"I've been working with elders as a music therapist since I graduated from Naropa in 2000," Kammer says. "It's been a wonderful experience for the elders, for the staff and for us, especially."
The past few weeks have made even playing outside a challenge because the smoke from nearby fires and those in California have forced many senior homes to close their windows.
"There was one place I go that I can only do it through open windows," she says. "They had to keep their windows shut for two to three weeks. I finally got to go back there, and I was so grateful."
Kammer notes that a lot of healing happens through music. Many of the people living at the senior centers are isolated like the rest of us, but because of COVID, they really can't go anywhere, not even for a walk. They're effectively trapped inside.
"I can see how much it means to the folks who are able to come out and be on their patio," she says. "I can see the expressions on their faces and the joy in their singing. Some of them are dancing. If they're in a wheelchair, they're chair-dancing."
She says "Hey Good Lookin'," by Hank Williams, is a crowd pleaser, along with old gospel tunes like "This Little Light of Mine."
"I would say the classic country tunes really lift people up," she says. "The gospel tunes are also a favorite, because they know the songs from childhood and will sing them right along with me."
Kammer, 66, has been clean and sober — she confesses to still chewing nicotine gum — for thirteen years this summer, after a forty-year slog through alcoholism, drug abuse, an eating disorder, and even trouble controlling her shopping habits. She alludes to that ongoing struggle in her music and song choices. The title of her first solo effort, One Song at a Time, evokes the advice people in twelve-step recovery programs offer newcomers. Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" also seems to follow that theme of recovery. "The Winning Side," an original song, is explicitly about her recovery.
Getting sober has helped her music immeasurably, but she didn't just sober up one day and get on with her new life. It's been a struggle every day. She spent a month at a rehab clinic in Estes Park and years at meetings after that. It's by no means been easy.
"My head got a lot more clear," she says. "I wouldn't say that I all of a sudden jumped into feeling confident about performing. I met some wonderful musicians at my meetings, started jamming around with them."
In June, Kammer dropped Big Blue Sky in the Morning, her second solo record. While her music has elements of folk and bluegrass, it also harks back to classic country music, particularly whenever the pedal steel guitar is present. Kammer says she's taken vocal influence from Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Kate Wolf, Eva Cassidy, Patsy Cline and Janis Joplin.
Kammer says that she's using more of her vocal range on the new album. She's a classically trained singer and took lessons and sang in choirs in her formative years. She's even taken to yodeling on the new record and singing in a higher register, at her mother's urging.
"My mom, who is 92, said to me, 'Honey, when you do a second album, do you think you could sing a little more in your higher voice?'" Kammer recalls. "That's what inspired me to write my second song, 'Big Blue Sky in the Morning.' I start out by yodeling."
Kammer says she wants to offer people hope and joy through her music, particularly during these dark times when they're stuck at home and isolated. She wants people to know they aren't alone if they struggle with solitude or substance issues of their own. Help is out there.
"The isolation that's happening right now is difficult for people," she says. "After forty years, or more than forty years of struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction and other addictions — I mean, you name it — if I'm able to get clean and sober and I'm able to stay in recovery, anyone can do it."
More information is available at Barbara Jo Kammer's website.