photo of John Klemmensen and his guitar by Chevy Anderson
by Michael Todd
John Klemmensen’s first guitar died a quick, unexpected death.
About four years ago at Barley Street Tavern, the Omaha songwriter was handing the instrument — his mom’s guitar that he’d played forever — to Adam Hawkins for an It’s True set.
“He tried to adjust the strap, and in a freak occurrence, it just broke,” Klemmensen says.
One can imagine the sound of a guitar death. All hollow and resounding, like a gunshot in a cave. Nothing like the tender, pickless playing that Hawkins performed those four years ago, or will play again this Thursday in Omaha.
Four years ago, Hawkins helped Klemmensen find a suitable replacement, a smaller-than-average Fender that Klemmensen takes everywhere. On Thursday, the instrument will be passed around among more than 40 songwriters at The Waiting Room as part of the second Songwriter Death Battle.
Yes, that’s right: More than 40 songwriters will perform starting at 9 p.m. for a $5 cover. Each is given the chance to play just one song, and throughout the night, they’ll trade Klemmensen’s guitar and sing into the same mic. The rules? Each performer must play an original song in standard tuning.
Klemmensen says these restrictions hardly homogenize the many disparate Nebraskan songwriters. John Larsen will sit down with the guitar on his lap facing up. Darren Keen will trade his electronic project Touch People’s setup for six strings. The pick-wielders will rake their notes like the guitar is electrified, and the fingerpickers will pluck them gently just the same.
THE SONGWRITER DEATH BATTLE LINEUP
At open mics, Klemmensen would marvel at how each player would make a “block of wood” sound differently. The thought soon developed into an idea: What if there was just one guitar, no setup in between? And the idea came to fruition with the first songwriter death battle in May.
“A lot of people have told me that it’s helped them get back on the horse,” Klemmensen says, remarking that many of May’s performers wrote a song specifically for the event.
With such a large group of musicians in one room, the show can operate as a sort of workshop, a sounding board from which songwriters can receive quick feedback. And although the community is welcoming, encouragement and positivity aren’t an automatic response.
“Musicians can tell if you’re just going through the motions,” Klemmensen says. “It’s not a death battle but everyone’s coming with their best."
From the folks with record deals, Klemmensen says, to those just starting out, the group of Nebraskans working through the night on Thursday will create “a love fest,” he says.
“We should support them because if they’re like me, they’re all pretty broke. They’re all just trying to write songs and do this for fun. Hopefully, this will turn into something, and maybe we’ll do another one around December or January hopefully.”
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. He's dropped his guitar, left it in the freezing cold, cracked its body open and given it the hard-won love it does not deserve. Reach him at email@example.com.