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The City Journals

Murrayites inspired to create and serve during pandemic

Jan 11, 2021 11:39AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

The Merrill family (Seth and Mariner pictured) used their pandemic lockdown time to construct a backyard pizza oven. (Photo courtesy of Gerilyn Merrill)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

There was a lot of grim news during 2020, yet there were numerous instances where Murrayites took a massive lemon of a year and made it into lemonade. With the pandemic around, there were many who ended up with plenty of time on their hands, and the Murray Journal found several stories to share where Murrayites came up with ways to create and serve those around them.

Gardening surged in popularity in 2020. Whether driven by concern about supply chains or having time to finally clear out that weed patch, residents kept Murray nurseries busy. Lowe’s sold out of many vegetable seed packets, and West Side Nursery’s vegetable starts were hot sellers. Of course, with all the plants comes the yield. Ace Hardware reportedly couldn’t stock its canning supplies fast enough.

With so many gardens blooming, Lynda Brown took up painting people’s gardens and selling her art. She returned all her proceeds to her charity, Kids Read. And it wasn’t just flowers and veggies sprouting in Murray yards in 2020. Next to Seth and Gerilyn Merrill’s garden, their whole family constructed an outdoor pizza oven.

The great outdoors became our best alternative to quarantining at home. Social distancing outside is more manageable, and some activities ensured it, such as horseback riding. Lori Haglund, who owns a horse farm on the east side of Murray, opened up the doors to her paddock and invited children to have field trips to visit her four horses. 

After a neighbor expressed the familiar parental refrain about how distance learning was causing her child to get on her nerves, she wondered if the 11-year-old tween could visit Haglund’s horses. Haglund used the opportunity to teach the youngster about the art of equine.

“We talked about quiet energy and horses and about slow, deliberate movements, and about how horses need to trust us and we need to respect them,” Haglund said. “One way to let the horse get to know you is to put your face up near their nose and breathe with the horse nose-to-nose. It’s quite amazing to see a 1,000-pound animal be so gentle with people, and especially with children.”

After that first field trip, the mother wrote Haglund back, exclaiming how much better the child behaved. So the Haglunds invited more children to visit. Soon they felt that they could create a safe environment to invite other children to enjoy “horse camps.” 

“My husband and I decided that we could share an outdoor, socially distant horse experience with more children,” Haglund said. “We planned two two-hour, two-day sessions, and they filled immediately. So, we planned another for the next week. We learned that families were starving for a safe outdoor experience, and so we planned one more. I used most of my summer vacation time this year for horse camps, and it was such a joyful experience.”

Children were taught how to approach a horse and then groom it. They learned about horse tack and care, but perhaps the best part was learning to ride. One girl from California, visiting her grandmother, was most memorable to Haglund.

“She was very timid and worried about the horses. It took some convincing to get her to sit on a horse the first day. On the second day, she sat up there like a pro and eventually dropped the reins to hold her hands in the air and exclaim, ‘Adios!’ She was so cute,” Haglund said.

The Haglunds have also done concerts for several years in their backyard to support their BrockStrong Foundation, supporting heightened awareness of organ transplants and providing funds to help kids learn music. With the need for social distancing, Michael Feldman felt that her farm might offer a safe venue for his band to perform. 

“Musicians prefer to play for audiences and with other musicians, and people love live music. COVID has put a damper on all that. So, I was looking for a safe environment to offer live music,” Feldman said. “Lori asked us to play at one of her (BrockStrong) summer shows, and we talked about doing open mics in her yard. It was a natural fit. Musicians and folks craving live music loved the idea. We ended up having two hugely successful free events, with more than a dozen performers each.”

Playing in a band is not Feldman’s regular gig. After he left the biotech world, he and his wife opened Feldman’s Deli in Sugar House, where he regularly invited musicians to play. Not to mention, customers could occasionally catch him jamming at the microphone. 

However, when the pandemic shut down Feldman’s Deli, thus closing a venue for musicians to play at, Feldman coaxed Haglund into letting the musician perform on her farm. Feldman arranged three concerts: JT Draper with Nathan Spencer, Two Old Guys, and Junction City Blues Band, as well as two open mics, which had about a dozen musical performances each.  

“The mics were sanitized or exchanged (at the artist’s request) between performances. We maintained distancing on stage. The audience had plenty of room to socially distance and brought their own food and beverages. We emphasized responsible behavior and got full cooperation. The shows had a great relaxed vibe,” Feldman said.

Feldman believes the shows were a success and is hoping to do more in the future. “Everyone who participated loved the shows. Musicians craved to play ‘live’ for a supportive audience, and the audience was craving live music; it was a great match. Good music, good company, good vibes. We received lots of thanks for putting it together and requests to continue. I’m hoping to figure out a new venue for a COVID-safe open mic in the near future.”

Music was very much on the mind of Murrayite Tommy Maras at the beginning of the pandemic. In the age of online meetings, Maras not only formed a band, West of House, with no bandmember physically present, but music streaming service Spotify announced that their band had received over 83,500 streams in 2020.

In addition to Maras, who handles drums, the band consists of Erick Bieger, guitar; Lance Bletscher, bass; Dave Roberts, guitar and vocals; and Kevin Huynh, guitar and keyboard. While Maras lives here in Murray, Bieger, Bletscher, and Roberts all live in Orange County, California. Huynh is from Seattle, Washington. Their recording engineer, Bobby Phillips, lives in Laramie, Wyoming. 

When the pandemic hit, Bieger and Maras were working on their song “Yesterdays.” Going through their network of friends, they found bandmates who could record in their own homes.

“Everyone has the ability to record at their own home, and Google Drive is our friend,” Maras said. “Typically, songs are created when Erick records what’s called a scratch track. From there, I will download the song and load it into my computer. I then record the drum tracks. When I’m done, typically, Lance will add the bass line. Once the main guitar tracks are made, Dave and Kevin add their guitar and key parts. Once all the music is made, Erick will track all the vocal parts. During all of this, we are uploading what we’re recording for review and guidance.” 

Like any other person trying to get something done in the world of remote work, Maras said the hard part was waiting to move their project along.

“When we are all happy with what we have recorded, we send the individual tracks, sometimes more than 50, to Bobby for mixing and mastering. The hardest part about all of this is that what we could work out in 10 minutes in the same room might take a week doing it all online,” Maras said. 

Since this band’s pandemic birth, West of House has been getting noticed as far away as the United Kingdom. They have released an entire slate of tracks.

According to Maras, “We’ve had music out there for eight months. We are very happy with the response we have received. As Erick said in a recent social media post, ‘Not bad for an indie band who has never been in the same room.’”

While some folks have created, others have sought out ways to serve. Single mom Jodi Campbell Porter had surgery and was laid off in September. Still, she and her family had wanted to help others less fortunate than they.

“We were talking one night, and my kids were telling me how sad the world is right now. My son was saying he had heard of some families who had come upon hard times, and not only could they not pay their rent or mortgage, but they were also unable to purchase food,” Porter said.

With Thanksgiving coming soon, the Porters put the word out to Murray's social media groups, asking if anyone needed a full holiday dinner. Two families were referred to Porter, but their local elementary school called and said they had two more families they could help. 

“I called Smith’s supermarket (650 W. 5400 South), and the manager, Brandi, told me to come in, and they would help. They found two large, fresh turkeys and gave them to us for free,” Porter said.

With her son and daughter, they also picked up some chips and juice for some families with children. They also gave them $100 for their other needs.

“It has just been a very great experience with really showing my children what giving is all about,” Porter said. “I know they are older (18 and 23 years old), but seeing their reactions after seeing the families reactions was priceless.”