Singing praises

A few years back, local musician David LaMotte would often come home to answering-machine messages from friend (and then-frequent touring partner) Shawn Mullins. The Atlanta singer/songwriter would intentionally mispronounce LaMotte’s last name, as if the Black Mountain-based folk musician were the son on the old TV sitcom Sanford and Son.

“Lamont!” Mullins would yell, in character as Redd Foxx. “Get in here, ya big dummy!”

All joking aside, in professional music circles, you need people to get your name right — and then remember it. If radio personnel recognize you, maybe, just maybe, they’ll spin your CD; if your name doesn’t ring a bell, good luck getting a return phone call from the jaded label exec.

LaMotte, a shrewd navigator in carving out a decade-plus-long career as a performer, has focused much attention on ways to build lasting leverage for his name. So, earlier this year, he sent in several songs for consideration to the USA Songwriting Competition, which announced its winners on Dec. 5 — though by then, says LaMotte, he’d just about forgotten about having entered.

The title song to his S.S. Bathtub — the tale of kid who imagines his tub is a boat out on the high seas — took first place in the contest’s children’s category. His “grownups” song “Lens Cap,” which uses photography as a metaphor for love and loss, was tapped as a runner-up in the folk category.

Rob Reinhart, producer of the popular public-radio program “Acoustic Cafe,” rates the USA Songwriting Competition, which he helped judge again this year, as among the biggest of its kind.

“You figure if they get about 30,000-plus entries a year at $30 a crack, that’s a million dollars in entry fees that they’ve got going,” Reinhart notes.

Then there are the high-dollar sponsorships — Borders Books, Guild Guitars, D’Addario Strings and many others.

LaMotte’s combined award, he figures, will come to about $800 in cash and $1,500 worth of “toys.”

And the money’s nice, sure, he concedes. But that’s not why he entered the competition.

“It’s just so affirming when people that you don’t know — who have never seen you [perform] and whose perceptions are not colored by any personal or political leanings — hear a song and decide that it’s worthy,” LaMotte muses.

But beyond personal gratification, he adds, a contest win is a stamp of legitimacy that a musician can point to when dealing with radio-station programmers, club owners, label representatives and their ilk.

“It’s a nice card to have in my hand,” says LaMotte. “But it’s not a hand [all by itself].”

And though he’s pleased his kids’ music was recognized — LaMotte is now collaborating on a children’s book with local illustrator Carrie Patterson — it’s the folk-music award he’s proudest of.

More than most acoustic performers today, Lamotte embodies what folk music used to mean.

His songwriting, like that of close friend and frequent collaborator Chris Rosser, is decidedly out of step with the postmodern, cynicism-is-life school, embracing instead such un-hip concepts as hope and kindness, friendship and faith. In concert, Lamotte radiates calm; it’s not uncommon to hear audiences discussing how his shows bring peace.

And, all spiffy songwriting awards aside, his fans never mispronounce his name.

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