You know that scene from, like, a thousand different movies where the meek protagonist steps into a bar full of buff, tattooed middle-aged folks who look ready to beat them up? Well, that’s pretty much how I felt when I first walked into Columbia’s Dive Bar on April 12.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. I never actually felt in danger of being beat up, even though the very first bit of background chatter I heard after going outside to the patio was a woman behind me jokingly saying to her friend, “I will throat-punch you!” (I’ll assume it was a joke because nobody ended up getting throat-punched that night).
I wandered and found a stray seat for myself, which was one of those bulky plastic chairs you can find at public pools. Hardly any time passed before Ryan Shiner, one of the night’s performers who I’d been in touch with beforehand, walked up to greet me: “Are you the kid from Vox?”
“Jeez, is it THAT obvious?” I thought to myself as I, probably the only audience member in their 20s, sat there cross-legged in my polo shirt and khaki shorts. But by the end of the night, I’d come to understand the supportive community they’d formed.
Finally, 7 p.m. rolled around, and it was time for the main event. Dennis Schubert, the event’s organizer, took the stage to address the crowd. “Welcome to Song Swap,” he announced.
At Dive Bar, the CoMo Song Swap night falls on the second Tuesday of each month. The event was first conceived in 2020 by Schubert, who was inspired by a birthday party at Dive Bar that a group of fellow local musicians threw for him. He realized turning that night into a recurring gathering would give local singer-songwriters an opportunity to get to know one another and hone their craft. It also helped that Dive Bar was looking for new ways of keeping business going during the pandemic, so this event fit the bill perfectly.
Song Swap brings together six local musicians, who are grouped into three pairs. Each pair takes the stage for an hour and performs original songs.
First up were Dennis Hodo and Ron Smith, two guitarists who were both well-established local performers but perfect strangers to each other before that night. Pairing together singers who aren’t well-acquainted encourages them both to make good first impressions on each other, which can foster new friendships, Schubert says.
Hodo opened with a blues song called “Shake It Off” (no, not the Taylor Swift version), which Smith followed up with a soulful ballad about the “little things you do every day” that “matter in some not-so-little ways.” The song is all about how small gestures, both good and bad, are what people remember most about you.
Some of Smith’s other songs were similarly emotional, such as the one about his father with alcoholism. This song hit me especially hard because of how eerily it mirrored my own experiences with my mother during her struggle with alcoholism:
You had a friend in the bottle,
that you tried to hide somewhere,
in a bush, or in your car,
or in the basement, anywhere.
My mom has been sober for 6 years now, but this reminded me how a lot of people with loved ones struggling with addictions aren’t so lucky.
On the other hand, you’ve got the satirical “anti-love song” Smith performed, which was about how for humans, love is just a bunch of chemical reactions in our brains. It basically sounded like something out of Rick and Morty. And his folksy country song about clickbait, pop-up ads and other such digital nuisances is something I never knew I wanted.
The crowd seemed to feel the same way, as they broke into applause before the song even ended. At one point, the throat-punch lady yelled out to finish a lyric before Smith could. “Sometimes I just get something stuck in my funny sack,” says Smith, a semi-retired computer consultant. “I just start writing it out and see where I can take it.”
Although Smith usually jumped right into his songs, Hodo gave detailed intros for his. One song was inspired by his nature walks through the Ozarks, and another came to be when he heard somebody his daughter’s age complain about getting old, which sent him down something of a mental rabbit hole.
Hodo ended the set with “Lima Bean Blues,” the first song he ever wrote. He spent months in the jungles of Vietnam serving in the infantry in the ’70s. One time, a monsoon prevented the helicopters that delivered food to soldiers from reaching them. Hodo wrote this song to remind himself that no matter how bad of a day he’s having, it could always be worse; he could be stuck in a wet jungle with nothing to eat but a can of lima beans.
During the intermission before the next set, Schubert asked anyone in the audience who was a singer-songwriter to stand up, and nearly the entire crowd did. It was at this point that it really clicked with me: Everybody knew everybody here. Throughout the night, audience members waved and shouted to one another from opposite ends of the patio. They could drift from table to table with no issue, pulling up a chair without the need for an invitation. I realized that Song Swap felt less like singers performing for an audience and more like a group of friends simply hanging out and playing music for one other.
“It’s also been a real good way for more of the songwriters to get acquainted with each other,” Schubert says. “Folks like us can meet more folks like us.”
The next performers to take the stage were Linda Bott and Nancy Deitz, jazz bassists whose music stylings are “a watered-down, minimalistic approach to what should be big-band music,” says Deitz, who has played in big bands and orchestras. Hodo and Smith didn’t interact much on stage, but Bott and Deitz were the exact opposite. They would banter between songs and cheer each other on throughout the performance.
True to the nature of jazz, their time on stage had a looser, more improvisational feel. There were a handful of times when one of them would decide on the fly to play a different song than originally planned, such as when Deitz performed a song dedicated to her late grandparents. She admitted to being nervous about singing it because of how emotional it makes her, immediately receiving words of encouragement from an audience member: “You got this, girl, you got this!” She managed to make it through the song tear-free.
Encouraged by Deitz’s display of vulnerability, Bott decided to follow suit with an acapella piece about her grandmother with Alzheimer’s — a song she very rarely performs for others. “OK, no more crying songs,” they said afterward.
From the very start, I’d gotten the sense that these two had a real history between them, and my intuition was confirmed when Deitz told the audience, “This lady here is one of the biggest reasons I started playing bass.” When Bott was pregnant, Deitz bought a bass so that her friend could come rehearse at her house without having to lug her own bass over there. The situation created an excuse for Deitz to pick up bass herself, and the rest is history.
A not-so-odd couple
By the end of their performance, the sun had set, and the air had turned from thick and balmy to cool and crisp. My rigid posture finally loosened — this was no longer merely something I was covering for an assignment, but rather an experience I allowed myself to become immersed in (even if I still was furiously jotting down notes).
Unfazed by the somewhat-dwindled crowd, they both seemed happy just to be there. “This is my kind of living,” Colaner declared when he first got on stage. “One of the things that’s great about it is that, by design, there are a lot of other musicians in the audience,” Colaner says. “And so you get their feedback, but then you also make these new connections —– and those can be really fruitful, whether because you collaborate later or simply because it’s good to be part of a community.”
Colaner was playing on a “100-and-something-year-old” parlor guitar he bought from a vintage music shop in the “little hippie town” of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he used to live. He coined the term “Melodramericana” to describe much of his music. He infuses traditional Americana with a more dramatic, emotional flare inspired by experience playing classical music and writing operas. The subject matter of his songs certainly fits that description, ranging from grief to alcoholism to a relationship going through a rough patch.
Shiner’s music was a bit more lighthearted by comparison. One song was about an obsessive ex, while another was about how Kylo Ren is an emo edgelord. I wasn’t expecting anything from that night to top the clickbait song in the “things I never knew I wanted” department, but clearly I was wrong. Afterward, Colaner accused him of committing one of the gravest sins in the Star Wars fanbase: preferring the prequels. “I like ’em all,” he replied, not necessarily denying it.
For another song, Shiner kicked off his sandals and employed his tried-and-true tactic for riling up the crowd: crabcore dance moves, which involve squatting and moving around like, well, a crab. “I’m a big guy — you gotta do what you gotta do,” he says. And for his final performance of the night, he rewarded everyone who stuck around to the end with a cover of the musical masterpiece that is the SpongeBob SquarePants song “Ripped Pants.”
The spirit of
People ask me all the time why I came to MU. And it’s a fair question. How did a pasty Jewish kid from Jersey end up smack dab in the heart of the Midwest? The answer I give has always been, “the journalism school,” which usually satisfies them. And for a long time, that’s what I told myself. After all, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so this school seemed like my best bet.
However, as time passed, I came to realize that it was something more than that. I had other options, but whether I knew it or not at the time, I picked MU — and, by extension, Missouri — because it was something different. I felt that I owed it to myself to step outside the bubble of my suburban upbringing and have experiences with new kinds of people, new kinds of cultures, new kinds of communities. And to me, something like Song Swap is the perfect example of this.
Watching all these singers come together to support one another is the very specific kind of experience I wouldn’t be able to find in my hometown, which didn’t have much in the way of a local music scene.
It gets to the core of what makes Columbia special: It’s a city that feels like a small town, a community that thrives on local values. I know it sounds corny, but simply put, Song Swap captured the essence of Columbia in its purest form.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the name of the event, which is CoMo Song Swap.