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Thursday, August 11,2011

Music as Glue

As eTown enters its 20th year, its founders talk about what makes the program stick

By Cory O'Brien
photo by Dane Cronin
Nick and Helen Forster

If the goal of music truly is to bring people together, then eTown may be the ideal music program. A combination of live performances and artist interviews (as well as a few other goodies thrown in along the way), eTown has been breaking down walls between artists and audiences for 20 years now. Through eTown, we learned that Neko Case has a killer sense of humor, that Charlie Louvin “isn’t a tree-hugger” and that Steve Earle loves his First Amendment (OK, so we probably already knew that one). In a world where everything needs to fit into a pre-determined format, eTown allows artists to talk openly about their music, their childhoods, their politics or anything else that they feel like sharing, and then actually play their music. This isn’t AM or FM radio — it’s eTown. And while AM and FM radio are losing ground to new media, eTown is quietly humming along, connecting a million listeners to their favorite artists every week.

“I think the interviews really change the audience’s experience with the music,” says Nick Forster, who founded the show back in 1991 with his wife and fellow host, Helen Forster. “The artists reveal themselves, and they humanize themselves a little bit, and it makes the connection deeper. When the listener hears that next song, they get a sense of context. What’s the perspective of that songwriter, and what was their life experience that made that song happen? It’s not typical. Everything else is designed to put the artist out of reach.”

In a way, eTown has become even more important with the advent of new media — in addition to humanizing genre heroes, it reminds listeners of the vast scope of music that may exist outside of their own bandwith. It’s much easier now to become lost in one genre; music blogs, Pandora and other digital radio stations all specialize in helping fans find music that sounds similar to stuff they already listen to. For the casual music listener, trekking out into the unknown can be overwhelming. But weekly eTown broadcasts offer two different artists, usually varied in sound and almost always a little under the radar. It’s all in an attempt to build a community somewhere between the limitless expanse of the digital world and the shrinking playlists of the analog one.

“Music has the opportunity to open people up in ways that not all art forms can. It’s not uncommon for people to feel, on a Sunday evening as a festival is wrapping up, to feel a sense of wistfulness, a sense of loss,” Nick says, explaining the unanimity of the festival experience that he hopes to recreate, on a smaller scale, week to week. “I’ve been part of something, and I’m about to lose it. When I go home, I’m not going to have it anymore. That’s a big part of the eTown DNA.”

In the next year, eTown will take another huge step toward community building with the opening of the eTown Hall. The multipurpose building, converted from an old church in downtown Boulder, will ensure that eTown stays in the city for years to come. The hope is that it will also become a cultural hub, with an intimate stage for eTown performances, a recording studio, a smaller basement venue for classes and local performances, and a small coffee shop. The Forsters are hoping the venue will house workshops, lectures, children’s theater, open mic nights and anything else that could contribute to the cultural center of Boulder. It’s been a massive undertaking, conceived 19 years ago and just now inching towards completion, but when finished, eTown Hall should stand as a reminder that while the eTown brand is centered on music, its focus is on the community that gathers around the music.

“We see it as a real necessity to expand eTown’s reach as sort of a beacon of information, hope and inspiration,” Helen says. “We intend to have a lecture series with various experts in sustainability and social issues. Boulder is already known as a hub of information in that way, and I can see eTown Hall becoming a unifying factor for that.”

From its inception, eTown has always mixed environmental and social issues with music. Part of that is because the show gives artists a platform to discuss whatever comes to their minds.

Whether it’s Louvin expressing his reservations about environmentalists or Earle telling censors where they can shove it, eTown’s guests don’t pull any punches. But the show also mixes political issues in via their weekly E-Chievement award, which highlights ordinary people and organizations around the country who are doing good in the world.

Helen says eTown has a kind of “ripple effect.” “We kind of toss out the little pebble in the lake, and from that it goes to our listeners, and they turn to and help those organizations that are feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and cleaning up the rivers and working with atrisk kids,” she says.

It goes back to building community.

Nick talks about the E-Chievement Award as a great equalizer. Through the interviews with musicians, legends are humanized, and through the E-Chievement Award, ordinary people are spotlighted. The end result is a show that highlights that everybody is doing their part to make the world a better place — not in some New Age, everybody-wins way, but rather in a way that emphasizes the individual’s place within a community.

It all culminates in the most fitting way possible: a weekly jam between the two guests, sharing the stage and joining together to play a song they had 30 minutes to arrange and rehearse. Perhaps the best way to demystify heroes is to take them out of their comfort zone and allow them to let themselves make mistakes. Sometimes it all comes together perfectly — Nick remembers a really killer collaboration between Willie Nelson and Angelique Kidjo that made for a once-in-a-lifetime moment — sometimes it doesn’t, but it always makes for compelling radio, even if it is a compelling mess.

“Generally speaking, there is a certain amount of terror that goes into every one of those performances, because everyone is out of their comfort zone,” Nick says. “But I think radio is one of those mediums … I find it to be very personal. It’s engaging because you don’t see the whole picture. You’re not watching it on television. You get sucked into the imaginary reality of being there, and my experience of listening to radio is that energy becomes much more palpable. You can kind of tell when something is exciting or when something is scary or when something is not working or when something is really happening, and I think the little bit of terror that is underlying most of the finales gives it a little extra boost of energy that I think is palpable on the radio.”

Out of necessity, eTown is moving forward. The show is moving to a new place where it will be possible to record artists, edit in-house, produce videos and take the show into the brave new future. But it’s nice to know that their vision is still tied so closely to the past, a past where families gathered around radio sets and watched the radio, each member imagining it a little bit differently.

It’s nice to know there is still a place that recognizes that even though no two people see it the exact same way, we all share the same experience.

[ On the Bill: There are two eTown shows this week, both at the Boulder Theater. The Civil Wars and Sarah Jarosz will play on Friday, Aug. 12. The show is sold out.The Tedeschi Trucks Band and Joseph Arthur play on Sunday, Aug. 14. Tickets are $27. For more details, visit www.bouldertheater.com. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.] 


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