Just three days later, on the last full day of our trip, the air is warm again. Conner finally has time to do something he’s talked about doing all week: fishing.
We head to Walmart to get a pair of three-day Utah fishing licenses.
We’d been living in the same house several nights by this point. We’ve watched a movie each night, pulling one from the stack he checked out from the library. The film on the first night was the sci-fi movie Super 8, the second was the ’90s teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, and the third was a grim showing of the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. After each movie, Conner questioned the ending, wondering how the story would’ve been different if, say, we never saw the alien, or the guy never got the girl, or if the kid hadn’t made it … or had made it … or, gosh, what the heck happened to the kid? Conner would think about it overnight, wake up the next day, and have more questions as he poured his morning bowl of Froot Loops. He loves candy, too—Skittles and sour snakes and such. And he loved to talk about his sisters, all five of them.
My point is, I know Conner Youngblood pretty well by the time we enter the hunting and fishing section of the Walmart. But when he signs the papers for his fishing license, I learn I don’t even know his first name: Kneeland.
That night, I search online for Kneeland Youngblood and up pops a story about his father, also named Kneeland, who just happens to be one of the most prominent businessmen in Dallas. Two generations before him, Kneeland’s grandfather (Conner’s great-grandfather), Beadie Conner, was turned away from the gates of Princeton in the 1920s because he was black.
Decades later, Kneeland enrolled at Princeton and was determined to not let his family down. He didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke, and pursued a career in medicine as an ER doctor. He was good at that career, and good at many other things, too. He helped raise money for Ann Richards during her winning run for Texas governor in 1990, and she later appointed him to her tax reform committee. Kneeland left medicine in 1998 and co-founded Pharos, a private equity management firm.
Still, until recently, Conner’s dad was fairly private about his work. That changed after he turned 60 and realized that the story of a black man becoming one of the most successful people in the country might help others. A couple of years ago, Kneeland returned to Princeton and had the parking lot near the gates turned into a plaza in honor of Beadie Conner.
That’s the story behind the family name Kneeland Conner Youngblood writes on that fishing license, just before he grabs a tub of giant worms from the fridge.
We don’t catch anything over the last two days, but we talk a good bit about family. He only recently realized just how impressive his dad is. The week before this trip to Utah, he says, he saw him speak for the first time at Fisk University in Nashville, the school Beadie Conner attended after being turned away from Princeton. Conner and Kneeland got to visit the president’s office and see some of Beadie’s old report cards.
“None of my fans know about that side of my story,” Conner says. “To them I’m just Conner Youngblood the musician. … But in terms of my life, you’re always looking up to your parents. It’s not competitive as much as it’s a team, and you want to produce. I think they enjoy what I’m doing more than I do.”
His mom was actually the one who instilled the love for nature in her kids. Sharon is a board member for the World Wildlife Fund, and was always the one who helped with science projects, or let them play with dry ice.
Conner started playing the banjo at 13 or 14 and picked up other instruments soon after. He recorded his first songs during the summer before college, and several more during that first year at Yale. He was an American studies major, but by 2010 a few songs started to get shared online, and soon, “I was becoming a musician without realizing it.”
He graduated from Yale in 2012, moved to Nashville, and has been gaining popularity since then. Most of his songs are about places and experiences. He’s stayed away from relationships until he started work on the new album. Even there, it won’t be a standard boy-meets-girl story. Instead, he may write about the young woman he saw standing alone on a hill in the distance when he was at Craters of the Moon last year. “I still wonder about her,” he says. Or maybe he’ll write about the young couple we saw sitting next to dirt bikes on the top of the mountain on our trip.
He wants to tell stories we’ve all heard before in his own way.
“It’s been a long process but very natural at the same time,” he says of his career. “Every time I’ve done something that I thought was good, usually people respond. I’ve seen better songs create better opportunities.”