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SoundCheck: Opera Collides With Folk Music In Steve Ames’ Unique Songwriting

Courtesy of Steve Ames

Steve Ames will perform on KSMU's Studio Live Friday, December 13, 2019 at noon. He'll be at Tie & Timber Beer Co. that same evening from 6-8 pm for Studio Live Social Hour. 

What happens when you take a classically trained opera singer and introduce him to folk music? You get the music powerhouse Steve Ames. Our story starts in Decatur, Illinois, where a young Ames began his vocal journey.

“You know, when I was a kid, I did show choir and Summer Stock, and stuff like that. And then started taking private lessons, I wanted to start taking voice lessons. So, I did that and I think I was a freshman in high school, so like 14 or 15, and that teacher is who kind of then started me getting into more serious types

Credit Courtesy of Steve Ames
Decatur Young Park Singers circa 1988

of singing. And you know, we started doing musical theater and then kind of moved into opera. And that was actually Pearl Yeadon. At the time she lived in Decatur, my home town, and was a professor at Millikin University. And when I left high school, she ended up moving down here and working at SMS. I went to Eastern Illinois University for a year and then came down here,” said Ames.

“So, is she the reason you are here in Springfield,” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ames.

“I had no idea,” I said.

“Pearl and I had stayed in contact and I went to Eastern Illinois, which is in Charleston, Illinois and it wasn’t a good fit for me. We’d stayed in touch and she was like, ‘Well, you might like Springfield.’ So, I came down, checked it out, and I did like it, so I ended up coming down to school here, being in the Opera Workshop program with Pearl and doing choir with Guy Webb,” said Ames.

During that one year at Eastern Illinois, Ames had a roommate by the name of Keith Owens. If that name sounds familiar to you, that’s because he’s also now living in Springfield. Ames was impressed with Owens because he played the guitar.

Credit Courtesy of Steve Ames
Pearl Yeadon and Steve Ames in the Springfield News Leader, 2004

“I’d always kind of liked guitar and stuff, but I never felt like I was qualified to even try,” said Ames.

Soon enough, Ames let that feeling melt away.

“So, yeah, Keith played guitar and had a bunch of songbooks and would play, like, Indigo Girls and Bob Dylan and some early Paul Simon stuff. A little more like, kind of folky music. And it seemed like, I watched him play, and I was like, ‘Well, heck, I can do that.’

“When I moved here, Keith came to visit me. And he came down and he and I went to a pawn shop down on South Street. I bought an old Fender F-25, like, pasteboard guitar for 70 bucks from this pawn shop, and that’s kind of what I learn on. So, moving down here, the first year I was here, I started doing the Opera Workshop with Pearl and that’s when I also got my first guitar and got into writing songs and kind of getting into more into that sort of musical expression part of my life,” said Ames.

Before he knew it, Ames was thrust into the Springfield music scene in a way that would leave a lasting impact.

“A guy named Michael Fletcher, who’s a great composer and super nice guy, he had grown up in Lebanon and knew Mark Bilyeu, and had told me, ‘You should go meet my friend Mark from high school,’ or 

Credit Courtesy of Steve Ames
Steve Ames at the Springfield St. Patrick's Day Parade circa 2013

whatever, and that was back when Mark hosted the open mic night down at the Bar Next Door,” said Ames.

“This was a long time ago,” I said.

“Yeah, this is pre-Big Smith. I was actually at the first Big Smith show. It took place at the second half of that open mic night one time and I happened to be there,” said Ames. 

As Ames gained confidence in his guitar playing, songwriting became a part of his life. His opera background influenced the way he would craft a song.

“My background in opera musical theater, I think, informs some of my songwriting choices. I write loud, sort of bombastic music sometimes. I think it carries over, because that’s what drew me to opera. It wasn’t even that I loved opera, I wasn’t super into old, dead composers and 400-year-old songs and stories, but it was the actual physical demands and the challenge of it. It was like, ‘Hey, this is a thing that I can do, and not everyone can do it and I can do it, and it’s a lot of fun.’ It was kind of like sports, in a way,” said Ames.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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