Editor's note: Journal Star reporter Jeff Korbelik shadowed Lincoln singer-songwriter Andy Miller for two days at The Song School in Lyons, Colo.
LYONS, Colo. -- The alligator lies in wait, when finally his jaw snaps.
"Stop there," singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert tells Andy Miller of Lincoln, who was in the midst of performing one his songs at Song School.
"What were those lines?" Gilbert asks.
"She was the one with all the potential, but somewhere along the line, her love of neon turned referential," Miller replies.
"Wow ... Wow," Gilbert says. "You need to make that clearer because it shouldn't be wasted."
He then gives a quick voice lesson to Miller, urging him drop his chin to his chest on every vowel "to the point that it seems totally overdone."
"(You are in a) brave, safe place," Gilbert says. "You're going to feel silly. You're going to look silly, but I want every vowel to hit your chest."
"Every vowel?" Miller asks.
"Every vowel ... ‘a,' ‘e,' ‘i,' ‘o,' ‘u' and sometimes the pain in the ass ‘y,'" Gilbert replies.
Miller looks more than silly, like he's in a dentist's chair agonizing through a root canal.
But his words are clear, precise and, most important, powerful.
"Wow, dude," Gilbert says, nodding his head.
Later, Gilbert acknowledged he can be hard on students, but noted his bark is worse than his bite.
"Here's how it is," he says. "It's: Vance has a picture of an alligator on his iPhone, to Vance has an alligator, to Vance is an alligator, to Vance will eat you alive."
Miller continues his song until Gilbert stops him again, and an antsy Miller awaits another critique.
This time the alligator keeps his razor-sharp teeth at bay.
"Thank you," Gilbert says. "Bravo. Great song. What a great country song. You are a beautiful singer. This is where it needs to be."
Later, back at his campsite near the St. Vrain River, Miller admits he was uneasy performing for Gilbert, who has brought some of his students to tears.
"I've been as nervous here as anywhere," said Miller of the four-day school for aspiring songwriters. "It's weird. I shouldn't be nervous because everybody is so supportive."
Miller, a 43-year-old Lancaster County deputy sheriff, participated in his first Song School a week ago, presented by Planet Bluegrass, the same organization that presides over the popular Telluride Bluegrass and Rocky Mountain Folks festivals.
Miller is a regular on Lincoln's coffeehouse scene, performing primarily at MoJava Cafe, where he has a gig scheduled for Sept. 17.
His fellow deputies call him "Ange," the nickname deputy Barney Fife used for the guitar-playing sheriff Andy Taylor on the beloved 1960s sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show."
Raised in Lincoln -- Miller graduated from Lincoln East High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln -- he didn't pick up a guitar until he was 24.
But he wrote his first song as a teenager -- for a girl, of course -- titled, "She Makes Me Smile."
"I wouldn't be able to play it for you if my life depended on it," he said.
He really dove into songwriting when he joined the Songwriters Sweatshop, a local group that gathers regularly to workshop their pieces.
Today, his repertoire fills two 45-minute sets, and he's working on producing his first CD.
"I used to split gigs at MoJava, but I kept after it (the writing), so I could do it on my own," he said. "Now, I don't have to split the tips."
Miller enrolled in Song School so he could learn from those whose CDs he played on his stereo -- Gilbert, David Wilcox, Darrell Scott and Jonatha Brooke.
He doubts he could make a career from his music, but "you never want to say never," he said.
"If I just could figure out how to get someone else to buy my songs ...."
That's part of the reason he attended the Song School.
Singer-songwriter works on his craft
Held just prior to the Folks Festival, the Song School evolved from a three-hour master class that legendary rocker Janis Ian taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, according to Planet Bluegrass co-founder Steve Szymanski.
"We thought, ‘Why not have her do it here?'" he said.
Planet Bluegrass organized the first Song School in 1994, with Ian as part of the faculty. Also teaching at the inaugural school was songwriter Wilcox, who's become a Song School fixture.
He taught again this year, in addition to performing at the 20th Folks Festival. Mainstage performers also included Song School teachers Scott, Brooke, Joe Craven and Dala, an up-and-coming Canadian folk duo.
Headliners for this year's festival were Ani DiFranco, 2008 best song Oscar winner, The Swell Season and the legendary John Prine.
The Song School and Folks Festival take place at the Planet Bluegrass ranch in Lyons, Colo., a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains near Boulder and Estes Park.
The town is home to Oskar Blues, one of the state's popular breweries, and the Barking Dog Cafe, where the menu is called a "water bowl."
Medicinal marijuana also can be had (with a prescription) at a downtown storefront.
The Song School draws students from all walks of life through an open registration.
This year's sold-out class of 170 included a nanny from Chicago, a scientist from Santa Fe, N.M., and two mothers of three -- one from Nebraska, the other from Iowa -- who are married to Lutheran pastors. (They are sisters-in-law.)
Skill levels among the students vary, from those just learning to play guitar to those who've made music a full-time occupation.
They spent four days in classes, ranging from performance to songwriting to marketing.
Gilbert, for instance, taught a class on performance, giving students various tips, from how to walk on a stage to not wearing glasses (eliminates any glare from the lights), to how to hold a guitar. His goal: To limit or eliminate distractions, so concertgoers can focus on the artist and his or her music.
"You have great stories to tell," he told his students. "You just need to get them out there."
Evenings include impromptu song circles, with students performing songs for each other into the wee hours of the morning.
One semi-organized song circle is nicknamed the "BOT," an acronym for a big orange tarp, where songwriters gather during Song School and the Folks Festival to perform.
The biggest highlights of the school are the one-song opportunities students have to perform on the stage in the ranch's Wildflower Pavilion.
Miller showcased his song "Roll Away" during his five-minute Monday night timeslot.
Hope Dunbar of Algona, Iowa -- one of the women married to a Lutheran pastor -- nearly opted out of her Tuesday night performance because of nerves before knocking her song out of the park with her Janis Joplin-like voice.
"You got ‘woo hoos' from the crowd," Miller told her as she exited the stage, making way for the next performer.
"I know. ... Woo hoos," Dunbar replied, grateful and gratified.
Miller loved his entire Song School experience, but admitted Gilbert's class put him on edge.
He affected others that way as well.
"He tears you down, where you are almost thanking him," said songwriter Lisa Schmidt of Salt Lake City.
It's easy to see why the students fear and respect Gilbert. He is a larger-than-life kind of person. The Boston songwriter is known for his stage presence, masterful guitar work and booming voice.
He has performed several times in Lincoln -- the last time opening for the late George Carlin in 2006 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
When asked about his scary teaching reputation, he put it into context with the alligator story.
"I tell it like it is," he said. "I tell them if this is or is not working."
His class credo: Show me. Don't tell me.
With Caroline Clark of Boulder, he wanted her to sing her lyrics more sultry. When she struggled to do so, he placed a butter knife in her mouth and made her sing again. It worked, making her sound more like Cher rather than Miley Cyrus.
With Sam Alessi of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Gilbert asked him to recite the verses rather than sing them on Alessi's beer-drinking song. He allowed him to sing (and smile) on the chorus. It worked. The other students laughed outloud after the changes.
Gilbert was as quick with the compliment as he was with a critique. With Schmidt, he praised her for the lyrics of her love song.
"I'm shipwrecked on the shores of your bed ... That's killer," he said. "You've twisted a cliche."
"These people have such a willingness to move around their musical children," Gilbert said later. "To have them shuttled, diced, twisted up and down and all around. ... I can't ask them to do something I'm not willing to do when I go home."
Miller, for one, was thankful for Gilbert's blunt honesty.
"The nervousness came from being a fan of Vance," he said. "You want to impress him even though he doesn't want to be impressed."
Alligators can have that kind of effect on people.