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Bets, Bulls, and Beacons of Hope

Updated: Apr 30

Is there any better accompaniment to miles and miles of fields and farms than steel guitars and a little twang?

Windows down to enjoy the Michigan spring air while slowly drifting small town to small town feels like a more authentic way to experience Stephen Wilson Jr. bringing to life his “American Gothic”... you know, the one about:

Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen

White frost, bean field, bonfire, kerosene

Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket

Lost in the land of American Gothic, yeah

Most days, a trip to visit a town like Sturgis is a welcome opportunity to plow through an audio book and feel productive and accomplished. But as I opened our side door in the morning and the warm - well, warmish - 50 degree air hit my face I switched gears and decided it was a music kind of morning. (It’s entirely possible that my crowning achievement on the day was finding an Amazon music station that played 7 hours of music without a single repeat song)

Being introduced to a new town, with new people, and a new to me coffee shop is an adventure I always look forward to. On this particular day, it was the introduction to new musicians that I found myself talking about after returning home.

Shortly after my first coffee stop at the Route 59 service center, the words of Nicholas Jamerson’s “Clear Picture” cut through morning darkness and set the tone for the entire day:

I know my intentions are good.

Won’t apologize for living my life.

I have changed,

I used to think that I should.

It’s funny how sometimes a song lyric can seem as though it was written for the exact moment you’re living in. Every now and then I find myself wondering if I'm on a mission other people actually appreciate and starting the day off with this simple message set the right tone.

A warm glow from the morning sun slowly spread out and my first coffee turned into my third by way of Four Corners and Refuge Coffee House. It was here that it stuck me that as much as the words of Benjamin Tod spoke to me, and of me, if the towns I drove through were people, they would apply to them much the same:

And they're placing bets all over town

On how I'll die

But I will rise

And I walk through hell and like the view

Oh, but I will rise, I will rise

The critical nature of “place” in songs never really hit me the same way before. Where they are written, where they are performed, where they are listened to, and where they take place.

If you’ve ever listened to Taylor Demp’s haunting interpretation of You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive while driving through the deep dark hills of eastern somewhere you’ll know exactly how “where” can have a profound impact on “how” you experience a song.

The warm spring air suddenly had a chill and I watched a shop owner check their mailbox in the same way I imagine they've done it a thousandd times before and I wondered to myself if they’d considered leaving Bronson before it was too late.

As Sturgis came into view, melancholy and nostalgia gave way to a weird sense of "get shit done" while Jesse Daniel told the story of the life and death of Clayton in the bull riding ring:

Nothin' good lasts forever

Doesn't mean you shouldn't try

They say it's better late than never

Hell can wait until tomorrow

He's got one more bull to ride

I suppose it’s fortunate that the hell can wait  part resonated more than the his ramblin’ days are over, this old cowboys homeward bound part. Either way, the fourth coffee of the day, courtesy of 5 Lakes, was consumed with a nothing can stop me attitude and I explored Sturgis through the eyes of a bull rider on top of the world (the potentially ominous foreshadowing here didn’t slip by me, but I’m just choosing to ignore it).

The visit to Sturgis came and went, and as is often the case, I returned to the road with a head full of dreams and unchallengeable optimism. Maybe that caused my mind to subconsciously filter out everything except positivity in the songs I listened to, or maybe Amazon was feeling similarly upbeat on the ride home.

Either way, I stuck to my backroads routine, grabbed a ...fifth coffee… from Trailhead Coffee in Concord, chuckled mightily to “Buffalo Coin” by Pug Johnson - lyrics intentionally omitted - and then let the words of Nicholas Jamerson fill the air once again: 

Be thankful for each and every day

That you get to see the sunrise

Don't take that love for granted

Don't you do nothin' in spite

Take care of the people

And you won't need a steeple

To give the world your light

You just give the world your light

In a business that is all about physically bringing people together, the irony of finding so much joy and inspiration sitting alone for hours on end is not lost on me. The day was a great reminder of the power of music, the power of art, and the power of words. It was a reminder of why in the loneliness of 2020 we introduced live music into our coworking spaces and found ways to connect and bring people together. 

Through the music - in a way that maybe only makes sense to me - it was a reminder of the often unrecognized impact that place has on how we interpret the world around us. When you surround yourself with beauty, light, positivity, and optimism, you see through the lens of beauty, light, positivity, and optimism - even in the most challenging of circumstances. You hear the words that propel you forward and you see opportunity in tough situations. Similarly, when you surround yourself with neglect, darkness, negativity, and fear - well, you get it. 

I often say that my work is about people. And it is. But it is also hard to separate people from places. Your experiences with the people in a certain place shapes your view of that place, and similarly, your first impression of a place affects your view of the people before you’ve even met them.

It’s a pleasure to be a small part of defining - or redefining - places in small town America. It’s an honor, privilege, and responsibility to help craft the places with which people identify themselves and the day spent visiting Sturgis reinforced my long held belief that we if we bring the right people to the right places we spark a light that slowly creeps and grows until we have created a shining beacon that continues to inspire near and far.


Post Script: A few hours later, pulling into the driveway, I felt the stresses of the day fade. A new calmness came over me. Before turning off the car, I heard the words of Zane Williams and I recognized that sometimes place and people really aren’t separate at all and that my most important place isn’t really a place at all:

Way back in the Garden when God made man

He put the whole of creation there in the palm of his hands

And as good as it was, he was empty inside

'Til God made him a woman


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