KEVIN GRINDE: Rhythm Of The Trail — Valley Musicians Compete In A Summer Long Songwriter Challenge Competition

I’ll bet a $12,000 custom Taylor guitar you didn’t know local area musicians are competing in a northern Red River Valley songwriter challenge.

Eighteen musicians so far have submitted their YouTube video entries in the 2018 Half Brothers Songwriter Challenge. Half Brothers Brewing Co., in Grand Forks, is the main sponsor for the competition.

The contest runs throughout the summer. It ends in September in a live competition before a panel of judges.

Clearly, the “Challenge” part of the contest name is an understatement. That’s because the primary purpose of the contest is to write and record one original song a week for 12 weeks.

I’m not a contestant, but I know enough about the music business that when I saw the competition’s goal, I said to myself: “Holy shit. A song a week.”

So far, after week No. 1, more than a dozen songwriters have embraced the tough test and submitted their initial tunes.

Again, the main point here is the songs must be completely, 100 percent ORIGINAL. That means musicians can’t submit their own version of, say, Keith Urban’s “Drop Top Down,” or the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” or Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” or “Crash” by Dave Matthews or even Camila Cabello’s “Havana.”

Writing and recording a song a week realistically doesn’t allow time for perfection. The initial entries own titles such as “Take Me Back,” “Something Better Than This,” “Whiskey and the Pain” and “Ain’t Goin’ Fishing in the Morning.” Musical styles vary from the blues to folk and Americana to the more popular genre. Guitar player/singers rule so far, and for some reason, most of the submissions come from men.

Songs, you know, are pretty complicated and time-consuming to write. They need to be conceived, built, tweaked, edited, rewritten, deleted maybe and, ultimately, published and performed. 

Challenge prizes provide some incentive. The winner earns $500 from Half Brothers, 10 hours of free studio recording time with Whisky Sam Makarim in Grand Forks, video and recording time with HB Sound & Light and to cap off the contest, a live performance opportunity Sept. 13-16 at the Greenway Takeover Festival.  Second- and third-place winners will receive some cash and music gear from sponsors and can play at the Takeover Festival.

Anthony Diaz of Crookston is the person who envisioned the torturous challenge. Diaz, 35, already is an area music scene veteran. He’s no stranger to song competitions, either. Five years ago, Diaz won a radio contest to open for Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon and Styx at a Ralph Engelstad Arena concert.

Since his youth, while listening to musicans perform at church, Diaz has taken  his songwriting and guitar craft beyond seriously. He owns a golden voice and his guitar style emits a funky-jazzy-bluesy feel, depending what and where Anthony is playing. His gigs include solo acts, plus performances with two bands, The Dank and Del Norte.

Ali Rood is another member of the area music scene and the go-to person to enter the Songwriter Challenge. Her voice is even more golden than Anthony’s.

Rood, who works for the city of Grand Forks, began playing live when she was 13. She began strumming and singing to friends and at high school. Live performances at coffee shops followed. She graduated to playing at  “open mic” sessions, such as at the old Hub, and now in the area bar scene. Community events, such as Art on the Red (formerly Art Fest), offer more chances to perform live. She plays three to four times a month.

Rood says area musicians have become more collaborative the last couple of years. Most musicians know or are at least familiar with the names of area players.

The live music performance scene in the northern Red River Valley historically has been more desert than mecca. There’s less edgy competition among players now mainly because there are more places to play. Venues such as Up North in East Grand Forks and Half Brothers, Rhombus Guys and L’Bistro in Grand Forks offer more opportunities for musicians to share their songs.

Rood says people who check out the performances at Half Brothers will be surprised at what they hear and see. 

“The scene has developed the last two years,” Rood says. “I think people are going to be surprised when they see the talent the area offers.”

All musicians are storytellers. They’ve labored over melodies, notes, lyrics and arrangements. The goal is to evoke emotion, to make you pause, think and remember that story. Maybe even whistle it while you work. Or make the song an ear worm.

The northern Red River Valley can’t compete yet with the number of places to play found in such cities as Fargo, but Fargo is no Duluth just as Duluth is no Twin Cities, which isn’t Nashville, New York or LA, either.

But right now, the northern valley music scene is evolving and growing, one song at a time.

Here’s a list of current sponsors: Half Brothers, HB Sound & Light, Whiskey Sam, Wing Doctor Productions, Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing.

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