by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Jennie Root
“There was a point,” Webb says, “where I had considered pursuing a career in the ministry. But I knew there wouldn’t be many opportunities for work among the churches in the [Brown County] area.” Weighing her options, Webb shifted her gaze to the chair, sitting in her Nashville, Indiana studio, a cozy spot tucked in the woods north of town where she teaches voice and piano to students of all ages. In that empty seat, Webb decided, the answer would come.
“I pointed to that chair,” she explains, “and I said: ‘Someone’s going to have to come in here, sit there, and say, this is what you’re going to have to do.’ Even as I said that, I also caught myself thinking: ‘This is stupid.’”
But, as Webb reminds us, “this is God we’re talking about.” Eventually, a group from her local church would spend the evening rehearsing at her digs. Eventually, a gentleman—someone Webb refers to as a “total stranger”—would plop into the fated green seat. Eventually, he would ask Webb to play some of the tunes she had written. In such apparent coincidences lie the more deliberate mechanisms of divine serendipity. Webb played. The stranger listened, and when she finished, he looked her squarely in the eye and told her the time had come to embrace music once again.
It’s not that Webb, trained in classical opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, had really walked away from her first passion to begin with. She had, after all, been teaching in that studio, supplementing her family income as she homeschooled her five sons. And while passions often vary by degrees over time, they usually come with a long shelf-life and knack for second winds. Life as a whole, however, transforms on much greater level over the same span.
Amanda Webb: “When I left IU, I had realized that I had run about as far as I was going to run in opera. I could see down the line and see both my career trajectory and the options that came with it: Move to New York or LA, start the audition process, and continue to try to push forward. But when I looked at everyone who had gone through that process ahead of me I realized that—unless you were a superstar—you were going to go back to school and end up getting a Master’s, a Doctorate, and then a teaching job. I thought, ‘That’s exciting and everything, but I’m already in a whole hock of debt.’ My husband, Brian, was with me, and I decided that opting out of all of that was okay for me.”
The solidly firm, logical ground under her decision notwithstanding, for Webb the emotional implications loomed larger.
Webb: “It was hard to let go. For the first 24 years of my life I had been pursuing classical music. When you’re a musician, and you’re in training, they tell you all the time that you have to stay focused. They also tell you that you pursue this because you have to, not because you want to. Because then—if you have to do it—then you’re competitive enough to spend that time in the studio, to sacrifice everything else…all just to be qualified to go after the dream. Part of this mental game of being in that competitive space is knowing that when you’ve closed door you’ve burned your bridge. There’s no other option. So, when I got to the point when I realized, ‘Hey there is another option here…’ that means saying goodbye to the first option.”
Webb: “And that was really hard. Because that was everything that I was. So I left IU, and I left classical music, and I had to reinvent myself. I had no clue who I was or what I wanted to be. I mean who the hell is Amanda Webb outside of what I’ve done for all my life?”
Now, she peered through the crack of the doorway leading to the next chapter of that life. Her one lens to the rest of the word, wrapped in a terrycloth of marriage and newborn children. In front of her, an entirely new set of experiences.
Webb: “I threw myself into being a mom, and I loved being a mom. So I kept being a mom for over 10 years. But by number five, my body was saying, ‘You’re done. You’re not doing Mom anymore. You need to find a new avenue.’”
That new route proved to be a road paved over familiar cobblestones. Working what she calls “a little music on the side” at her church, Webb began the musical transformation from the highly trained world of sheet music and rigid expectations to a world governed by experimentation, extemporaneous variety, and enthusiastic support.
Webb: “The emphasis on perfection in classical music was almost paralyzing. Because there is a way that is done, and you must do it the way that it is supposed to be done. And by the way, since you’re at the most renowned music school in the country, everyone around you is going to know if you’re doing it the way you’re supposed to be doing it. But when I played at church, everyone was just happy to have me get up there, sit in front of the keyboard, and just bang away. I was thinking to myself as I was playing: ‘This is crap. This is a terrible job.’ But everyone kept saying, ‘Oh no this is wonderful. We really like it.’”
As she groomed her new set of musical chops on the church stage, Webb gravitated to nightlife gigging as well, working with Jeff Foster (who called upon her to pinch-hit when he was in need of a fill-in singer) and violinist Carolyn Dutton.
Webb: “I have the amazing privilege of teaming up with these two peers. Well-versed, amazing peers. They just played circles around me while I sang… Which was fantastic! And I’m thinking… Oh, this could be cool! Jeff taught me how to book gigs, how to negotiate the gigs, he taught me how to set up and how to be ready, and generally taught me how to do this thing on any kind of professional level. So six months later, Brian looks at me and says: ‘OK, I think we’re ready. Let’s do this. Let’s start a band.’”
What would become the Amanda Webb Band would evolve and work through several incarnations. Today, almost a year since releasing their first album F-4, the gang is settling into its foundation. Besides Brian at lead guitar, the group’s supporting cast (usually comprised of Jeff Routen, Casey Simmons, and Grady Ferguson) has spent the year since cranking out that first record (in a whirlwind four-day studio session) fine-tuning not only the songs but the much larger and more existential question of what it means to be a member of the team.
Webb: “Since we’ve released that record the band has grown in its own right compositionally. We’ve been doing a lot of composition collaboratively and collectively. So the sound is really developing. It’s growing and changing, and I’m really enjoying this. In fact, I like those originals from F-4 better in the live form now than on the record. Since the band is taking them on and taking ownership of them it’s given them all new life, and the sound has become a lot more dynamic and has changed noticeably.”
One of the tracks on that record, dubbed “Sailing” and prominently featured in the group’s first official music video, is especially haunting for the Webb family, drawing from not only a personal tragedy, but a national epidemic.
“We saw the problems start,” Webb explains. She’s talking about a young man who worked for Brian at his auto body shop. Someone who lived with them for a time and intractably became part of the family. Like almost 800 others in the state, he would lose is life to opioid addiction. Like the thousands left behind, the Webbs would wrestle with the lingering implications which followed his death.
Webb: “You don’t really understand what’s happening in those early stages. If anybody had understood, we would’ve all hit the five-alarm fire button and done something immediately to change situation. But you never realize how deep that pit is until you’re more than halfway down. There’s a part of you that thinks: Why didn’t we do more? And there’s a part of you that thinks: How could I have known? So you just keep going back-and-forth. Brian did a lot for him including taking him to rehab. We were woven together. It was like watching somebody die slowly in front of you, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
Webb: “There’s two ways to respond this: one way is to isolate those people who are having issues and run as far away from them as possible. It’s scary, and you can become part of the collateral damage. And you do become part of the collateral damage. The young man who lived with us: he stole from us, he hurt us, he didn’t show up he said he would. We could’ve cut him off, but we loved him so we couldn’t.”
Webb: “The other way is to encourage people to fight the good fight. Because you can’t just put these people away, and walk away, and then forget about it. We have to keep trying. So I wrote the song to remind myself of that, because there are these bright lights of hope. There are these few who were making it out. They’re making it out alive.”
Webb wages the good fight because caring about others is hardwired into her DNA. But she also does it because, as is the case for so many of us in the Midwest especially, the front lines have formed right in front of her, in the community she considers her true home. She grew up near Washington, D.C., but because she’s lived around Nashville longer than anywhere else in her life, it’s here where she feels the most tethered and the most secure. It also happens to be one of the Hoosier state’s hubs of burgeoning musicians, yet another family in a wellspring of families. A place where people bring their mandolins and Fenders to hone decades worth of picking in some cases, the first few licks at the strings in others.
Webb: “I love this county. There’s something here I have never experienced anywhere else. It’s a nurturing environment. There’s not this sense of judgment or intense competition you feel in other places, and everybody feels encouraged to grow into whomever they are. People are simply working out their craft, trying to make something good, and trying to make something beautiful. They’re trying to make something that’s uniquely them, and it’s accepted. It’s encouraged and welcomed, and I love that about this place. It’s as if everybody here has this understanding that somehow we are all related.”
That last word carries a literal meaning for Webb. Her parents, gravitating to their grandchildren, have moved to the area as well, cementing the notion that Brown County is the place where roots run deep. Besides her mother’s help with the late-night babysitting, making the gig work possible to begin with, her reunion with her parents marks something more substantial. You could argue that Amanda Webb’s story is one about a promising young singer trying to redefine herself when that career abruptly ended. That story would be a myth. Amanda Webb’s story is one about sharing her life with everyone in her family. Sometimes that’s only a handful of people who share the same genes. Often it’s an entire community who share a love for music and companionship. The size of the family doesn’t really matter, however. To Webb, it’s all pretty much the same.