2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Young Colorado Springs musicians chasing their dreams

Published: May 16, 2014, 12:33 pm, by Bill Vogrin

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman perform at an in-home concert on Dec. 25, 2013, at the home of Dena's father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman perform at an in-home concert on Dec. 25, 2013, at the home of Dena’s father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Last week, my wife, Cary, and I had front-row seats for a sold-out concert featuring some up-and-coming talent we really enjoyed.

The standing-room-only crowd sang and clapped and lined up to buy CDs after the show.

Even better, the stars of the show hung around to chat with the guests long after the music ended.

Country music superstar Alan Jackson

Country music superstar Alan Jackson

I’m not talking about the extravaganza we recently attended at The Broadmoor World Arena with country superstar Alan Jackson.

On Saturday, we attended an intimate musical performance in the home of a friend.

And the performers were not polished professionals backed by seasoned sidemen with video displays or light shows.

And that’s what made Saturday’s show so great.

It was just local kids, mostly, playing music and singing. No glitz. No backup singers. No distractions. With a couple of dozen people in the audience.

The Foothills Guitar Duo, Chelsea Smith and Mike Zimmerman, perform for about two dozen family and friends in Zimmerman's home on May 10, 2014. The duo has performed dozens of concerts and play at area restaurants for diners. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

The Foothills Guitar Duo, Chelsea Smith and Mike Zimmerman, perform for about two dozen family and friends in Zimmerman’s home on May 10, 2014. The duo has performed dozens of concerts and play at area restaurants for diners. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

The evening started with a classical musical performance by the Foothills Guitar Duo — guitar teacher Mike Zimmerman and his star pupil, Chelsea Smith.

They were followed by a fun and thoroughly enjoyable performance of original pop songs, and a few covers, by Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman, a duo that isn’t far removed from its roots at Air Academy High School.

After the show, many in the crowd tossed cash in a basket for the performers and bought CDs of Wight’s music.

On the way home, Cary and I marveled at the talent of the kids on stage. (My friend Mike is talented, too. But he’s no kid!)

They were gifted, poised and well-rehearsed.

And something occurred to me. We celebrate young people for their sports heroics or for winning the spelling bee or the science fair or the Math Olympiad. As we should.

But what about kids in the arts?

Most schools have talent shows and put on musicals and dramatic plays and have concert bands and marching bands. They are made up of kids who are talented, disciplined and putting everything out there in front of rooms full of strangers.

Most do it for the pure joy of making music or to hear the applause of the crowd.

And some are good enough, and driven enough, to pursue their dreams of a career in the performing arts.

A combination of both was on display Saturday.

Chelsea Smith

Chelsea Smith

Chelsea and Dena, Mike’s daughter, play and sing for enjoyment.

Brian, however, is trying to make music his career. (And he’s trying to convince Dena and her silky vocals to join him on the journey.)

I admire all three.

You may have heard the Foothills Guitar Duo playing their classical music. They have played dozens of concerts at the Black Rose Acoustic Society, arts festivals and at area restaurants.

Mike, who is retired from the Air Force, formed the duo in 2005 with Dena. He was joined by Chelsea in 2011 when Dena went to college.

Chelsea Smith, left, and Mike Zimmerman, the Foothills Guitar Duo, in concert on May 5, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Chelsea Smith, left, and Mike Zimmerman, the Foothills Guitar Duo, in concert on May 10, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Chelsea, 17, is a junior at the Classical Academy who took up guitar in 2008.

“She really progressed quickly,” Mike said. “She is very accomplished. I think she could do something professionally. But for now this is just a hobby for her.”

She is shy but confident in her guitar work and a wonderful performer.

Then there’s Brian and Dena. I love their story.

(Follow this link to a video of their performance.)

Dena, 20, is a classically taught guitarist who studied singing under a vocal coach for years. After six years in the duo, she left to pursue a college degree and career in baking and pastry arts and restaurant management.

Brian, who turns 22 next week, is a self-taught guitarist who writes music that belongs on pop radio.

He received a guitar for his fifth birthday and began teaching himself how to play.
“I took lessons for about three weeks but I hated it,” Brian said. “I quit.”

He also started writing music. He recorded his first CD in eighth grade and by age 14 he was booking himself into area bars.

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman perform at an in-home concert on May 10, 2014, at the home of Dena's father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman perform at an in-home concert on May 10, 2014, at the home of Dena’s father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

“I couldn’t even drive,” he said. “My parents would take me to my shows. I’d show up and people would be shocked that I was some kid.”

Dena and Brian met at Air Academy, and they felt an instant connection. He also was struck by the theater at Air Academy and became a popular performer in the school’s annual show, Montage.

After high school he spent a year in college but never gave up his love of music.

Last summer, he recorded another album and sold it to friends. The response convinced him to pursue his passion.

He moved to Nashville, slept in his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot and looked for work, finding a series of jobs to pay his bills while he looked for open microphones at area clubs.

Brian is an outgoing, natural performer with a commanding stage presence able to engage the audience with a smile and a wink as he tells the story behind his songs and, along the way, the story of his life.

Dena lets her singing do her talking. She has a wonderful voice, and it blends beautifully with Brian’s grittier sound.

Saturday’s concert was just another stop in Brian’s cross-country tour. After months of open mic performances and odd jobs, Brian turned to social media to ask friends to help him build an audience and earn money to record another album.

“I got on Facebook and contacted everyone I know,” he said. “I’ve played shows in homes from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma.”

Then, last Saturday, he played the Zimmerman home.

Frankly, I hope to see Brian and Dena again someday. But in a larger venue.

I certainly think they have the talent. And if they get a couple of breaks, I’m convinced they could easily go pro, if you will. Heck, already they are better than the band we saw open for Alan Jackson.

Maybe the next time he comes to the World Arena, he’ll book them instead. I know I’d pay to see them.

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman embrace at the end of a performance at an in-home concert on May 10, 2014, at the home of Dena's father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Brian Wight and Dena Zimmerman embrace at the end of a performance at an in-home concert on May 10, 2014, at the home of Dena’s father, Mike Zimmerman. Brian and Dena began performing together at Air Academy High School. Now they are performing and recording original songs written by Brian. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette