I never wanted to be a performer.
I’ve had a life-long terror of the stage, though I’ve worked very hard to overcome it.
I wanted to dance- not sing – in the high school plays, but dancers were required to qualify also for the varsity choir, so I took lessons and made the cut.
I never wanted to sing solo, so I never wanted an acting role, but a choir requirement was to try out for roles, so I was cast a few times, and was not good. (The applause noticeably dropped when I took my curtain calls. I told myself it was not my fault; I hadn’t wanted to play those roles.)
In my thirties, I still needed to learn how to speak in front of people for business, so I took lessons repeatedly, to be able to say my name and the name of my business without an anxiety attack.
So why did I walk into Open Mike at the Twisted Vine in Silver City back in 2008?
In my late 20s, having vowed to never sing again in public, a friend asked me to sing at her wedding after hearing me sing in the restaurant where we both worked. She was marrying a friend of Mike Ronstadt (Linda’s brother), and I’d sing with Mike’s band. So I went to the Ronstadt family property where Mike had a studio, practiced my song one time, and went home feeling this would be fine.
At the wedding, however, I was handed a microphone, which I’d never held in my life. I didn’t know how to hold it, but more importantly, I wasn’t ready to hear my voice amplified for the first time in my life. So I held the mike just far away enough that I couldn’t hear myself – and neither could anyone else. Again I decided I’d never sing publicly again.
In October or November 2008, I was drawn to attend an Open Mike at the Twisted Vine wine bar in Silver City. I was fascinated by the idea that people of moderate skill would get up in front of other people and take these chances that they might be great, or only good, or they might even bomb. My heart was full of compassion for everyone – many of whom had little or no public affirmation of their skill – who would still get up there to sing or play an instrument and take their licks. I was astounded, embarrassed for some, but encouraged by everyone’s courage, and I finally decided that I wanted to give it a try too.
I thought that if I could get over my fear of speaking publicly, maybe I could do the same with singing.
I practiced “Summertime” all week. When my turn came, I sat in a chair with no microphone, no accompaniment, closed my eyes, and gave it my all. People cheered and couldn’t believe it when I said I didn’t have a second song to sing.
Next week, I sang John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – a slower version (I think he should have sung it slower too), again without a mike. And the audience was kind.
Shortly afterward, a regularly-gigging musician, Wally Lawder, entered with his bass player to try out a couple new numbers on this easier audience and announced they would warm up with a song they sometimes performed, “I’m Only Sleeping.” I was disappointed. I’d sorta felt like I owned this song. People hollered that I’d just done that song, and Wally quickly, generously invited me to join them. I declined, of course. They might play too fast or in a key I couldn’t sing. I was taking no chances.
He encouraged me again, and an acquaintance scolded me in an urgent whisper: Go! Do this! You must not turn down the opportunity!
I thought again. What if helping angels had set this up, and I was going to make all their hard work for naught?
I dragged myself from my chair and explained that he’d have to play it far more slowly than he usually did, and I wasn’t sure I could sing in his key. He promised to slow the song down to whatever speed I wanted, but suggested I try their key. This could be a disaster, I thought – then told myself to believe in the best.
For the second time in my life, I held a microphone and tried not to freak out at the amplification of my voice. Deep breath. Nod that I’m ready. The musicians begin – wow, it’s like I’m singing in a band!
The key is higher, so when I get to the highest notes, I can barely squeak them out, but the crowd is encouraging. As I reach those high notes, I raise my hand high over my head, punching the sky with those few notes, smiling as I know I’ve accomplished something new, enjoying this effort, my own courage, my own humor in laughing at myself, missing the bar, but being okay with it. The audience laughs at my punching my hand in the air, and their applause is like balm for all my old wounds around being on the stage.
When Wally leaves that night, he says cheerfully, “See you on the circuit!”
He’s being nice, I think. This was only therapy, not anything I really believe I should do. Just therapy.
But the idea had been entertained for a moment and must have stuck. I recalled when my first husband and I divorced, and I went through a “crazy” phase, imagining that one day I might sing harmony with someone else. Folk music, like Joan Baez, in cafes. Of course, whenever I realized I that idea was crossing my brain for the next few decades, even as a daydream, I brushed it away and told myself I was ridiculous. Still, I never sang melody when I sang along with the radio; almost always I forced myself to pick out harmonies – just in case the opportunity ever arose.
Over the next year or so, guitarists Joe Kryzanowski, Don Beams, and Ed Teja all offered to work with me and helped me find my confidence and begin putting together the skills. One Open Mike, Don Beams asked a stranger to play Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” for me, which went so well, the stranger encouraged me to sing a second song, which I did. Later, I learned he was a sometimes member of the nationally-touring Jazz Orgy. Of course, the second song wasn’t that great, and he didn’t encourage a third.
Ed Teja asked me to sing a song for a new album, then a few songs, and eventually his Brazil Blues CD was produced with four studio recordings of mine. There’s also a live recording of me with the Ed Teja Group which I’m not proud of. Maybe everyone has to have at least one bomb. Nevertheless, the performance remains for posterity on a compilation CD, Sounds of Silver City Live! I’ve told the Silver City MainStreet Project, who produced the CD, that I think all copies of it should be destroyed. They laugh.
Later I was invited to join a group of friends who got together every Tuesday night – Greg Renfro, Shems Nickle, Mitchel Barsch, and Keith Fisher. For the first two years in “The Tuesday Night Group,” I wondered if they’d rather I didn’t keep coming back, and I asked Mitchel that specifically and repeatedly, but he never said the fateful words that might have easily sent me away. I was hooked.
In 2009, Ed invited me to join a reunion performance (above) of Gypsy Feet (a popular local dance band with Greg Renfro since 2006) at the “Festival of the Soul.” I was still dealing with nerves, but had some strong moments. Of course, I’d like to check my memory of that, but it wasn’t recorded. Probably for the best.
In 2011, Greg Renfro and I became a couple and began to sing as a duo. I very much respect the music Greg writes and sings, all about “Living to Love,” the title of one of his songs.
In 2011, we were invited to join Tom Naples to sing Woody Guthrie songs for Woody’s 100th Birthday in July 2012. We called ourselves the Rising River String Band, and next put together a set of Dust Bowl and Depression music which we also performed.
As a social justice activist, this singing is as important to me as any other activist work I’ve ever done. Tom is a traveler, though, and decided to move on and gave us permission to take the band name. We stay in touch, and he returns occasionally to perform with us now and then in a revival of the band.
Greg (who also performs regularly with other musicians) and I continue to develop our repertoire and skills, singing in a variety of venues. Along the way, I’ve realized that some of our music is surprisingly pointedly appropriate to some of the issues that have become so important in my life – and some of those songs were written and sung by some of the most respected musicians in rock history: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Neil Young. They deal with consciousness, anomalous experiences, and even space ships. They provide me a starting point for discussing things that I have much personal experience with and that I think the world needs to begin discussing. So we put together a set of music with exactly this focus – for which I provide the song introductions.
Since these songs – and the stories I like to tell with them – are quite radical, whereas Greg’s music is delivered with less-pointed commentary, I decided we should keep these two musical offerings separate, so as not to hurt his reputation. And since the activist intent is so similar to what we were doing with the Rising River String Band, a name Tom had granted to us, we decided to call ourselves Rising River when we perform it with my commentary. Without commentary, we’re “Greg and Jean.”
Recently, we’ve been practicing and playing out a bit with a a bass player, Jeff “Santa Rita Slim” Ray, and Tom “Houndog” Romancik on guitar, slide, dobro, harmonica, percussion and more — as the Southern Rocky Mountain Band.
And that’s how this almost 62-year old woman found herself on stage in a folk-rock band!
Afterword: I remember once almost falling off a barstool in hysterics when a girlfriend and I each confessed our secret fantasies of singing in rock bands – at our ages! That was twenty years ago. Life is amazing.
And I never am “good enough.” But I’m grateful for the fun. Singing heals me, keeps me learning about the brokenness in my body, helping me zero in and fix things.
Some people tell me I’m great. Others tell me I’m not good enough. At least monthly, I’m ready to quit (and don’t at all resent those who don’t support my singing – I agree with them often). But something always pulls me back, at least so far.
I think we should all be singers. And dancers. And speakers. And performers. And maybe then we could heal the whole hurting world.