From going to Austin City Limits Music Festival in high school to playing this weekend, Jane Ellen Bryant reflects on what the festival means to her.
By Jane Ellen Bryant, Photo by Kaity Dawson
At Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2008, I fought crowds in the beating sun on Friday afternoon to earn my spot at the railing surrounding the Austin Ventures stage. I was a senior in high school, eager to study music at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee the following year. The artist that motivated me to ditch school early that day was singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn. As a new songwriter myself, I was beyond eager to memorize her every move. The performance of her song “Dream” impacted me permanently that afternoon. Little did I know “Dream” would become the first song I arranged and performed with my female a cappella group in college. My grandfather would travel from Texas to Nashville just to hear me sing it. Less than a year later, I would sing it in tears at his unexpected funeral. It never ceases to amaze me how a song or performance can transcend and connect us all in ways that are otherwise unreachable. On Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, I will be so honored to take the ACL Fest stage, knowing fully the possibility it holds.
I first discovered I would be permanently glued to this wild endeavor when I was 12 years old. A rock-band summer camp allowed me to belt out “Purple Haze,” “Back in Black” and “Sweet Home Alabama” at the legendary Antone’s Nightclub. It was a cliché, yet life-altering moment for me. Hearing the work my peers and I had poured our hearts into come to life through those speakers was the most exhilarating experience I had ever known. Ever since then, the smell of lingering cigarette smoke and dusty sound equipment in an empty room sends a shot of adrenaline through my veins. The anticipation and potential of it all makes me feel alive.
In the past 15 years, I’ve learned that the shot at the stage is not always what I imagined it would be. I’ve sang my heart out in countless empty and crowded bars while my soul felt eaten alive. I’ve stood in line for every open mic I could find. I auditioned for the producers of American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent only to hear them shout “next” in the middle of my song. I’ve also had plenty of those “you can’t make that up” encounters. For example, I once played my saddest folk songs for a bachelor party during a hailstorm (long story). I also awkwardly spotted my gynecologist in the crowd at my show. (Thankfully, she’s the coolest.) I’m grateful for all of these moments because they led me to the first time I saw a stranger in the crowd singing my lyrics. They brought my first sold-out show, standing ovation and Austin Music Award.
What I’ve realized lately is that life is the little moments. It is the people you love, the daily victories, the rise and fall of it all. It is not about an end destination; we are living fully right now. I feel immense pride and joy seeing my name on the same poster as so many women I deeply admire. Kacey? Lizzo? They are changing the game for me and everyone watching. I cannot wait to walk on stage Friday and hear my songs echo through the speakers. I cannot wait to celebrate with my incredible, heavily female-fronted band. I will embrace every moment and hope that any young woman with a dream out there watching knows that she can have her stage too.