The Power of Words
December 10, 2016
Story by Allen Laman Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
Scott Saalman sat hunched over an old laptop in his kitchen, surrounded by the punch and twang of acoustic guitars bouncing off the makeshift rehearsal studio’s walls. He periodically ran his fingers along the top of his head — where his hair would be if he had any — as he tweaked the set list for the 99th Will Read and Sing For Food show two days later. He started the charity program five years ago, and he wouldn’t have ever guessed he’d make it to the century mark in total events. That’s exactly where he’ll be Friday night when 16 performers at the Astra Theatre in Jasper share a show packed with holiday-themed stories and tunes. To date, the performance program has raised nearly $80,000 total for 30 groups such as the Community Food Bank, Dubois County Young Life, Habitat for Humanity and the Dubois County Community Foundation. “We’re excited to see that dollar amount rise,” Scott said. “That’s why we’re there. The main part of it is raising money for those in need.” WRASFF places local writers and musicians on stages across Dubois County — and sometimes outside the area — to create live music and comedy in the form of songs and spoken word essays, with almost every donation dollar given to various charitable organizations and other causes. Some do just one show. Others have stuck around for dozens. But even after almost 100, Saalman still gets a little worried before each performance. He doesn’t get stage fright. And he’s not afraid that his material stinks — though he does often poke fun at himself and his writing in his essays. No, as he sat behind his computer that night, he thought about the same question that has embedded itself in his head since he started planning the program’s first show in 2011. Will they get a good turnout?
“We can’t always give a ton of money because that’s always based on the crowd that shows up,” said Debbie Schuetter, a guitarist and vocalist who will have been involved in the program for two years in February. “I’m thankful for all the people that do come out to support us and I just hope the word keeps spreading because without those people, there is no show and there is no money to give back to these charities.” Scott never knows how many people will come until he plops down on the stool behind his microphone and looks at the audience. It’s certainly not an indictment of the performers, and it’s not in the vein of dissatisfaction. He and the regular contributors just want to see his brainchild grow and help.
“No matter how many people come, we should be able to do twice as good,” Scott said. “We’re messing with the engine and seeing if we can make it run differently.” Sometimes the roughly two-hour concerts haul in as much as $4,700. Sometimes they pull just a fraction of that. A matinee and evening double feature at the Astra in 2014 attracted nearly 500 guests, while a recent show at the Dubois County Museum lured a crowd of about 30. Eighty has become the sweet spot, and with a $10 admission fee, that number typically translates to $800 for the event’s charity. “My job is to increase that,” Scott said. “Dollar-by-dollar, show-by-show. We know it might be a dollar show. But we’re going on to the next one.” As personally proud as he is of the 100th show milestone, he’s more concerned with reaching $100,000 in total contributions, and he doesn’t plan on stopping then. Back in the kitchen, Scott looked up from the computer screen with a mischievous grin. His home has always been a practice studio for the traveling troupe’s shows. On that night early this month, three musicians encircled him around the kitchen table as they rehearsed material for show No. 99. The core members — guitarists and singers Schuetter, Kyle Lueken, Marc Steczyk and Megan and Isaac Gatwood and writers Abbie Rumbach and Scott — have a closeness that is sewn together by a humorously sarcastic, give-and-take dialogue that has become a trademark of their on-stage personas as well as their off-stage friendships. “We like to kind of berate each other on stage,” Lueken said with a chuckle. “I think that vibe gets out to the crowd pretty easily, so they feel comfortable talking to us after the show and engaging and hollering out during it.
So, accordingly, Scott interjected across the table into a conversation about musical notes and chords between Lueken and Schuetter, assuming a faux-judgmental tone. He joked that those concepts are so foreign to him that he’s pretty sure they don’t actually exist. “I don’t believe in the mechanics (of music). It’s just magic,” Scott laughed. He wishes he could play, too. He’s tried. But he knows his brain just isn’t wired the same. Scott writes and delivers essays about everything from humorous, awkward family experiences to heartfelt memories about his mother, Patty, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.
Lueken and Schuetter play songs by Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash. They’re different animals. But they both know they need each other to keep the performance engaging through a variety of acts. As a result, shows tend to look like this: Scott welcomes the crowd and introduces both newcomers and veterans in the night’s cast. The pace of the ensuing couple hours (he tries to keep it at 90 minutes, but tends to spill over) is dictated by how many performers are present that night. The program usually starts with a song. Followed by a reading. Then another song. Back and forth. The musicians play individually and as a large group at times, and it’s common for the readings to merge with the music. The performers quip inside jokes at each other throughout the shows, and usually before it’s all said and done, the audience is chiming in to the on-stage conversation.
It’s a testament to the collaborative effort that goes into the program and the resulting connection with the viewers. “We want to make it feel like the audience is just sitting around in our living room,” Lueken said. That takes practice. Everything about organizing benefit shows was new to Scott when he set up the first edition at Vincennes University Jasper Campus five years ago. How do we organize the set list? How do we spread the word? And, of course, the ever-present, will people even show up? The idea started forming after he volunteered time and hands at Community Food Bank around 2010. He liked giving back. But after a while, he realized he wanted to do more. “I was stocking shelves, but it got to the point where I wished I could do something else,” he said. “Anybody can do that.” Then it clicked. Scott had long been intrigued by the collaborative structure of the famous “Last Waltz” concert by The Band in 1976. Lots of musicians, lots of variety. He also admired how one of his favorite songwriters, Harry Chapin, often donated his concert’s proceeds to hunger-related causes and encouraged fans to bring canned goods to his shows for local food banks. Cue the light bulb. He saw it as a perfect way to help the community and showcase talent that might otherwise go unnoticed. In reflection, he said show No. 1 looked a lot different from the shows the group puts on today. It carried a different feel, featuring humor but also writings by Vietnam war veteran Ed Walston. As the name goes, admission was a canned food good (or a donation to the food bank). Time went on. The original core performers left the group and new ones replaced them. Saalman switched the event to a lighter tone. Guests stopped bringing in cans and exclusively donated cash when they came to the shows. Before the end of the first season, the total was $3,873 (not counting the cans). The group branched out — a benefit for the Ferdinand Folk Fest marked the first time money was given to a group other than the food bank. Then came a show for Tri-Cap, with money going to the Susan B. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation. Back then, Scott still relied on musicians to bring in speakers and mixing boards, but in 2014 the group received a grant from the Dubois County Community Foundation that paid for a designated system for the vagabonds. He laughs. On one hand that meant he had to haul all the equipment in his own Toyota Corolla. But on the other, it was a big step forward. “The Dubois County Community Foundation, they have a lot of reach out there and influence,” he said. “It felt good for us that they believed. It gave the message that we are here to stay.” Scott isn’t shy about the group’s growth. It’s not an easy program to expand. Leading WRASFF is not his full-time job (he’s the communication director at Jasper-based Kimball Electronics), and because nearly 100 percent of the money raised goes to the charity or cause of the show, the group’s personal funding used to come out of his pocket. Nowadays, if the concert hits above that $800 sweet spot, he’ll take a 10 percent share and use it for operational expenses.
Past guests include Jason Wilber, the guitar player on John Prine’s Grammy award-winning album “Fair & Square,” former IU basketball cheerleader and “Fractured Not Broken: a Memoir” author Kelly (Craig) Schaefer and various other touring acts. “A quicksand fund if there ever was one,” Scott said of the group’s operational money. But WRASFF continues to extend its reach: $8,956 in 2012; $17,648 in 2013; $19,578 in 2014; and $22,763 in 2015. This season looks to be the most successful yet, with $4,326 from just six shows (the seasons start in October). Scott attributes the recent success to an uptick in the number of shows and an increase in diversity across the board. In addition to the core members, recent performers have included Grupo Guanaco, a seven-part family Latino music ensemble of Huntingburg and Brother, Son, an Americano band with members from Jasper, Ferdinand and Evansville.
He wants to keep growing. He recently organized a benefit in Evansville that had a good showing, laying some footing for a return in the future. He’s trying to get a logo designed so the group can release some merchandise, also spreading the name. But for something that was just supposed to be a one- or two-time program, he’s pretty proud of what he’s done. He still remembers the early shows when his mom and dad each sat in a different corner to seemingly stretch the size of the audience. It didn’t look any bigger to him, but it made him happy to know they cared. Patty has been to 90 of the shows — more than anyone but her son. When he starts worrying, when he starts scratching his head, he thinks of her. She’ll be entering her fourth round of chemotherapy next week before the show, but she still plans on being at the Astra when it starts at 7 p.m. “Stop. Breathe. Remind myself: dollar-by-dollar, show by show,” Scott said, thinking through the stress of the centennial production. “That’s why we’re here. As long as Mom shows up, I’m happy. She is our No. 1 fan.”