Artists’ inspiration can be found in obvious places — politics, religion, love and loss — but few find it as early as Oklahoma native Beau Jennings. On a whim, a third-grade Jennings wrote a report on Will Rogers, not out of fandom, but a visit to Claremore’s Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
A few years ago, a songwriting exercise with his band, Cheyenne, led him to an exploration of his Sooner- State roots, reawakening his dormant love for Rogers.
“I got really into Oklahoma history and even more into Oklahoma mythology, the real epic heroes and villains from Oklahoma history: Woody (Guthrie), Timothy McVeigh, the Trail of Tears, all that. Will rose to the top in my mind as my favorite and most deserving of recognition, but he’s fading from our collective memory.”
Slowly, the idea of documenting an exploration of Jennings’ inspiration on film took shape. In support, he’s recruited filmmaker Bradley Beesley (“Okie Noodling”) and a host of producers for “The Verdigris.” Named for the river that runs through both Jennings’ and Rogers’ hometown, the documentary will include interviews with people whose lives were affected by Rogers, as well as Jennings performing Rogers-inspired songs in locales made famous by his life.
“There’s a fellow in Alaska I’ve spoken to a few times whose grandfather was the last person to ever see Will alive, aside from Wiley Post,” Jennings said. “His grandfather was the one who actually witnessed their plane crash in Alaska, and ran back to town to town to get help. He has been eager to talk about his grandpa, and the stories he grew up hearing about Will and Wiley, who seem to have had an impact on him.”
Although addressing biographical aspects of Rogers, “The Verdigris” is very much Jennings’ story.
“I started with a comprehensive idea of touching on all the major events of Will’s life, but it got boring. Instead of singing about specifics in this case, I learned it would be better to look for themes and emotional foundations,” Jennings said. “Will strikes a chord with me and reminds me of so many things I love and miss about home, and the film (and companion album) are tools I’m hoping to use; there’s an intuition I have that a real story is here to be told.”
Will Rogers is fading from our collective memory.
Jennings performs a Saturday fundraiser at The Chouse in Norman. The show is free, but suggested donations of $10 will benefit the film’s production.
“I’d like to think this project is finishing an assignment long overdue,” he said. “My job here is to accurately reflect the inspiration I find in Will, and the most effective way I know to express that is through songwriting. I suppose the wider idea is that inspiration exists in all sorts of places, if you’re looking.”