I was standing on the little stage in front of the dance floor in my hometown’s American Legion Club. The new band was together to get footage for a music video for a song about Boomtown.

It was a Friday night and I had a vision that like this five-minute song, we could take snapshots of a town and the people who reside here and just let them tell their own story.

We would start at the bar that night and then wake up the next day and make some phone calls, visit some houses, drive the back roads, step in stores and ask them, “Why are you here, in this place? What does it mean to you?”

From the stage at the bar you could make your guesses. From behind the windows of your car rolling through the intersection where a man is twirling an orange “slow” sign, bored out of his mind on a windy August afternoon, you could make your assumption.

Handing your five-dollar bill to the young woman behind the till in the supermarket line, you could say hello, how are you, hear her accent and wonder how a Southern girl made her way this far north.

Maybe you would ask her.

As a little girl I fell in love with folk music because of the characters in the songs and the lyrics that described the lines on his face or the scruff in his voice, her soft hands and the way that she wipes them on her apron before pouring cups of coffee or picking up babies.

I listened to Lyle Lovett describe a man with lights on his fingers who kept the moon in his car, “The Waltzing Fool,” on repeat.

My heart broke over and over again for Harry Chapin’s Mr. Tanner.

I felt like I could reach out and touch those characters, like they sort of became a part of my own story, their songs woven in the fabric of my clothes as I grew up, teaching me that this world is made up of all sorts of triumph and struggle, failure and towns the keep people there forever, even if they have bigger dreams.

I think that’s why I started writing in the first place, because I wanted to make my own characters, or maybe I wanted to become one myself between the lines of the page and the notes rising and falling from my lungs. In a song you can be anything.

In a song you can close your eyes and forget.

Or remember.

I don’t know for sure but I think there were many different versions of people remembering, re-inventing and escaping in that Legion Club that night. Some drank too much and talked too loud. Some were looking for a fight. Some just wanted to dance. Some were from here, some just arrived, some should have just stayed home.

And I made my guesses, but who was I to decide which was which? I was busy in my own story, it was late, the crowd was getting rowdy, and I didn’t have the energy to ask.

But the next day I did. I took the film crew and we went out to understand who owned the little burger shack along the highway.

And the girl in my mom’s store working three jobs to save money for college, the accountant, the priest, the farm family?

And then what about the woman who came from Texas with her husband who works long hours while she raises her children in a camper in town, one with a new entryway addition so they can have a full-size fridge?

“This is the American Dream,” she said as her son rode his bike around in circles in their driveway.

Sometimes we forget while we’re counting dollars and making plans that we’re standing on the sidelines, rolling by or smack in the middle of other people’s lives. There are so many stories here, so many songs to be written that would break our hearts or give us hope, stories attached to hands out here trying to hold onto something we might understand if we just asked.

Why then, why are you here?

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