Tales From the Dark Side

Troubled singer/songwriter Billy Sedlmayr teams up with guitarist Rich Hopkins for a collection of songs that chronicles a life spent on the fringes

"[Rich and I] started working up at my parents' house on the porch," says Sed, explaining the simple writing process that led to The Fifty Percenter. "I only mention that 'cause it's a nice memory for me. You know, just two acoustic guitars and looking up at the Santa Catalinas. [Hopkins] has a special style when he plays acoustic. He did some really interesting things on this that he normally doesn't do."

En route to Sed's downtown digs he asks to make two stops. The first is at the bank to cash an unemployment check. The second is a pawnshop. He enters and the employees all know his name. He counts out five twenties and receives change. A few minutes later he's walking out with the only guitar he owns. He moves wearily, with a labored effort, and the instrument seems almost heavy in his hands.

Much of Sedlmayr's life has been spent like this -- falling in and out of hock. Arguably one of the most gifted songwriters to emerge from his generation, it's unlikely that he will ever be recognized by more than a handful of people for that fact. It makes you wonder how much of his talent has been wasted, how things could have been different if his life hadn't been offered up as a sacrifice to junk and jail. Hence the paradox. It's Sedlmayr's life and struggles -- the collected experience -- that give his songs such wrenching beauty and grace.

Fifty percenters: Rich Hopkins (left) and Billy Sedlmayr.
Kim Blake
Fifty percenters: Rich Hopkins (left) and Billy Sedlmayr.

As he slowly lifts the guitar into the trunk, it's obvious that the years of abuse have left his body ravaged, and Sed tires easily these days. As his health continues to deteriorate -- the ultimate price of his excess -- it appears that Billy Sedlmayr has some more demons left to slay.

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