Guest Column: Musician Jay Nash Writes About Music as a Connective Force

This week, we have another very special guest column written by musician, Jay Nash who generously shared an exclusive essay with Think Like a Label. His recent participation with the Save the River 10th Anniversary Concert exhibits Nash’s environmental conservation efforts, which makes him all the more qualified to share his personal take on how to be a conscious and caring community based musician. Success is one aspect of being a musician. We also love the fact that there are talented musicians in the world who are willing to give their time to great causes.

I think that is commonly accepted that music is a connective force. It is means of communicating on a profound and emotional level that transcends language and virtually all boundaries. So it is no wonder to me, that some of my dearest musical memories stem from the alchemy of getting a diverse group of musicians and songwriters in a room together.

Every year, for the last nine years, I have been fortunate to have had the unique opportunity to experience this phenomena in the ideal setting in which I came of age… the 1000 Islands Region of the St Lawrence River. In support of Save the River, (a non-profit, member-based environmental organization whose mission is preserve and protect the ecological integrity of the Upper St. Lawrence River basin) I bring together a group of my favorite songwriters and musicians to rehearse and perform a concert called, ‘Rock for the River’.

We gather together several days before the concert at my parents home, a humble, yet picturesque cottage situated right on the banks of the River. For 10 years or so, my folks operated a successful Bed & Breakfast out of their home, so they are very comfortable with a house full of people and they welcome the musical and festive atmosphere that pervades around the clock.

Rock for the River is not so much as a festival as it is a one of a kind experience. Each of the concerts has been a singular moment in time, where arrangements and musical partnerships come together in a beautiful, once in a lifetime, kind of way. Part of the beauty of the experience is that it is, in fact so temporary. There is always a bittersweetness to the time we spend together in the knowledge that as wonderful as it is for us all to be there together, it will never be exactly that way again.

Over the years, alumni of the concert have included Joe Purdy, Sara Bareilles, The Milk Carton Kids, Chris Pierce, Meiko, Gabriel Mann & Adrianne of the Rescues, Garrison Starr, Chris Seefried, Jim Bianco, Brian Wright, Sally Jaye and many more. Imagine if you will, for a moment, any permutation of these artists onstage together. I have lost count of the times that I have found myself overwhelmed with joy as I stood on the stage of the Clayton Opera House playing music with my friends, perhaps hearing a harmony on one of my songs that I had never heard before or simply standing side stage, witnessing a sublime performance that I knew then, I would never forget.

Another element, that makes Rock for the River so special, is the experience of the rehearsals. As I mentioned, the concert itself is a one off, so the group of musicians effectively form a band, supergroup, if you will for the sole purpose of this one show. Towards that end, we live together, sing together and in many cases, stay up all not together, galvanizing a camaraderie that makes for a hell of a show.

The 1000 Islands is a land lost in time. Not a whole lot has changed up there in the last 100 years or so. Back in the late 1800s, it was one of the most popular vacation spots in the Northeast for residents of not only upstate New York, but also NYC, Boston and Philadelphia.

Almost every positive memory from my youth and formative years came from the time that I spent on the St Lawrence River. I grew up and went to grade school in Manlius, a small village, just outside of Syracuse, NY however, I spent much of my summer and nearly every weekend from May through November in the 1000 Islands in Clayton, NY.

I remember the feeling as a child that it almost seemed impossible for the River and Syracuse to exist on the same planet…let alone the same state. The 1000 Islands seemed to be a place almost entirely insulated from the negative trappings of everyday life. It was just the opposite – with people running around in boats, permanent smiles plastered upon their faces and the constant soundscape of boats, breeze and the gentle echo of water kissing the shoreline.

The 1000 Islands is not only a natural wonder with its 1800+ islands scattered over roughly 40 square miles. For it’s natural features alone make it like no place on earth. But, the relationship between humanity and the place make it even more special. Walt Whitman summed it up nicely back in 1855:
O boating on the rivers,

The voyage down the St. Lawrence, the superb scenery, the steamers,

The ships sailing, the Thousand Islands, the occasional timber-raft

and the raftsmen with long-reaching sweep-oars,

The little huts on the rafts, and the stream of smoke when they cook
supper at evening.

— Walt Whitman, A Song of Joys, 1855.

Not a whole lot has changed since then. Except for jet skis. They are a bit of a sonic nuisance. I’ll leave that diatribe for another blog.

The only other major change that has occurred since the mid 1800s is the advent of the St Lawrence Seaway. In the 1950s, the army corps of engineers built the seaway, by blasting out rapids downriver from the 1000 Islands and installing a series of locks that would allow large lake and seafaring freighters to travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. In some ways, this was a bit of an environmental disaster. Many would argue that it was a necessary collateral loss in the interest of industrial progress.

As you can imagine, the interests of the Seaway carry an incredible amount of influence. This is where Save the River comes into the picture. In practice, a lot of what they do is actually stand as a voice for the people of the River community and hold in balance the interests of the Seaway with the environmental AND socio-economic interest of the River faring public. In 2004, STR joined the Waterkeeper Alliance to become Riverkeeper of the Upper St. Lawrence.

The way I like to simplify their role, is that Save the River is the sole organization striving to preserve and protect the place that I grew up loving, so that my children…and their children may experience that same sense of wonder from the place that I did.

So hopefully, this gives some insight on my motivation for producing that first Rock for the River concert back in 2004. I found myself then in Los Angeles, immersed in a beautiful family-like community of songwriters and musicians. It was a great time to be in LA, But I missed the River and I had a sense that there was some unfound bridge between these two worlds that I just had to find.

I have to admit that my excitement, as the first concert grew near, was tempered by some nervousness that these Los Angeles based musicians would not be as enamored with River life, River Times and Riverfolk as I imagined that they would be…and vice versa.

As it turned out, my initial hunch was correct. Each and every one of those artists fell madly and deeply in love with the place AND the people. The first Rock for the River concert at the Clayton Opera House became a night that none in attendance would ever forget. It was a kick off of summer, a celebration of the place that we all held so dear and it was a great coming together for kids of all ages.

Nine years and ten concerts later, not much has changed. The evening still feels as magical as it did that first night. We just sell a whole lot more tickets.