What do Bruce Springsteen, Justin Bieber, the Zac Brown Band, and Peru State English professor Dr. Dan Holtz have in common?
They’ve all sung songs about Nebraska.
But Holtz has outdone his fellow musicians on this list. He and the band Flatwater Highway recently released not just one song about the Cornhusker state, but an entire album. All Original, All Nebraska includes twelve songs that praise the state in a project that is part Holtz’s brain child and part invitation for Nebraskans to learn more about their state for the 150th birthday celebration.
Holtz is a long-time folk music enthusiast and Humanities Nebraska artist. He’s been writing songs about Nebraska since 2000 and released his first CD of folk songs in 2002.
Holtz decided to record a CD of original songs about Nebraska to help recognize Nebraska’s 150th birthday in 2017.
“The idea was that I wanted to be able to tell more stories about Nebraska,” Holtz said. “I have college students who tell me they’ve never read a book. This is intended for people who don’t like to read. But everybody likes music.”
The twelve tracks cover a wide variety of historical and current Nebraska topics and showcase several music styles.
“It has folk sounds, waltz rhythms, rock flavors, and country rock,” Holtz said. “I wanted to get songs that were different.”
Tracks like “Blue Water, Little Thunder,” tell Native American history, “The Rider’s Refrain” and “The Gentleman’s Outlaw” cover cowboy and outlaw stories, and “Back to the Sandhills” and “Sail Away” celebrate the state’s diverse landscape.
Holtz said that using song to teach Nebraska history is an important part of the project.
“It’s a different way to look at history,” he said. “It’s a different way into some stories you might not know about. You can learn them in a pretty quick way.”
The album includes short explanations of the songs on an insert that comes with the case, and Holtz introduces each track with background information. Since the songs are just windows into these stories, Holtz wants listeners to use them as springboards into history exploration.
“Even if it’s a story that’s sad, maybe it’s intriguing, and they’ll want to explore Nebraska history,” Holtz said. “If people say, ‘I had never heard of Susan La Flesche Picotte’ or they say, ‘I didn’t know Nebraska had a pioneer aviatrix!’ – then we met the goal.”
Holtz described his creative process as he wrote the songs as sporadic, but it closely tied to his teaching experiences and his childhood growing up in Ord, Nebraska.
“I teach Nebraska literature. I teach Cather, Neihardt, Sandoz, and Aldrich. Sandoz and Neihardt get into Native American stories, and I wanted to include those as well,” Holtz said. “I probably knew about the Battle of Blue Water, well the Massacre of Blue Water, because of Sandoz. It just struck me as a story I’d like to write a song about.”
Holtz said that even though Ord is on the edge of the Sandhills, his interest in that region did not develop until he was an adult.
“I came to love and appreciate that kind of lifestyle. I once did an artist-in-residence for a week and went to schools in the Sandhills. A school would have a barbed wire fence around it to keep the cows out. Even though I wasn’t born there, I have that appreciation now,” Holtz said.
Members of Flatwater Highway share that appreciation. They assembled from across the state to provide their vocal and musical talents. The way they came together to make a band for this specific project is typical to Nebraska – everybody knows everybody else.
Holtz met Steffan Baker because Baker is also a native of Ord. Baker sings and plays the guitar and mandolin on the album. Baker then introduced Holtz to his cousin Julie Baker-Anderson, who sings. He also knew Cindy Huebert, who plays the violin, and her husband Martin Huebert and son Eli Huebert, who play electric bass and electric guitar, respectively. Baker also knew drummer Ralph Brown. Brown is also an artist, and he drew the artwork for the album cover.
They were all interested in the project, but they lived scattered across the state. The name of the band was a result of the way they came together.
“We wanted to use the name Flatwater, but we needed something after it or something before it,” Holtz said. “As I was driving up to Wisner, I thought about how Nebraska was and still is a highway, first for Native people, then with railroads running across, then highways. The name recognizes all the miles we put into driving to practice.”
Baker, Baker-Anderson, and Holtz met last June to practice, then the full band met in November. They did an informal concert in North Loup in February and then polished the songs right before recording them later that month at Power Base Studio in Wisner.
The musicians volunteered their time, and Holtz self-funded the production costs.
“Making money isn’t the aim of the project,” Hotlz said. “I enjoy doing the music, and they were all neat people to work with.”
Holtz hopes that the album will make connections with a variety of Nebraskans through its music.
“It’s for more of an adult audience, but kids might enjoy some of the songs,” Holtz said. “People interested in Nebraska history, or people excited for Nebraska’s 150th birthday will enjoy the music.”
All Original, All Nebraska will be available at various retail stores and on CD Baby, an online music site. It sells for $15 or two for $25. Holtz will also sell and ship the CDs himself. Contact him at DHoltz@peru.edu.