Idaho Songwriters Help Audiences Learn to Listen 

Steve Eaton's monthly Songwriter's Forum celebrates a bygone era

Walking up the carpeted stairs to the usually subdued Gamekeeper Lounge on a Tuesday night feels like sneaking backstage at a concert hall. A long row of empty guitar cases line the hallway. Musicians pace up and down the corridor, their guitars slung across their shoulders. They adjust their straps, whisper lyrics to themselves and occasionally peek into the lounge to eye their fellow performers.

Founded by local musician Steve Eaton, the Songwriter's Forum packs the Gamekeeper Lounge on the last Tuesday of each month from 6-9 p.m. Musicians and fans squeeze into large round booths and the waitstaff keep busy delivering large glasses of wine, cocktails and appetizers to tables. When songwriters get to the lounge, they scrawl their name in a notebook. With a casual drawl and charming smile, Eaton introduces each act in the order he or she signs in, and the audience listens intently as the songwriter performs one original song.

"Now watch out for this guy," Eaton said on a recent evening, winking as he adjusted the mic for a tall cowboy. "This dude can sing."

The forum draws a devoted crowd of mostly older performers from across the Treasure Valley and beyond. Kelly Gorritz drives all the way from McCall each month to play a single song and catch up with the other performers.

"There's a lot of networking with this group," she explained. "Thirty percent of these people circuit ... and they get to come up and mix with the amateurs so it's great for everyone."

And Eaton is a more than qualified host. At age 15 he began writing songs in his hometown of Pocatello, where he managed to talk the local radio station into playing one of his first compositions, "Up On a Hill." He was on a date when he first heard himself on the radio.

"I'm only 15 years old and we're double dating ... getting a Coca-Cola and they're playing my song. I mean, how good is that?"

Eaton dropped out of high school in 1965 to pursue rock 'n' roll in Los Angeles with his band King Charles and the Counts. Though he returned to Idaho to finish school a year later, he continued to travel back and forth between Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., and Pocatello over the years. His music has been recorded by acts like The Carpenters, Art Garfunkel and Lee Greenwood. In fact, it was a singer-songwriter night at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville that inspired Eaton to start the Songwriter's Forum.

"I decided I'm going to think of all the people I know in this town that are musicians/songwriters and I'll send out a little email," Eaton said.

The "little" email turned into an inaugural night at The Blue Moose Cafe filled with 50 songwriters who were all eager to play their original tunes. After a few performances at other venues in Eagle, the event moved to Boise, where the crowd at the Gamekeeper Lounge easily reaches 100 each month. Eaton also started the Idaho Songwriter's Association, which boasts an email list of 300 people.

According to Eaton, the music-filled forum celebrates the art of songwriting and storytelling.

"Songwriting had an era where it was a big deal. The James Taylor era. The Carol King era. We lived through the era of the singer-songwriter, and now, people don't look at songwriting like a craft," Eaton said.

Judging by the size of the crowd the event pulls in, many share Eaton's sentiments. However, the crowd tends to be an older one, types who identify with the singer-songwriter era of yore. When asked about the event's lack of younger performers, Eaton explained that it's something he hopes to change.

"I love it when the younger people come ... and we need more," he said.

But even without the youngbloods, the Songwriter's Forum still showcases an array of original tunes that explore topics ranging from break-ups to political rants to booze-induced debauchery.

"I get inspiration for a lot of my songs when people die," said T.T. Miller, one of the regulars at the forum, who wore a black top hat as he leaned into the microphone. "Good news is, I have a lot of songs, bad news is I'm runnin' out of relatives."

The crowd broke into laughter but quickly fell silent when Miller started crooning a heartfelt tribute to his deceased brother.

Asked why he continues to come back to the Songwriter's Forum every month, Miller grinned: "I spent 30 years playing music from Alaska to Dallas, and you never find audiences like this where you can hear people breathing."

Eaton echoed those sentiments. In his opinion, much of the live music in Boise these days seems to fall on deaf ears.

"We have forgotten what it's like to just sit down and listen to people," he said.

Eaton's success with the event has inspired other local musicians to start their own singer-songwriter nights in Boise. Musicians Lee Penn Sky and Johnny Shoes host a similar affair at the Shangri-La Tea Room and Vegetarian Cafe, where participants are randomly paired into groups of three and play two songs each round. When they approached Eaton about their spinoff event, Eaton was thrilled.

"I want people to hear about their night and our night and actually start going places to listen to the music," said Eaton.

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