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Speaking over the phone from the road, Chris Meyers '02 is chatty and down-to-earth-not at all the put-out rock star, even though he's on tour with his Nashville-based band, The Bittersweets.
"I love being on tour!" he exclaims. Good thing, because he's in for a long haul. In the next few weeks he and band-mate Hannah Prater will hit Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, and Columbus, and then it's on to the West Coast.
The tour's in support of Good Night, San Francisco, the band's 2008 breakthrough album. One Nashville Scene critic praised "the insightful, conversational lyrics of guitarist Chris Meyers, who has found a lovely delivery system in Prater's voice." The music blog Heartache with Hard Work added, "In my book, it matches up favorably with the best roots/Americana records of the last decade."
Americana: a surprising discovery for Meyers, who arrived at Kenyon from his home in Massachusetts as a disillusioned jazz pianist. "I was actually planning on going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston," he says, but he found himself wondering about the way jazz focuses so much on the individual and began to look for something more community-oriented.
On a whim, he and his father visited Kenyon, where they ran into an admissions officer walking her dog. "She opened up the admissions office at like 7:00 at night. We ended up meeting a whole bunch of students and had a great time. And that was it; that was where I wanted to go."
Meyers submitted a song with his application called "Ode to My Admissions Officer," recorded on CD. "They thought it was hilarious," he says. "At least, I think they did."
At Kenyon, Meyers took up guitar, finding some local success with a band called Waiting for Molly. But he found his biggest influence in professor Howard Sacks, who taught a course on the sociology of art that embraced ethnomusicology and cultural politics.
"He got me totally turned on to older American music," says Meyers, who majored in sociology. "The commercialization of country music in the 1920s, the commodification of art, why that was important socially at the time." Meyers ended up writing his Senior Exercise paper on those very topics, theorizing that the period's industrialization and urban migration spawned a nostalgia for the "small town" sentiments that country music commercialized.
"I guess it's not all that different today," he muses, noting that people are drawn to music that seems "real" or "authentic."
After graduating, Meyers moved to San Francisco, where he met Prater. The two started rehearsing, formed The Bittersweets, and eventually cut a small, five-song album. Their big break came when the mother of a boy Meyers had been tutoring introduced him to the publicist Marshall Lamm, who took The Bittersweets' CD to the influential radio station KFOG, where it was put into regular rotation.
Then, two fortuitous things happened. The band needed a drummer, and a friend hooked them up with Steve Bowman, who had played with the well-known bands The Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind. Second, Meyers managed to book the popular San Francisco rock club Cafe du Nord-unwittingly, for Super Bowl Sunday. The band's show started right after the game ended. "All these people came over after the Super Bowl," he says. "We ended up with over two hundred people there. We didn't even know how to play a live show!"
The rest, as they say, is music history. An agent with Virt Records came to one of their shows and liked what he heard. They went on to cut their first record, The Life You Always Wanted, with Virt in 2006. The Bittersweets have since opened for Rosanne Cash, the Cowboy Junkies, and Train, and their songs have been featured on the TV shows One Tree Hill, Saving Grace, and Men In Trees. Most recently, they've done a live album, Long Way from Home.
Whether you call it alt-country or folk or Americana, there's an appealing sincerity to Meyers's lyrics and Prater's warm vocals. "When the War Is Over," a song on Good Night, San Francisco, is a good example. In it, Meyers writes, "Can the world begin again? / Can we fly away and pretend / that all of the lives that we wrecked / and the ships that we left out at sea / can find their way back home?" This is authenticity, and it's sweet.