I am a rural school music teacher. A clog-wearing, top-knot rocking, staff meeting, dress code adhering, music directing, kid disciplining, rural school music teacher. Bandstands. Trumpets. The whole thing.
I am also a songwriter, a record producer, a recording artist, and a self-managed, touring musician. I have written and released 4 studio albums and have toured thousands of miles over every kind of country in the West. Road dog.
I live in Southwest Oregon on a small ranch. We lease our land to a local cowboy who runs only his sweetest cows and calves since our fences are old and our water is slow to pump. Every winter rust drips red from the old, barbed wire running the perimeter, burns red hot in the summer sun.
Another school year in the books means another road to travel, singing songs alongside my ride-or-die right-hand man, musical partner, and husband as I go. While some musicians, with good reason, are somewhat loath to be out there touring, for me, it’s where I get to rejuvenate after a year of teaching, so I am happy to put some miles under my tires, dropping armor as I go–mask, shield, foil. I am happy to open my chest and sing. Not one to play many city gigs as it is, this year’s tour was particularly rural, taking us to the far corners of Oregon, the outposts of the outpost. West.
One week, winding our way through the burn scar of one of the largest fires in Oregon (until the next one, and the one after that), we found ourselves under a cathedral of Douglas fir overlooking the green and rushing North Umpqua River below. Some folks were gettin’ hitched and they wanted some pre-ceremony music. Most marrying folks usually ask for a few jazz standards, a flute and guitar thing maybe, and we are always happy to oblige. But not these folks. These folks wanted us to play our music, our Canadiana Noir, our NorthCountry Western, our Doo-Wop Twang; they wanted songs about loggers and poverty and holding on for all it’s worth with all that you got. So we did, the bird and the river our bandmates as we played, sat and swayed in the shade of a small oak and looked on and through each other the way love does, the way that love did that day.
A few days later we found ourselves in a beautiful south Eugene home, vaulted everything, even the backyard trees found themselves reaching gloriously upward. We were there to play a benefit for a Ukrainian family who was coming to Eugene. Who came to Eugene. Who was in Eugene and at the house, the young boy’s dark eyes, two deep wells set in the fair skin of his high cheeks. There was food and community and talking and laughter and a beautiful audience to play for. And there were two people who spent time in a Polish refugee camp and had lived in 5 different countries in the last year and a half, with a stint in a hospital and a return trip to Ukraine that was a mistake. They were there too. In Eugene. In a beautiful house with vaulted everything. Tall trees. Tons of food. Among people who only spoke English. And there was music, and they were there, in the middle of it all, the reason for it all, a mother, who looked no older than 25, and her 7-year-old son.
A few days later, we arrived on the Southern Oregon University campus with a few minutes to spare and made our way to the Jefferson Public Radio station. We shook hands with the music director and sound engineer and unloaded our gear. The studio was beautiful with floor-to-ceiling windows in the Oregon Center for the Arts building, the same building in which one of my star former students sang her incredible junior recital a few months ago, glowing in a royal blue gown. Within a few minutes, all of the windows were covered and the studio was transformed into a vibey lounge, cool blue pools of light descending upon us, the music director Dave sitting across from us, Johnny and I perched on two tall stools on clip together fuzzy floor mats, good for acoustics. There was a pitcher of water and three glasses, already poured. We played a few songs, levels were adjusted. I tried not to drink into the mic. I’m a loud drinker. And it was time. A 30-minute pick ‘n’ grin followed and then it was over, curtains whisked back, the fullness of the Southern Oregon sunshine streaming through the tall windows once again and we laughed and shook hands and left, our session one in a long queue of sessions, an invisible thread of soundwaves that binds together the patchwork of experiences that make up our world. Mycelium through the loam, the canopy waving high above.
The next day we played our annual gig at a cozy little venue in Quincy, a town in the high Sierras of Northern California near where Johnny grew up. Johnny’s hometown of Greenville, an agriculture and logging town, was lost in 2021 to the devastating Dixie Fire that burned almost 1 million acres in the mountains and canyons of Butte, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta, and Plumas counties. There is no real way to describe playing a hometown show, especially this hometown show, but Johnny’s people, survivors all, are sweet and lovely. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in the courtyard of the hotel between the stucco walls, under the balcony, its spiral staircase running up, up, up, children playing above, surrounded by folks who have known Johnny since he was a little kid, felt like a warm hug. People from every walk of life, in every stage of life: Babies, retirees, caregivers, musicians, laborers, were all crammed together, hanging and laughing and holding space for their hometown boy and me, this Canadian Doukhobor Jewish girl with big hair and a big mouth and big songs that Johnny met at that hippie school he went to on the coast. But every time we play this show it feels less like I’m that girl and more like I’m just myself. Perhaps this is one of the graces of time, which can really cut both ways, can’t it?
Sometimes I get frustrated with this profession, this music business. It seems that not much levels you up in this business when you’re out in the rural West breakin’ trail. Thousands of miles under my tires, a solid body of work under my fingers, and not a thing to do but keep going or quit. There is no vaulting out here. And I can’t lie. After years of playing honky-tonks in mill towns, performing for ticketed folks seated in a beautiful theater seems like a dream, playing an opening set for a hero on a big stage like a fairy tale. But then what is playing under a canopy of Douglas fir, a forest cathedral on the banks of the roaring Umpqua? What is playing in honor of two kind souls who fled a war-torn country? I know how precious this wilderness is and how to care for it through the decency of showing up and working hard, like any other rural gig. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from teaching and performing music in these places, it is that music is not just for the people who can afford to participate. Music must remain solidly accessible to every kind of person in every kind of venue on every kind of prairie, in every kind of holler, and everywhere in between. Besides, I am not yet ready to leave the forests in order to turn my gaze toward the towering heights of a man-made horizon. I am not yet ready to succumb to the paradox that singing songs about rural people is best done in the city. Because what is music for anyway? Is it to be performed exclusively for people who can access or afford to listen to it? Or is it to connect yourself with yourself, to connect yourself with others, to connect others with others, in an intangible way for maybe a single moment or maybe forever? Root. Elevate.
Summer will soon wax, and wane and we will head back to the classroom, resuming roles that are comfortable, status quo, even. Not much vaulting there either. But for now, these summer days, the road stretches out before us, a winding ribbon, with no beginning and no end, only spots wide enough to pull over for a moment and sing.
Born and raised in rural British Columbia, Melissa Ruth grew up on a balanced diet of borscht and Bob Dylan. Now a musician living in Douglas County, Oregon, Melissa teaches 6th-12th grade music at her local school district and is an advocate for music education in small and rural schools. In 2023 she released her fourth self-produced studio album of Americana music entitled Bones, which is a reflection on rural life in the West. She lives on a small ranch with her husband and their border collie named Lu.