Not many musicians can whip up a crowd with songs about dirt and humidity and then bring down the house with the appearance of Smokey Bear.
But the San Juan String Band has been doing just that for the better part of a decade. And its members are as passionate about the environment as they are their music.
Founded 10 years ago by Forester Sally Zwisler, the group of San Juan National Forest employees and volunteers brings the woods into schools and other programs. Band members Laurie Swisher, a forester and founding member who plays guitar and vocals; Joni Vanderbilt, a hydrologist and another founding member who plays mandolin and vocals; SJNF volunteer Joan Green, who is the group’s songwriter and plays ukulele bass; and SJNF volunteer Carol Calkin, on the fiddle and vocals, have been playing as a quartet for about 2½ years.
“I think it started as a way to get kids in particular, but we also do programs for families, to connect them with the agency and with the outdoors, because you can really target a lot of people when you’re doing a school program when you have 400 kids. You can teach a lot through music,” said Swisher, a 34-year employee with the Forest Service. “All of our songs are always about the environment and being a good land steward.”
Swisher said the changing nature of the Forest Service is another reason the four work so hard to connect with people outside the agency.
“I think that when we got rid of the Forest Service presence in the campgrounds, we lost that opportunity to engage with the public in a positive way,” she said. “When I was little and we used to go camping in the forest, I was so excited every night when the ranger would come, even to collect the fees, because you could ask them questions: What did you see in the woods today? Could you tell me about this or that? And without having that anymore, we’ve lost that ability to connect in a meaningful way. So being able to do that through music is really important.”
And making that connection with kids is something they put a lot of effort in. The music they play is bluegrass and old-time tunes, and the women use props onstage, including trees and stuffed animals, and wear a variety of hats to add to the educational component of the shows, while making it fun.
There’s also the occasional Smokey Bear cameo.
As the band’s songwriter, Green knows how to keep it light and catchy – and funny. She said she’s been writing songs for a long time, but “I’ve only been showing them in public recently.”
“I had written a song called ‘Humidity’ some years ago that some friends suggested I play for these guys before I was a member of the band,” she said. “I played it for them and they wanted to do it, which I was thrilled about.”
And when the invitation to join the band happened, she was surprised.
“They asked me to join them and said, ‘Would you play bass with us?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and hung up the phone and said to my husband, ‘I’ve got to learn to play the bass!’” she said.
It’s this sense of humor and ease between the four that makes it seem like they’ve been playing together a lot longer than 2½ years.
While Swisher and Vanderbilt said there are other bands throughout the Forest Service – although no others in the Southwest – the group takes their audience into consideration when planning their shows.
“One thing that’s unique about us is that we tailor our performances to the audience and age group,” Swisher said. “We’ll have a different set of songs, for example, if we’re performing for a preschool versus elementary school versus junior high or a family gig.”
San Juan Strings Band has also been involved with the Bluegrass Meltdown, Durango’s annual festival held in April. The group mainly participates in the festival’s “Bluegrass in the Schools” program.
The women said they perform their shows free of charge but ask that their hosts provide the sound system.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Vanderbilt, who has been with the Forest Service for 25 years, 10 of those with the SJNF. “The Forest Service supports it, but we don’t have much funding for it, so we just kind of get by and put it together where we can.”
Challenges aside, the women said the San Juan Strings Band’s mission of education of connection is what keeps it fun.
“The idea of getting the Forest Service out into the public and having kids aware of who they are (is important),” Calkin said. “As a teacher, there are so many songs that we do that tie into the science curriculum and really make things a lot more fun for kids to join in with us. It’s a great way to share music, and it’s also a great way to share the love of being outdoors.”