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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Mary Beth Cross: Seeking & Singing What “Feels Like Home” | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

When, as a young girl, Mary Beth Cross first watched Judy Garland singing her heart out in The Wizard of Oz, that place over the rainbow that music can take us called to her, too.


FROM JUDY GARLAND, HER SIBLINGS AND EVEN A SINGING NUN, MARY BETH CROSS drew the inspiration to set aside her occupation as a hospital nurse to follow her dream of meeting her financial, emotional and spiritual needs through a career as a collaborative singer-songwriter.

“I still remember the dress I had on,” the guitarist, singer-songwriter says. “Looking down at my shoes, thinking, that is so cool. I want to be her.”

Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in a large, Irish-Catholic family, music and singing permeated her days. “My younger sister and I were always singing in the basement, swinging around to music, singing in the car with my mother – children’s songs and swing tunes she was familiar with. And then folk songs they sang at masses at church. I went to Catholic school and was very influenced by my 6th grade teacher, a nun who played 12-string guitar and wore a mini-skirt, go-go boots, and a short veil. It was very post-Vatican II, like the doors had been flung open. She got us going with creative writing and poetry, consulting nature for inspiration.”

The music her older siblings brought into the house also inspired. “Everything from Seals & Crofts and The Carpenters to James Taylor, Elton John, and Boston. John Denver was also a huge influence on me. While everybody else was taking piano lessons, I just kept saying, I want a guitar, I want a guitar – and on my twelfth birthday, I got one.”

She soon began taking lessons with a teacher who involved her in playing at weddings and church, and by her sophomore year in high school, was leading her own church choir. “That was my first paid job, with help from my mom, of course, because I wasn’t driving yet. I was already arranging music and my little sister would come along and play the triangle.”

Cross played for the campus ministry at the all-girl, Catholic high school she attended. “I was the only one from my grade school to go across town for high school and it kind of opened my world. Green Bay is not big, but at that time it was a big stretch and it was wonderful. I got involved with high school choir, plays, swing choir, solo ensembles.”

When she began looking at colleges, her father steered her toward nursing school. “He wasn’t sold on journalism or music as a way to make a good living because they were too competitive. He was worried about paying back student loans, and rightfully so. I really wanted to go to (the University of Wisconsin at) Madison. He said: if you’re going to be living in the dorms, then you need to get a BSN. Then you can do whatever you want.”

At Madison, Cross played the open mics at Der Rathskeller on Lake Mendota and performed at weddings. “I was always whipping out my guitar at lake picnics, any time there was a chance to play, and I started writing songs. There was a community choir I had to try out for through the university music school, that was wonderful. We did Verdi’s Requiem, and it was my first time singing with an orchestra. I did that two semesters but then got really too busy with work and clinicals.”

While in college, Cross gained valuable experience working as a pharmacy technician at the university hospital and in the Madison General ER, as well as in nursing homes. After graduating in 1986, she convinced a couple of friends to move west. “I had always wanted to come to Denver and be a ski nurse. I had a picture of Colorado I would look at while studying for finals senior year. We packed up a U-Haul, drove to Denver, and I started working at Denver Presbyterian in the ICU.”

She later moved to Lakewood and worked at Lutheran Medical Center for the next seven years. But the sound of music never stopped calling. “I also did some work at National Jewish and other hospitals, worked as a ski patrol and did some other volunteer work. I took classes in statistics and health policy toward a master’s in nursing. I was writing this paper and listening to Joni Mitchell’s song ‘River’ at Christmas time, and I just thought, I really don’t think this is the right path.”

In the early 1990s, Cross found a guitar teacher, bought a new guitar, and started learning in earnest. “The teacher kept saying, you really can’t do this in a vacuum. We were listening to a lot of Mary Black, and he was an Irish fiddle player. He could see I had the talent and the drive, so he said, you really should go to Ireland.”

In 1993 she took a month off from her position at Lutheran to do just that, with a stop first in England, where she met her future husband, Jeff. “We were changing our anesthesia and recovery approach for open-heart surgery patients at Lutheran and some physicians I knew had done their residency in Denver with this surgeon currently doing a fellowship at the cardiothoracic center in Liverpool. I contacted him to arrange a day at the hospital. We spent some time together while I was in and out of England, stayed in touch while I was over in Ireland, and drove around a day on my way back before I had to fly home. We kept in touch, and I remember thinking maybe he would come back to Denver one day, because he’s from here.”

Back in Denver, Cross soon decided to put everything in storage and try some traveling nursing. “I went to Gallup, New Mexico, of all places. But I knew it was a stone’s throw from places like Chaco Canyon and Grand Canyon, very holy, wonderful places. I always had an interest in Indian culture and I was journaling a lot and really trying to go back to the source. I think the desert is a great place for that.”

She returned to Denver and took a travel nurse position for another year. During that time, Jeff returned to Denver and they started seeing each other. “By 1996, it became pretty clear. I had an offer to go to Hawaii and he didn’t want me to go. We were engaged in 1997 and married in 1998. So I put the music down for a while. I kept working through my first pregnancy. I then taught early childhood music and worked with the choir at a couple local churches over the next few years.  I had always been a member of Swallow Hill and continued to take workshops.”

During a vacation in Nantucket right around her 40th birthday, Cross first began to sense the time had finally come to put music front and center. “The kids were around 5 and 2 1/2 and playing together. I remember thinking, this is good. They’re not trying to kill each other anymore.” She laughs. “The world of boys is very violent and it starts really young. I was younger than my brothers so I didn’t really see that. Jeff and I were strolling on the beach, arm and arm, and I thought, OK, this is going to be a good thing in the long run.”

She started taking guitar lessons again at Swallow Hill, with a renewed sense of exactly the kind of sound she wanted to make. “I want to do this Alison Krauss song, I want to do this, this, and this. I was putting together what later became my first CD, Laughing Through Tears, which really was just kind of a personal effort. I had done a tape while working at Lutheran and never released it, just gave it to family and friends. It was some of my favorite singer-songwriter heroes – Joni Mitchell, Nancy Griffith, Sean Colvin – and a couple of original tunes. Two of them made it into Laughing through Tears.”

She continued to write and record music, and release CDs. “The first two were self-produced and cheaply made but by the time I was putting together my third, I was reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and trying to find what piece of it I wasn’t doing well. Is it the writing, the production, the recording, the mixing? I finally think I hit it on this last one.”

Released in January 2013, Beyond Good and Evil, produced, recorded and mixed by Dave Bechtel at Playground Recording Studio in Nashville, and also featuring multiple Grammy and IBMA Award-winning fiddle player Stuart Duncan, was recently named “CD of the Year for Folk/Country” by the Rural Roots Music Commission. Cross will accept the award in August 2014 at the 39th annual Old-time Folk Music Festival and convention in LeMars, Iowa. It also landed a top-five ranking on Airplay Direct, garnering numerous glowing reviews.

“The album is about the whole idea of moving west,” Cross says. “Why is it some people never move and others have that inner yearning? What drove the pioneers? The opportunity to make it, to own a piece of land, to find gold? What is our gold rush today? What will we do for gold? Musically, Beyond Good and Evil has more rich grit and depth, more lower-register going on than my previous album. We got a little less pretty, a little messier, and I think we struck a nice balance. It was such a good collaboration. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that making a successful career in music comes from finding and funding a good team.”

Cross describes her music as blurring the lines of folk and bluegrass. “Using acoustic instruments, more in a mid than fast tempo range.” The theme of her next album, now in the works, draws on her own family roots, mining experiences of her dad, who grew up on a dairy farm. “One of my new songs is called ‘Threshing Time.’ The community shared one threshing machine and people would come together and work each farm getting the hay ready. It was like Christmas, with pies and lemonade and everyone in a good mood because they had each other to talk to. So my next CD will be called Feels Like Home.”

She continues to view making and performing music a journey. “The next piece, when it’s appropriate, would be hiring a booking agent but you really have to be ready for that. Each piece in its own time.”

A speech keynote speaker Graham Nash delivered at the Folk Alliance International in Kansas City in February 2014 (that Cross attended) spoke to the real drive to make music, independent of accolades and income, she shares. “He got into this because he loved it, not for a Grammy. In the canyon at Joni Mitchell’s house, he sat down with those guys and they knew they had these amazing harmonies as well as something relevant for the time. He said his mom was a singer and she gave it up and had kids – but she encouraged him and he wanted to thank her. If it was not for my mom driving me to guitar lessons, I wouldn’t be doing what I love today. No one gets here by themselves. I’m very grateful.”

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