Competitor entry for the Teton County qualifying rounds of the Wyoming Singer-Songwriter competition is closed. For $5, spectators can attend the Thursday event.
Now’s the time for bar napkin lyrics and backyard bonfire chords to see the light of day.
“This is your chance to show that you’re a serious musician, you’re a serious songwriter,” said Jon Gardzelewski, a musician and the co-founder of the Wyoming Singer-Songwriter competition.
Mark your calendars, musicians. The local qualifying rounds of the statewide competition are slated for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse Community Center. For $5, music lovers can also just drop in to listen and support the music community.
Jacksonites need to carry the torch and might even keep the victory streak going. Last year Jackson resident Aspen Jacquet won with her song, “Crazy and You Know It.” This year she’s a judge.
The contest began seven years ago in Laramie. Its organizers, Gardzelewski and Ray Mitchel IV, were friends who wrote their own music and enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other. They were surprised by the roaring applause at their inaugural event at the Buckhorn Bar.
“It was a totally different thing than most of us imagined,” Gardzelewski said. “It was the best house show you could imagine, but at a bar.”
As the competition became an important cultural event for the college town, Gardzelewski said he’d have people from Sheridan to Rock Springs asking if they could participate. He had to turn them down. But last year the competition expanded statewide for the first time.
This year the competition has already come and gone through Casper, Gillette, Lander and Laramie. Statewide over 60 people are signed up, and organizers say they’re expecting that number to top 100.
Approximately 40 musicians will make it to the semifinals in September in Tensleep, where there will be four rounds of 10 competitors. The top two singer-songwriters from each round will make it to the eight-person finals.
“From experience, last year’s semifinals were really stacked,” Gardzelewski said. “It was hard to judge.”
Contestants are judged on a variety of levels. Judges ask things like: Do the songs they perform have a hook?
“Does it have something that your ear can latch on to, can you be humming it or singing along to it later?” Gardzelewski asked. “It sounds a little cliche Hollywood or Nashville, but it’s really about using music to communicate and engage your audience.”
Judges also look for melodic lines and a logical, cohesive narrative. Although it’s not part of the official judging rubric, how performers interact with their audience is also noticed.
“I’d just encourage people to sign up, especially if they’re on the fence about it,” Gardzelewski said. “Don’t expect to win but just come out and get a good listening audience who’s going to really appreciate your stuff. If you make it to the next round, that’s a pleasant surprise, if you make it to the finals, that’s a pleasant surprise and if you win the whole thing, that’s another pleasant surprise.”
In Gardzelewski’s experience the contest can function as a well-meaning kick in the rear and a push to the next step in a musician’s process.
“Some people get frustrated, especially if there are multiple rounds and they don’t make it past the first round,” he said. “My personal approach to that is, ‘Well, I’ve got to get better.’”
The competition acted as a catalyst for Gardzelewski, prompting him to release his first solo album, “Phantom Heart,” in 2017.
“A lot of the songs I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t had that same motivation,” Gardzelewski said.
The competition’s organizer has also organized something else: an album of music written by Wyoming musicians. More than 35 performers were funded to go into recording studios and lay tracks down for the project, and the four-disc set compilation album will available for purchase and streaming on Spotify soon.
“We want to put together this kind of historical document,” Gardzelewski said. “So 100 years from now when someone is looking back at what Wyoming culture was like in 2018, 2019, here’s just a really good cross section to the music, the words, the lyrics from people all over the state.”
He said your average listener will be “surprised at a lot of the quality from top to bottom.”
“It’s almost like its own radio station,” Gardzelewski said. “People in bars, coffee shops, people driving their cars or at their house can just listen to all these Wyoming songs and absorb what diversity is out there.” ￼