As Dylan Horst sings the industrial ballad “A Hayseed Like Me,” some members of his octogenarian audience stare blankly, while a couple doze off.
But when Horst announces, “Now I’m gonna tell you about the drinkin’ and the gamblin,’ ” the seniors liven up.“Woooo!” one senior blurts.
“The good ole days!” another jokes quietly as Horst launches into a Jimmy Rodgers tune.
Playing to venues packed with wheelchairs and walkers, Horst doesn’t encounter rowdy applause or standing ovations. But for the past three years, Horst has found much reward performing free shows at nursing homes around the country.
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“I get as much out of this as anybody,” said the 24-year-old San Luis Obispo man before his show at Casa de Flores senior residence in Morro Bay. “You don’t get the opportunity to talk to a 103-year-old every day.”
The idea to tour nursing homes came about when a friend’s great-grandmother was sick in the hospital. Horst and friend Scott Conroy decided to play music to boost the woman’s spirits.
“I called my friend to see what hospital she was in,” Horst said. “When we asked to see her, we were told she had just passed away hours before.”
While the duo didn’t get to perform for the dying woman, the notion inspired them to cheer up other seniors.
“That afternoon, I started calling all over San Luis,” Horst said. “I got the phone book out. A lot of people said, ‘No, we don’t want music,’ but then a few said, ‘Yeah, sure — why don’t you come on by.’ ”
After touring with Horst as one half of Bog Thistle, Conroy has since moved to Santa Cruz. While Horst graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in anthropology last year, he’s yet to find a “real” job (though he is now shoveling horse manure to make some money), which left him with free time this summer.
“So I decided, heck, I’ll go on tour,” Horst said.
For this latest tour, which touched down in Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Idaho, he played 36 gigs, camping in national forests — campgrounds are too expensive, he says — in between his free shows. He travels in a 1995 Corolla wagon, listening to tapes on a cheap cassette player.
His informal set list includes songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington, though he’ll occasionally sneak in a song by the Who or Velvet Underground. In between songs, he’ll tell stories about the music — like the time a teenaged Bob Dylan met Woody Guthrie or the story about how Lead Belly got pardoned from prison.
“I’m a pretty mediocre musician,” Horst said. “I want more than anything to encourage other people to go out with your unprofessional sets and your unfinished songs — there is an audience out here, ready to listen.”
While the seniors are often glad to see him, he’s not always their top priority.
“You get really humbled, for instance, when you’re double-booked with bingo and nobody shows up to hear you play,” Horst said.
The toughest crowds, he said, include those in memory care.
“Many of them are asleep or they’re shouting things,” he said. “For those audiences, I’m just a complete distraction. Hopefully, for that one hour, I captivate them. That’s my goal. Sometimes I don’t — sometimes you fail, or it’s impossible.”
But the reward comes when he sees that moment of enthusiasm, such as a senior tapping his or her feet to the music.
“Sometimes that’s just it — you see somebody tapping their feet, and it’s like, ‘I’ve got ’em!’ ”
While he considers himself a mediocre musician, Horst’s banjo playing is actually impressive for someone who picked it up just three years ago. And his selection of songs obviously appeals to the Morro Bay crowd.
“I recognize that one,” a woman says during a rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.” A few laugh along to “Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women.” And when Horst closes with the Lead Belly song “Goodnight Irene,” half the 30-member crowd is singing along.
A few days later, at Mission View Health Center in San Luis Obispo, he has another 30-member crowd, this one outdoors. Among them is Alma Mazman, originally from Arkansas.
“I know the songs that he sang — they were all nice,” she said after the show. “I really enjoyed the whole hour.”
Fellow resident Ricardo Zepeda, a Mission View resident for eight years, particularly liked the Dylan songs. Hearing live music, he added, makes the days go by easier.
“As long as you hear music, it’s good,” he said. “It exercises your brain.”
While Mission View has a stage in its courtyard, it’s still a far cry from an auditorium. But Horst never set out to be a superstar. He just wants to make some seniors happy.
“When I’m double-booked with bingo and everybody comes to my show — man, that will be the day.”