By: Chris “Topher” Aderhold
Over the course of the past five months, the generosity of many has resulted in the production of a Camp Gray music CD – a CD chock-full of music performed by Camp Gray staffers. Here now, the story of the journey of the Camp Gray CD, appropriately named, “Bless Us for the Journey.” Release date: June 1st.
It was the evening of the first day of 2013, and a tall, heavily flannelled, longtime Summer Camp Staffer was sitting in my office. The topic of conversation was, well, a multitude of things, which is per usual when Ryan McGrath pays me a visit. Eventually, the conversation turned to music – specifically the music of Camp Gray. The following day, at 10:00am sharp, Ryan and I were meeting with popular Catholic musician Aaron Thompson to begin collaboration on a music CD for Camp Gray.
The next morning, as Ryan and I followed Aaron down a stairwell to the entrance of his Catacombs Studio, it finally began to sink in (and, truth be told, even now, it’s only partially sunk in…). A project that many have dreamed about for Camp Gray for many, many years was about to commence. My heart was overflowing with excitement and joy as we descended those stairs that day, and my mind raced, thinking of the impact this CD could have for so many.
Aaron’s voice interrupted my mind’s wandering once we arrived at the bottom of the stairs. Pointing at the studio he said, “She’s not much to look at, but she made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”
Just like that, a Star Wars quote kicked off an amazing five month journey. I’ve been a part of Camp Gray for a few years now. I’ve witnessed countless acts of sacrifice, humility, patience, and generosity, from hundreds of staffers, campers, staff alumni, camper parents, and others. I might have guessed, when I first started at Camp Gray, that by this point in my journey, I would no longer be surprised by such acts of love.
The past five months proved otherwise.
To sing or to play an instrument in a public setting can put the performer in a scary position of vulnerability. However, when the performer, regardless of skill level, finds him or herself in a safe place, the performance will not merely commence, it will astound. That’s one reason why music plays such a large role in the world of camps, and certainly at Camp Gray. We sing songs of praise to the Lord, songs about the deliciousness of pancakes, and goofy post-meal, digestion-aiding songs about David Hasselhoff, among others. Typically, members of the staff lead the songs. When campers see 40+ staffers – faith-filled, energetic, fun, and compassionate staffers – engaged in these songs in a manner appropriate to the genre of song being sung, there can be no doubt: this Camp Gray place is a safe place. It’s an invitation for campers to open up, to be comfortable in their own skin, to be themselves. This sort of environment has been present at Camp Gray for eons.
This Camp Gray place has – for 60 years, in fact – played a role in the lives of well over 100,000 people. They come to Camp Gray from all corners of the USA and beyond – they feel the energy, the love, the encouragement, the security of this safe place, and they sing. Yes, even the boys. There’s just something about music. In the words of Ryan, “Nothing brings back good memories like a good song, and for campers to take these songs home with them – well that would just be another way to remember these good times [at Camp Gray].”
Ryan’s quote was taken post-production, knowing that the CD would soon be released. However, his sentiment isn’t a new sentiment. A dream of many for years – as long as I’ve been at Camp Gray, and certainly for year’s prior – has been for Camp Gray to have available a music CD full of Camp music. While Camp Gray has employed an extraordinary amount of incredibly talented musicians over the past few years, creating a CD is obviously a tall order. On a few occasions over the past few years, initial plans were made to attempt to create a CD in-house. Ryan even spent time the past two summers at Camp recording a few tracks with his personal recording equipment. Professionally mixing and mastering a CD is a pricey endeavor, and Ryan is good at what he does, so we were excited for this progress (in fact, he’s done a lot of the mixing on CDs for his band out in Montana, “The Ryan McGrath Band” – if you like blues and country music, these guys could be your jam…)
Ryan told me recently that he enjoyed those initial in-house recording sessions and the mixing that would follow, but that he wanted more people involved. After Aaron’s invitation to help, Ryan was thrilled that Camp would get to work in a real studio, and that more musicians would be able to collaborate. (Oh, and don’t fret, his in-house recordings weren’t done in vain – one of those tracks made the CD!). I’m getting ahead of myself, though. When and how did Aaron become a key player in this journey?
At the conclusion of each session of Summer Camp, parents join the staff at Camp’s Main Campfire Area to experience our end-of-session “Closing Ceremonies.” The Closing Ceremony is a nice window into the week for parents – they’re able to witness the goofiness, the energy, and the music of Camp Gray. As the Session Six Ceremony ended last year, parents and campers began mingling and milling about. A few of us were over near the Campfire stage, discussing the week, when a friendly gentleman with a warm, bright smile approached. He introduced himself as Aaron Thompson and said, “I enjoyed your music. Have you ever thought about making a Camp Gray music CD?”
We told him that, yes, we had thought of such a thing. Then, he spoke some of the most amazing words that maybe have ever been spoken at Camp Gray: “Well, I have a little studio down in Madison, and if you’d be interested, I’d love to help you make it happen.”
Aaron handed me his business card, and I immediately slipped it into my left cargo pocket – the one with a zipper. There’s no way I was going to lose that small piece of cardstock paper, for that little rectangle was the ticket to an enormous gift – a gift that would be larger than I could have imagined.
Aaron Thompson is the Music Director at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Madison. In addition to leading the music during masses at St. Thomas, Aaron has released several CDs of Catholic music, and he routinely travels the country playing various concerts and events (check him out at: aaronthopmsonmusic.com). Aaron and his wife Marian have four kids – two of whom have come to Summer Camp at Camp Gray in the past couple years.
A few weeks after Summer Camp ended, and the final days of summer began turning into another colorful Wisconsin autumn, I received a call from Elizabeth Shepler. Elizabeth is a member of Camp’s Board of Directors, and she had recently spoken with Aaron about scheduling a concert at her parish in Dodgeville. Aaron’s business card was no longer in my zippable cargo pocket, but it was still in a very safe place, and I had intentions of getting in touch with him soon. My conversation with Elizabeth expedited that phone call to Aaron. She heard from Aaron that he might be helping Camp Gray create a music CD, and as a fan of both Camp Gray and of Aaron Thompson, her excitement was off the charts. Her excitement was so palpable, I ended up calling him that same day.
From the get-go, during several pre-production phone conversations with Aaron, it was obvious that he had great excitement for this project. This was a new endeavor for Camp, and for me personally, as well. To sense his excitement and passion during those first few conversations exponentially upped both my excitement and my confidence that we could complete this project. It was also obvious that Aaron is a kind, patient, and faith-filled man – a man that strives to serve the Lord by serving his family and others.
It was an exciting day when pre-production finally turned into production. The day Ryan and I first met with Aaron in his studio, his generosity and kindness, as well as his talent, blew me away. Aaron is a man that loves music, and loves the process of creating song. Songwriters pour their heart and soul into the work they do – maybe so much more when it’s a song of prayer. A painter can paint a masterpiece, and upon completion, his work is done. A songwriter can write a masterpiece, but upon completion, his written song is but words and notes on a piece of paper. Aaron loves the process of taking the scribbles on that paper and turning them into beautiful melodic prayers. “It’s a magical process,” Aaron recently told me, “and it’s a blessing to be a part of it.” And it’s a process, I soon learned, that would take lots of work from lots of people. One such person was Ryan McGrath.
Ryan was a camper for many years at Camp Gray, and for the past four years he served on staff as the assistant to Tom Thill, Camp’s Property Manager. When Ryan wasn’t humbly and joyfully serving behind the scenes with Tom, he could oftentimes be found writing music. (Recently, I played for Tom a track of Ryan singing one of his songs, and Tom’s response was, “Wow, he’s a good singer, and he can paint without a ladder.” I might add that Ryan stands at 6’5’’.) Ryan finds music to be a great way to share his faith. “Music is one of God’s greatest gifts,” Ryan said, “I’m pretty shy when it comes to talking about my own faith life, but I feel like the songs I write about my faith speak volumes more than I ever could.” One of my favorite elements of this CD is that Ryan wrote several of the songs on the album, and he wrote the songs at various times while he was at Camp Gray. Ryan played an integral role in the production of this CD, beyond the writing and performance of several songs.
In addition to the six hours spent in the studio back in early January, Ryan also generously gave his time answering hundreds of weekly music production questions from me. At one point I tried to keep track of the number of hours Ryan spent with me on the phone all the way out in Montana, patiently answering these many questions. I lost track of that number – or maybe I stopped counting, as I began feeling weighed down with guilt over taking up so much of his time.
I likely fell short of truly expressing my appreciation for his generosity to Camp Gray, because he so often and freely gave of his time, I ran out of ways to thank him. During these frequent talks, I couldn’t help but notice a strange phenomenon – a phenomenon that would later spread to all others that have been involved with this project.
Me: “Thanks Ryan. I really appreciate all your help.”
Ryan: “Dude, seriously, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for including me in this project – it’s so exciting.”
I asked Ryan recently if he could put into words his thoughts on being a part of this project.
“It is truly an honor to be part of this CD, just like it is an honor to be part of the Camp Gray family,” he said. “I love Camp Gray so much. Even now, when I go back and visit, I’m reminded of all the friends I made growing up at Camp, all the staff members I’ve worked with as an adult, and the campers I’ve had the privilege of hanging out with. The best summers of my life have been at Camp Gray.”
My role in this production, I quickly realized, was to be a witness to many inspiring examples of love through sacrifice, service, generosity, humility… I could go on and on. I would take hours upon hours of Ryan’s time, and he would then thank me. Buddy, you inspire me. These examples continued with the generosity of many others that collaborated on this project.
Bill Van Wagner, a seminarian for the Diocese of Madison, and a longtime camper and staffer, squeezed into his busy schedule an afternoon with Aaron in early February. Bill is an award-winning guitarist and singer, and he shared his gifts on a few of the songs on this CD. Bill has been playing guitar for many years, and it’s played a big role in his life. “Playing the guitar in a large way shaped who I am today,” Bill said. He continued, “But playing the guitar and singing was always about me — it was at Camp that I first actually used the gift of music in a way that glorifies the Lord. Leading songs of praise and prayer at Camp helped me realize that God wants to be part of every facet of our life and we can use all of our gifts and talents for His greater glory.”
Much of the lead guitar and vocals were completed by Ryan and Bill, and then I put Aaron’s patience to the test with two days in his studio recording percussion (If it truly was a test, he scored an A+, as he patiently guided my percussion playing in my first and likely, last endeavor into the world of recording music.). If you’ve ever been to Camp Gray, you know that we sing many songs that have a ‘call and response’ form. With guitar, vocals, and percussion recorded, it was time to bring in a gaggle of folks to create a chorus in order to capture the response portions of a few of the songs.
I recruited many staff alums in the area and a handful of older campers to be the chorus. On the day of the recording, I thought only 10-12 folks would be present. In yet another example of generosity and sacrifice, well over 20 people showed up, with each and every one of them thanking me for the opportunity. “No,” I told them, “thank you.”
Following this session, Aaron was able to begin the early stages of mixing a few songs. Soon after, it became clear that it would benefit the project to have Ryan back in the studio for a couple more days to help wrap things up. Ryan goes to school in Montana, which isn’t exactly a neighboring state to Wisconsin. As if he hadn’t sacrificed enough of his time already, he insisted on flying back during his Spring Break to help us put a few finishing touches on the CD.
In addition to a few details that Ryan would help us smooth out, we also wanted to bring in a couple of females to provide vocals for a few of the songs. Kari Hanson, a fellow Camp staff alum, and a fellow student at Montana State University, also insisted on flying back during Spring Break to lend her majestic voice. Did I mention that my job was to sit back and be inspired?
Nicky Kaehler, yet another Camp staff alum, and current 2nd grade teacher at St. Aloysious Catholic School in Sauk City, was the other female vocalist. Her angelic singing was a perfect compliment to several tracks on the album.
Another of my favorite elements of this project is that former Camp Director Phil DeLong lent his percussion skills to one of the songs. Phil is a master on the hand-drums, and it was an honor to have him play a part in this project.
Though all told I only spent 10 days with Aaron at his Catacombs Studio, it became such a routine: load up one of Camp’s Suburbans with camera equipment and perhaps a percussion instrument or two, make a stop for two coffees – oh, but if Ryan is in studio than make it three and that extra one is a venti – journey down Highway 12 to Old Sauk Road to the Catacombs Studios, and then sit and listen to beautiful music of praise, and witness the generosity of many.
I spoke with Aaron the other day, and I told him, “Aaron, I must say, I’m elated that this project is nearing completion, but I’m a bit sad, too. It’s the end of an era.”
I, like many, am excited about the completion of this project for many reasons. Camp’s Co-Director, Jeff Hoeben, eloquently put into words why we’re so excited for this album; “People have asked for so long for music from Camp Gray. Parents want to have something to compliment their children’s renditions of songs they bring home from Camp. This CD makes that possible. It is a great way to bring a big piece of Camp Gray away from Shady Lane Road and into the homes of families.”
I’m sad though, because I recognize that this journey – this journey to create music to inspire the journeys of others– which has been a wonderful blessing, is nearly coming to an end. I’m abundantly humbled and thankful to have been a part of this project, and inspired by the example of so many to generously give of their talents.
A man with a deep faith, great wisdom, and a phenomenal sense of humor, Aaron responded, “Man, this is just the beginning. This work was the pregnancy, and now we’re about to birth this thing.”
After this long journey, I realized recently that I had never asked Aaron the simple question of what it was that inspired him to offer his assistance at that Closing Ceremony back in July of 2012.
His response was both simple and profound, “I saw the work that Camp was doing, and the people that were doing it, and I thought, I want to be like that when I grow up.”
“Was it the energy of the staff?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I’m around lots of energetic people that are also good musicians – it wasn’t that. It was the joy of the staff that was so prevalent at that moment. The parents in attendance that day became kids themselves, at least I did. The staff of Camp Gray give off such a beautiful light. In life, we have these moments, and that is all. I saw the light of Christ in your staff, at that moment, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
He’s been to Camp Gray only a handful of times, to drop off or pick up his children – in those moments though, he saw Christ. I had trouble finding the words to respond to him after he said all of that, because throughout this journey, he’s been that light for us. He’s an extraordinarily joyful example of sacrifice, humility, patience, and generosity. His is a light as bright as they come.
And isn’t that a beautiful example of what it means to spread the light of Christ to others. He saw that light in us, and wanted to be a part of it. In being an example of Christ’s love in sacrificing so much for Camp Gray, we saw that light in him, and it inspired so many to give so much of themselves.
Thank you for journeying with us today, and thank you to the many people that gave of themselves to make this project possible. As the prayer of St. Francis goes, “it is in giving that we receive.”
A special last-but-not-least shout of thanks to Lindsay Becher and Lauren Chaptman. These generous ladies – fellow Camp Staff Alums, as well – have spent loads of time helping to create the artwork for the CD booklet and the face of the CD, respectively. Thank you.
What songs are on Camp’s first professionally recorded 12-track CD? Beginning Monday, May 6th, we’ll be announcing one song per day every Monday, Wednesday, & Friday for four weeks leading to the June 1st release of the CD. These announcements will be posted to the Camp Gray Music CD Journal, and then posted also to Camp’s facebook and twitter pages.