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It was the ‘best Music Theory class ever’

September 24, 2011
By Jim Tate , Marshall Independent

The moment was likely lost on many of the Music Theory students in the windowless Fine Arts room 131 on Thursday.

After all, when SMSU alumnus Jon Vezner won both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Song of the Year honors in 1990 for co-writing "Where've You Been?" most of those in the room hadn't been born.

But here he was, 35 years after graduating, sitting at a piano, performing the song that his wife, Kathy Mattea, made famous all those years ago.

Vezner graduated with a degree in music education in 1976. A Brooklyn Center native, he transferred to SMSU after two years at North Hennepin Community College.

He left the Twin Cities to get away from some friends who were not the best of influences. "

You only get so many drink tickets, and I used a lot of mine early on," he told the class.

He knew of the university from a couple of high school classmates who came to Southwest - Fred and Deb (Lindblad) Almer.

He student taught at Columbia Heights his senior year, then decided, "I didn't want to teach." He worked for his father for a while "and floated around, but I always wrote music."

Vezner made an impression on St. Paul representatives from Wrensong Music, which signed him to a publishing deal. He was shy back then, he said, and was Minnesota Nice in his approach to people. He let the quality of his compositions do his talking, and people took note.

He enjoyed early success when he moved to Nashville. Within his first six months there, two stars - Reba McEntire and Ronnie Milsap - had recorded his songs. In those early years, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill recorded his demo songs at $25 a pop.

"Garth was the main demo singer in town," he said.

As he talked, you could sense a feeling of nostalgia.

"It's kind of cathartic for me, sitting here right now. The speakers are the same," he said, nodding at the pair of mounted speakers on the wall.

Vezner discussed about his career, noting that in recent years he's been performing more himself and giving talks, like this one, at colleges.

He stressed to the class the importance of being an individual in a world that sometimes expects conformity.

"If everyone else is painted blue, and you're red, stay red," he said. "If you're blue, they won't see you. You're going to have a lot of people telling you what you need to do. "

Vezner was one of seven individuals honored by the Alumni Association yesterday. He received an Alumni Achievement Award.

Others honored were Dr. Michael Holmes, Director of Insight & Research for the Center for Media Design, Ball State University, '85, Muncie, Ind.; Brian Mastre, anchor/reporter, '92, Omaha, Neb.; and Anne Pryor, online brand strategist and career coach, '82, Minnetonka.

Honorary Lifetime Membership Awards went to Dr. Jan Loft, Interim Dean of the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences at SMSU, Marshall; and Jill Engebretson, Senior Customer Service Specialist in Registration and Records at SMSU, Marshall.

Erin (Frye) Lind, '01, the Associate Commissioner of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, received a special GOLD (Graduate of Last Decade) Award.

Vezner talked about how technology has made his writing music so much easier, and how the business has changed throughout the years.

"The pie is smaller now," he said. It's more difficult today to write a song, have a demo made and pitch it to an artist, he said. "My best friend told me, 'Just do what you do.'"

"Where've You Been?" was a song he wrote from a personal experience. His grandparents had been married for more than 60 years when medical situations separated them.

"They lived in Tucson," he said. "My grandma fell and broke her hip, and decided she wasn't going to eat," he recalled. "Dad went down and they decided to move her to Minnesota. She was moved to a hospital in Minnesota and my grandfather moved in with an aunt. Then my grandfather had a seizure, he had a large brain tumor, and he was put in the same (Minnesota) hospital, only on a different floor. They were married 66 years, and when I came back, I went to see them. I saw my grandfather, and asked if anyone had brought him up to see my grandmother.

"It hadn't occurred to them, and I asked if I could," he said. "I loaded him into a wheelchair and took him up, and when their eyes locked, she asked, "Where've you been?"

The tone of that question was not as loving as the lyrics in Mattea's song, laughed Vezner, "but that's where poetic license comes in."

As the class broke up, one of the students said aloud, "Best Music Theory class ever."



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