Coming Home to Hope

The Weeks are just one of the popular bands represented by Esperanza Plantation.

The Weeks are just one of the popular bands represented by Esperanza Plantation. Photo by Courtesy The Weeks

Just over 10 years ago, I walked up to the elevated stage inside a youth-filled Assemblies of God church and told the members of Fletcher, a now-defunct indie-rock band, that I wanted to sign them. Sign them to what? At that point, Esperanza Plantation did not exist. What existed was a longing for a flourishing artistic collective that was not grounded in any economic reality.

At the time, my band, Bellador, and our friends’ bands were linked together on a crappy free website, and I was buying records wholesale from Jade Tree and Sub Pop Records to sell at concerts. Not long after that first “signing,” newly licensed lawyer and exemplary Jacksonian Chaney Nichols came along and put flesh and blood to our dreams. Mutual musician-friends introduced Chaney to me at a wedding. Food was shared, and a few months later, a split 7-inch record was born.

I’m not sure exactly when or if we ever officially handed the reins over to Chaney. The truth is that Esperanza was always a shared hope. Like any business venture, its realization as “Esperanza Plantation” depended entirely on the right person coming along—with passion, resources and clarity—at the right moment.

I left Jackson in 2004, trading in my bass guitar for grad-school books. Recently, at Esperanza’s 10th anniversary show on Oct. 17, I caught a glimpse of what I’m now coming home to eight years later.

Jesse Coppenbarger (El Obo) began his set with about 60 listeners gathered on the main floor space of Morningbell Records in Fondren. Coppenbarger performed two electric solo versions of tracks from “Oxford Basement Collection” before debuting new material—all well-crafted tunes that, whether bluesy or grunge, provided rhythmic melodies that allowed his vocal and intellectual capacities to shine. Since his time as Fletcher’s frontman, I’ve always known Jesse as a songwriter who is mature beyond his years. With lyrics that more directly evoked life’s enmeshment in the social and the political, this new material reaffirmed that truth.

Tommy Bryan Ledford followed with full band and fiddle, providing a foot-stomping display of vintage southern rock. Ledford, who happens to be Nichols’ brother-in-law, is a clear aficionado of what he calls “electric catfish music,” a heartfelt, down-in-the-dirt blend of folk, blues and gospel. It’s a good sign for Esperanza and for our lager music community that, after his first full-length album under his own name (“Butcher’s Bird,” 2011), Ledford and company showcased new material.

The Weeks closed out the celebration with high-energy and style, demonstrating, alongside Coppenbarger’s artistic angst and Ledford’s soulful country-blues, the musical depth and diversity that have always characterized Esperanza. As with Ledford, The Weeks stepped onto the Plantation after I left, so I was glad to be introduced to them as another pedal-to-the-metal rock band that can bring out the crowds.

Throughout the night, more than 150 Jacksonians came to listen and party. Rumors have it that Esperanza’s annual holiday showcase averages several hundred (so go ahead and mark your calendars for an extra-special

Dec. 22). That local indie and rock music can still attract both kids and the older passersby—especially to newer venues like Morningbell that are brave enough to open their doors in our digital age—is another indicator that the Jackson scene is alive and well.

Esperanza has always been about family, mutual support and the promise of things to come emerging out of our shared efforts. The chart of local musicians in the JFP’s recent music issue (“A Family Affair”) confirms that what’s true for Esperanza is true for the greater Jackson community. Our artistic endeavors, like all higher human things, thrive most when we recognize our interdependence and use our gifts for the nurturing of common goods.

In business terms, Esperanza is still a small venture, doing well to survive in today’s competitive “post-apocalyptic digital superhighway,” as Chaney recently put it. Our role is still to serve “as a springboard or avenue” that enables local artists we believe in to “do what they do” on a wider scale.

“If those artists are able to move on to bigger labels, mission accomplished,” Chaney says. “But those same artists will always be a part of our family and will hopefully carry our mission statement (of hope) forward.”

For me, returning home as Esperanza turned 10 evoked past dreams that have been carried into the present in new, exciting forms. The music of hope has always set Mississippi apart, and in at least one Jackson family, hope still has a home.

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