The story below is an excerpt from our March/April 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Joan Vannorsdall is the author of two novels, ‘Solitary Places’ and ‘The Hearts of Soldiers,’ is completing her third and has begun her fourth (with music cowritten with Yata Pienovich). She’s still waiting for her turn on the Ryman Theatre stage.
It was business as usual at the August Open Mic Night at the Clifton Forge (Virginia) Masonic Amphitheatre, and we’d come for some Saturday night music. You can’t ever know what you’re going to hear: oldies are big most nights, a good bluegrass romp, a little gospel.
And you never know who’s going to take the stage. Mostly, the performers are probably like me, whose Patsy-Cline/George Jones dreams of singing on the Ryman Auditorium stage faded to pale a long time ago, but who still love music: playing it and singing it and maybe even writing it. And on Open Mic Night in our small mountain town of Clifton Forge, you just sit back and take what comes along, and it’s all fine.
This night, there’s the guy who looks disconcertingly like John Denver. He’s pretty good, and he gets a nice round of applause. And one who does faint justice to “Nights in White Satin,” but who gets a lot of points for playing his neck harmonica and guitar simultaneously.
And then there is Santana Hope. Up there on the stage all by herself, all legs and arms and long hair and dreams.
Seventeen years old, and already a three-time American Idol tryout veteran. She looks like she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself up there at first. And her music downloads aren’t cooperating very well. But when the stars align, and the opening chords of “Say Something“ start through the speakers, Santana looks into the heart of the night and takes us on a beautiful ride, one she is in charge of from start to finish.
It’s something about her phrasing. The flips notes at the end of lines. The halts she allows just before the surprise of the verse. Whatever this girl is feeling inside when she stands in front of the darkened audience that night, what we hear is confident, calm, beautiful. Forget Christina Aguilera and A Great Big World. That night, Santana owned this song.
In the past few months, I’ve heard Santana sing several more times. Her boyfriend Chase Burley-Smith sometimes plays backup with his fine bluegrass band “Virginia Fast.” More often, she’s by herself, singing everything from Patsy Cline to Bonnie Raitt to Leonard Cohen. I’ve gotten to know a little bit about Santana Hope. Her late father’s favorite songs (Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and Sarah MacLachan’s “Eyes of an Angel”). How she cut her teeth listening to The Grand Old Opry in her maternal grandparents’ living room (“My momma’s mother and father played and sang everything; they were huge country music fans.”) Her own songwriting (“A lot has happened to me. I draw from the hard stuff when I write lyrics.”). Her dreams (“When I look into the future, I see nothing but me singing.”).
Coming from a little town in the mountains of western Virginia, without big-name backing or money or connections, can Santana Hope make a name for herself? She has a lot of folks in these parts hoping so.
But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, maybe ask yourself this: If, all those years ago, you’d had the courage to stand on a stage and share your big talent and heart with your neighbors, wouldn’t it be possible to reach the stars?