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Strings Attached links kids, music and heritage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2011 - At a time when music programs in the schools are taking major hits due to budget crunches, there are a few shining examples of organizations -- and individuals -- that are stepping forward to try and make a positive impact for young people.

One of those programs, the Strings Attached Project, got its start in Ferguson in 2009. Founder Steve Housewright, in conjunction with St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and its community outreach project, The Vine, is making an effort to provide low-cost music education to students from ages 5 to 17 through guitar lessons -- and offering loaner guitars to those young people who can't afford them.

Over the past two years, Strings Attached has grown from its home base in Ferguson to the Cherokee Street area, where Housewright offers weekly lessons at the Community Art and Movement Project (C.A.M.P.). In addition to offering guitar lessons, the Strings Attached Project also provided students with the opportunity to play live at venues ranging from the Ferguson and Cherokee Street farmers markets to church concerts and other events.

Housewright, who is originally from St. Louis, had a father who played music professionally, and he ended up playing as well, eventually moving to Los Angeles before returning home several years ago.

"My dad was a musician," recalls Housewright during a recent conversation at a Maplewood coffee shop. "He played with country musician Roy Queen. I played in rock bands growing up, and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where I continued to play music. But I actually made my living as a location manager in the film industry."

One of the films Housewright was involved in was "Mr. Holland's Opus," released in 1995. The movie, which focused on the powerful impact school music programs can have on young people, had a major impact on Houseman's life.

"When read the script for 'Mr. Holland's Opus,' it really hit home with me," Housewright said. "It confirmed my belief that music should be available to everyone growing up, and that it can be such an important part of their lives. It made me think about getting back into music as a teacher."

Housewright began working in an after-school program in Los Angeles 12 years ago -- a program sponsored by Ray Charles and called the Sir Charles Blues Lab. And when he decided to move back to the St. Louis area, he began teaching guitar privately to students -- but also thought about ways to work toward starting a music outreach program for kids.

That opportunity came through St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and through Father Steve Lawler, who had started community outreach programs under the umbrella name, The Vine.

"Father Lawler was very interested in providing a music program for children," explains Housewright. "And we were able to get it off the ground in 2009. We started with guitars, so that's how the Strings Attached name came about. The first year, we had six students who got involved. Now we're up to 25."

The program offers free lessons by Housewright, as well as loaner guitars for students. Those young people who stick with the program, attend regularly, practice hard and participate in community concerts then become eligible to be awarded a guitar of their own.

In addition to building his students' musical skills, Housewright has a strong focus on providing a sense of St. Louis' musical history and tradition to the young people in the program. He has created videos that showcase the music of St. Louis musical legends ranging from Scott Joplin and John Hartford to Chuck Berry.

"It's really important to try and reconnect these kids to a sense of the rich musical traditions that are such an important part of our culture," he states. "It's all about helping them realize the importance of American roots music – everything from blues and ragtime and jazz to country, folk, bluegrass and gospel. That's where contemporary music comes from, and its connections and traditions need to be communicated."

Another path of musical communication that Housewright has opened up for his students is through the recording studio. Earlier this year, he took seven of his students into 12 Bar Productions Studio to record a CD.

"When I was with the King Charles Blues Lab in LA," recalls Housewright, "Ray Charles would make sure all the kids in the program had the opportunity to go into a recording studio for a day. It turned out to be a very valuable learning experience for them, even if they didn't continue as musicians. It showed them there were other aspects on the music industry that were open to them -- and also gave them insight into the recording process."

Under Housewright's lead, the students laid down 15 recordings in a single day. Housewright then brought in professional musicians to augment the student's contributions to finish the project.

"I wanted to show the kids that they could be part of a recording, and they worked really hard to knock out the tunes in one day. Then I brought in the other musicians to supplement the melody lines that the students played. We mixed it and released it with the title, 'Eternal Songs.' It includes classic tunes like 'Amazing Grace,' 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken,' 'St. Louis Blues' and Joplin's 'The Entertainer.' It all connects with bringing them back to American roots music."

On Oct. 21, Housewright and the students performed at a CD release event for "Eternal Songs" at the St. Stephen's Parish Hall. "Eternal Songs" is available for sale at The St. Louis Curio Shoppe, 2301 Cherokee St., as well as at St. Stephen's Church.

And with the debut recording behind them, Housewright has begun planning for a second CD, tentatively titled "Gaslight."

"We're hoping to do another CD next summer," he states. "The first one was more about folk and rural music. With this one, I'd like to focus on St. Louis blues, jazz and Dixieland, and bring in some great St. Louis musicians in those genres to play with the students. So 'Gaslight' seems like it would be a perfect title."

"In the end, it's all about connecting kids with music," concludes Housewright. "And that's what we need to do more of - through Strings Attached and in other ways that connect kids with music." To find out more about the Strings Attached Project go to its webpage.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who often covers music.