It’s been over seven years since I came from my home in Nashville, Tenn., to play music in central Nebraska, mostly at The Listening Room in Hastings. Believe me, I have my reasons for returning again and again as I do, but first let me tell you my history with central Nebraska and Hastings.
My first booking at The Listening Room was on Jan. 19, 2001—the eve of inauguration day in Washington, D.C. A friend of mine had written a song that he said the Republican Party was considering making their theme/celebration song for winning the presidential campaign. I am not a registered Republican, but guess who my friend wanted to sing and perform the song?
I was not asked but begged by my friend to perform his song about Abe Lincoln in Washington on inauguration eve where Bush, Cheney and their wives would make an appearance and a speech, just as they made the rounds at other such events that night. So, for my friend, I had to cancel my night at The Listening Room.
Fast forward to Halloween night 2003 when I was booked again at The Listening Room. Just days before the gig, I got a call from Allison Krauss, of the bluegrass band Union Station, who was doing an NBC special with co-star Shania Twain. Allison wanted me to be an additional band member and singer—to be a musical bridge between the bluegrass thing and the Shania thing. Now, I ask you, what would you have done? The NBC special or The Listening Room in Hastings?
I chose Hastings.
When I got to Hastings, a film crew from public television in Lincoln followed me around for the day; they were doing a piece on The Listening Room, and my little blip of NBC/Krauss/Twain tweaked the interviewer’s curiosity. That is how I met Hastings, with a camera and a microphone in my face, answering but not answering the big question: “Why’d you do it?”
The answer is in the title: The Listening Room—The L-I-S-T-E-N-I-N-G Room. They listen at The Listening Room. You see, I grew up playing honkytonks with my dad and brothers when I was a teenager. Honkytonks were not known for listening. In my 20s I played bars in Canada where if a hockey game was on, the band did not play lest an empty Molson bottle come flying toward the stage. To have an audience listen is what I play for these days.
Robin Harrell, The Listening Room’s godmother and founder, being a singer/songwriter/performer herself, knows how to create a space and atmosphere for music. What you have in downtown Hastings is a place that would be a treasure if it were in a city 50 times the size of Hastings. Robin gets performers who play the largest festivals on this continent and Europe, as well as national and regional performers, because for 20 years she has cultivated both the audience and the performers. Often she’ll have local performers as the opening act.
I have three other reasons for performing in Hastings (in no particular order):
(1) The Platte River Late-Winter Bird Migration: This past March I stood in blinds on the Platte at dusk to watch thousands of sandhill cranes honk and socialize after a day of feeding on open fields. And up before dawn to be in place when they suddenly agreed to take to the sky. Yes, I booked a gig while in the area, but next migration I will not need a gig to see and hear the sandhill cranes, the Canada geese, the snow geese and whooping crane. They will do the entertaining. I will just come to listen and watch.
(2) Graham Gallery, Hastings: Graham Gallery, like The Listening Room, is also a treasure for Hastings. It is a gallery of excellence and worthy of being in a city like Denver or Chicago or Atlanta. The entire gallery consists of works of local artists—your friends, your neighbors. I have dozens of art pieces in my home from Graham Gallery beginning with that first Halloween trip in 2003. I have metal sculpture by Sally Jurgensmier, paintings by Nicole Gustafsson, wood works by Todd Brown, photography by Paul Dunbar and pottery by Cody Carson Brown, and on and on. Travelling the globe as I do (I am writing this from Newark airport on my way to Stockholm), I see Graham Gallery as an oasis of art in Hastings. I always find something I have to have when I am there. There is always something to add to my home. The godmother/founder is Hastings’ own Angela Graham.
(3) The People: I have been invited to several homes in Hastings (and several Hasting residents and their families have been in my home in Nashville). I’ve been a part of some amazing home-cooked meals where people bring home-brewed stout, mead, art cakes, duck confit, oven-roasted coffee. I have played Wiffle ball in backyards and stood out in the street watching the cloud formations as the rest of the neighborhood watched. I even saw four baby/teenage screech owls standing on a branch behind a friend’s house and knew I was where I was supposed to be. I have made friends in central Nebraska who I will know for the rest of my life.
There you have it—these are my reasons for returning again and again to The Listening Room, the Platte, Graham Gallery and the people of central Nebraska (OK, the food and drink, too). Now, here’s the science fiction part of this writing. It was somewhere between my second and third visit that I actually said to myself, “If I could have a double me through magic or cloning, I’d send myself to Hastings and be a part of all I witness there…” Maybe it’s not too late for the one single self I have to be here. I know the good stuff. Until then, I will continue my visits—gig or no gig. Save me a spot in the blinds.