Salty Mouth Shows Offers Utahans a Unique Community Experience

Reading time: 5 minutes

In an old mechanic’s shop in Provo, Utah, Zack Green of Nashville croons over and over into a microphone, “In love there are no arrivals, in love there are no goodbyes.” Yellow plywood lines the shop. It looks like flaky gold under the dangling bistro lights. The space is threadbare, but the atmosphere ethereal. A hundred people are in the cavernous room, seated in secondhand folding chairs and wooden benches and brocade lounges and recliners. They listen intently, sway to the music. Green sings for Americana quintet Birdtalker, and the band is headlining the first official production by Salty Mouth Shows, a Utah venue that promises to spontaneously combust when moved by the spirit for intimate community gatherings. “In love there are no arrivals, in love there are no goodbyes.”

But there are beginnings, and for Salty Mouth Shows it began like this.

Joshua James, Jake Buntjer, and Nate Draschil have for the past several years savored music and community throughout Utah. From rooftop concerts to band battles to art galas, the three have not only basked in the warmth of a spreading cultural flame, they’ve contributed to it.

James, of American Fork, is an acclaimed singer-songwriter who, when not touring nationally, continues to play impromptu backyard gatherings. He’s also a producer, and he’s helped illumine the talent of Utah musicians Timmy The Teeth, Desert Noises, The Aces, and others. Buntjer, of Springville, is a sculptor and founder of The Boxcar Studios, a Provo community events center, atelier, coffeehouse, and barbershop. Draschil, of Orem, has spent the past seven years ensuring that the Rooftop Concert Series is the elevating experience Utahans hope for when they descend on Provo’s Center Street the first Friday of each summer month. The trio, you might say, is anxiously engaged in a good cause. Yet despite their existing workload, the three friends can’t stop dreaming. And about a year ago they began discussing how they might further fuel the community fire.

Last October, James and wife Emma wanted to throw a cozy backyard soirée. This marked an opportune moment, James realized, so he, Buntjer, and Draschil went to work. They dubbed the gathering The Harvest Dinner, invited 35 guests, as well as a band to take to a tiny stage. James’ garden supplied a cornucopia of food, and Fresh Melissa Chappell prepared it. What ensued was a magical evening of good conversation, high spirits, and delicious music. The afterglow from that evening, all agree, persisted for days.

“It wasn’t about putting on a rock or folk or singer-songwriter show,” James says. “It was about bringing common-minded people together and rejoicing in the unknown of being alive.”

Rejoicing in humanity and community underscores Salty Mouth’s aim, and the success of that Harvest Dinner led the hosts to believe the experience could be replicated. But they wanted subsequent iterations to be original and organic, to unroll similarly. So when the trio learned in early July that Birdtalker would be touring from Colorado to Idaho, they made a phone call, convinced the band to detour through Provo, and began spreading word via Instagram and Facebook. Friends and acquaintances came together to modify The Boxcar Studios, design flyers, and create an Eventbrite page. Local folk ensemble Hollering Pines signed on, as did Fresh Melissa again. Seven days later, a community gathering materialized on a sultry summer night in an undercooled workshop. Sparks flew.

So what did it feel like, sitting on a folding chair next to a Salt Lake City couple who shared their drink while a hundred-some-odd folk listened to a band of Tennesseans croon and strike chords?

Possibility. Like we can do this, that our efforts aren’t in vain, that they matter even, that they make a difference, small though it may be.

Draschill says that Salty Mouth is, at the core, “about creating an opportunity where people can come together and have their hearts opened up. Not just be shoulder to shoulder, but face to face.”

Buntjer explains that he and his cohorts have been inspired and fed by their artistic progenitors and that they want to fan the flame so to speak, carry the torch, pass it on. “As people get together during these events and see that it’s working,” he says, “they then take their own passion, their own craft, and try other things. Then we can go experience that. This is our version of the next step in life. It’s what we want with life, what we want from culture and community.”

Salty Mouth exemplifies a broader cultural shift in The Beehive State. Over the past decade, as secularism has spread and access to information increased, hordes have migrated away from Mormonism, which has previously been the arbiter of culture in Utah. Millennials, especially, have joined the exodus, and in the absence of a prescribed Weltanschauung they've sought to fill their cups with art, music, food, and togetherness. Salty Mouth’s engaged trio is no exception. Ever do commoners and nonconformists beget counterculture—the truest expression of nonviolent protest.

Hence “Salty Mouth.” For the salt of the earth has always given lip. It turns the other cheek not in submission but defiance, and its defiance invariably bears a beauty mark. And how can it not, for defiance of the prevailing way looks exactly like allegiance to one’s own way.

After the show, folks enjoyed collations from Fresh Melissa. They huddled in clusters as their conversations melded into a low hum. Bottles clinked. A baby raccoon crawled across the laps of partygoers. Yes, a baby raccoon. The air and heads were abuzz.

Mark Smith of Hollering Pines called the venue “unique,” while Birdtalker stood as much in awe of us as we did of them; with a circuit of mostly raucous bars, they aren’t accustomed to a captive audience seated under celestial lighting.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Salty Mouth can continually reach its romantic ideals. Can it remain a community experience rather than a consumer experience? In our material world, souls are starved for genuine community, and when we find it we often falter toward engagement through a monetary transaction or digital interface. If Salty Mouth should ignite the fire it wishes to, it risks becoming a commodity rather than a community. If it doesn't, then those few who regularly stoke the effort end up singing only to each other.

Maybe that's the point.

Whatever happens with Salty Mouth in the end, one thing is certain: it began in love. And in love there are no arrivals. In love there are no goodbyes.

Oh, as for the next show... it'll happen when it happens. And if you know, you know.