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Five Years and Counting
Reflections on Our Wood Anniversary
Mar 2, 2007
By Andrew Truelson
Just south of downtown on Mass Street sits an unassuming three-story Victorian-style house. Not uncommon for its neighborhood, it would seem unremarkable if not for fact that passersby often hear the wail of blues guitars and harmonicas emanating from within, causing them to turn their heads and read the words on the large wooden sign posted there: "Americana Music Academy". Inside this house for the past five years, a sort of revolution has been taking place. In short, the residents of this converted domicile are on a mission to revitalize and archive one of North America's most unique and precious resources: American roots music. By forming a non-profit music school, Thom Alexander has taken the promotion and teaching of this truly original American art form squarely on his shoulders, and so far, it's working.
A visitor to the school might easily mistake the space for a rented house belonging to a group of college kids, with the furniture of the cozy, hand-me-down variety and a collection of Beatles posters hung on the walls. But at second glance, he or she would notice that, where the bedrooms should be, there are no beds, just guitar amps, chairs and music stands. From room to room, the theme continues with a series of instrument cases, etude books, and, on the top floor, an attic converted to a recording studio. Back downstairs, the living room is mostly chairs arranged in a semi-circle to facilitate the weekly accoustic and blues jams in front of a brick fireplace. This is a sort of sanctuary for the roots music aficianados of the area, a space forged out of difficulty and loss, but one that is enjoying growth and recognition as it survives into its sixth year.
The continuing success of the academy has been orchestrated, in more ways than one, by the above-mentioned director. Thom is unpretentious, not above the occasional political rant or amusing tale about life on the road, and when he speaks about music, he speaks passionately about something that he feels should be played in the moment between friends. An art form not as much for records and radio as for porches and barbecues.
"You may be too young to remember this," Thom explains, "but when I was growing up in California, our high school dances all had live bands and there was this incredible music scene in the area because of it. Each high school had a dance on a different weekend, so if you wanted to, you could go around from school to school each weekend and hear a live band play. It was the most tremendous opportunity for young musicians to play in front of a live audience and for these kids to go and hear live music." This environment, one of performing, practicing, listening, taking a solo, being alternately humiliated and celebrated, created a musician's musician who now spends the bulk of his time devising programs so that other young people can learn to play and create on the fly. "I realized that there were all these great musicians in Lawrence and they were just hanging around hoping somebody would organize something so that we could focus our energy into giving new life to this music." The response was tremendous, with high-caliber instructors coming on board from the beginning. Names like Bob and Rick Faris, Scott Tichenor, and Joe Pickett, musicians who have toured, recorded and then settled down in eastern Kansas to perfect their music. "We definitely have a more than tenuous connection with a number of important area musicians, promoters and music shops." But, one might ask, how much appeal do country and bluegrass music have? He answers as if he has heard this question before. "Don't think of it as a bluegrass school. What we're interested in promoting here is "roots" music, which includes blues, jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, zydeco, gospel and even some rock and roll, all filtered through the American experience."
Having come this far, however, Thom and the school are no strangers to loss. "Within the first year of our existence, one of our friends and benefactors, Craig Sachen, passed away, and then the following year my wife Gina passed away. I started to wonder if someone wasn't trying to send me a message or something. Then just last year our head classical guitar instructor, William Gangle, died suddenly of an illness, so we've had some sad times." In fact the Alexander family's first visit to the midwest was born of trying times. "We first came out here from California after my son AJ was diagnosed with autism because Lawrence actually has one of the best treatment centers in the country. Now he has deep Kansas roots and I couldn't even suggest that we move back to California."
These losses, however, have not brought this philanthropic endeavor to an end, but instead have been used as an impetus for creativity and growth. Thom’s very first student in Lawrence, Ashley Ray, has recently signed a contract with Capitol records to begin recording and touring, and the academy has announced it will expand into the neighboring communities of Paola and Topeka. "The thing is, I'm not a businessman, I'm a guitar teacher. We've really got some juice built up from these past five years in Lawrence going into these new communities. It's not going to be exactly the same if only for the fact that the instructors and I can't be in two places at once, but we've created a template here that works, and to see it expand throughout the entire state, and maybe even the region, would be really neat. We're getting a lot of press these last few years and we're looking to become more proactive about our fundraising in the next few years, all of which will allow me to do more of what I do best, which is teach and play guitar."
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