In Wyoming, Music Is Spiritual
The snow is piled outside the small yellow shop. The signage outside says "Diamonds, Jade, and Indian Jewelry" because the building used to be a jewelry shop. Now, it holds a different sort of precious commodity: musical instruments.Sean Francis is teaching a lesson inside. He and his student are nestled between where Francis rehearses with his band and various instrument repair projects. The student drove half an hour through the snow to get here because Fremont Music is the only music shop for hours in any direction.
Francis grew up in Lander and is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. The Wind River Indian Reservation is right next door, and Francis serves music aficionados of all ages.
Francis' appreciation for music started when he was small. He started playing drums at age 5 and could keep time with Alice Cooper and Def Leppard songs. That started Francis on a lifelong journey.
"I was self-taught. I started playing when I was 11, playing guitar I should say," Francis said. "That was when I started to really get serious about it and started to be able to have the finger strength to start playing chords."
Francis went to the University of Wyoming to study music performance and has worked for some literal rock stars. Ronnie Bedford, a world-renowned New York drummer from the '70s, was his instructor. After graduating, he became a touring musician and was on the road constantly.
But while touring was fun, he often thought about the old music shop where he used to work. He kept thinking about home and what it would take to settle down but continue doing what he loves.
"It just kind of felt it felt natural," Francis said "I knew that I had a lot to learn about, you know, how to essentially be an administrator in this business."
After he opened in the fall of 2018, Francis had 15 students for lessons in guitar and drums and two employees. Business was good, with a recording studio in the works.
Then the pandemic hit. And the music world of rural Wyoming became even more isolated.
Francis had to let go of his employees, and it was no longer safe to do in-person lessons.
He and his partner, Melia Rohrbacher, contracted COVID-19. While Francis had mild symptoms, Rohrbachr had to go to the emergency room multiple times because of her compromised immune system.
"I knew it was bad, but I don't think I ever let my mind actually think about what might happen to her. I would stay in the car for hours waiting," he said.
He wasn't allowed to go in with her.
To feel further isolated during the pandemic was difficult, Francis said. But after a month, his partner pulled through, although she still experiences shortness of breath and fatigue months after contracting COVID-19.
Francis turned to music to help deal with the stress and uncertainty. He describes music as a spiritual experience that unites people during difficult times.
"I think what keeps me so invested in music is the opportunities that come about to connect with other musicians as well. To paraphrase the bass player for the Minutemen, music is a righteous fabric with which to bind people," Francis said.
A year after the start of the pandemic, Fremont Music is open for in-store browsing, and Francis has a few lessons drive in from surrounding towns. Both he and his students have to wear masks and socially distance, but he is happy to be back making music with others.
His mom, Jodie Francis, helps take care of the retail side of things, and his stepdad, Bill Hastings, helps fix guitars.
Fremont Music is the only repair shop around for miles, and repairs kept his business afloat in the pandemic.
"Even though we weren't necessarily selling a lot of instruments and things like that, people all of a sudden found themselves with a ton of time on their hands," Francis said. "And so basically every broken-down guitar or banjo or ukulele within 100-mile radius came in, which was good."
But he hopes that he's helping people get into music. If something good has come out of the year in isolation, it's getting to help someone else find a lifelong hobby in playing an instrument.
"Something that I really love about being kind of the central resource for music in a rural area is basically that you get the opportunity to introduce a lot of people to their first instruments," Francis said.
He still remembers the feeling of getting his first guitar. And helping others discover makes him feel as if he's channeling something bigger than himself, he said.
"There's nothing like picking up a guitar and speaking music into existence," he said.