Superstar country singer Tim McGraw and I have two things in common: our hairlines, and the fact that we both owe the Chippewa Valley music scene big-time.

by Michael Perry

In 1990 I was a bumbling knucklehead who thought he wanted to be a writer (this status remains unchanged). That same year, Larry Barr rented a pair of pastures and held the first Country Jam USA music festival in the Town of Union. The following year, I wrote a magazine piece about a country band in Hayward. It was the only article I’d ever written about country music.

Wasn’t long, and Country Jam USA started attracting national attention. An editor from Nashville-based Country Weekly called Eau Claire Leader-Telegram entertainment editor Bill Foy and asked if he would write about the festival for their magazine. When Bill said he already had his hands full, the editor asked if he knew anyone else in the area who covered country music. Having seen that one single piece of mine, Bill mentioned my name. A short time later my phone rang.

“Are you the guy who writes about country music?”

“Yes I am.” It was the only answer.

What followed was a series of assignments — beginning with brief pieces gleaned from on-the-fly interviews conducted backstage at Country Jam — that led to other stories (about country music singers, country music bus drivers, country music truckers, and pretty much anything tangentially related to country music) that wound up in other music publications, newspapers, regional and national magazines, trucking magazines, business magazines and — clear back in 1997 — an interactive multimediapiece (as in, the GIFs worked on dial-up if you had time to wait) for Discovery Channel Online. The bottom line is, for a decade or so, a significant portion of my self-employed survival was obtained via writing drawn on that fortuitous Country Jam assignment. Early on I spent that music-writing money on Eau Claire rent, Eau Claire groceries, an Eau Claire dentist (maybe you couldn’t tell?), and — somewhere in there — something called a mocha in a brand new joint called Racy D’Lene’s Very Coffee Lounge. The income born out of those Country Jam assignments also allowed me to work on other writing projects, including the self-published books that eventually led to my being able to buy a house, start a family, maintain a small business, hire my first employee, and pay my taxes — always in the Chippewa Valley.

When it comes to numbers, others can make the case more aptly and more mathematically than I. And I’m just grizzled enough to say the minute you start euphonizing a “scene” you are one step closer to euthanizing it. Nor is it useful to pin the scene on any one person. Any one venue. Any one band. Or to focus specifically on the musicians (anyone who thinks music is all soft hands in la-la land might wish to spend time lugging gear with a sound crew, or crawling the rigging after wayward lighting, or replacing the u-joint on a band van in a snowdrift at 3 a.m.).

When I mentioned meeting McGraw and his (now wife) Faith Hill years ago at a country music festival, his eyes lit up. “Was it Eau Claire?”

I hearken back to the rented pastures of 1990 because there is more to the examination of a music “scene” than leveraging local Grammys (that in fact are already history). When I instruct my New York publisher to direct their funds toward reserving a Chippewa Valley studio and a Chippewa Valley engineer when it’s time to record audiobooks, I am drawing on a tangible, fungible thread passing from the birth of Country Jam to the post-For Emma Age. How grateful I am to have observed and benefitted from the musical visions of others. And how important for me to learn — over and over and now at the age of 50 — that if I keep singing the same old chorus I might fail to hear the sound of the next generation writing a new bridge.

These days I don’t write about country music as often as I used to. But last year I did fly down to Nashville to interview Tim McGraw for a magazine piece. When I mentioned meeting McGraw and his (now wife) Faith Hill years ago at a country music festival, his eyes lit up. “Was it Eau Claire?”

Yes it was, I said.

“Well I’ll tell you what … Faith and I, we’d met briefly once before … but she was playing that festival too and during my encore she ran onstage right behind me — I turned, and instantly I knew I was in love with her. That was the moment that set up the rest of our lives.”

Music in the Chippewa Valley. You never know what it might lead to.


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