As a boy growing up in west central Ohio, country western songwriter Even Stevens sat on the steps of the Lewistown post office, watched the stars come out at night, and wondered what was in his future. Last year one of those stars landed him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is coming home to the Indian Lake area July 23, with six songwriter friends, to perform in the fifth annual Nashville Hitmakers benefit concert at Indian Lake High School. Tickets, $25 for seniors, $50 for regular seating, and $100 for premier area seating, can be purchased at Nashville Hitmakers.com.
“This is my favorite concert of the year,” he said. “I come a week early to see my sister, Sandy Helgeson, and family and friends in the area. The audience is one of the greatest. We have a lot of fun, laugh a lot, spend time on the lake, and enjoy staying in homes and cottages on the lake.” Local businessmen make sure the songwriters have boats to get on the lake.
Each year Stevens brings different hitmaker songwriters with him. “I have a list of about 15 that I really enjoy working with.” This year’s concert includes two other Hall of Fame members – Mac Davis (2000) and Mike Reid (2005). The other four – gospel songwriter Ashley Cleveland, Mike Laudermilk, Spady Brannon, and bluegrass songwriter Wynn Varbel – have all received multiple accolades, including BMI (Broadcast Media Inc.) song of the year awards. Pro football fans will also remember Mike Davis, an all American first draft choice from Penn State, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals until he retired in 1980. Ashley Cleveland is a three-time winner of the Christian Rock Female Artist of the Year award.
Stevens is a 1966 graduate of Indian Lake High School where he sang and acted in plays and operettas performed by the music department. He intended to be a graphic arts major when he finished a four-year tour in the U.S. Coast Guard following high school. It was in the coast guard that he picked up the nickname “Even.” Every Morse Code operator uses a handle to identify himself. “There were so may ID’s with Stevens that I needed something different. Morse Code operators have to have an even hand, so I took the moniker “even” and have used it ever since.” He wouldn’t comment on what his birth name is.
When he left the Coast Guard, Stevens was on the west coast, broke “with $40 in my pocket” as he says, when his uncle, a percussionist living in Nashville, invited him to Nashville. Once there, he never left Nashville, and “blew off” a Dayton area graphic arts school where he was admitted. “I was broke in Nashville for three years before I teamed up with country western singer Eddie Rabbit, who was just beginning his career.” Since that time, Stevens has written songs for more than 50 other country western singers, many of whom have recorded #1 hits using his music and lyrics. Today BMI considers him one of the songwriters of the century.
Stevens attributes the idea for a hitmakers’ concert to his sister, Sandy Helgeson. “My brother-in-law, David Helgeson, worked at the state park. He heard about the watershed project needing financial help. I had never played in my hometown. We brainstormed and came up with the idea of a benefit to help the project.” The first concert proceeds went to help pay off a water weed eating machine. When the concert became popular, and a larger venue was needed, the Nashville Hitmakers concert moved from the Holland Theater to Indian Lake High School.
The school-wide music program needed funds, so it and a scholarship for high school seniors planning an arts-related major in college were added as recipients. To date, repair of choral risers, replacement of sound equipment, a music theory teaching program, new percussion instruments for the band, and purchase of a software program to assess student performance and expand the music program for fifth and sixth graders, have been purchased with hitmaker donations.
Two $1,000 scholarships have also been awarded to ILHS graduates Kassandra Knief and Michael Mallory.
Over the past five years, more than $20,000 has been provided to the watershed project and Indian Lake Schools. Stevens was also the graduation speaker at commencement in May. “I was more nervous about that performance than any other,” he says. “It was short and hopefully meaningful for the students.” Lyrics of his favorite song, “In to the Mystic,” by Van Morrison, say that “when the foghorn blows, I’ll come home.” Stevens is coming home next week.
Judy Wherry is a regular contributor to this newspaper.