The WMA has long expressed a desire to involve young people in the organization. It’s only in the last four to five years that this goal has become a reality. Through the efforts of co-chairs Jane Leche and James Michael along with a number of other folks, more and more young people have been recruited and have begun attending the annual conference. What they've found is an environment in which they have the opportunity to learn skills such as how to sing and play their instruments, how to dress professionally, how to write songs and how to work together as an ensemble to put on a good show. Their parents have found people willing to help them try to figure out the intricacies of the business such as how to package yourself to get booked, how to do a CD project and many other things. Occasionally, the organization falls short in giving these young performers and their parents the resources and support they need but for the most part, the WMA has really stepped up.
Miss Kristyn Harris, who at age 20 is most likely the youngest person ever to win the WMA’s Performer of the Year award, is still a member of the Youth Chapter until next summer. She remembers when she and Naomi Bristow were the only people under forty at the convention (by the way, Kristyn, what’s wrong with being “over forty”??!!). That was six years ago. This year, there were kids everywhere! We’ve come a long way. Where once the performances of most of the young people involved in the chapter were “cute” (kind of like when your child stumbles his or her way through their part in the school play), now they are often jaw-droppingly good. Like twelve year old Olivia Hobbs singing “Shenandoah” while modulating…THREE TIMES!!...with one of the purest, richest voices you’ll hear anywhere from a performer of any age. Or Jeneve Rose Mitchell not only playing multiple instruments but playing them on the same song. Or Mikki Daniel and Hailey Sandoz knocking your socks off with their great Cowboy swing tunes that belong not just on the youth stage but on any stage, anywhere, any time. Or young Thatch Elmer reciting his own original poetry with the aplomb of a Waddie Mitchell or Baxter Black, confident and in command. I could go on but you get the picture. These kids are good!
All of the above stuff is pretty impressive. Let me tell you now what impresses me the most. Behind the scenes, you see these kids helping and supporting each other in so many ways. They get together to work out their arrangements and rehearse. The older ones mentor the younger ones. They see each other doing things and it inspires each of them to learn something new and different. And most importantly, I see them becoming great friends. Many of these kids are now part of the circuit of cowboy gatherings and music festivals that occur throughout the West so they see each other fairly often. Kathy Sawyer, mother of Leah and David (two young and extremely talented young folks from Texas) described it as “finding their tribe.” When she said it, my jaw dropped. Not too long ago, I used the same phrase about myself and others who have found kindred spirits in this particular slice of the music world. It hadn’t occurred to me that the same would be true for these young people but it makes perfect sense. These associations make you want to be better…a better singer, songwriter and musician but more importantly, a better person.
In my “other life” where I worked for many years helping young people get their lives on track, I came to believe that one of the most important things children need in addition to family stability is an opportunity to become passionately involved in activities which give their lives meaning and purpose. Before I ever became involved with music, sports provided that for me when I was a teen-ager. We see “aimless” kids in our society because we fail to give them something to aim for. How dare we sit back then and criticize them when they behave badly when it is our failure to give them what they need. I’m proud that the Western Music Association is doing its part to give young people and their families an opportunity to pursue their passion in such a productive way. I know organizations of different types all over the country do the same thing on a daily basis. We need to tell those stories to each other to remind ourselves that there are things we can do to really make a difference.