Nick Forster & Helen Forster Discuss eTown 30th Anniversary, B’Earthday Celebration & More
Boulder, Colorado-based, nationally syndicated music production eTown recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, which included an induction into the Colorado Music Hall Of Fame. Host Nick Forster, of Hot Rize fame, and co-host/executive producer Helen Forster, who helped bring the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to international prominence, launched eTown on Earth Day, April 22, 1991 at the Boulder Theater.
In 2012, as eTown celebrated its 21st anniversary, the production moved into its own space at eTown Hall, a 100% solar-powered multi-media music venue and studio. As Nick and Helen are passionate advocates for the environment, Earth Day was a fitting start date for what has become a beloved program for those seeking comfort, compassion and community through music as well respect for the planet and its inhabitants.
How eTown Was Born (an animation by John Paul Grigsby)
Music and respect for the planet often go hand in hand, as Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir pointed out when Nick interviewed him for eTown’s B’Earthday 30th Anniversary Celebration livestream special.
“I think it’s interesting that the music community has been the first to sign on to environmental efforts and awareness,” Weir said. “I guess it’s something in the nature of live music performance that makes people more appreciative of the moment and looking to find the treasures hidden in that moment.”
“I think there’s literally no one who knows more about using music to build community than you do,” Nick replied. “What the Grateful Dead achieved in creating a community, through music, and having that collective experience, bringing people together in a caring and conscientious way, nobody knows more about that than you.”
Nick may be right about Bobby and the Grateful Dead, but he and Helen know a thing or two about community as well. eTown is a paragon of creating community, a central tenet of Nick and Helen’s mission. That fact was evident when JamBase recently had the opportunity to chat with Nick and Helen about the B’Earthday Celebration and more.
One of the aspects of the eTown production that Nick highlighted was the finale where the disparate-by-design musicians on the show come together to create something new.
“We always try to do the booking so that we would pair one well-known artist with somebody less well known,” Nick said. “So the one thing I want to just mention that I think doesn’t get the attention that it deserves is the eTown finale, because in a way that embodies a lot of our mission also, which is we try to book talent that is not like each other.
“So we won’t have two blues bands or two bluegrass bands or two Cajun bands. We have this opportunity for these two artists to make something real in real time. It’s usually a cover. We only give them 45 minutes to find a song that they both feel comfortable with. They pick a key, spread the lyrics and solo orders around, they rehearse it, and then a couple hours later, they’ve got to play it.
“Speaking of JamBase and jamming, it’s in a lot of people’s comfort zone, but there are a lot of musicians for whom that’s way out of their comfort zone. And in some ways, the finales have been among the most remarkable musical moments you’ve had on the show, these collisions that just end up being sort of accidentally and beautifully curated.”
Like many productions, eTown has moved to a remote format during the pandemic. But the B’Earthday show saw a sort of double whammy finale that Nick speaks of, which included the aforementioned Bob Weir, who collaborated for the first time with renowned singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett on the Grateful Dead classic “Friend Of The Devil.” There was also a stellar rendition of The Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway” by The War And Treaty.
Nick collaborated on both performances, and as, Helen pointed out, it is Nick’s relatability as a musician that makes eTown unique as well:
“I think a lot of the show hinges on Nick’s ability to converse with people,” Helen said. “Part of that we saw with Louie Pérez of Los Lobos the other day. He was always impressed by the fact that when he came to eTown and saw it on the band’s schedule, he was excited because, unlike other programs, this was a program by musicians for musicians.
“So they walk in and there’s Nick, a seasoned touring musician that they know of and respect. He’s such a good interviewer that I think that intimacy with the artists made the whole show breathe and relax. And you get to have an insight into who they are. I think that was a big part of the success of the show.”
Nick’s ability to relate with musicians was on full display when he interviewed Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas ahead of their B’Earthday contribution. The group has seen a meteoric rise recently, and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and frontman Eric Burton developed his craft over years of busking, notably near the 6th street entertainment district in Austin, Texas before Black Pumas took off. During the B’Earthday interview, Nick highlighted Eric’s busking history. Forster spoke with JamBase about his own interest in busking as well.
“I’ve always been fascinated by busking, the immediacy of it, the raw bravery of putting yourself out there, the reward when you connect with someone who’s passing by,” Nick said. “Once I learned more about Eric and his history playing on 6th Street, I thought it would be a good thing to bring up.”
While Black Pumas are firmly established artists now, Nick and Helen also create a space for up-and-coming musicians to hone their craft and flourish. The B’Earthday show saw Nick performing with one of those artists, 15-year-old Raquel Garcia, who delivers a striking rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”
“Chuck Morris introduced me to Raquel a year and a half ago when she was 13,” Nick said. “He met her at a political event in Denver. We did some recording and made two videos here at eTown Hall to help generate some interest. She’s amazing, the eldest of seven kids. She’s going to be a big star. Her song is an old one made famous by Roy Orbison (who co-wrote the song) and Linda Ronstadt. She’s now working with Linda’s Producer, the legendary Peter Asher. She’s also really sweet!”
While Helen touts Nick’s relatability as a musician, she is also a versatile singer herself and has added harmonies to a number of artists’ songs over eTown’s 30 years. For the B’Earthday Celebration, she sings with Dallas Green of City And Colour as well as Sarah Jarosz. Harmony singing is a difficult and often overlooked aspect of music. Helen shared her thoughts on some of the challenges, and, as the word harmony itself suggests, the benefits of connecting with artists through singing:
You know, as the harmony singer in the eTones, I don’t often get mentioned as part of the band, however, that has been my gig for these 30 years, being ready to provide vocal support to tons of artists coming through to play eTown. Like I did for Dallas in this case, I often become friends with those I sing with. In this instance, as in so many, I listen to the song they want to do, learn it, create a harmony part to compliment what they’re doing, then practice it until it’s in my brain. I don’t read music so I don’t chart; I instead learn by repetition, as I did in this case.
As amazing as the music on eTown has been for the past 30 years, the show has been just as much about recognizing community as it has been about creating it. One of the ways eTown has highlighted folks who have made the world a better place is through their eChievement Award.
“Early on, [Nick] came up with the idea for the eChievement Award,” Helen said, “which is a celebration of individuals who are making a difference, either helping the planet or helping other people in need. And I kind of took that on and did the research and the writing. So I’m really proud of that.”
Though the eChievement Award usually highlights everyday citizens, occasionally a celebrity guest receives the honor, as was the case with the renowned Dr. Jane Goodall, who received the eChievement Lifetime Award for her well-documented and tireless efforts to preserve the planet. Dr. Goodall has appeared on the show in the past and also delivered a congratulatory video message for the B’Earthday show.
“Having Dr. Goodall on our show twice, and having her call in a happy 30th well wish recently, has been so awesome,” Helen said. “She is an elegant, intelligent, kind and thoughtful person. She has always totally gotten the premise behind eTown (using music to draw in a wide, diverse group of listeners and then having individuals like her sharing why we must all work together to protect the planet and each other) and she has always appreciated eTown, which has meant so much to me personally.”
At the same time Helen and Nick have been busy giving out awards, they recently received an honor of their own. Along with celebrating 30 years of eTown, the program has also been inducted into the Colorado Music Hall Of Fame, founded by renowned Colorado concert promoter Chuck Morris.
“Well, it’s a great honor course,” Nick said of the CMHOF induction. “What’s cool is we feel like with Helen’s experience with Telluride and my work with Hot Rize and before being connected with the eTown, we feel very much a part of the Colorado music family. And we have obviously gotten to know and befriended most of the bands and artists.
“There is a kind of a spirit of Colorado music. So it feels like a great vindication for us that we’re officially welcomed into that group of celebrated Colorado musicians. And I’m sure that group will continue to expand over time. But it felt good. Chuck Morris, he’s a legendary promoter. He’s been a friend of ours for a long time. And so I think it was, it was sweet frankly, the whole thing felt kind of sweet.”
It’s been a sweet run for eTown these past 30 years and the B’Earthday Celebration also tells the eTown origin story along with the fantastic musical performances and interviews. Watch eTown’s B’Earthday Celebration below and be sure to tune into the show as eTown continues to create community through music: