Last year, Volunteer Gardener, one of NPT’s most beloved series, underwent a little facelift, with new intro graphics and a new theme song. The job of composing the theme music went to our own Joe DelMerico, who although his job title is “Web Developer,” is (first and foremost) a talented guitarist and BMI-affiliated composer who also does voice-over work and the occasional audio engineering for NPT. How he got the gig composing the theme, and his thought-process as he worked on the project, is a great example of how songwriters and musicians can find opportunities in their own backyards to continue their creative work and add to their musical resumes.
We caught up with Joe to ask him about recording the Volunteer Gardener theme and what else is going on in his music career.
How were you approached on working on the Volunteer Gardener Theme?
Greta Requierme, the producer for Volunteer Gardener, had been aware of my history as a guitar player and my involvement in music production in Nashville and in New York. She heard a CD of a Nashville songwriter named Butch Turner that I played acoustic guitar on and also mixed that included Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and one of the last known recordings of the late Roy Huskey, Jr. She really loved the recording and thought I’d be a good choice for her new VG theme music.
It’s an immensely popular show, and really one of the NPT icons along with Tennessee Crossroads and A Word on Words. Were you concerned that your music might not appeal to the show’s long-time viewers?
Yea, there’s always that underlying concern if something new and unfamiliar will catch on quickly and be accepted by the loyal viewers, especially for the Volunteer Gardener theme that’s been played for so many years and is so familiar. But I feel that people take to a refreshing change if it’s appealing to them. Unlike pop music, television theme music has to enhance visuals, sound great and catch on quickly in order to be effective. From some of the feedback that I’ve heard so far, I think the new Volunteer Gardener theme has accomplished this and has quickly become a pleasing and familiar sound for the show.
Were you and Greta concerned at all about VG’s image was being changed?
Greta was very excited about the idea of updating the image of the show with minimal restrictions which made me feel that I had a lot of room to really create something contemporary and original. My wife Chris, being a gardener and a musician herself, made me aware of the fact that when someone is gardening it’s really a peaceful and spiritual time and a theme for a gardening show should reflect that feeling and emotion.
What kind of tips and suggestions were you given in terms of a sound and feel?
Greta simply said “I’d like something airy and soothing – whatever you think”, which is not common especially for thematic material. Usually there’s somebody trying to communicate something to you before you even write the first note which is pretty normal but can definitely be restrictive.So as a result, Greta loved the first thing I did! So I think there is a real value in letting the creative person do their thing first and revise later. I believe it saves time and you usually get a better result as well.
Did you have the opening graphic and credits already before you started working?
Yes, I had opening and closing Quicktime graphics from the show’s graphic artist named James Stevens that had a very peaceful and soothing quality that were perfect for a gardening show. It was a natural marriage of music and visuals that didn’t really require a lot of inspirational searching – it all just kind of fell into place. Sometimes it’s not that simple but I do love the challenge of creating music and sound for visuals no matter how complex. It’s so much fun to see and hear the outcome.
Is this the first time you’ve scored something?
This is the first professional TV theme that I’ve been involved with but I did write a song called “Eat Good Food” for an NPT Outreach TV spot on good nutritional habits for children. I wrote, recorded and mixed the song at my home studio and then the producer, Nancy Nikolai, had six kids sing the chorus part together. It’s played during children’s programming on NPT during the day. I also recorded a revised version of the NPT station ID music.
As a musician, is scoring something a new challenge?
The whole piece evolved and took shape on its own by not trying to pre-determine every decision. All I knew was that it needed to be peaceful and soothing with a light suggestion of a melody. It’s catchy and subtle at the same time.The combination of technology and creativity is definitely a high wire act. The composing part, thankfully, comes very naturally to me.
Do you want to do more?
I’m absolutely looking forward to many more projects.
Is it common at Public Television stations for the Web Developer to also do voiceover work and score a show? Or is that one of the benefits of working in Public Television that you can wear many hats and get more involved.
I don’t think it’s common at all for Public Television stations to have so much available to them, but thanks to NPT I’ve been exposed to all of these cool things and I feel blessed to have all these opportunities to utilize my talents. I feel very lucky to be able to do what I’m really good at! Not common at all. Ironically, NPT has the curse of having an abundance of talent. Many people here are multi-talented. This is Nashville after all!
What else are you working on, musically, right now?
I just finished a record with a New York songwriter named Guy Lesser that was produced by Mike Rathke who’s a guitar player and producer for the Lou Reed Band. It features Rob Wasserman on bass, Tony “Thunder” Smith on drums, Fernando Saunders on bass and me on electric guitar, steel guitar and mandolin. What is so incredible about this record is the fact that we did the whole thing outside of the conventional recording studio scenario. We all exchanged files with a computer file sharing application, recorded individual parts, and then sent them to Tim Latham who’s the mix engineer up in Long Island. This way of working proved to be really successful and the record sounds phenomenal!
There’s also a record currently in production that’s being produced by Mike Rathke called “The Woody Guthrie Project” that’s based on the very intimate journal-style writings of Woody Guthrie. Several years ago, while Rob was performing in a tribute to Robert Johnson with Bob Weir at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was approached by Woody’s daughter Nora, who asked him to create a project using Woody’s words that were written while he lived in Coney Island in the late 40’s.
So far the record includes Lou Reed (”The Debt I Owe”), Michael Franti (”Union Love Juice”) and Ani DiFranco (”Voice”). All three songs are placed in a very intimate setting, played and recorded “live”. None of these pieces were written in song form. The musicians involved are collaborating on setting the words to music in varying ways and there will be seven more artists invited to participate in the project. I’m really looking forward to getting involved as a side man on this project!
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Volunteer Gardener airs Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. on NPT-Channel 8. Check local listings for broadcast times on WKNO in Memphis, WLJT in Martin, Etptv (WKOP – Knoxville) and WCTE in Cookeville.