Interview: Mike Kuster

Could you share the story behind your latest song and what inspired its creation?

Growing up, I remember passing Frog Eye Road on the other side of the mountains from our farm. Even as a kid, I thought that was a cool name and sounded like a country music song. As I got older, I learned that there was an annual event on that road called the Frog Eye Mud Bog. WOW! If there isn’t a country song about that, someone is missing out. That stuck with me as I began writing music. In fact, it haunted me. I went back and watched videos of the event. It is the most country event I can imagine. Why isn’t that a song? While we were finishing my first album, it came to me. I wrote the majority of “Frog Eye Mud Bog” right there in the studio. I was so excited! I’ve been playing it live with my backing band since then, and we recorded it for the second album shortly after the first album dropped.

How do you approach the process of songwriting, and are there any specific themes or emotions you tend to explore in your music?

Most of the time, I’ll get a phrase or idea, like Frog Eye Mud Bog, stuck in my head. It’ll usually stew in my head for a bit while I expand on that idea. How does it fit into life? What does it mean to people? I’ll hash it out as lyrics with a basic melody in mind. Once I get there, I put it to music by choosing chords, refining the melody, and a lick or phrase that fits the mood I’m feeling with that song. It’s all very organic and just flows when I get going.

As an indie musician, how do you navigate the balance between creative freedom and commercial appeal?

Probably to my detriment, I rarely consider commercial appeal. I honestly go with what I like in music, a theme, and a story. I sure hope folks get it and like it. So far, they have. I’ve even finished a song, and thought that nobody would like it. My EP, Mountain Monsters of Maryland, was the epitome of that. I wanted to a project about the mythical monsters in the mountains I call home; it was totally for me. My producer wasn’t really sure about it, until he heard my demos. Even when it was done, I was sure it would not do well. To my surprise, it was being played all over the country and was nominated for a Washington Area Music Award and became one of the finalists for Best Country / Americana Album. It didn’t win the award, but I still can’t believe it got any airplay.

What do you find most challenging about being an independent artist in today’s music industry?

The most challenging thing about being an independent artist is getting noticed by a larger audience. I think that’s always been the challenge. Today’s technology makes it far easier for a wider audience to access our music, but it is a double edged sword. Digital streaming makes it so easy for folks to distribute their music that it is hard to stand out from the crowd. Listeners have SO MUCH music from which to choose.

Can you talk about your experiences collaborating with other artists or musicians? How does it influence your creative process?

Most of my collaboration is with the musicians in my band or in the studio. It’s great to kick around ideas. The guys in the studios in Nashville have played with so many artists that they have unparalleled tricks up their sleeves. Some songs change so much in the process of collaboration. It really makes the music so much better.

What role does technology and social media play in promoting your music and connecting with your audience?

It is impossible to overstate how important technology and social media are in today’s world of music production and audience engagement. Digital streaming services and distribution have gotten my music around the world. I’ve done interviews with radio stations in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the U.K. It is absolutely amazing to see my music playing on streaming platforms and radio stations in places like Australia.

Are there any particular artists or genres that have had a significant impact on your musical style?

Yes. I am a huge fan of traditional country music. I love the old greats like Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and the list goes on.

Randy Travis is really my favorite. I remember when his first album, Storms of Life, came out. I ran the needle through that record. So, folks like him, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, The Judds, Alan Jackson, Joe Diffie, Dwight Yoakum, and Toby Keith were all really big influences on me.

Indie musicians often have a close relationship with their fanbase. How do you engage with your fans and build a dedicated community around your music?

This is the most important thing to me, after the music. I am so humbled and appreciative of the folks who enjoy my music enough to stream, purchase, share, and follow me. I try to respond to every comment and message. During live shows, I really want to make a connection with every person in the room. I do my best to take requests and even have folks come up and sing with me sometimes. I wouldn’t be able to make my music and share it without their continued and growing support.

Could you describe a memorable live performance experience or tour that has had a lasting impact on you and your music?

We played at the Adams Morgan Porch Festival in Washington, D.C. It was amazing on so many levels. I was born in D.C. So, it was like a homecoming, but I wasn’t sure how receptive the audience was going to be of my music. Thankfully, they really seemed to be enjoying my “Honky Tonkin’ Good Time Show”. A few songs into our set, I noticed police cars, but wasn’t sure what it was. There were twenty-something year olds dancing in the streets, weed was filling the air, and we were having a blast. The next day, a photographer sent me photos of the police blocking the street captioned, “Metropolitan Police Department had to move the crowd back on Lanier Place as Mike Kuster and The Catoctin Cowboys had them dancing in the street.” The photos and videos from all of those people partying with us was amazing. That is what I want my music to do!

In an era of streaming platforms, how do you feel about the changing landscape of music consumption and its impact on independent musicians?

The era of streaming is great for wider consumption of music by independent musicians. You can see it in independent artists climbing from social media to large venues. It goes back to that double-edged sword, though. Streaming services do not pay artists enough, and consumers’ cheap access to music leads to what I fear is a de-valuing of music. There is a nearly endless supply of music available for free or the cost of a single CD. That impacts the creators in real and impactful ways. It costs a lot to produce good music. Those of us producing the music need fans to purchase the music, because streaming does not pay enough to make the music. So, I always encourage fans to purchase the music, digitally or physically, when they find music they love.