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Bands unite to help diabetic teen

By Jo Lee Ferguson, Special to @play
Aug. 29, 2012 at 11 p.m.


Photographs of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Savannah Hamilton are deceiving. In each one, the almost 15-year-old is smiling, or concentrating intently in some athletic endeavor, be it volleyball, cheerleading, softball or basketball.

She's a picture of teenage beauty in a prom photo, with long hair perfectly curled and cascading over her shoulders.

It seems like a typical teenager's life, and yet, she needs help, and family and friends hope she'll get it through an afternoon of Texas country music.

A group of bands with East Texas roots will play a benefit concert to help Savannah with the cost of securing a diabetic alert dog at 3 p.m. Sept. 9 at Durango's Canyon in Mount Enterprise.

Savannah has Type I diabetes, the kind that comes, it seems, without rhyme or reason. A genetic disease also known as juvenile diabetes, people with Type I diabetes don't produce insulin, a hormone the body uses to process sugar and starches. The disease left Savannah, for a while, legally blind with cataracts, and now, unable to always spot the highs and lows of her blood sugar. She and her family say a diabetic alert dog will ease their fears and help keep her safe, alerting her to blood sugar fluctuations even when she's not aware it's happening.

Concert organizers are hoping a mix of three country music bands will draw around 2,000 people to the concert.

"It's a type of music and a brand of music that's really popular in this area," said Savannah's brother-in-law, Andrew Owens, who is helping organize the concert.

Headlining the event will be Curtis Grimes, a Gilmer native and Harmony High School graduate whose music career got its big breaks when he won the Austin leg of Kenny Chesney's The Next Big Star contest, and, in 2011, made it to the quarterfinals of NBC's show "The Voice." JD and Tru Grit, a band that hails from the Troup and Henderson area will open the show, and Westbound 21, a band whose name pays homage to the road the members frequently traveled when they first formed, also will perform.

Grimes, who lives in Austin now, said he always likes returning to East Texas, and he enjoys being able to help people near his hometown.

The past couple of years have been a "crazy" ride for Grimes, who said he wouldn't even sing in church before he picked up a guitar for the first time six years ago. It started after a break-up with his fiancee, according to his website. He was attending college in Louisiana on academic and baseball scholarships when he started playing on his roommate's guitar. He started off by learning the songs of the his favorite Texas country artists, such as The Eli Young Band and Randy Rogers.

As a songwriter, his influences are the older songwriters he grew up listening to, such as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, the "darker, more outlaw" kind of music, he said. His music is different from much of mainstream Nashville, he said.

Songwriting is different every time, Grimes said

Sometimes, he'll be playing around on the guitar and come up with music to which he adds words.

"Sometimes, you'll get an idea for a song, then add music later," he said, and during the past six months, he's been co-writing a lot of music, including his new single "Smile," which he co-wrote with Josh Abbott. The song is about the beauty of Texas and a Texas woman.

Writing like that, with people who have been around much longer than him, helps him learn along the way.

"I've gotten to do a lot of cool things in a short amount of time," Grimes said, adding that his experiences in Chesney's competition and on "The Voice" put him on "a little bit of a fast track."

"I'm still learning stuff every day," he said, and enjoying getting to play music with a lot of Texas country musicians he listened to while learning to play.

He and his band recorded a live album this summer on Sixth Street in Austin, and it's expected to be released Sept. 18, just a couple of weeks after Savannah's concert.

"I like being able to show up and have a good time for your job," Grimes said. "I've enjoyed doing it. I get to kind of cut up and have fun and go a lot of places that I may not have been able to if I hadn't done those other things."

The five members of Westbound 21 have a different story. Each is a longtime musician, who came together after Longview resident Max McRuiz and Nacogdoches resident Cody Wayne met at an open mic night in Nacogdoches, at Banita Creek Hall. Wayne and McRuiz played a couple of songs together one night after each performed at open mic night. McRuiz was studying percussion at Stephen F. Austin State University at the time.

"He said, 'Why don't we start a band,'" McRuiz recalled, adding that they both had been flirting with the idea of singing and songwriting. "He had a good, Texas country old school voice. I had a more of a modern, southern rock voice. We thought we could appeal to a wider audience if we just had one band with two singers."

Wayne knew a bass player, Aggie and College Station resident Lyndsey Torrez, and since then the group has added percussionist Ronnie Godfrey, who is now a band director at Sabine Middle School, and Nick Askew, a native of London, England, who plays lead guitar and keyboard. McRuiz recruited him for the band after they met while McRuiz was working at Mundt Music.

Today, McRuiz is a sales representative for GK Services. All the band members still have their day jobs, he said.

"We want to go to the top," he said. "Ultimately, our main goal is to be able to not have day jobs and do music full-time."

He said their manager, Slade Williams, is keeping them busy playing every weekend.

"We're seeing new people, playing in new places, and that's what it's about - getting your stuff out there, playing your songs to people who want to listen.

"I'm doing this because I love to play music," McRuiz added. "If I can touch somebody, make them feel what I'm feeling at that time, that's too cool to me."

The band has been together for about a year and a half, and things have been happening "kind of fast" for them, McRuiz said. They've gone from opening for other people, to having people open for them and to hearing their songs on the radio.

"I'll never forget the first time I heard my song on the radio...." McRuiz said. "It was literally the best feeling I had ever felt in my life."

While things have happened kind of quickly, it's also been a lot of work, going out and singing and playing for anyone who will listen at every opportunity.

"It's definitely not an overnight success thing," McRuiz said. "That's fine. It's kind of like a car. If you're given your car, you won't appreciate it as much, but if you work for that car you'll take of that. You'll do things to better that car. That's how I feel about this band."

That band, he said, has become close.

"We're a family," he said. "We don't just see this as a job. We see this as five guys all doing this, and we're in it to win it."

McRuiz has an older brother who is disabled, and the opportunity to help Savannah is something that "hit home" with him. The band members all appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the concert, he said.

"I can't even imagine what it's like to have Type 1 diabetes," he said. "I think (the benefit concert) is a really good cause. We're proud to be a part of it."

Jody Martin, band leader, rhythm guitar and backup vocalist for JD and Tru Grit, said his band is looking forward to the concert, and not just because of the opportunity to help Savannah. He grew up with Savannah's father, Paul Hamilton, and most of the band members live in Concord, the same community where the Hamiltons live.

The band had produced a short album in 2011, but as soon as they finished in the studio, some of the band members started working most of the month in South Texas in the oilfield.

"So we have pushed paused for a little while," Martin said, explaining that several members have been working 21 days on and seven days off. "We try to do a little something when they're in... We are going to continue."

The other members who will be performing at the concert are vocalist John Davis (the JD in JD and Tru Grit), lead guitar Stephen Cochran, drummer Jody Morgan, bass player Jon Morrow and vocalist Chance "Tater" Waggoner.

"It's going to be a blast," Martin said. "I've been playing drums since Jody Morgan left (to work in South Texas), and I am sure ready to play the guitar."

The band performs Texas country music, its own material, Southern rock and country standards.

"It's probably more of the rocked-up country that's going to be the distinction," between JD and Tru Grit and the other bands at the concert, he said. "It's going to be pretty fast.

"We wouldn't miss (the benefit concert) for nothing," Martin said.

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