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Sharing a Crop of Tunes : The Song Farmers, a three-person writing and singing collective, savor small venues such as Le Cafe.

November 18, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart regularly writes about music for The Times.

SHERMAN OAKS — Most of us recognize Ronny Cox's face when we see it. The tall, fair-skinned actor has had featured roles in such major films as "Beverly Hills Cop," "Beverly Hills Cop II," "RoboCop," "Total Recall" and "Deliverance."

But what's not so well known about Cox is that he's also a singer-songwriter with an album out on Mercury Records. His country tunes have been described as having a modern Hoagy Carmichael feel.

Cox is a member of Song Farmers, a three-person singer-songwriter collective that also includes Wendy Waldman and Brad Parker. Waldman has written many hit songs, among them "Baby, What About You," recorded by Crystal Gayle, "Save the Best For Last" and the brand-new "The Sweetest Days." The latter two were both recorded by Vanessa Williams and co-written with Jon Lind and Phil Galdston. Parker, Waldman's husband, has composed numerous tunes that have reached semi-hit status in the country genre.

The three, who appear Tuesday at Le Cafe (and again Dec. 13), believe it's essential for people who write songs to perform them, specifically in small venues such as Le Cafe, which seats 60 to 70 people and where intimacy is a given.

"When you hear a song in a concert or on radio or in a movie, there's a big wall between you and the music," says Parker, who lives in Encino with Waldman. "When you come and sit in Le Cafe, it's like being in your living room. We're all there together and that's a more primal way of sharing. With people right next to you, there's a human exchange that's sublime. We're trying to encourage more--and big name--songwriters to do this, get back to their roots and connect with real people."

Waldman adds: "It's a way of getting back to what music is all about for us."

Song Farmers appears monthly at Le Cafe as part of the room's ongoing Acoustic Songwriter Nights. The affair is modeled after now legendary happenings at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tenn. There, beginning in 1983, such noted singer-songwriters as Don Schlitz, who wrote "The Gambler," a huge hit for Kenny Rogers, and several other composers performed. They'd arrange chairs in a circle and, with just their guitars as accompaniment, they'd sing their songs to each other and a small group of enthusiastic listeners.


"People love to know the origins of a song, how the ideas led to it, and these guys would tell a little bit about their songs," explains Cox, who lives in the San Fernando Valley.

At Le Cafe, Waldman, Parker and Cox perform with guest artists they invite. As at the Bluebird, each composer performs songs with simple guitar accompaniment. "There is no band," says Waldman. "We are the band."

The repertoire varies. Cox, who calls his tastes "eclectic," says he might "try out a new song, or take an old song and put a new spin on it." Parker, who has composed pop/rock tunes with what he calls "beat poet" lyrics, might play his originals or a country tune co-written with his wife. Waldman occasionally sings some of her earlier material--she's written about 500 songs and in the mid-1970s she recorded several of her own albums.

Though each member of Song Farmers is busy with other activities--Cox is starring in the NBC series "Sweet Justice" and Waldman is concocting songs for Clive Barker's new film, "The Thief of Always"--they make their gatherings at Le Cafe a top priority. "We do it each month religiously. I don't want to miss it," says Waldman. Adds Cox, "It's a hard, cold day when one of us isn't there."

A number of other singer-songwriter nights are popping up in the Los Angeles area, at such clubs as Highland Grounds and Genghis Cohen. Waldman sees this trend as a means for her and her fellow composers to validate the musical riches of a town that is often denigrated in comparison to Nashville or New York.

"In a sense, I feel a real obligation to myself and my community to go out there and be accessible, be seen playing music. It's healthy," she says. "For a long time, it's been fashionable to hate L.A., but I feel very proud to be an L.A. songwriter. The town is full of tough, adventurous musicians, and they've been bullied into not having any civic pride (in regard to their music). That's one of the reasons I do Song Farmers."


Who: Song Farmers.

Location: Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Price: $5 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 986-2662.

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