I’m a small-town musician.
There is no dictionary definition for this job. And there is no real job description.
When little girls sing Taylor Swift songs into hairbrushes in their bedrooms at night, they’re likely dreaming of bigger stages than the flatbed trailer at the County Fair.
Although I hope that all of them get a chance to start there.
Last Sunday, I stood next to my dad and my neighbor in a church in my small town. They were the guitar and harmony to my “Amazing Grace,” a song chosen to comfort the family of June, a woman who worked alongside her husband on a farmstead down the road from ours. A woman who lead the hymns in our tiny little country church on Sundays and brought rolls and coffee to serve in the basement after the service.
A woman I thought would live forever.
Just a few days earlier, I was standing on a much different stage, outside a barn turned into a bar in the middle of oil country, next to my friend playing a lead riff on his electric guitar, singing along with him as a big sound came from the drummer, and the rowdy crowd yelled requests in our direction.
“Smoke on the Water.”
We were opening for a rock band with songs that made them famous in the ’90s. Songs that loop in the soundtrack of my teenage years, back when I thought success meant singing anywhere but here.
But here I am. A small-town singer on my home turf.
A folk singer in a country/rock band.
One part of a trio singing “Amazing Grace” with familiar voices to mournful faces sitting stoic in pews under a roof holding hymnals that have comforted this community for decades.
When you’re a small-town singer, people will believe in you. They will see you on that flatbed trailer somewhere, and they will tell you to try out for “American Idol.” They will say you will make it someday. They might even go so far as to invest in you, show your music to a cousin that lives in Nashville. Make a connection. And you will be grateful, because you know that in this industry, success is connection.
But when you’re a small-town singer, you might measure success differently than others.
This week, I head out to Montana to play on a big stage, a real stage. The same stage where some of my favorite musicians will be playing that week – Charley Pride, Ian Tyson, Corb Lund, James McMurtry, Brandi Carlile – all hometown singers in their own right, all carrying with them stories of long nights and long drives, bands that broke up and songs that never made it off the bar-room napkin.
Some nights you are invisible. Some nights it’s magic. I don’t think that changes.
But some days there’s nowhere else you’d rather be than standing next to your dad and your neighbor – two voices that raised you – belting out a hymn and remembering a time when we were all younger and drinking lemonade in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church, along a country road that was quiet except for the dust the congregation kicked up on their way to sit in a pew and sing “Amazing Grace.”
Some days you find the perfect song, and you get to sing it in the perfect place, because you’re a small-town singer and you can be there, doing what you can to help them remember June, her strong faith and her cinnamon rolls.
And some nights you get to sing it loud and stomp your feet out under the stars next to men who know the music and just want to play it and help them forget, the long hours behind the wheel of a truck, nights away from their families, work and worry, and all that makes life hard. Some nights you get to raise a bottle of beer, hit that first chord and just sing.
Sing so they can sing along.
Because you’re a small town musician, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter the size of the stage or where this gig might take you. There’s no real definition except that we’re playing tonight. Tonight we sing.
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a small-town musician.