By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service
WILLISTON, N.D. — Keesha Renna is drawn to stories, and in her adopted city of Williston, the tales of struggle, heartache and loneliness are boundless.
Intrigued by a story she read on North Dakota’s fracking boom in Harper’s Magazine more than a year ago, Renna first landed in Minot for a few months, then moved to Williston in September 2013.
Armed with a degree in anthropology, a stint as a bartender and three years as a music promoter, the 27-year-old from Boise, Idaho, is hoping her musical take on the Bakken will reflect the many perspectives she has experienced in “one of the most pivotal moments in my time.”
“I wanted to write about this place and document what I was seeing,” she said.
In her plaintive song “Rig Up,” Renna tells the story of a man who takes a train to Williston, coming with expectations like so many others from across the county, and is suffering through a long, lonely winter.
The man is working constantly in the oil fields — his family stayed behind in a different state — and he’s asking himself, “Is it all worth it?” Renna said.
“Watch that train roll back through the hills and blow out a cloud, as thick as the night’s sky. Flare beams shoot straight up through the frost. He feels trapped and hangs his head to cry.” she sings, her voice soulful and soft, at a weekly open mic night at J Dub’s Bar and Grill.
Renna was always surrounded by music, saying her dad has the “best voice I ever heard.”
At 15, she discovered punk rock, with her musical taste and influences developing over time ranging from political punk rock, blues and folk.
Musicians such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr, who plays original folk blues and traditional spirituals, and “Spider” John Koerner, a traditional American folk and country blues musician, are inspirational to Renna, who finds their storytelling captivating.
Renna works at a downtown bookstore and restaurant, but it is her music where she articulates her passion for marrying verse with song. She bought her first guitar, a Martin, in Denver and since arriving in Williston has focused on her songwriting.
Her project, Dakota Tales, will be a compilation of personal stories that she is collaborating on with a few other artists writing about the Bakken. She hopes this will become an album.
“The concept is to get as many perspectives of this town as I can through past, present, future. It’s a huge moment in history,” Renna said. “I think this place not only speaks to individuals but speaks to the country as a whole.”
Friend and roommate Frank Honer of Duluth, Minn., said Renna’s songs “grab” people — from a roughneck on a rig to a construction worker hammering nails and a bartender — with their real-life moments.
“I really like the tone, the softness of her voice. The music is very situational. … You’re going to get something from her music that rings true,” he said.
Renna’s “Bakken Blues,” Honer said, is a about a bartender told from a woman’s point of view that speaks to the challenges of being single amid a sea of lustful men, many of whom are married.
“She tells that story really well,” Honer said.
Renna, who describes her voice as honest, natural and wants it to be like breathing, said her time in Williston has provided an opportunity to witness history.
“It’s the biggest melting pot I’ve ever experienced. I’ve met so many people from around the world,” she said.
Listen online: http://www.reverbnation.com/dakotatales