How do you make it in the music industry as an out artist? In her own words, legendary folk musician Tret Fure chronicles her career from piano lessons to Billboard charts.
For most of my adult life, my career has too often been affected by my sexual orientation and mostly without my realization or understanding. Though it may not seem to be that important in our lives these days, it still really is. So many of us still suffer as second-class citizens, not allowed to realize our full potential because of others’ limited visions. It continues to baffle me, as it continues to touch my career and therefore my life.
Music has been my life since I was five years old. My parents purchased a used piano, which sat in our dining room by a window that looked out on our back yard. My mother was a big-band singer, and I inherited her musical talent. The day that we acquired that piano, I heard a tune on the radio. I got up and went to the piano, where I easily picked out the melody. I had an uncanny ear. My parents were both startled and delighted and immediately found me a piano teacher. Though I found lessons tedious and spent more time staring out the back-yard window than at my lessons, I was writing songs by the age of seven. My teacher was so proud of my writing, she would have me perform for her high school students. I was her little inspiration.
That same year, we moved from Iowa to Illinois. Moving the piano was an expensive proposition, one that would have cost more than the piano itself, so my parents decided to sell it and promised to purchase another when we settled in. That never happened, and I’m sure I didn’t press it, being of an age where playing baseball was as important as playing the piano.
My next musical opportunity unfolded in fourth grade when we were asked to pick instruments for music class. I migrated toward the violin, my second stringed instrument. I took to it as easily as I had to the piano, and by the sixth grade I was first chair in the high school orchestra. But another move, this time to the upper peninsula of Michigan, and poor instructors ended my interest in the violin. More important, right before we left Illinois, my oldest brother came home one day with a four-string guitar. “Mine,” I said. I took it from him and played “Red River Valley” by ear. Why that song, I don’t know, but my life-long love of the guitar started right then and there.
I started learning every folk song I could. I had to learn by ear because I didn’t know anyone else who played guitar, and there were no books in those days. This was the early 1960s. I bought every Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan album I could find and put my ear to the speaker of our old Magnavox TV/Hi-Fi combo. I’d place that needle down over and over on a particular passage to learn the chords and picking techniques of my favorite songs and players. Judy Collins was a particularly fine finger picker, and I learned most of my Travis-style picking from her. I learned everything she recorded on her first five albums, most of Joan Baez’s early work, and a lot of Dylan. I would then teach my oldest brother how to play, and together we became the local folk duo. He is six years my senior, so by fourteen and twenty, we were playing the local coffee house in Marquette, church socials, student union concerts and faculty parties at Northern Michigan University. My brother was a student at the university so we had a lot of college gigs. But by the time he was twenty-two, he left and I was on my own. I played everywhere I could, including my junior and senior proms.
I left home at 18 because I needed to take my music beyond my hometown. I was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, the farthest place I could go within the U.S. Once out there, I played everywhere I could. I had a weekly impromptu performance on Sproul Plaza, where I’d open my case for donations and make good spending money. I had a great campus following. I was amazed, not only by how playing music affected me, but also how it affected my audience. I always made sure people left with smiles on their faces. I discovered how music could change people’s demeanors and their lives.
I also played the campus coffee house, open mike at the Freight and Salvage, and gatherings in my dorm. I would hitchhike across the Bay Bridge and play the folk clubs in San Francisco as well. I discovered James Taylor and Joni Mitchell; my repertoire grew and my playing styles increased. Though I had started writing my own songs, they were not very good and I was hesitant to play them in public. I would add a few to my shows, but mostly I played folk covers. I have to say, though, that it was at a James Taylor concert in Berkeley that I realized I did want to write my own songs and I hoped I had something to say. The words of my favorite artists resonated deeply with me, and the sense that someone could say just what I was feeling was remarkable. I wanted to do that; I wanted that gift.
This was a wonderful time for me, and by the end of my freshman year, I was ready to make music my career. I was much more passionate about my music than I was about going to school. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and at the time, I didn’t feel that a degree was necessary. I thought that waiting three more years would just frustrate me. I dropped out of school and moved to New York City to find my first manager. Little did I know how challenging the music industry was.
My first week in New York City I went to Hoot Night at Gerde’s Folk City. I was determined to be discovered. When I walked in, I saw Bob Dylan sitting at the bar, and I had hopes of him hearing me and discovering my talent. Boy, was I naïve! I didn’t go on until almost 2 a.m., and by then he was long gone. But my brother was in town, and he showed up with a woman named Maggie Corey. As soon as she heard me, she announced that she should be my manager. She claimed she had contacts because she was an ex-girlfriend of James Taylor, and because she was the daughter of Professor Irwin Corey, a well-known, though eccentric, comic in the city. I decided that I would give it a try, and, after spending a very hot and humid August in New York, I decided to relocate to Los Angeles, which was the hub of the music business.
I met Maggie in LA, where she had found an apartment. I was to stay with her until things started happening in my career, and I was to have my own room. But when I arrived, there was only one bedroom, which I had to share with Maggie. The first night there, she seduced me; it was not a good time. I was confused. I disliked everything about my situation, the place I was living, the smog, Maggie, and the fact that no one really wanted to have anything to do with her in a business sense. I felt I had made a huge mistake on all fronts. My career didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
But there was a silver lining. Through Maggie, I met the women in Fanny, the first successful all-women rock-and-roll band in the 1970s. They didn’t just front the band, they were the band, and they all were amazing musicians. I was specifically taken by the guitar player, June Millington, and over the course of the next few months, we became a couple. June saved my life. I found someone I related to musically and personally. I discovered the love of a woman, and I was finally happy. I spent the next three years with June, traveling the country and the world with Fanny, taking care of her and helping out as I could with the band.
I traveled with them until the day that the keyboardist, Nicky Barklay, introduced me to Spencer Davis. Spencer was looking for an acoustic blues player for his new blues band. When he discovered I could play Lead Belly-style slide and 12-string finger picking blues and that I could sing, he hired me. I brought a great friend and bass player to him as well, and we became the Spencer Davis Trio. I don’t think he intended to hire a woman, but the group worked. We traveled quite a bit and eventually recorded an album called “Mousetrap.” I penned the single for that album.
But it wasn’t really my thing, and when Fanny’s manager heard me play and sing with Spencer, he discovered my talent and secured a record deal for me with MCA/UNI Records. It wasn’t easy in those days for a woman to get a record deal. Every label had one; that’s all they needed. Women were a novelty, not to be taken seriously. But fortunately MCA didn’t have “one” at that time. It was unbelievably insulting, but that was how it was in those days. We’ve come far.
At that time, Lowell George was a friend of mine, and he expressed an interest in producing the album. I jumped at the chance. An incredible roster of musicians played on that album, and in early 1973, “Tret Fure” was released on UNI Records.
Lowell taught me a lot about the industry. I knew it was very misogynistic, and also greedy. He taught me to hold on to my publishing, to not give my music away. He reminded me to maintain my integrity and my honor. A lot of artists, especially women, slept their way to a record deal and a career. That wasn’t me, and people knew it. They also knew I was in a relationship with a woman and that was not a deal maker.
I toured on that album, and through a producer I met in Texas, I became the opening act for such groups as the J. Geils Band, Yes, Poco and even Black Oak Arkansas, playing arenas for 20,000 people. It was a hard time because as the “walk-in” act, I had to perform while kids were coming in, mostly stoned on the drugs of the time and mostly not caring about me. But I’ll never forget one night at the Armadillo World Music Headquarters in Austin, Texas. I was performing my short set, thinking no one was listening when all of a sudden, I realized that the people in the first 10 rows were singing along. They knew my album! It turned out that a DJ in Austin played me all the time. I was on the charts there, and I had a following! You can’t imagine what that did for a 21-year old trying to make an impression.
I got a great deal of work from that album. I was on the San Francisco Billboard Charts with my single, “Catalina,” and seemed to be the next new thing. But then the then-president of MCA left the company, and all the artists he brought in were terminated; at least the ones who weren’t making the label a lot of money were. I lost my record deal, and I fired my manager. It was all connected in a sleazy way. Even worse, the outgoing president who claimed to love my work, wanting to help, took me to the house of a man whom he said could really get me a break. He had “money and clout.” What he really had was a hooker with whom he wanted me to sleep with while he watched. I walked out, my heart broken and my spirits flagging. I want to say that this was only one of many such discouraging episodes in that town. That’s a whole story in itself.
This was the way of the music business, especially in the 1970s, and though I did get another deal, made another album for United Artists, I got caught in another dissolution. United Artists Industries was owned by the Trans America Life Insurance Company, and they wanted out of the music business, only maintaining interest in the movie end of the company. As a result, my new album was never released, and though my recording’s masters were returned to me,
I couldn’t sell it to anyone else. It was considered dead.
Fortunately, around the same time, I had the opportunity to learn sound engineering, working as a second engineer for the guy who was my engineer on that album. I worked hard and became good enough to reach the first engineer level, and I worked at several major studios in LA.
I was one of the first women engineers in the country, but because I was a woman, I always had to prove myself. New clients usually couldn’t tell I was a woman from my name, so when they came in and saw me, they would absolutely blanch and look frantically around the room for the real engineer! But they always found that I knew what I was doing, and I never lost a client. In fact, I was considered an easy person to work with and knowledgeable of my craft.
There were always the advances and innuendos, but again I held my ground. Oddly, though, the owner of the studio where I worked the most made a point of letting the clients know that, not only was I a woman, I was a lesbian. I never figured out why. I actually identified as bisexual in those days, and it had nothing to do with my work anyway. I don’t know if that chased away any clients because I can’t imagine the owner would bring it up if it turned away business. I sometimes wondered if he said that to save the clients (always men) from the embarrassment of unsuccessfully trying to hit on me. It remains a mystery, but it never curbed my interest in engineering, and I felt blessed to be working in music in some fashion while waiting for the next deal. I also learned production, which led to my career as a record producer.
By the late seventies, I was getting very discouraged with the music business and with LA, having gone through many managers and many near-misses. But I did land another deal in 1978 with Pasha Records, a smaller label owned by a man with a large ego. Not only did he want to own all my publishing, he wanted me to sing his songs, not mine. His songs were all written from a man’s point of view on love, and they really didn’t suit me. I recorded a few of his songs because it was the only way I could record my own, and, in the long run, it was my songs that got all the attention. When he tried to dress me all in leather, I had enough. His songs, my publishing, and his idea of how I should look pushed me over the edge, and I walked away again.
Right after that, I hooked up with June Millington again, and we decided that I would record her music, co-produce it with her, and put it out on our own label. I really felt like I was through with LA and was looking for a way to move somewhere else and try other things. I used the studio where I worked, trading hours with the owner and giving up my wages in exchange. We started Heartsong Records and went on the road selling cassettes at our concerts.
My life really changed the day Olivia Records came into the picture. June knew the women at Olivia, and through her I met Judy Dlugacz, the president of Olivia. I sold “Heartsong,” the album, to Olivia Records, and we closed the record company that June and I had started.
June also had a working relationship and a deep friendship with Cris Williamson. She took me to meet Cris, recommending me as the engineer for her children’s album, “Lumiere.” This started a 20-year working and personal relationship that gave birth to several solo projects as well as three duo albums. I engineered and produced four of Cris’s albums, including “Meg and Cris at Carnegie Hall” and the three CDs we did together. I also released three of my own works: “Terminal Hold,” “Edges of the Heart” and “Time Turns the Moon” on Second Wave Records, which was a subsidiary of Olivia. I was doing folk-pop-rock at the time, and Second Wave accommodated that style of music.
Finding Olivia Records and women’s music was a godsend. I had known about Olivia while I was in LA but never considered it a real option. But as Olivia evolved and grew in prominence, so did the audience, and I was amazed to be able to share the stage with Cris, performing for thousands of adoring women. These were women who loved my music and loved me, just because I was a woman doing my own music and doing it well. It was a heady time and an honor to be on those stages and part of a movement that was changing so many lives. I’ll never forget it or get over it. This was what I had been waiting for. The women were so real and so excited about the music and the culture. Again, my life was saved. I had grown up with three brothers, and I had spent my twenties in LA, mostly with men. Up until that time, I really had not been in the company of women, nor did I have many deep friendships with women. This was new for me, and it brought me home to myself. I never take it for granted.
Now Olivia Records is closed, having long ago been replaced by Olivia Travel. The women’s movement has faded to a large extent, and though K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge did come out and changed the face of lesbians making music, they didn’t change the face of lesbian music. They were already successful when they came out. They had little to lose. I have always been out and have never had the chance to know that lack of onus. It still follows me.
I have a wonderful, solid following of women around the country who love my music and whose lives I have impacted. The crowds are smaller but the heart is there. But I’m still missing half my audience. Though women took my music as their own, I have never really done lesbian music. My music has always been for the world; women just knew the meaning of it. I hardly ever use pronouns, and I always try to be inclusive and sing and write from my heart, writing about the world condition and matters of love.
And I now work in the folk and women’s world. I started in folk and have returned to it. I am very well respected in the folk world, but you hardly find the folk crowd at my shows unless it is specifically a “folk” event. For some reason, men think they are not welcome. I’ve never promoted that, never implied that, but any time the press calls me a “pioneer of women’s music,” I know that the folk world won’t come. They feel they won’t be welcome. Everyone is welcome at my shows. My music is for everyone.
When I moved to Madison in 2000, I started my own record company, “Tomboy girl Records” and have released four CDs on that label, music of which I am very proud. Right now I am writing the best songs I’ve ever written. I am happier than I’ve ever been and feel very fulfilled in my work, my life and my marriage. And I plan on making music for many years to come. As long as live music remains alive, you will find me on a stage somewhere, singing the songs of my life, and possibly yours.
* Editor’s Note: Tret Fure spent quite a few years in Madison, opened a retail store named after her song/record label, and served on the Board of the New Harvest Foundation. Fure now markets her line of clothing named after her popular song, “Tomboy Girl” online. In addition, while not on the road, Tret has taught guitar lessons and songwriting individually or in workshop settings. As an experienced cook, Fure has published a cookbook, Tret’s Kitchen, which contains her own recipes. Tret currently calls Newport News, Virgina home. She still comes back to Wisconsin to visit friends and perform.