, but I never really gave up on the music.
“I went back to writing songs with the same detailed care I gave my television scripts. But it didn’t come easily to me. I didn’t write a song completely for a year. I wanted the listener to be rewarded in the same way as when you watched a good sitcom.” Meanwhile, Tracy continued to look for inspiration in the same place she found it during her television career -- the world around her, which is something she suggests every writer should do.
“The best advice I can give anyone is to write what you know,” she says with a satisfied smile. “I was in a class and the instructor told us to write a song about what makes a relationship work. All I could think about was my own relationship at the time -- and the only reason it worked was because we never talked! So it turned out to be a funny song, which is good, because sometimes you need that when you’re on stage.”
That song, Fire Up The Weed, went on to win first place in the special music category of the 12th Annual Great American Song Contest. Tracy then recorded a CD, appropriately named A Place In The Sun. And now she’s considering going out on tour with her band, The Reinforcements.
“You’ve got to keep setting goals" she says. "I’d love to be at the Country Music Awards performing. The internet has made this a pioneering time for music -- you can become a star in fifteen minutes by putting up a song on YouTube. In times like these, people like me can break through.
“I look at myself, going back to songwriting at 63 -- and I think,This is who I am and what I want to be. And I’m having the time of my life.”
Tracy Newman was recently honored by American Songwriter Magazine for her song "Table Nine." You can learn more about her music and career at TracyNewman.com. Her CD, "A Place In The Sun" can be purchased at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tracynewman.
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