By BJ Hollars
I first meet Sarah Lou Richards on a rainy night in August. She’s scheduled to play the Sounds like Summer Concert series, though given the uncooperative weather, is forced to cut the show short.
Concertgoers pack up all around me, squeezing the water from their drenched blankets as they head back toward their cars. But since my family and I are already soaked beyond saving, we take our time, and in our casualness, eventually make our way toward Sarah Lou.
I introduce myself, tell her how much I enjoyed her music, and mention how great it would be to have her drop by one of my creative writing classes some time if it ever fit her schedule.
“Of course!” she says.
“Really?” I say.
And then, a few months later, she makes good on it.
The following April I meet Sarah Lou for the second time. She’s riding out more miserable weather, this time in the visitor’s parking lot hut on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
She is unmistakable in her red-rimmed glasses, her leather boots, her guitar case slung over her shoulder.
“Hey there,” I say, nodding to the hut. “I see you’ve found our green room.”
“I’ll take it,” she laughs.
We thread through the swarms of students until making our way to my office.
“So you’re on tour?” I ask.
“I am,” she agrees. “But I’m also helping my dad. He just bought a new house in Menomonie, so today I’ve spent most of the day sanding boards and painting bathrooms, that sort of thing.”
“The glamorous rock star life,” I joke.
Sarah Lou offers a warm, Midwestern smile, one that reminds me that when she’s not busy being a rock star she’s busy being a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a fiancé, a friend, and today, my visiting lecturer.
“So you graduated from here a few years ago?” I ask as we settle into my office.
“Yup, exactly. I can’t really remember the year,” she says wryly. “We won’t talk about that.”
What we do know—minus her exact graduation year—is that she studied to become a music teacher. Though after a fortuitous visit to Nashville, she decided to try a new path: packing her bags and moving to Music City in August of 2007.
“I was totally taken by it,” she says of Nashville. “I didn’t play guitar and I hadn’t written any songs yet, [but] I learned very quickly that Nashville is definitely a songwriting city, so I just kind of scrambled and started to make it happen.”
“So you were kind of just ‘driven by the dream’ so to speak?”
“And never looked back?”
“Nope, definitely not.”
Admittedly, I’m more than a little inspired. So many dream big, and yet putting oneself in a position to achieve those dreams is often easier said than done. But not for Sarah Lou. Rather than put her dream on hold she made it her priority, and after eight years of doing odd jobs in addition to her music, at last, music’s her job.
“Most months I can pay my electric bill,” she jokes.
Though it hasn’t been easy, the journey has been a joy. And her music (which she describes as “folk Americana, with some country roots”) has benefited from that journey.
“It’s a lot of storytelling,” she says of her lyrics, “pretty relatable stuff. And I definitely take a lot from my own life and the lives of those around me.”
Which means many of her songs are deeply personal, which can be complicated, she explains, when collaborating with others.
“It took me a really long time to find a collaborating partner,” she tells me. “Nashville is really big on co-writing, which is awesome, but a lot of times its totally a cold call. You just walk into a room with somebody you’ve never met and sit down and write a song. And in that aspect, that’s how songwriting is just like any other job: you go and you do your job. But for me,” she continues, “that’s been kind of tricky because it’s so personal. Sometimes its scary because things come out that are really honest, and you know that listeners, even if you’re writing about something that’s not about your own life, that’s how it’s heard. That can be intimidating—to be that brave, that honest.”
But it’s that honesty, I reason, that allows for relatability as well.
Later that afternoon, she’ll encourage my students to interpret a few of her songs.
What do the lyrics mean to you? she’ll ask.
The students will offer their interpretations, Sarah Lou will nod, and then, she’ll provide insight into her true intentions. Not that she necessarily has a preferred interpretation of her music.
“If [a song’s] received exactly as you intended, there’s something rewarding about being that clear,” she tells me. “But it’s also really special if something totally different is taken from it.”
Connecting with listeners, Sarah Lou explains, is what matters most.
As we wrap up our conversation, I ask her to tell me about the highs and lows of being a musician in Nashville. “Do you get a little of both?”
“Well I don’t think we have time for all the low moments,” she grins and then proceeds to tell me her high moment.
It occurred on her second day in Nashville. After a full afternoon of unpacking in the sweltering August heat, Sarah Lou, her father, and her friend, took a break to visit some of the better-known music hot spots the city has to offer.
“Let’s just pop into the Ryman,” Sarah Lou suggested—the home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Hailed as the “Mother Church of Country Music”, one look at the expansive auditorium explains why: it indeed resembles a church, complete with stained glass windows filtering colored beams upon the 2600 seats below.
“They had a recording booth in there where you could do, for 15.00, basically a glorified karaoke track,” Sarah Lou explains. “So I did two Patsy Cline songs, and as we were leaving some guy came up to me, and he was holding a guitar, and he said, ‘I just heard you recording. Why don’t you get on stage?’ And so I sang ‘Walking After Midnight’ on the Grand Ole Opry stage on the second day I lived in Nashville.”
I shake my head.
“Sometimes life just conspires on your behalf.”
“Right. And to have my dad there, you know? It was a really good sign,” she smiles, “that I had made the right move.”