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'Just keep trying:' 16-year-old and 72-year-old discuss music-making in rural Yuma County

A collage featuring two people. On the left is the image of a young boy of Japanese-descent in a blue and white hoodie, smiling. On the right is a much older white man, holding a guitar and smiling also.
Adam Rayes
Joey Uyemura (left) and Robert Anderson (right).

Rural Northeast Colorado has fewer employed artists than any other region in the state, according to a 2020 report. While musicians, dancers and fashion designers may sell a lot less out there, they are still creating.

Robert Anderson was born, raised and now lives in the small city of Yuma. The 72-year-old has made music professionally for most of his adult life. He's composed jingles, fronted bluegrass bands, co-wrote a billboard chart topping hit and more.

And he's not the only one creating melodic sounds out here. Sixteen-year-old Joey Uyemura of Wray, the county's other, even smaller city, hopes to join the region's small ranks of career artists. While he’s still figuring out his musical future, Uyemura writes and produces songs using an electronic keyboard and computer.

The pair met at Northeast Junior College in Yuma to discuss rural music making at their different ages. This partial transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Anderson: Who inspires you?

Uyemura: So most of the musicians I've been inspired by or listen to, they've come through 4th & Main in Wray. They have a listening room and hold concerts there. My parents have taken me to those concerts ever since we were little. For a small town, you get some pretty talented artists like the Steel Wheels, the Talbot Brothers, the Mulligan Brothers. That's sort of more folk, bluegrass influence that I get that from.

Note: Both these artists were paid by KUNC for use of one song in the Colorado Edition Special: Pain and hope in the Republican River Basin. They were not paid for this interview.
Click below to hear the artists describe the songs used in the special episode with extended portions of the music. Uyemura’s song, created for the episode, is called “Lazy River.” Anderson’s, which he wrote and performed with the Rufus Krisp band in the 1970’s, is called “Loveland Pass.”

A collage of two images, separated by a winding river. One image is of a man in a ball cap, shadowed and taken from behind and the other is of a dry riverbed.
Colorado Edition Special: Pain and hope in the Republican River basin

Anderson: Yeah, I know about 4th & Main, the music venue in Wray. I go down with friends every once in a while and I've had friends play there.

(Audio of the end of a4th & Main concert featuring the band F Y 5, used with permission from the venue): Thank you very much for having us tonight, 4th & Main!

Anderson: The two things I'm jealous about is we don't have a music venue like that in Yuma, and we don't have a river that runs through our town.

Uyemura: Not necessarily specific people, but I've also been trying to listen to more diverse types of music to broaden my range of creativity in the music field.

Anderson: Yeah, it's a great time to be alive. We have access to all as much music as we want.

Uyemura: Yeah. Speaking of that: do you think the technology available to musicians today, compared to when you first started, changes the way that music gets made?

Anderson: Oh, totally, yeah. Beginning of my career was just records, then it was eight-track tapes, and then cassette tapes and now it's streaming and downloads. And more people can make music and make music faster and share it easier. So, yeah, technologically, that's all the plusses. The downside is, when I had my hit song, there used to be a time when I could walk into a publisher's office in New York City and say, "give this a listen." And it would happen. Because there were like 50,000 people trying to do what I was doing. Now there are like 50 million people trying to do it. So, it's like, I don't have any way to make money selling my music now because nobody's buying the mechanical stuff. Nobody's buying tapes or CDs. And downloads, it costs me more money to set up downloads and do the business than I actually make.

Uyemura: So it's mostly just live performing then?

Anderson: Yeah. You know, I used to tell people, before this pandemic, "thank God, I do live music because I can still make a living." And of course, the gods started laughing, and I didn't play anywhere live for like eight months. So, nothing's safe.

Uyemura: Do you think it's easier, harder or about the same for someone from our region today to start a music career?

Anderson: Well, I guess one school (of thought) would say there's nobody stopping you except yourself. So, if somebody loves what they do and it's what they came here to do and they want to learn and get better at their job, then the sky's the limit. I believe it's definitely harder. Because, like I said, when I was in my musical prime, there were like 50,000 people doing it, which seemed like a lot. But now there are 50 million people trying to do it because of how easy it is to do keyboards and sampling and writing and getting together with other people on the other side of the world. Which ultimately ends up actually, ironically, opening up more doors too.

Uyemura: I think it relies a lot more on marketing probably now. Would you agree that now that it's moved to the internet, you have to make sure your music kind of catches the current of the media, so it gets more attention? If you just put it out there on the internet, that doesn't guarantee that a lot of people are going to see it. You have to get it going a little bit.

Anderson: It's gotten silly, what you have to do to attract attention. You have to have a recognizable name. You have to make something on TikTok that stands out from the other 5 million things on TikTok where everybody's trying to stand out.

Uyemura: How has living in rural Yuma County impacted the songs you write?

Anderson: Well, it gives me a lot of alone time to work on songs. (Laughter) Living in Yuma County really made me want to leave and go to other places. After I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Colorado and it just opened up my mind because it's a university town, there are people from all over the world there. So I guess the best thing I would say about living in Yuma, my family was a big inspiration on my music and what I did. I do write rural songs every once in a while, too. I have a song called "Small Town Boy": (Sings) on the Plains, on the plains, where hardly ever rains and a cold, cold wind blows. All the days are the same, and the stars never change. That's the only home I know.

(Clip from Anderson’s "Loveland Pass")

Anderson: Well, I'll come right back at you, Joey. How has living in rural Yuma County impacted the songs you write?

Uyemura: I'd say, similar to you, I've kind of gotten lucky with the people around me. A bluegrass camp from the University of Northern Colorado went through our town, so I got that opportunity. And then again, there’s the listening room at 4th & Main. Other than that, there's not a whole lot of music that goes on, I guess, in Yuma County. But on a school trip, I went to Nashville. I think that was one of the best experiences for me. Just getting out of the rural setting where there's not really a lot of reference to go off of. It's pretty much your family, you and then any artists that happen to stop by. I'd say overall, it's been a positive thing to be in a small town. Because you can go out and get newer genres, that exposure, you can get that any time you want. But it's kind of hard to find a small town and the folky, bluegrassy, that sort of music. You don't see that a whole lot.

(Clip from Uyemura’s "Lazy River")

Uyemura: So I take those chord progressions that they have (in folk and bluegrass) put them on different instruments, different software, see what it sounds like. And then I kind of take what, in my opinion, I think sounds best. So I don't know if it's really a specific genre that I'm in.

(Clip from Uyemura’s  "Lazy River")

Anderson: Do you plan to continue to live here as you pursue your music?

Uyemura: I'll just kind of have to see where I end up. I plan to go to college somewhere around here, hopefully within driving distance of home. I have a few majors I could go into, but I'm looking heavily into music. And if I do music, I'll most likely try and get back to this area. With the internet, I can pretty much work from a lot of places and I'd rather work from close to home than anywhere else.

Uyemura: Why did you choose to stay in Yuma?

Anderson: Well, I didn't really stay in Yuma. I spent the first 18 years of my life here, but then I went to Boulder and I lived there for over 30 years. And a lot of that time I was traveling, performing all over the United States, Canada, Europe a few times. I've kind of, not really gotten tired of traveling, but I feel like it's reached its conclusion; not too many places I really want to go right now. So, for the last 10 years or so, I've been just working along the front range of Colorado and up in the mountains. Then I realized that if I just got up early, I could do that from Yuma. Because one of my parents passed away, the house came to me. And so, I just decided to live here, to try it out. And it's worked out okay. I will continue to live here while I'm doing music.

Anderson leaning out of frame to the left while laughing and holding a guitar
Adam Rayes
Anderson has been playing guitar for most of his life.

Uyemura: Do you think your career would have been different if you would have stayed in an urban setting?

Anderson: Yes, definitely. I used to spend a lot of time in New York City, and I actually thought about moving there once. Sure, it's competitive and the level of musical quality is just great. But then there's that other 85% of your life where you have to live in this place and do all your other stuff. Manhattan is like this giant being, it's with you all the time and you have to know how to live there and do that. And so, you just have to have that kind of personality and be there and be able to understand that.

Uyemura: Yeah, I definitely wouldn't go to a big city just to live.

Anderson: What kind of music career do you hope to have in the future?

Uyemura: I haven't given this too much thought. At the moment, it's a lot of just playing music and seeing where it goes. But if I had to pick a music career, I'd say songwriting, definitely. I love writing songs. And then production. As long as I'm creating, I guess musically, I don't really care too much if that entails performing. I'd be fine with that, but that's not like a requirement. It's mostly just the production that entices me.

Anderson: Sounds like you got a good handle on it. It took me a long time to learn that. When I was younger, I just wanted to make music. And then having this hotshot manager really opened my eyes because I've been making a living at making music my whole life. I don't know, a lot of people can say that. But to be able to do that, I really had to diversify. You know, it can't just be performing, and it can't just be playing the guitar. And so, getting into the jingles and film scoring and whatever it takes, I still consider it the music business. And that's a valuable lesson. That's what I would tell people that are starting out is 'making music is a huge thing, not limiting at all.'

 (Both singing "You Are My Sunshine" in unison with Anderson playing guitar.) 

Uyemura: What advice do you have for me?

Anderson: Just keep trying different things. I found myself trying dozens of different things, and I didn't quit them because they didn't work. It's just because I realized that's ultimately not where I wanted to go, but I learned a wealth of information about it. So, go where your fingers lead you, your talent leads you.

Uyemura: Thank you for talking to me. It's been fun.

Anderson: A pleasure. I didn't know you were down the road.

Uyemura (left) and Anderson (right) pose for a picture outside of the Yuma Public Library/Northeast Junior College building.
Adam Rayes
Uyemura (left) and Anderson (right) pose for a picture outside of the Yuma Public Library/Northeast Junior College building.

This story was produced as part of the America Amplifiedinitiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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