Aaaaaaaaaand, we’re off….again! Judging by the time we spend on the road, you’d think we actually ENJOYED it. Oh wait…we DO!!! So, why Montana in the middle of Winter (an extremely MILD Winter at that) you ask? Well, a brief history.
Last January, Jared and I had the opportunity to audition for a wonderful consortium called MPAC. Essentially, representatives from various performing arts centers and arts council boards from all over Montana come to this conference once a year and provide the opportunity for artists to showcase their acts. They then decide if the act would be a good fit for their community, and bring the artist’s information back to their full boards to discuss. If they like the act, and feel that there would be a place for it in their season, they will then make a monetary bid, based on the artist’s price quotes, in exchange for a show for the community and an “outreach” presentation. Someone from the arts board will “sponsor” the artist by offering lodging and possibly meals. It’s a pretty cool opportunity, and we were grateful to have learned about it from our dear friends, Ray Hayden and Jessica Lynne Witty.
So, we did our audition last January, as I said, and before we had even driven out of Montana, we already had several offers! As the months rolled by, more offers would trickle in. Even though all the offers were for the coldest months of the year (potentially), this would provide us with more work and financial stability than any previous Winter! We were really excited!
The first on the docket for this year was in Eureka, MT. Our hosts were Bob and Dawn, and boy, were we lucky to meet them! They not only were they extremely happy to have us, super kind, generous, amazing cooks, and huge supporters of our mission and message, they also had a house with THIS view…and a hot tub that we were “forced” to enjoy two nights in a row.
Our first event for this stop was a double school mixer concert for K-8th graders. Two schools combined and it was barely eighty kids. We did about forty minutes of music, sharing a lot about our instruments, sound gear, effect pedals, the song writing process and meanings behind them, and general stuff about us as Jared and Jessi, as well as Champagne Sunday. Then we opened up the floor for possibly the cutest QnA session ever. Some of the older kids were generally interested in the process, music, songs, gear, etc, but so many of the little kids just wanted to raise their hands to let us know how much they loved our hair, clothes, voices, and playing. They were respectful and kind and cheered so loud and couldn’t wait to get up afterwards and give us hugs and see our stuff up close. It was really a humbling and incredible experience that we were honored to be selected for and trusted with.
Understanding the quaintness of these towns is essential to this blog. First off, it is imperative that the arts continue in these communities. These are predominantly (from what we’ve seen so far) agriculture and sport schools, which is great, but there are a lot of kiddos that find their strengths are in more artistic areas, and some of them feel like there is no place for them. When these art boards get together to bring in new acts that bring life and music into these small towns, it does so much more than “entertain” the people. It provides hope. It caters to the kids and people who maybe feel stuck or lost, and it shows them that ANYBODY can make music and create art, AND how ESSENTIAL it is for a good balance in life. The joy in the school that day was absolutely palpable. If this is what the whole program was going to be like, we were not only in for a wild winter, but an incredibly fulfilling one!
Later that night, we were scheduled to put on a concert for the town in a BEAUTIFUL high school auditorium. We were looking forward to it, but learned a bit of tough news before we went on. Recently, the school’s drama department had had their funding pulled because the subject matter in the art they were presenting did not align with the politics of the decision makers at the school. As I watched the cheerleaders practice, and the basketball team run laps, I felt very aware of where the school’s priorities were, and began to get mad.
Defunding, removing, silencing or eliminating the arts because it doesn’t represent what you feel comfortable with is so unbelievably ignorant and backwards in thinking. The problem fundamentally isn’t the arts or the subject matter or what it all “represents”. The problem is the fear. The fear of the unknown, unfamiliar, misunderstood, under-represented. The fear that it will “corrupt” our children, that it will turn our youth away from the “right path’…whatever that means. Banning books, burning theaters, silencing voices…it’s all so naive. It will never work and it will only drive a wedge. Parents that are afraid should have actual conversations with their children. Teach them about conviction and how to be free and critical thinkers. If these people are so convinced that their ways are correct, then they should have no fear at all. Teach love, compassion, expression, and acceptance. My own mother and I vehemently disagree on many, many things. But even she taught me to think for myself and stand up for what I believe, EVEN when that means me completely opposing her. When fear replaces wisdom, there is no positive outcome.
So, instead of staying mad, we went and talked to the high schoolers that were there, in their home-made costumes, next to the sets THEY built and paid for themselves, getting ready to advertise to the audience a musical they were producing on their own, with no funding or support from the school. We hugged them and visited and expressed our support for their endeavors. Before we went on, I said, “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep fighting for what you believe in. Keep standing up for yourselves and your art. Do so with respect and kindness, but never back down. One day, YOU will be the decision makers. YOU will run this world. YOU will keep a light burning for old artists like us to continue.” We see how people look at us when we walk through town, or DON’T look at us. I mean, I get it. Pink hair IS contagious, after all. We see grown-ups whisper when we walk into schools. But we also see how the kids look at us. Full of wonder and joy, ready to hear what we have to say, excited to cheer us on. These teens represented all of that. The change is happening.
As I put my arms around them, I felt all of the weird looks we received in town throughout the day completely disappear. We KNOW we don’t fit in in these tiny towns, but neither do some of the kids growing up here, or grown-ups living here! When we embraced, I felt strong and full of hope for the future, for our arts, for our world. We are going into the unknown and we are eliciting change…one little town, one tiny school, one small mind at a time.
Our show that night did exactly that. Prior to the gig, we had people skeptically viewing our merch, keeping their distance from us, quietly standing aside. I even had an older couple share with me that they’d be fine if a wall was built around their whole town.
“We’ve got everything we need right here, and we could fend for ourselves. We don’t need any outside help!”, they boasted.
I said, “Well then WE couldn’t come visit you and share music.” They both just harrumphed and politely smiled.
After the show, with tears in her eyes, that same lady hugged me and repeated “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Some people say our music has “gotten them through the toughest times”. Others say, “I didn’t even know I needed this.” Some say, “I cried. I NEVER cry.” And some even say, “You changed my LIFE tonight.”
Listen, I am well aware of the power of music, combined with a great story, some funny anecdotes, and an evening of love and honesty. We KNOW that audiences get to feel like they have been “seen”, challenged, included, and down right entertained. I can’t say with 100% certainty, even if someone tells us so, that our music “changes lives”, but I can say, because I have witnessed it time and time again, we do, in fact, change MINDS. And, although a small feat, we believe this is EXACTLY what we are meant to be doing and it is EXACTLY how people begin to grow! (We even heard later that this was one of the best shows that the arts commission had ever brought in! How about that?!?!?)
And sometimes it’s not as dramatic even as “changing minds”. Sometimes it’s just a simple nudge back to a mindset someone had before, but forgot about or strayed from. I think awareness of things that are “outside” or foreign or different can really only begin to happen when you actually experience such things. If you never go outside your town, comfort zone, or way of thinking, then it is probably pretty hard to convince yourself to change. I know that even in our big city full of all kinds of people and places, opportunities and cultures, it’s difficult to force myself out of my own comfort zone when it comes to things like food, music, or experiences. So, imagine how much more challenging it must be for some of the folks in tiny, insular towns with very little exposure to diversity of ANY kind, so it’s super easy to stay comfortable and closed off. Well THAT is the exciting part of what we’re getting to do, giving people the opportunity that they may never seek out on their own, and then from that, opening their eyes and minds to something new and fresh that, surprising to them, but not surprising at all, shows them how little they had to fear and how similar we all are!
After another lovely evening of snacks, whiskey, and a salt water hot tub, overlooking the shared sky between northern Montana and Canada, peppered with stars and the Northern Lights, saying goodbye to our incredible hosts, Bob and Dawn was bittersweet. Especially because we had to leave the warmth and comfort of their home for this…..
A six-hour trip home became almost a nine-hour trip, due to a wide detour we had to take due to the lack of tire chains (we DO have all-weather tires, but that wasn’t cutting it) and our lack of desire to get stuck on one of the passes leading home. But, we did make it safely.
With the first of many Winter gigs under way, we took a little break to oversee the beginning of our kitchen remodel, our son’s second piano recital, and my birthday. See you again as we head to Gardiner, MT for the next leg!