A Texanís South Dakota Acoustic Christmas
      by Christine Albert

    When my partner, South Dakota native Chris Gage and I were invited to be a part of "A South Dakota Acoustic Christmas" in December 2001, I knew that I was in for an adventure.

    My roots are in upstate New York and northern New Mexico but I have called Austin, Texas home for twenty years. Itís been awhile since I have dealt with ice and snow and I was ready for it! As it turned out the Gods were with us on this tour and we only ran into one light flurry. I had heard tales of the infamous 1996 candlelit concert in Pierre after a blizzard knocked out the power, and secretly wanted something like that to happen again. But, having clear skies and roads was a worthwhile sacrifice as every show on the tour was sold out.

    We started with a couple of rehearsals in Sioux Falls and I felt like a foster child being welcomed into a generous and loving family. Most of the ten musicians involved with SDAC are friends that Chris has known for decades. He grew up with Judy and her family in Pierre, he played with Boyd in the 70ís, Mike was his hero as an aspiring young musician and Kenny is one of his best friends, having played together in The Red Willow Band and with Roy Clark. I was entwined with Chrisís roots and that alone made this time significant in a very personal way.

    The music came together quickly as well, thanks to a lot of work up there in South Dakota without us, tapes in the mail and some very focused and productive rehearsals with these gifted musicians. Chris and I found our place in their show and then we all worked together on what Albert and Gage could add to it for this particular year. Christmas music has always been inspiring to me and this year the spiritual messages of hope, faith and peace were especially important to hear and affirm, for us and for the audience. I was grateful to follow September 11, 2001 with a season of intense attention to spirit, through music, friendship and family.

    Once the shows began there was no rest for the weary, but the experience was so energizing I found myself rising to the demands of the schedule. We did 12 shows in 10 days and each night the show evolved, becoming more and more refined and comfortable. The beauty of repeating a show night after night is that within the foundation of familiarity you create more room for spontaneity. We fell into a rhythm with each other and soon became one living, breathing, creating organism cruising across the state spreading holiday cheer.

    We had our moments of total musical implosion, some that the audience was aware of and some that we deftly covered (or so we think), but each moment was accepted for what it was and the spirit behind it all was the star of the show. For the most part we were playing on beautiful stages in acoustically perfect theaters with a great sound and lighting crew to a sold out house. Those elements pretty much guarantee that there will be joy in the process of making music and I was never disappointed. I felt blessed to be there and cherished every minute on stage.

    Although our schedule was full, during the drives between shows I experienced the beauty of South Dakota. Driving from Rapid City to Pierre we stopped at the infamous Wall Drug for nickel coffee and bumper stickers and then got off the interstate and took Highway 14 into Pierre. An endless horizon took my breath away. The vastness and emptiness of that country leaves room for emptiness in your mind, which is a good thing. We get so full of people and traffic here in Austin that itís a challenge to find your inner silence. In South Dakota the environment itself gives you a place to rest.

    Chris and I visited Mt. Rushmore on a cold Sunday afternoon and were the only ones there. I wasnít prepared for how emotionally and artistically moved I would be. The mountain would be breathtaking without the carved faces, but the combination of natureís beauty and manís ingenuity and perseverance is an awe-inspiring sight that brought me to my knees. If that vision can be manifested, is there any dream too big to realize? In the wake of the terrorist attacks I felt an unfamiliar fear that wouldnít have occurred to me before. Mt. Rushmore is a symbol of our highest ideals as Americans and I experienced a wave of protectiveness towards it. An undeniable anger arose in me at the thought of any harm ever coming to it at the hands of a radical trying to make a political statement. Suddenly the words "national treasure" had a whole new meaning to me.

    Every state has its own culture and I was struck by some of the differences between Texas and South Dakota. I knew I was in a foreign land when I saw things like a sea of goose droppings in Pierre, beef chislic on every menu (Iíd never heard of it before), a "waterfowl wear" section at the sporting goods store and a Christmas tree decorated with fishing lures and shotgun shells.

    A surprise gem on our travels was the Shrine to Music Museum on the campus of The University of South Dakota in Vermillion. I had expected some dusty old fiddles and player pianos stacked up in the corner of the music building, but what I found was a world class collection of some of the earliest and best preserved musical instruments on the planet.

    One cold night we visited the World War II memorial at the edge of the capitol pond in Pierre. There was something beautiful and surreal about those life-like bronze soldiers and the sight and sound of hundreds of geese and two swans on the steaming water behind them in the moonlight.

    "A South Dakota Acoustic Christmas" was a powerful introduction to the state and the people. I was struck by the sense that it is one vast small town. Everywhere we went we ran into people Chris knew at truck stops and malls and restaurants in towns and cities and on the roads in between. Maybe itís because there are only 770,000 people spread across the state or maybe itís because they are open and friendly and actually get to know each other. It has taken the efforts of many people to turn SDAC into such a success, from the musicians who perform to the non-profits it benefits and who help promote the shows, from the local journalists who cover it so well to the audience who turns out in droves and host the after-show gatherings in every town. Iím not sure every state in America could pull it off. South Dakota is a united community that has created a very special tradition and I am grateful to have been a part of it.

Christine Albert
Published in Pierre South Dakota's RIVER LIFE  January 2002