A Letter to Young People in Greater Nebraska

Complete with a noon whistle and a main street with no stop lights, growing up in Imperial made for an almost Rockwellian childhood. Even as a kid, I knew just about everyone in town. There was almost zero crime — no need to lock doors. If I got into trouble, my dad would hear about it before I had to consider telling him. The beautiful countryside, with its rolling, heavily irrigated farmland and endless skies, was a great place to explore, and a perfect place to dream.

But as I aged, I realized my town lacked certain features — concert venues, skate parks, sports stadiums and youth-focused businesses — that provided sources for those dreams. Real or perceived, there was a constant search for “something to do.”

I always loved music, but outside of mainstream country acts (not my thing) at our annual county fair, I rarely saw it performed live. As a high schooler in the late ’90s, the internet was just taking off, and we couldn’t get MTV. My exposure to diverse cultures, thus, was limited. Thanks to movies, I became enamored with the style, language and the gritty poetry of hip-hop. And I discovered independent music (read: music not heard on the radio) when an older friend (Chris Tidwell, who now tours the world as drummer for the band Red City Radio) introduced me to legendary California punk band NOFX. With a racing tempo, melodic guitar parts and clever, often angry lyrics, the music connected with me in a way I hadn’t experienced. As I started listening to bands I found listed in the CD’s liner notes — Propagandhi, Bad Religion, Sick of It All — I quickly fell in love.

Stumbling into a Lincoln house show during college, however, was when I discovered the thrill of live music. I found Darren Keen’s solo project The Show is the Rainbow dancing/rolling around a living room carpet, shirtless, singing/screaming into a microphone encircled by a sweaty throng of kids like me. Then I watched Rent Money Big thrash, pound and break their way through a set of clever, hook-laden power punk songs that ended with frontman Tim Scahill back flopping from the kick drum. It was uniquely visceral experience. And in that sticky mess of people, I found home.

I began to realize that my local music scene — and Nebraska’s music community — was special. For a state this size, Nebraska is home to an inordinate number of world-class musicians. And most of them have day jobs. These are people who create music and put out records not because it’s financially smart, but because something inside them forces the craft. I appreciated how many of them choose to make music work with their family life, rather than the other way around. Sure, some Nebraska musicians tour the globe full-time, put out critically acclaimed records and appear on late-night talk shows. But those big, shiny aspirations are not necessarily always the goal. And I thought that was really cool.

My appreciation for the state’s unique, relatively untapped natural resource — original music — eventually lead me to my dream job as the co-founder (with my wife, Angie) and executive director of Hear Nebraska (HN). Started as my master’s project in graduate school, HN is a nonprofit dedicated to growing Nebraska’s music community through journalism and events — statewide, representing all genres. With the help of many very talented people, we’ve assembled a team of professional and hobbyist journalists who tell vivid stories through words, video and audio about homegrown Nebraska artists and music-related businesses every day at HearNebraska.org, and we put those artists on stages so that other young and old music lovers get to experience “holy crap” musical moments.

This week, I’m proud to have a part in an unprecedented project that is bringing 27 of these fantastic, original Nebraska bands — ranging in genre from honky tonk to hip-hop — to nine Greater Nebraska communities for free, all-ages, family friendly concerts July 17-25. It’s called the Good Living Tour. And here’s why it’s important that you attend:

Every day, amazing national bands drive right past — and in some cases through — your town en route to and from Denver, Kansas City, Des Moines, Chicago and Lincoln/Omaha. The thing is, there’s not much keeping them from breaking up what is otherwise at least an eight-hour drive to play a show for a new crowd, gaining some new fans and gas money along the way, while spurring your town’s local economy. It just takes one person to start a movement.

That could be you. Pick up an instrument and convince your friends to do the same. Start a band. Put on a show in your garage, backyard or favorite local business — ask a national band that’s driving through to play it. Start writing about and taking photos of local musicians — then send it to us so we can run it at HearNebraska.org. Open a venue. Open a record store. Tell us about what you’re doing, or what you’d like to do. We can help. Just start, something.

You’ll start to notice that you’re not alone. There are others who think like you do — who love music and art and have ideas about how to tap into your community’s creativity to create more, exciting opportunities for young people.

Hear Nebraska’s vision is to make Nebraska a globally known cultural destination. We can do it — community by community — with your help.

Andrew Norman (@andrew_norman) is Hear Nebraska's Executive Director. Reach him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.

  • a North Platte artist

    Dear Mr. Norman:

    As a young (well, youngish) person living in the western half of our state, I read your “Letter To Young People in Greater Nebraska” with some interest. Since you have graciously opened comments here, I felt moved to respond to certain elements of your letter.

    Like many here in North Platte, I’m excited for your concert series and the upcoming event in our community. Folks in this area often give an enthusiastic welcome to out-of-town musicians, and I hope that your stop in town gets that same warm reception. I have been following the progress of Hear Nebraska since its founding in 2010, and it’s great to see you moving ahead with your organization’s mission.

    That said, I hope that you utilize the Good Living Tour not only to bring your lineup of predominantly Lincoln- and Omaha-based bands to smaller communities, but as an opportunity for Hear Nebraska to discover the breadth of talent and creativity that exists outside the Lincoln-Omaha “bubble.”

    Many of the small cities and towns on the Good Living Tour have their own vibrant local music scenes, and those scenes frequently interact with and contribute to each other. People in our communities are uniquely supportive of local artists, and it shows. Musicians who travel from Lincoln and Omaha to share a stage with our local bands often tell us that crowds here are among the largest and most enthusiastic they’ve performed for.

    I have attended and/or played shows in many of the little towns on your tour, as well as Lincoln, Omaha, Denver, and several other large cities around the country. While the Lincoln/Omaha metro area is a fine place to watch and perform live music, nothing in my experience has compared to some of the shows I’ve been part of in the more rural areas of our state.

    In your “Letter To Young People in Greater Nebraska,” you wrote:

    “… as I aged, I realized my town lacked certain features — concert venues, skate parks, sports stadiums and youth-focused businesses — that provided sources for those dreams. Real or perceived, there was a constant search for ‘something to do.'”

    Perhaps the most defining characteristic of young people who stay in Nebraska’s small communities, or return to them after living elsewhere, is that they see this perceived lack of “something to do” not as a drawback but as an open invitation — a blank canvas to create something of their own, something that truly belongs to them and the people around them. In an era when buzzwords like “local,” “grassroots” and “authenticity” have become threadbare with use, these young people are part of something that is genuine, unique and deeply valuable.

    The “problem” in rural Nebraska is not an absence of musicians, artists and other creatives. We don’t lack for people picking up instruments, starting bands, promoting shows and making an effort to host “big” artists. The challenges that we face are more subtle, and more complex.

    Most significant among those challenges is the popular (and false) narrative that small communities like ours are lifeless, culturally bereft and have “nothing to do.” That narrative drives away young people, discourages diversity, and excuses the lack of resources available in rural areas. Most of all, that narrative makes our local creative communities invisible — sometimes even in our own towns.

    As you embark on the Good Living Tour, I encourage you not only to share Hear Nebraska’s mission with an expanded audience, but to expand that mission and gain insight into the strengths and challenges of the greater Nebraska musical community. We have something special to offer, and we believe it’s worth advocating for.

    Thank you for reading.

    • A North Platte Artist,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my column, and to offer your own insight on the subject. In short, I couldn’t agree more. We absolutely aimed to, and succeeded in meeting dozens of musicians from the communities we visited. That was one of our major goals on this tour: We knew that many more artists, art supporters and venues existed than we were aware of, so we hoped to connect with these people. No doubt, it would take a miracle to meet each of those people during our one day in each community, but it was a start. We’ll continue to cultivate these connections as we work hard to truly represent our statewide music community.

      This passage, in particular, really struck me, and I hope others see it, too: “Perhaps the most defining characteristic of young people who stay in Nebraska’s small communities, or return to them after living elsewhere, is that they see this perceived lack of “something to do” not as a drawback but as an open invitation — a blank canvas to create something of their own, something that truly belongs to them and the people around them. In an era when buzzwords like “local,” “grassroots” and “authenticity” have become threadbare with use, these young people are part of something that is genuine, unique and deeply valuable.”

      Thank you again for your thoughts. Please shoot me an email at andrewn@hearnebraska.org as I’d like to continue this conversation and get your ideas on how we can do a better job next year.
      Andy

    • Shelly Meyer Nielsen

      awesome response! Let’s keep the dialogue going! Your use of the word “invisible” struck me! It is a huge reason why http://www.nebraskahighway2.com was born! The world wide web has enabled small town Nebraska to emerge from the “invisible” to enticing travelers to stop in and pump some life into rural economies and encouraging new and established businesses alike to have hope! A new world is coming to our old… young families can live in rural areas and make a living. It is exciting and it is good.

  • A North Platte Artist,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my column, and to offer your own insight on the subject. In short, I couldn’t agree more. We absolutely aimed to, and succeeded in meeting dozens of musicians from the communities we visited. That was one of our major goals on this tour: We knew that many more artists, art supporters and venues existed than we were aware of, so we hoped to connect with these people. No doubt, it would take a miracle to meet each of those people during our one day in each community, but it was a start. We’ll continue to cultivate these connections as we work hard to truly represent our statewide music community.

    This passage, in particular, really struck me, and I hope others see it, too: “Perhaps the most defining characteristic of young people who stay in Nebraska’s small communities, or return to them after living elsewhere, is that they see this perceived lack of “something to do” not as a drawback but as an open invitation — a blank canvas to create something of their own, something that truly belongs to them and the people around them. In an era when buzzwords like “local,” “grassroots” and “authenticity” have become threadbare with use, these young people are part of something that is genuine, unique and deeply valuable.”

    Thank you again for your thoughts. Please shoot me an email at andrewn@hearnebraska.org as I’d like to continue this conversation and get your ideas on how we can do a better job next year.
    Andy