scenic view of a lake

Picture This in a Song

Take a musician, drop him in the middle of nowhere, and see what happens. Inside one group’s plan to remind America of its greatest resource: itself.

The ducks take flight in front of our buzzing airboat, one by one, pattering their webbed feet across the flat water as if it were a runway, until thousands of them lift into the October morning sky. At least one type of bird has a different approach. These are grebes, which are kind of like ducks but not exactly like ducks because they have lobed toes, and the kind we’re seeing is the western grebe. A few of them make a half-hearted effort to fly away from our boat—flap-flap-flap, flap-flap-flap—before saying to heck with all this noise and diving below the surface—kerplunk.

A thing that happens when you spend time with ducks is that some duck-loving person, probably a guy named Bob, will eventually ask you if you have a favorite duck, and if you were to make me choose one duck-like bird to have from this day forward, I’d probably say the western grebe. It has kind of a Zorro look, with a pale neck and a black streak that wraps from its eyes around its head like a mask.

My companion on the trip, a gentle singer-songwriter from Nashville named Conner Youngblood, also is a fan of grebes. But after spending five days with Conner at Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I feel informed enough to tell you that he probably likes the American avocet better. We’ll get to them later.

Conner’s music and wildlife refuges make good companions. His voice sounds like a soft breeze, and he surrounds those vocals with a world of instruments, floating from banjo to harp to soft synths to a trumpet sound he makes with his mouth. His range has helped him build a devoted online audience, and he’s recorded with Linkin Park and toured in Europe. He’s finishing up his debut album with the label Counter Records, due out this year. He’s here on Bear River chasing water-fowl and inspiration for a song about nature, which may or may not complete the new album. A nonprofit called Sustain Music & Nature arranged the trip through its Songscapes program. The idea is simple: A musician goes to a public land for four or five days, and then writes a song about the experience. A videographer films the trip and puts together a music video. The hope is that the songs will inspire a new generation of public land stewards in an era when nature and stewardship are hard to squeeze in, what with all the time it takes to gaze into phones.

The 28-year-old doesn’t fit most of the stereotypes of his generation. You could say he’s more of a diving duck than a flying duck. He’s brilliant, a Yale graduate who approaches every conversation with more questions than answers. His phone is a flip phone, and he rarely turns it on. He takes pictures with disposable 35 mm cameras. His Instagram feed is filled with shots from those cameras, all posted several days after he’s had time to develop them and consider the moment. “When you use film, you’re always excited to see what you get back,” he says. “It’s like always getting a present.”

On his recent fall tour, he took those cameras to places such as Yellowstone National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Craters of the Moon National Monument. He stops at public lands whenever he can. Once, he passed by Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Afterward he checked into his hotel and searched through Google Images of the park. He couldn’t believe what he’d missed.

“I thought I didn’t have enough time to stop,” he says, repeating a line we’ve all said, “and when I looked it up and saw how beautiful it was, I felt this regret.”

He wrote a song, “The Badlands,” about that lost opportunity. He went back to the park for the music video. In it, there’s a short clip of a rabbit running into a hole and another of a deer prancing off. Someone at Nike saw the video and purchased those shots for a LeBron James ad.

Things break that way for people who pay attention to things the rest of us miss, and in this world of distractions, Conner treats paying attention as a job. In the four nights we room together in a bunkhouse with no internet, he is the only person who never turns on his cell phone.

He keeps things grounded during a production process that doesn’t always feel natural. During the trip, a reporter from the local public radio station drops by for a day. A photographer comes for another two, along with an art director and an assistant. The videographer, a young man named Tazer, shadows Conner the entire time, often asking him to stage scenes. At one point Tazer asks Conner to sit in a dining-room chair in shallow water at sunset, because what’s more natural than that?

A bird refuge is full of catchy lyrics, with fresh phrases and consonant sounds and multi-syllable words flying around.

Betsy Mortensen and Harrison Goodale spend two days here. They’re the co-founders of Sustain Music & Nature. She has a background in conservation biology and he’s a musician, and they figured they could put their skills together. Conner’s trip to Utah is the fourth Songscape experience. Videos and songs for the first three have already been released.

“We want this to be a song that the band would play at a show,” Goodale says. “That’s what’s going to draw in people. If a band that you really love just came out with a song that was like, ‘We love birds,’ you’d be like, ‘What is going on?’ It can’t just be a token song for the refuge.”

Within the first few minutes of dropping our bags in the bunkhouse, I’m reasonably certain Conner won’t let that happen. He picks up a book about birds and starts studying.

“They even describe the sounds they make in writing,” he says. “I don’t know. How do you read bird? I wonder who decides how to spell these out.”

His curiosity shines through in his music. He can play 20 instruments. “But only about seven or eight really well,” he says. Many of his songs are about nature, including the brisk narrative “The Birds of Finland,” which traces a year through birdsongs and reminds the listener not to let seasons slip away.

So here he comes again, watching and listening to birds, waiting for them to reveal to him a song.

Salicornia succulents thrive in the Great Salt Lake region due to their ability to grow in salty soil.

Remember our duck-loving friend Bob? He’s Bob Barrett, the refuge manager for Bear River. He’s friendly and curly-haired, and has a sandy beard. He has two kids, and Bob loves birds. A lot.

On our first morning on the refuge, we hop in a van for a tour with Bob. Almost immediately, he beeps the horn at a ring-necked pheasant in the road. Bob laughs a big laugh as it runs off. He’s asked us to try and count at least 20 individual types of birds on the trip.

“That’s one!” he says of the pheasant.

Within minutes, we’re checking off more. White-faced ibises and red-winged blackbirds and great blue herons; coots and killdeer and pelicans; American wigeons and American avocets and Canada geese (don’t you dare call them “Canadian”). And over there’s a ruddy duck. “Those are my favorite ducks,” Bob says. And over there, “A huge flock of canvasbacks! White with red heads! Wow!”

He explains that the cinnamon teal ducks are interesting because they’re among the first to migrate. Predators in these parts are few—raccoons and skunks that prey on eggs, and maybe the occasional coyote that preys on raccoons and skunks. The biggest problem is invasive plants. There are Russian olive trees; they don’t belong here. Neither do the salt cedars. But the worst are the phragmites, 6- or 7-foot tall plants with long reeds for stems and fluffy tops like a brush.

Louise Brown, a master naturalist with the refuge, and her husband, Steve, can take a good set of binoculars and identify just about every living thing on the refuge.

Louise can speak bird, too. When she sees a killdeer, she rings out, “Kill-DEEE, kill-DEEE, kill-DEEE!”

Conner smiles when he hears that, and he scribbles something in a notebook he carries with him. He takes notes throughout the trip, keeping a list of words that might help build a line in the song. A bird refuge is full of catchy lyrics, with fresh phrases and consonant sounds and multi-syllable words flying around.

“Are those shovelers?” he asks, pen in his hand. They are.

About halfway out into the 80,000-acre refuge, Bob explains something that will stick with Conner. He points out a flock of American avocets. They’re string-legged shorebirds with beaks that turn up at the end so that they can scoop up food. They move in a group, a whole flock, walking across the water, kicking up insects for the next bird in the line to eat.

“One thing about nature is cause and effect,” Bob says. “Everything has a reason.”

Conner fixes his eyes to this flock. Later he’ll tell me that he loves how they move together, almost as a unit, as they walk through the water, each one stirring up food for the bird behind it.

“But then,” he wonders, “does the one in the front get nothing?”

Later that evening, sitting on a rock at 9,300 feet, well above most of the birds he’s come here to witness, Conner plucks at the cold steel of his banjo strings.

We’re watching the sun set over the valley below. The refuge fans out in front of us, all patches of water and marsh. To get here from there took about 90 minutes, and at times I wasn’t sure whether we’d make it. An intern from the refuge, Nina, drove. Dune buggies passed us, one with a dead goat tied to the back of it. During some of the more treacherous curves, as our tires inched closer to the edge and a long tumble into the valley below, my hands got damp and I gripped my knee.

Conner fell asleep. When a bump jolted him awake, he muttered something about Bonnaroo, the well-known music festival in Tennessee. “Sorry, I guess I was dreaming,” he said. Conner doesn’t drink, not because he’s sworn it off or anything, but because it hurts his voice. He doesn’t smoke. Best I can tell he runs the same speed—chill—all the time.

“You’re the only person I know who could sleep on a drive like that,” I tell him when we reach an overlook near the top of Willard Peak.

“Was dreaming about music,” he says.

He doesn’t know which instruments he’ll use for the Songscape song yet, but for some reason he can’t get “You’re a Big Girl Now” out of his head. It’s a 1975 Bob Dylan song about a lovesick person, and it includes several lines about birds. But Conner says the sound is what keeps coming to his mind: Dylan has a version of the song in which an acoustic guitar moves in a slow tempo across the words, until a harmonica slides in at the end.

He sits on the rock with his banjo and looks out. A cold front came through last night, bringing the season’s first snowcap.

“Hurts,” he says after plucking a few notes. It’s the only time during the entire trip that I hear him complain.

Each spring in northern Utah, the snow on top of the Wasatch Mountains melts and spills down the faces of the hills. Much of that water flows into the Bear River, the largest river in the Western Hemisphere that doesn’t flow into an ocean. The river drops into the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. Because the Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake—meaning the water flowing from the river has nowhere to go—much of the water evaporates in the summer, leaving only the salt. And then, of course, fresh water comes back down again in winter as snow.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge runs alongside the town of Brigham City, which sits at the base of the western face of the Wasatch Range and about 10 miles north of the mouth of the lake. The mountains take on a red shade and loom over the town. About 15,000 years ago, this entire region was underwater as part of Lake Bonneville. The waters receded over time, leaving what we now know as the Great Salt Lake, but Bonneville’s water level is still apparent if you look at the mountain range—a smooth ridge runs horizontally across the mountains’ midsection.

Conner notes the flood in his book. Eventually, he’ll draft a potential first line for the song: “Flood come and go.”

All that history can’t come close to telling the story of this sunset. Neither can photographs from Conner’s disposable cameras or any scene in a music video. Some things, you have to see, feel, hear, and smell for yourself. Taste, too.

Conner hops down from the rock and reaches toward the earth for two fingers of snow and drops them on his tongue.

Bob Barrett leads a lesson on the ornithological wonders of the refuge.

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.”

The mosquitoes are out as we take one final drive through the refuge on the last night. They’re swarming and biting and flying into the car windows. This is when the videographer wants to shoot Conner in the chair in the water. Conner swats and swats, but eventually they get the take they want.

Back in the car, Nina, the intern, rolls down the windows and floors the gas pedal in hopes that the mosquitoes will blow out. When we’re about 3 miles from the bunkhouse, she looks in the rearview mirror and says, “Oh, my God.”

We all turn around and see deep reds and pinks streaking across the sky above the mountains. Conner asks Nina to stop. He grabs his disposable camera and his fishing pole. The videographer follows, but this time, the scene is all Conner doing what he wants to do.

He tosses a few casts and looks out at the sunset. Ducks are making their last flights of the day. No matter how many times I’ve seen the sun drop away, it always amazes me that this is how a busy day ends. Here, the final call is the quack from a duck before a long night, or the distant sound of a boat engine racing toward a trailer to go home, and then darkness silences their worlds until tomorrow, whatever that brings.

As we walk to the car I start to get excited about those tomorrows, excited to see what Conner says about this trip in his song, which is scheduled to be released Jan. 1, the same day this story is published. It’s exciting, because when we disconnect and go out to places like this, these precious public lands, we experience them in a way that’s all our own. And after spending this time with Conner and these ducks and mosquitoes and sunsets, I feel informed enough to tell you that he’s one of those people who can witness the same scene you witness, but still make you eager to see what he saw.

We head back to the bunkhouse. One more movie before we go: Black Swan, the story of a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman. After it’s over, the musician on the couch asks questions just like he always does. But this time, he solves the first rather quickly: During the final scene, Portman’s character wears makeup—her neck is white and she has a streak of black that wraps from her eyes around her head.

“She’s not a swan,” Conner says, laughing. “She’s a grebe. No, wait. She’s a western grebe.”

Michael Graff lives in Charlotte. Email him at [email protected].

Photography by Trevor Paulhus

Originally Published January 2018