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It is 7 p.m. on a Wednesday in December, and the lights are on at the Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Bellevue, Iowa. The intersection where the hall sits at Second and State streets boasts the only traffic signal in this community of 2,200. It’s not actually a stop light, though. It’s just a pair of signs trimmed with pulsing red lights. That’s to remind folks to stay alert for one of the dozen or so times a day there’s a freight train a-comin’ down the track.
Inside the KC Hall it is warm and a bit steamy on this 15-degree night, and a little loud from the sound of conversation and scraping chairs. I’m counting about 40 folks of varying ages munching popcorn at family-style tables and another dozen around the bar. I’m seated in a folding chair, wedged between a middle-aged guy with an acoustic guitar and another guy about our age with an accordion. Along with a few dozen others, we’ve formed a rough oblong circle, in some places two rows deep. This is the December jam session at the KC Hall, and I know from several years of doing this that we’ll be playing lots of countrified Christmas music. That’s why I’ve left my acoustic guitar, ukulele, and three-ringed binder full of song lyrics at home. I’ve gone small, with just my melodica on my lap and a beer wedged against the chair leg, where I hope somebody doesn’t kick it over. Somebody usually does.
I’ve been coming to this monthly jam session since it started in fall 2016. That’s when retired barber and self-taught bass player “Razor” Ray Theisen decided what this town needed was a monthly traditional country jam session, with no amplifiers. Anybody was welcome to come and play, and the audience could listen, or dance, or have a few drinks with proceeds supporting the Knights of Columbus. The concepts of “traditional country” and “unplugged” flew out the window long ago. So did Ray’s idea that we’d end the two-hour jam promptly at 9 p.m. These days it takes more than a meaningful glance at the wall clock from Ray’s wife Doris to wind this crew down. It takes Ray to actually get tired, which at his stage in the latter years of his eighth decade takes him a lot longer than it takes the rest of us musicians.
But who can blame us for feeling the adrenaline? Most of us are hobby musicians, desperate for an outlet. Sure, a few of us play in church groups or the nursing home or even in local bands. But we spend our days running the grocery store, or teaching at the high school, or working a trade, or farming. For us, making music is usually done in isolation, at home, strumming a guitar or practicing piano scales. I can tell you, that gets old.
Many small towns like ours have a variation on the music jam. Typically, a core group plays a set list of songs, and then calls extra players up to the stage in succession to lead the band in a few pieces the newcomer prepared. This makes for a somewhat organized and polished experience for the listener. For the player, though, it can be nerve wracking to wait their turn, frustrating when the song doesn’t sound the way the player hoped it would, and then boom! Back to the seat they go, awkwardly dragging guitar or fiddle, stuffing it back into its case, ordering up at least one more drink to fill the time, putting on a show of enjoying the music even though musicians would much rather play than listen, forced into shouting idle conversation with a stranger at the next stool, inaudible over the clamor of the band.
That’s not how it works at the KC Hall jam. Electric piano, banjo, saxophone, mandolin, accordion: it doesn’t matter. As long as it can be played in the key of C (Charlie) or D (Dog) or G (George), it’s in, and all together. We go around the circle, and each person steps to the mic and plays two songs, while the rest follow along. Sometimes high school kids come and strum through songs they’re honing for the school concert. Sometimes players come from out of town, because they’ve heard the crowd is supportive and the musicians are generous to players of all skill levels. Sometimes a guitarist who hasn’t played since 1978 decides it’s time to tune up the Gibson SG and run through a few hits by the Eagles. We’re all ready for whatever it is, and we sing our hearts out while we’re at it. I admit, it often doesn’t sound that great. But as a wise trombone player once told me, it’s not a mistake if you don’t have to stop.
This is not the first regular jam group I’ve been in. Before moving to Bellevue in 2011, I was part of a collective of like-minded musicians in Wyoming. Our regular jam group, the Write Tones, had at its core of a group of English teachers and writers. We’d take turns going to each other’s houses, once a month. When I moved to Iowa, I did what I could to seek people to get together with and see what we might have in common, musically. The thing that had connected me so deeply to friends in Wyoming was elusive for me here. It wasn’t that there were no musicians. It was that they didn’t express the desire to seek out anyone else. They already had what they needed.
So, I became a volunteer solo performer at the nursing home. I crashed jam sessions. Then a few years ago, I took part in a community visioning exercise known as Heart and Soul. I contributed what I could to the effort and for me that meant writing a song. I grabbed my ukulele and drove a mile to Bellevue State Park, stopping at a picnic table at an overlook above the Mississippi River. With a note pad, a pencil, the voice recorder on my phone, and about an hour of time, I punched my ticket into the musical clique of my town.
“What Brings Youse to Bellevue, Then” (to use the local dialect) made light of my experience as a newcomer. It imagined a conversation between a stranger (OK, me) and a passing local. The refrain nutshells one of the most common conversations in small towns where, if people have a question, they ask it.
“Are you here for the River/are you here for the scenery/ Are you here for the weather/Do you have a lot of family/ Are you here on a vacation/Are you shopping for some real estate/Go ahead and tell me now/I’ve got some time to wait.”
The “Bellevue Song” went over big at the KC Hall jam. People clapped, sang along, and asked for the lyrics. I still get requests to play it. I usually pair it with “Brand New Key” (The Roller Skate Song) by Melanie. Then somebody knocks over my beer and I go to the bar for another. The band’s money is no good at the KC Hall jam.
Thanks to Razor Ray, now when I run errands in downtown Bellevue, people no longer ask what I’m doing here. Once in a while somebody asks how they know me…aren’t you that singer? Are you going to the jam next week? I’m pretty sure they still don’t know my name, but that’s OK.
In creating music, most things are temporary. We are alchemists, filtering time and turning it into rhythm. Our product is a soundscape, ephemera, alive only in the moment of creation. In the same way playing music together makes each musician’s experience richer, playing music in a way that invites everyone to take part creates a priceless shared moment, no matter how fleeting.
It’s the nature of musicians to collaborate, to listen, to know when to jump in, when to blend in, when to step back. Although musicians are great at creative thinking and figuring things out on the spot, music itself is not solution to all challenges. While a community needs its bass players and banjo pickers, it also needs those same creative-minded people to flourish as its grocers, brokers, teachers, welders, snow-plow operators, police, and nurses, to translate that creative mindset into concrete form. In fact, a community needs everyone who’s doing the daily work of a town to embrace their own ability to think creatively and collaboratively, even if they can’t carry a tune.
For tonight, I do my part. I sit with my little keyboard instrument waiting for the next person in the circle to call out a song. It happens to be a trumpet player—one of a trio of building-contractor brothers with a polka band on the side. I’m hoping I remember the main three chords in F, their preferred key. Through the frosty window I can see outside to the crossroads, where the red lights on the stop sign pulse allegro. I wonder if the fellow on snare drum sees it too, and uses it as a metronome, helping us all keep time to the rhythm of this little town on the tracks.
Julianne Couch is a writer and amateur musician in Bellevue, Iowa.