For ex-jail guard, music now a full-time gig

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Video, story and photo by Ryan Evans, NewsNetNebraska

Shawn Cole is one of many southeast Nebraska artists carving out a living by performing and writing music.

It’s possible to make music a full-time career, but it’s not easy. Cole, an ex-corrections officer, said he performs 200 shows a year to pay the bills. “My biggest fear is going back to work.”

He’s not alone.

Kris Lager, 28, has been performing in Lincoln since he was a teenager.

“When I was 16, my folks took me to an open jam at Duggan’s Pub where I got the opportunity to sit in with (Chicago blues legend and Lincoln transplant) Magic Slim, Sean Benjamin and Dangerous Dan,” Lager said. “It was addicting _ I was hooked from that point on.”

Lager now fronts the successful (and appropriately named) Kris Lager Band. With several albums under their belt, the band frequently tours the country while still playing many shows in their hometown.

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Shawn Cole plays harmonica with Seth Schaefer, of the band Stumblin Jones, at the Gallery Bar in Seward on Dec. 2.

Often, the musicians find creative ways to supplement their income with their talent. Tecumseh songwriter Daniel Christian, a former high school English teacher, make his living not only performing, but writing commissioned music and putting on clinics at high schools and churches.

After spending time in Nashville to record his first album, “I Am Merely Sand,” Christian was asked to write the fight song for his old high school. Another example of his enterpreneur skills came from an unusual source for a locally oriented performer.

“I’m [recording] a song I wrote for a girl’s wedding,” Christian said. “She lives in Kansas City and I’ve never met her, but she has always wanted an original song for her special day, so she decided to hire me.”

While assignments like this help, Christian said that they do not account for the bulk of his income. However, he did acknowledge that, to make a career out of being a musician in the region, it helps to have other sources of income outside of performing.

“I might enjoy doing more work of this nature, but I’m glad that I can still pour most of my efforts into my own material for now,” he said.

Christian’s willingness to pursue other opportunities outside of performing and selling CDs sheds some light on the nature of southeast Nebraska’s music scene.

“Independent musicians have to win people over one at a time,” he said. “Behind every band is a community of like-minded people, and it’s gratifying to see them interact from the stage.”

“It’s a blue collar town, which is not a bad thing,” Lager said of Lincoln. “I think the only way to make a decent living as a musician is to tour and travel and then you aren’t over-saturating your market.”

Added Christian: “It would be difficult to sustain a career without some very enjoyable travel opportunities. I love singing for theater audiences, arts council events, churches and so on, but the public face of local music is traditionally clubs and coffee shops.”

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Daniel Christian has supported himself by performing live shows and taking on less conventional musical assignments. Photo courtesy of Daniel Christian

Lincoln’s live music venues range from small coffee shops to medium-sized theaters. Perhaps it is because Lincoln cannot seem to decide whether it is a large “town” or a small “city” that so many local artists find themselves constantly on the brink of becoming big time regional acts.

“When you see a band playing their own original music at a bar, they are probably splitting your $5 door cover,” Christian said. “When you see a singer-songwriter in a coffee house, they are probably only getting what you put in the tip jar.”

While Lincoln may not compare to some larger cities as a venue for professional performers, fans still appreciate the hardworking musicians who entertain and inspire.

“It’s important for all artists to encourage fans to explore regional music and fill venues with warm bodies on performance nights,” Christian said. “If we foster and nurture a scene, everyone benefits.”

After all, often the musicians make great sacrifices to perform. “I have spent the majority of my life since I was 16 in a van, driving from one town to the next,” Lager said. “I spend more time with my band members than I do my family or my girlfriend, so relationships are hard to keep strong and healthy.”

The payoff has been fan support for the Kris Lager Band, which makes traveling and making music possible.

“You can never have too many friends—every person you run across is a potential friend,” Lager said. “The world is full of good and gracious people, and without the help of all these beautiful people we have met through the years we’d all be roofing houses or delivering pizzas instead of playing music.”

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