By his own admission, eTown host Nick Forster has a lot of friends. Like him, they are confined to their quarters. While they're stuck inside, he’s hoping they might be able to teach him a thing or two about a thing or two.
ETown, Boulder’s radio podcast and multimedia event production/recording studio/concert hall is, like most everything else, shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Undeterred, Forster, also known as a member of progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize, has started Teach Me One Thing. It's a series of online videos in which a musician like Phish’s bassist Mike Gordon shows Forster a “non-varying” technique for better jamming or comedian/banjo lord Steve Martin reveals a lick that is supposedly intoxicating to the opposite sex. (The riff apparently works, as Forster’s wife, Helen, also an eTown host, swoons into the shot for a moment.)
They also just kind of shoot the shit.
“The point was always a really simple one: I’m home, there are no gigs, no shows, and all my friends are home,” Forster says. “All my friends are home.”
He says that rather than just have a standard Zoom call about how everyone is holding up during the pandemic — Forster does spend some time in each video making sure everyone is okay — why not invite his friends to teach him something?
"I just thought everyone has something to teach," he says. "It puts a little context around the conversation and the call. I'm not just saying, 'Hey, how are you?'"
And they don’t just talk about music. The Mike Gordon conversation is freewheeling and rather “cosmic and diffused,” as Forster puts it. Martin also teaches him a secret “lost chord” on the banjo that is not visible, or audible, to the listener, before wrapping up with a brief lesson on how to perfectly shuffle cards. And he is quite good at shuffling cards...almost eerily so.
Forster promises a sourdough starter lesson from singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, and Louie Pérez from Los Lobos is teaching Forster a “crazy folkloric rhythm” that forms the foundation of a good deal of traditional Mexican music. He's also taking a lesson on the G chord from guitarist Bill Frisell. And there are plenty of people to call on.
“I have a list of about 125 people,” Forster says. “Not all of them are musicians. Some are authors, scientists and experts. A vast majority of them have already been on eTown over the years.”
Forster says the videos are casual in tone and, because they are shot inside people’s homes, offer a small glimpse of their lives. Viewers see Gordon at his Vermont home, and Martin at a location he declines to reveal. Even if they are world-famous celebrities and probably live in nicer digs than the average American, they are stuck at home along with everyone else.
“I think people are going to just want to hang out with them,” he says. “I don’t think they are necessarily going to be a part of anyone’s overall education. I think they just have genuine human-interest value. ... We are fundamentally all in this together at this point.”
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He says he plans to make about thirty of the episodes during the month of May, with the idea of rolling out a new episode once a week. He might release them more frequently as time goes on.
The episodes include animations and titles and everything else one might expect from a professionally made video. Forster says staff at eTown have been pitching in as a way to keep them at work and creative while they lack an in-person audience. So far, he has been able to keep his salaried employees paid and working, and they are experimenting with the format as they go forward.
“It’s a project that allows our audience to see that eTown is still being creative and productive,” he says. “We are improvising, given the fact that we are musicians and that’s what musicians do. This landscape we find ourselves in requires some improvisation.”
Teach Me One Thing premieres a new episode every Tuesday on eTown's YouTube channel.