Tag Archives: musician

Required Listening

June 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For years, Chelsea Balzer and Matt Walker ran in the same circles, but somehow didn’t cross paths until Balzer joined the art performance group aetherplough in 2010 and was suddenly thrust into a musical relationship with Walker. Their undeniable compatibility was too much to ignore, and the duo soon formed their own outfit—Vital Organs—a band that fosters Walker’s unquenchable thirst for bold melodies and cinematic qualities, but is danceable at the same time. 

“Back in the day, I was exclusively into hard rock music,” Walker says. “In recent years, I had been dying to write something that made me want to dance.”

Balzer, on the other hand, gravitated toward country artists like Reba McEntire and early LeAnn Rimes because of her father, a loyal country music fan. 

“I would perform for our neighbors and their friends, which I think helped me develop that frontwoman identity from early on,” Balzer says. “But once I hit middle school, I was pretty into Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and then soon after I got into stuff like Nine Inch Nails, P.J. Harvey, and The Cure. I’ve always loved vocalists who are brave and provocative—from Christina Aguilera to Zach de la Rocha.” 

Fortunately, Vital Organs isn’t their first endeavor, as aetherplough thoroughly prepared them for what they would do in the future. The collective was built on collaborative creativity and taught them how to compromise.

“It always felt a little like we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of a project,” Walker says. “As more people threw in their ideas and questions, it would start to take on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re rehearsing a full piece that you all helped bring into being. It was magical.

“I would say our whole philosophy for creating and collaborating is informed by that experience,” he continues. “aetherplough taught us to say, ‘Yes,’ to go all in, to be flexible, and also to listen to each other in a dasdrtist, and I’m so grateful to have been encouraged to play and explore in that community.”

“I personally feel that it taught me to think of all art and performance as ritual that has the power to change its players,” Balzer adds. 

Officially established in 2015, Vital Organs dove right in and pulled from Omaha’s rich musical community, including Make Believe Recordings’ CEO/engineer Rick Carson. The Grammy Award-nominated producer worked on the group’s debut album, The Hysterical Hunger, a decision they didn’t hesitate to make once they fully realized Carson’s “rare combination of expertise, intuition, and top-notch gear.” The album itself gave Balzer and Walker opportunities to explore feminist ideals and the theme of honoring inner desires. 

“We were both going through some real loss, and we needed to rediscover some kind of inner guidance toward true north,” Balzer explains. “For us, that feels like a hunger. We liked the idea of reclaiming the word ‘hysteria,’ which has previously been used as a weapon against women and as a form of gaslighting, but ultimately implies that emotion itself is untrustworthy and that giving yourself over to an experience is dangerous and even insane. We feel that this message is really prevalent in society today and continues to cause harm. We wanted the album to be a way of proclaiming to ourselves and others that we are taking the leap and giving in to that hunger.” 

Drawn to synthesizers and soaring melodies, Vital Organs is actively honing in on its distinctive sound. However, they’re admittedly still trying to figure out how to navigate the rough waters as an indie band. 

“It’s a lot of work and also a lot of head-scratching,” Walker says. “We have been both discouraged and really honored by the process of getting our work ‘out there.’ Some aspects of it are much harder than we anticipated, and yet there are these people who seem to appear from thin air and develop this relationship with your music, and really want to help you succeed. That has been a beautiful experience.”

Vital Organs plans on hitting the road this summer, despite Balzer being in grad school in Boston and Walker busy working at Omaha Children’s Museum. They managed to carve out a few weeks to play some new cities and share the bill with other bands. 

“We know that the music will always mean something different to us than it means to others,” Walker says. “Every song reflects a time in our lives and a message we felt we needed to express. At the same time, we hear the songs and sort of forget that we wrote them. There is a kind of energetic release that comes from finishing songs and letting them exist in the world. It feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious.” 

facebook.com/vitalorgansband

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Pitch Poet

June 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

She sets up on a bustling Old Market corner. The footpaths jostle with tourists and locals doing their weekend shopping, dining,
and sightseeing.

Jocelyn Muhammad pulls the acoustic guitar slung over her back then slowly strums a chord that rings throughout the heart of the old-timey business district.

She massages sweet melodies from her guitar, but it’s not until the baby-faced, curly-haired 19-year-old songstress adds her silvery vocals that passersby stop to admire her. No one could escape her charm.

“I want to feel the breeze through my hair, through my hair,” she sings. “I want to go somewhere. I want to be someone. I want to fall in love just like everybody else.”

Muhammad’s voice flows freely at her top notes, pleasantly vibrating eardrums. She’s a showstopper—and a guitar-wielding poet of sorts.

A young musician relatively new to Omaha’s music scene, Muhammad’s voice has a textured, lived-in quality. Perhaps that’s her appeal. Caught off guard, spectators pause to hear her old-soul poetic lyrics and heart-on-her-sleeve folkie romantic songs, which are totally unexpected from such a young, jovial person.

Muhammad is a promising singer-songwriter who has already attracted an incredibly large social media following and the attention of the music industry.

A live, buzzworthy video snippet of her song “Just Like Everybody Else” recently went viral to the tune of almost 5 million plays on YouTube, even before the studio version was released in November. The 23-second clip, filmed on a few cellphone cameras, features Muhammad belting out the chorus of her song.

Taken aback, she was surprised her song reached people from as far away as Russia. It was a humbling experience, says the recent Millard South graduate. In fact, one fan wrote a song in
honor of her.

Songwriting is such an intimate practice and the truest form of flattery, she says. “It’s the idea of singing a song that you wrote about someone. The way they make you feel. And you get to put it to a melody and add words.”

Social-media savvy Muhammad stays connected with her fans through her music blog (jocelynmusic.com), YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. She documents her musical journey, taking fans along the quirky moments in studio sessions to interviews with the media.

Aside from hearing her from-the-heart work on Old Market street corners, fans catch her at open mic nights around town. She sings a mix of original melodies and covers about love and loss, loneliness and desperation, and pleas to find her soul mate. Under her musical belt, per se, she’s performed at open mic sessions at the legendary Whisky a Go Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer to finish piecing together her first record.

Muhammad got her music start at age 14. Though she participated in school choir, her happenstance of guitar picking came later when she rescued a black Indiana acoustic guitar dubbed “Black Bastard” from the flames of a friend’s bonfire.

She took it home and cleaned it up. She studied her favorite British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s likes and dislikes. His musical preferences and tendencies influenced her own.

A friend taught her the fundamentals of guitar strumming—how to play a G on Cadd9 chord. Two weeks later, she wrote her first song, “Burn It Down.”

She couldn’t bottle up her newfound love for songwriting and guitar playing. So, she packed up her guitar and headed for the Old Market.

A few months later, she says she was introduced to Aly Peeler, who, at the time, was in charge of an open mic night for the then-Side Door lounge. Soon after, she met her current manager, Jeff McClain of Midlands Music Group, who offered her a placement in the group’s free mentoring program for budding musicians.

Muhammad is grateful that she has Peeler and McClain as soundboards to help her polish her melodies and lyrics. Still honing her skills, she says she owes Peeler and McClain for helping develop her talent through many lessons and repetitive exercises, which prepared her to perform live.

“I’m not going to let a melody be just a melody,” she says. “It has to be the right one. I’m practicing constantly…working to get better.”

When she’s performing on stage, Muhammad says, “It’s just me. It’s just me there, singing to you. There’s nothing else … no one else. Just me and you. And, I’m singing.”

Muhammad has been nominated three times for Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards’ best singer-songwriter, but has yet to take home the hardware.

“I’m, like, the youngest artist there…so that’s really cool,” she says. “I’m still working on winning though. I’ll get there someday, but it’s cool just to be nominated.” 

jocelynmusic.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

The Evolution 
of Pop Music

April 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Admittedly, 34-year-old Omaha native Jonathan Tvrdik doesn’t sleep much. Between co-owning Benson’s Krug Park, working as a consultant for his wife Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik’s business Hello Holiday, being a father to 2-year-old son Hugo, directing music videos and commercials, making music, and holding down a day job as both the executive creative director at Phenomblue and head of product design at Rova, there’s not a lot of room for much else. It’s a path he can trace back to childhood.

“When I was a little kid, I played by myself and was always building things,” Tvrdik recalls. “I’m an adult version of that kid who is constantly making new project—like a band, bar, new app, or music video. I’ve always been a goal-oriented person with lots of irons in the fire.”

Ironically, that’s where the inspiration behind the name of Tvrdik’s upcoming solo album came from. Titled Irons, it’s a project over two years in the making and one that took careful crafting with the help of longtime friend and drummer for The Faint Clark Baechle. Busting at the seams with heavy themes of introspection and emotional growth, Irons illustrates a tumultuous period in Tvrdik’s life.

“For better or for worse, that’s where I’ve always been—busy,” he says. “I don’t even know what that has created in me—like who am I as a person? I’ve always been a workhorse, but who am I really? Each song dissects a different thing I am doing or interested in, or a certain vice I have as a result of all the stuff I am working with. It’s a very self-analytical sort of record.”

Beginning with “Something Better” and culminating with “Star Stick,” the 11-track album is like Joy Division meets The Faint, or as Tvrdik describes it, “Frank Sinatra on top of electronica-goth.” It was a true labor of love and Tvrdik really trusted Baechle’s expertise. Some tracks he thought were polished and ready to go; Baechle would hear them and mistakingly refer to them as “demos.” It took the experience of his fine-tuned ear to sew up any loose ends.

“We’ve made a lot music together over the years from a musician and engineer standpoint,” Tvrdik explains. “For this one, we started working through the process of what it was going to look like. I always knew when I was done mixing and recording it on my own, I would take it to him to refine. My producorial technique is very raw. For songs I thought were done and perfect, Clark would be like, ‘I got your demos’ [laughs]. I’m very right brained and he’s very left. I wanted his brain to go through it with a fine-toothed comb and nit pick the hell out of it, which he did. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”

Although Tvrdik’s music background goes back to The Cog Factory days, where Omaha staples like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Cursive’s Tim Kasher, and The Faint’s Todd Fink (Baechle’s older brother) got their start in the early ’90s, naturally he’s experienced plenty of evolutionary changes in terms of his musical output. At one point, he was in a hardcore band, and later a noise-based outfit. While he felt he was still emotionally expressive in all of them, it’s with the forthcoming Irons he felt he was truly able to effectively communicate to the listener exactly what he was experiencing.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Ren
ais
sance 
Man

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

One of Ours

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“There aren’t a lot of people in Nebraska writing new musicals,” says Roxanne Wach, executive director of Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha theater company is in the middle of its 24th season of producing original work by Midlands theater artists, and Wach reads around 200 original plays a year. But when she discovered the musical Catherland, it stood out from the pack.

A collaboration between Lincoln-based theater artist Becky Boesen and musician-composer David von Kampen, Catherland will open at the Shelterbelt April 21. It’s the latest incarnation of the project after a staged reading was produced at the Red Cloud Opera House in 2015, followed by a workshop at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“I championed the piece because I thought it had such potential. I liked the music to begin with, and that’s a huge hurdle with musicals. I liked a lot of the script and where it’s going,” Wach says. “David has really captured something in the music, and Becky is really talented with her lyrics, and it’s a pretty engaging score.”

It’s hard to imagine a story more quintessentially Nebraskan than Catherland, which is set in Red Cloud, the central Nebraska hometown of writer Willa Cather. The musical focuses on a present-day couple, Jeffrey and Susan, who move from Chicago to Red Cloud. Susan has some reservations about leaving Chicago; but early in their marriage, the couple agreed that once she finished her first novel they would slow down, move to Jeffrey’s hometown of Red Cloud, and possibly start a family.

Boesen explains that when people are experiencing culture shock they go through a honeymoon phase. Jeffrey and Susan are in that phase when “someone crashes into the barn outside and their life starts to unravel as a result, and there’s an immediate life or death problem that has to be solved,” Boesen says. “Willa Cather shows up, too. Susan, the novelist, is not a Willa Cather fan, and that’s a problem.”

That would be the ghost of Willa Cather. Boesen says that a lot of her own writing tends to include ghosts, though the ghosts are not always literal.

“I mean like a missing piece of your heart. Anything that’s missing to a protagonist,” she says. “But in this [show], there are legit ghosts, which is pretty fun.”

Von Kampen agrees, “And I don’t really like ghost stories. I don’t seek out movies or books that are like that, but from a creative standpoint, it feels really good.”

Boesen was born in southern Missouri and von Kampen is originally from Michigan, but they both moved to Nebraska as children. They’ve lived other places thanks to their careers, but are now settled in Lincoln raising their respective families. Boesen and von Kampen are full-time artists and arts educators who met briefly in 2013 while working on another project.
Boesen’s company, BLIXT, is an arts management and consulting firm that produces projects for the Lied Center, Lincoln Arts Council, and other entities. Von Kampen is a musician and composer who also teaches at Concordia University in Seward as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly a year after their initial meeting, Boesen talked von Kampen into working as the musical director on a staged reading she was directing.

Von Kampen says, “I remember when (Becky) called, and I was thinking, ‘How can I get out of this?’”

She talked him into working with her, and it went well.

“David said, ‘Hey, don’t you write stuff? We should get together and talk about writing sometime.’ And I said, ‘cool let’s get together,’” Boesen explains.

They discovered their work “sort of sounded alike” and began to share ideas. Boesen had been thinking about her experience as a teaching artist in Red Cloud. Her play, What the Wind Taught Me, ran at the Red Cloud Opera House while on tour, and she says she fell in love with the town.

“You’re driving in Nebraska and all of a sudden you feel like you’re on Mars, because the prairie is like an ocean out there,” says Boesen, who started thinking about Cather and “what it must have been like to live in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the late 1800s.”

The Nebraska prairie might be considered a character on its own in some of Cather’s work. That striking landscape also has inspired the creative team behind Catherland.

“It’s an exploration of sense of place, what it means to be home, what does it mean to make a commitment, and how does that change over the course of time, and the messy nature of long-term love,” Boesen says.

“I really think they’ve captured something. I’m so excited to be working on it. I just can’t wait for people to see it,” Wach says, impressed with Boesen’s willingness to revise her script. “To have somebody who’s that fearless in the process is a real asset to Shelterbelt in really giving new works their highest potential.”

Wach points out that supporting and nurturing new work by local artists is essential to the vitality of the Omaha theater scene.

“There are very few theaters our size who do new work in a city of our size.” Wach says, “We have a very vibrant theater community, and having new works helps feed it.”

Boesen says she and von Kampen feel lucky to have such a joyful creative process, “We just like making stuff, and we make stuff well together, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Dr. James Salhany

October 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He’s an experienced musician, composer and producer. He’s a published poet. He’s a university scientist and medical researcher with widely recognized expertise in hematology and authorship or co-authorship of numerous academic papers.

Among other things.

Whether you know him as Jim from the Old Market or Jimmy the musician or Dr. James Salhany, Jim Salhany is a dynamic, amazingly multifaceted individual who manages to find a perfect balance between his highly scientific and prolifically creative halves.

“I don’t sleep much,” Sakhany says, wryly. But he insists there’s no magic to how he manages to integrate his many interests into the same 24 hours the rest of us have each day; it’s just how he is. “For me, there was never a time when I didn’t have the humanities and science, to various degrees, as part of my life,” he explains.

“I was born in Detroit and grew up in the suburbs—the row house kind of suburbs—and I got my first guitar when I was like 12 or 13. “It was one in a junk store that my mom gave me ten bucks for,” he says. “We played a lot of two-note chords, which you could get away with in the ‘50s, and the drummer had a kick, a snare, and a cymbal—and that was it. And our bass player had a crummy little amplifier and we played in this little garage. People started coming around to listen to us, and that started becoming fun.”

And then there was that other big interest.

“I was also really into science, too,” he continues, “and Sputnik went up when I was in high school, thereabouts. Anybody with a math and science sort of inclination was turned on by this whole thing. It was just very exciting.”

Salhany continued to play in bands (with some interesting names like Penetrations and City Dog) as he pursued his education and launched his career, earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago. He also did postdoctoral research at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey before landing in Omaha, joining the University of Nebraska Medical Center faculty as an assistant professor in 1975. He was a full professor in UNMC’s departments of internal medicine and biochemistry and molecular biology by 1989, and also did scientific research with both a magnetic resonance heart laboratory at the Med Center and a blood laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“I’m officially retired. They give you the emeritus status,” he says, but their isn’t anything “emeritus” about his music. Salhany regularly works with his vocalist/flutist wife, Christine, on various projects. And he still plays with a couple of local ensembles, adding to the long line of collaborations he’s enjoyed over the years.

“It’s been a blast,” he says.

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Denise Fackler

September 5, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Denise Fackler is cool.

That is, if cool still means what it meant when the singer-songwriter was touring coffeehouses as a teenager in the ‘60s, or later helicoptering over the war-torn jungles of South Vietnam. The Omaha native even dashed off at 19 to marry her guitar-shredding flame, Lightnin’ Lyle, whose long locks made him an ill-fitted suitor in her parents’ eyes.

Yeah, the 62-year-old is pretty cool.

Of course, a duet with John Denver, a rock performance with Ted Nugent, and two improbable encounters with Lou Rawls and Ed Sullivan doesn’t hurt either.

At the very least, Fackler’s life can surely gussy up a diner — Shirley’s Diner in Millard, to be exact, which she’s owned with her husband, Lyle “Doug” Fackler, for 22 years.

“We decided to do something different,” Fackler says, reflecting on her transition from musician to business owner. “We needed something a little more secure.”

Adorned with relics from less certain times, to call Shirley’s a mausoleum would be a big mistake. The memories Fackler has amassed in the form of photographs, newspaper clippings and other miscellany are very much alive to tell her story.

Above the diner’s booths and tables, a guitar case displays the name, “We, the Living,” the three-piece folkadelic act she says she helped found in junior high. At 14, Fackler and her bandmates, Nikki Lycan and Salli Evans, signed to a local agency and began playing out-of-town gigs.

“We were good. We did three-part harmony,” she says. “We just practiced so much after school everyday, that you just get good — you get good at anything you practice at,” just like the wonder that is the diner’s Stick-to-Your-Ribs Chili.

Like all good things, the band eventually petered out, but a lingering war and its disheartened U.S. troops still required their musical prowess. A framed letter and photograph hanging just outside the diner’s kitchen reminds Fackler of her tours with the USO through Vietnam and Thailand.

“I’m most proud of that in my life,” she says with watery eyes. “I remember the sad faces of those boys—never smiling. I had no idea what they were going through every day.”

And then there’s Fackler’s youngest son, filmmaker/musician Nik, 29, whose framed movie poster for Lovely, Still, starring Martin Landau and Ellen Barkin—both Oscar-winners—proudly decorates the opposite wall. The director wrote the film’s script in high school and credits his mother for encouraging him to write at a young age.

“It didn’t matter what the story was about or how it ended, just that it was created,” Nik says. “Because of her, it became a habit to create.”

Perhaps as a form of continued maternal support—and amping up her hipster quotient three more notches—Denise has even provided background vocals while performing on the Waiting Room stage with her son’s ethereal art-rock band, InDreama.

Yep, in this or any other decade, Denise Fackler is just that cool.   

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OnTrack, Inc.

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you’ve ever found yourself singing “Pepper, Pepper, Pepperjax Grill,” or “You’ll like it…Kelly’s Carpet,” or “It pays to cross the bridge…Lake Manawa Kia,” Johnny Ray Gomez IV is the man largely responsible. He created these jingles, along with dozens and dozens of others, and it’s only a facet of what he does as the owner, president, and creative director of OnTrack.

Gomez rattles off a long list of OnTrack’s offerings: “We’re an audio post-production facility. We do original music jingles for radio, television, web, and multimedia. I do demos for singers and musicians. I do audio for video. We do ADR [Additional or Automated Dialogue Recording for TV and movies]. We do sound design, sound effects, a lot of voiceover work.”

Gomez manages all of this from his 3,200-square foot facility near 118th and Harrison streets in Omaha. “We have a main studio, one smaller studio, and what I call the composing suite. We have the latest computers with music software, industry standard. And we also have the capability to link up to studios worldwide, which basically brings anybody to your doorstep with the touch of a button,” he adds proudly.

This technical capability means Gomez works with clients from all over the country.

“Just last October, [actor and Saturday Night Live alum] Will Forte was in town working on the new Nebraska movie with Alexander Payne. He was in Norfolk filming for a month and doing a sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so we actually recorded all of his voice animation parts here,” he says. “For three years, we did work for Teen Mom with Farrah Abraham. Instead of MTV flying her to New York, they just brought her here to OnTrack.” He adds that even YouTube sensation and Columbus, Neb., native Lucas Cruikshank recorded dialog as Fred Figglehorn for Nickelodeon’s Fred: The Movie.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold. I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.” – Johnny Ray Gomez IV, owner

If Gomez seems rather casual about these brushes with fame, it’s because he’s met and worked with lots of well-known names in the music industry over the years, from Marvin Hamlisch and Bo Diddley to Peter Noone and Reba McEntire. A third-generation musician and master of multiple instruments, Gomez actually cut his teeth on the other side of the business. His father was a prolific regional performer who first brought his namesake onstage at age 3 as part of a family revue and later, to sometimes collaborate with nationally known singers and musicians.

“Back in the ’70s, my dad and brother and I had publicity shots with the ruffles and tuxes,” Gomez says, grinning at the memory. “We also had one where we kind of had the Elvis look…the jumpsuits.”

Gomez left home after high school at 17 and traveled the world for four years as the music director and pianist for The Platters, one of the most successful vocal groups of the ’60s.

“I got tired of being on the road. I literally lived out of a suitcase for five years. I knew I wanted to be in music, but I didn’t want to travel,” he says, explaining his impetus for starting a recording studio in his hometown and getting into the jingle business.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold,” he recalls. He sold his very first jingle to Camelot Cleaners and landed his second for Idelman Telemarketing. One of his early works, for Garden Café, ran for 12 years. “I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.”

OnTrack is a one-man show, but Gomez says the connections and partnerships he’s developed over the years make it possible to offer a wide spectrum of services to his clients. “Even with the workflow I have, I’ve been able to do everything by using all of the resources I have.”

What lessons has Gomez learned in his decades in the biz? “Have a good quality product and do what you do well. And surround myself with people who also do what they do well.”

Good Drinks, Good Music, Good People

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“We keep it mellow but fun,” says Joanna Murzyn, one of the owners of Myth, a martini bar in the Old Market at 11th and Howard streets. “We like to have a calm feel. Nothing dancey or headbanging.”

Guests sit back on chocolate-leather couches and converse over craft cocktails while acoustic or jazz sets play in the lounge’s front window every Thursday night. The club sends out events news and promotions to anyone who texts “Myth” to (402)-965-0230, or guests can check Myth’s Facebook page to find out who’s playing next. If it’s the first Thursday of the month, you’ll find local musician Chris Saub with his guitar, a microphone, and folk rock sung with slight gravel. “It’s a sort of relaxed kind of rock,” says regular John Lewenthal. “He plays his own music, but occasionally he’ll mix in a cover.”

Myth is a rewarding place to be a regular. “We have a great crowd here,” Murzyn says. “You really develop relationships over the years.” Regulars know they’ll have a place to escape the downtown crazy on New Year’s Eve, and a special rum stays behind the bar for the only patron who drinks it. “Only one customer wants it, and we get it for him,” she says.

Owner Brian Murzyn

Owner Brian Murzyn

Murzyn credits her husband and co-owner, Brian, with a talent for bringing guests back for more. She recounted the story of someone freshly moved to Omaha who walked into Myth one night. “He said he knew he had to force himself to get out and meet people,” Murzyn recalls, “and there was Brian behind the bar. He’s been a regular for a couple years now.”

Regulars and newcomers alike should feel free to ask the versatile bartenders to make them something off-menu if none of the Myth suggestions sound quite right. “They love that,” Murzyn says. She estimated that roughly 80 percent of the cocktails served over the stained concrete bar are unique to the lounge. The Mystique, for example, has been a favorite since Myth opened in May 2007. The sweet pink drink is comprised of X-Rated Fusion Liqueur, mango rum, and pineapple.

“They have a really good feel for various drinks,” Lewenthal says. “They have such a large repertoire of things they’re able to put together, even for somebody that may not know they enjoy drinks like that.” The average cost of a Myth cocktail is $9, though there’s wine and beer (bottled and draft) for those with simpler tastes.

A couple menus from next-door restaurants are kept under the bar in case patrons need a pizza from Zio’s or an appetizer from Stokes to go with their cocktails. There is one TV behind the bar, positively small in comparison to what you’d find at a sports bar, for taking a break in conversation to check a score.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Myth is no longer open.

Merrymakers Association

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many elderly citizens, living in a retirement community or a nursing home can be a lonely existence, what with being cut off from family, old friends, and—what sometimes seems like—the outside world. Several factors can keep someone from being able to leave the senior facility, whether it be physical immobility or mental functioning, which can often inhibit residents from being able to enjoy the leisure activities they used to—going to movies, visiting with people in the community, or watching musical performances. But one nonprofit organization is dedicated to brightening the lives of those very seniors by bringing the music and laughter to them.

Merrymakers Association began serving seniors in nursing homes in 1986 after a local entertainer met with a group of Omaha businessmen to form the organization. Slowly but surely, this effort to provide the elderly with live, musical entertainment grew. Today, Merrymakers serves more than 40,000 seniors with free, musical entertainment annually. In 2012 alone, more than 100 facilities received Merrymakers musical programming.

Most senior facilities have a limited budget for activities for their residents; the cost of providing entertainment can use up most of the activities budget. In addition, many facilities have seen a dramatic decline in the number of musicians available to provide free or affordable entertainment for their residents. This is why Merrymakers never charges for their performances, and instead relies on donations from the community.

Merrymakers is all about fun in Executive Director Tricia Cottrell’s view. “While there are many wonderful and caring individuals and groups, who are willing to give their time and talent at senior-serving entities by volunteering to perform, we ‘take it up a notch’ by making sure our entertainers are trained professionals, who are in demand in the community at large,” she says. “We make a specific effort to provide the seniors with the music of their youth—to bring back the memories of that first dance at their wedding, the song they heard at their senior prom, or the one they sang to the children.”

GALA Merry Makers

Cottrell has been leading Merrymakers for the last two-and-a-half years. After a long career in business, she made the switch to nonprofit work. “I am a musician myself—third generation of the now five generation of musicians in my family…I love working with creative people and have a strong interest in seniors and their well-being. [Merrymakers] was a perfect fit for me…I have jokingly said I intend to still be leading the organization when I am living at one of the facilities we service.”

Cottrell’s very first “mission moment” occurred when a resident’s daughter thanked Merrymakers for the performance of WWII songs. “Her mother had severe dementia and had become disconnected from much of what was happening, but she sang all the words to the songs of her youth. Our performance allowed this daughter to have her mother present in the moment for the entire hour, and that is a gift I would gladly give anyone.”

Like many in Merrymakers, Cottrell knows that music is often used with the elderly to increase levels of physical, emotional, and mental functioning. The sensory and intellectual stimulation of the music can help maintain or improve a person’s quality of life.

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value,” asserts Cottrell. “While the arts may not be as critical as health care, housing, or food, we truly believe that we provide sustenance for the mind and for the soul of these seniors and that their feelings of joy are just as critical to their well-being.”

Merrymakers is home to 14 professional entertainers of all ages and backgrounds with their own unique styles of performance. Two such performers include vocalist and guitarist Kim Eames and vocalist Physha.

Kim Eames has been with Merrymakers for eight years now. She got involved after another entertainer, Joe Taylor (a.k.a. “Mr. Memories”), who has been there for 18 years, had her audition. “I was the only female at that time,” she says. “They had four men, and they were looking to gather up some female entertainers.”

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value.” – Tricia Cottrell, executive director with Merrymakers Association

Born and raised in Omaha, Eames has been performing for 40 years. After getting her first guitar at age 11, Eames threw herself into the musical world, playing weddings, private parties, lounges, and even heading out on the road. Since then, she has gained a performance reputation in Omaha after having performed at La Festa Italiana, Taste of Omaha, and other shows for businesses and corporations.

Eames likes to play different kinds of music. “My music usually spans from the 1920s to early 2000s, which allows me to play so many different things. I don’t call myself a country singer or a ‘50s singer. I try not to pinpoint any genre.” Eames says that because an audience is always filled with different people, a performer can’t play one kind of music because it will only hit a few people.

During her time with Merrymakers, Eames has heard her fair share of good memories from audience members. “I love hearing about their lives—what they did and who they are. A guy I met played in the brass section for Dinah Shore, and a woman I met danced for USO shows and knew Bob Hope personally…I love these unique stories. It’s amazing what you hear. I always come home with a lot more than I left with.”

Like Eames, vocalist Physha loves hearing stories and getting to meet the residents in her audience. “[A few months ago], I sang for a lady named Mary, who was 105 years old,” she says. “She said to me that those were tunes she hadn’t gotten to hear in some time. To see someone who has lived their life—who has paved the way from their time—respond like that…just the effect of music bringing them back to that time is an indescribable feeling.”

Physha has been with Merrymakers for a little more than two years. “I started a business called Classic Impressions Musical Entertainment a couple years ago, and I had been going to retirement communities to perform. Tricia Cottrell happened to be visiting the retirement community where I was performing one night. She saw my show and asked if I’d want to be a Merrymaker.”

GALA Merry Makers

Although she has only been performing for two years with Merrymakers, Physha is no stranger to the entertainment industry. After having been a model from a young age, she performed in musicals and with bands all over the Midwest. “I was born and raised here, so I’ve always come back to my stomping grounds.”

Physha likes to engage her audience during her performances. “I make sure they’re having a good time with me, so I’ll bring hand instruments like tambourines to get them involved.” As for her music, she generally performs songs from any genre between the 1920s and current time, but she bases her performances around her audience. “Ninety-five percent of my audience is in retirement communities, so my music is really about what they want to hear. I love seeing them smile as they tap their toes and sing along. To see that in the height of Alzheimer’s and dementia is truly amazing.”

Physha believes music is a universal language that brings people together and always has. “Everyone can relate to music,” she adds.

Merrymakers hold performances year-round at many different locations. They will also hold their Annual Roast on Nov. 8 with Sid Dinsdale, President and Chairman of Pinnacle Bank, as the guest of honor. Some of the past honorees at the Annual Roast include Governor Ben Nelson, Mayor Mike Fahey, Mary Maxwell, Bruce Lauritzen, and Walter Scott. The event will take place at Embassy Suites La Vista from 6-9pm, and all proceeds will go to help Merrymakers Association’s mission.

For more information, visit merrymakers.org or call 402-697-0205.