Above all else there is Taylor Swift.
No one who has followed my blog is surprised by that opening sentence.
But for every Taylor Swift there are hundreds, actually thousands, of others, incredibly talented performers who are not Taylor Swift. Some of them may even be better singers, songwriters, or dancers than Taylor; have a better stage presence or digital presence. (you know all too well that I just had to say that to make this point) For whatever reason, however, none of them are Taylor Swift. The whole is greater and more special than the sum of its parts. Ours, or Mine, is not to question why.
This post is about one of those incredibly talented individuals named Ayla Brown. Ayla is now the morning host on a Boston country radio station, but during almost the same period of time that I documented in Ten Years of Taylor, my daughter and I were also watching Ayla perform on a regular basis.
The 30+ Taylor concerts between 2008 and 2018 cannot compare to the number of Ayla Brown concerts we attended during that same time period. And that doesn’t include the four seasons of making the 90-minute drive from our home to Conte Forum to watch Ayla perform as a D1 basketball player for Boston College. Go Eagles!
It was the combination of basketball and music that drew my daughter’s attention to Ayla, and ultimately led to Ayla becoming one of her role models and mentors after fate threw them together as coach and player at the Boston College basketball camp in the summer of 2007.
Attending an Ayla Brown concert was not quite the same experience as attending a Taylor Swift concert. It certainly did not involve the same level of advance planning, preparation, and cost. It was a family experience. We met her parents, grandparents, aunt, and family dog. In the early days, her father served as her sound man. Later, as promised in my last post, he became a US Senator from Massachusetts, ambassador to New Zealand, and then formed his own band.
The first time that we saw Ayla perform in concert was at the Scooper Bowl on City Hall Plaza in Boston in June 2007 – an annual ice cream fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund.
That concert was followed by summer nights and Saturday afternoons driving to town commons, greens, and fields across Massachusetts from Belmont to Worcester to Milford. From Boston to Franklin and every town in between. And the special night each summer when Ayla performed nearby at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire followed by fireworks. The first, and only, live performance I have attended since the pandemic was a concert by Ayla and her husband Rob Bellamy on the town green in North Hampton, New Hampshire in the summer of 2021.
There was a step up to the fair circuit, with concerts at the Marshfield Fair and the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts.
Another step up to attending concerts where Ayla was the opening act for country artists such as Lonestar, Josh Turner, Sara Evans, and Jo Dee Messina, and legends like the Charlie Daniels Band and Loretta Lynn. And I can’t forget Tony Orlando. We saw Ayla perform with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall and act as Narrator in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
We were there for Ayla’s album releases. We were sure that she had a hit record with Pride of America.
We hit the road for Ayla as well. A five-hour drive up to a concert in Vermont. A flight down to Nashville to be there, as promised, when Ayla made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2013.
And a drive down to Philadelphia for a Celtics-76ers game the year Ayla was hired to sing the National Anthem for all Philadelphia 76er home games, the same drive we had made during the Fearless Tour.
I cannot discuss Ayla without mentioning the National Anthem. I will put her performance of the National Anthem up there with the best of them. It was a highlight each year she was a player at BC when she sang the National Anthem at the final home game. We watched her sing it at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro and I saw her perform it at the Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis. Brenda Frese asked her to perform the Anthem when BC played at Maryland. My daughter’s first Celtics game in Boston was to see Ayla perform the National Anthem. Personally, I preferred the versions from her pre-country years, but that’s a matter of taste.
Ayla and Taylor (and Kellie)
There were a few times over the years when our Taylor and Ayla worlds came very close together. There was that one magical, upside-down weekend where we saw Taylor perform for free in a small outdoor concert on Friday night (the Mine video premiere in Maine) and paid to attend a concert by Ayla the next day. The weekend in 2015 when Taylor Swift and Ayla were both performing in St. Paul. And the late August weekend in 2009 when we made it through the rain and the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny to attend the Taylor Swift Fearless Tour at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on Friday night and an Ayla field day concert in Milford, MA in a monsoon on Saturday afternoon. The concert was moved indoors.
That August 2009 weekend was extra special because Taylor’s Fearless Tour featured her friend, Kellie Pickler. Kellie is the one degree of separation between Ayla and Taylor, having been on Season 5 of American Idol with Ayla.
Kellie Pickler is another amazingly talented performer whom we have seen perform on multiple occasions. I would say that she falls somewhere between Ayla and Taylor in terms of success. Her debut album in 2006, Small Town Girl, was certified Gold with sales of over 900,000. I’m confident that this blog post can spark a revival that gets it the Platinum certification it deserves, #SmallTownGirlPlatinum. Kellie’s biggest single, Best Days of Your Life, co-written by Taylor, was certified Platinum.
There is no question that Kellie has a much better version of Santa Baby than Taylor. Although when it comes to Christmas songs, Ayla’s rendition of Grown Up Christmas List is one of my all-time favorites.
Taylor achieved a level of success with mirrorball, but it was Kellie who took home the Mirror Ball Trophy as Season 16 champion on Dancing with the Stars. And while Taylor has to live with appearing in the movie version of Cats, Kellie has starred in not one, but two, Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, in my book the pinnacle of success for any actor.
The Other 99%
It’s safe to say that Ayla, Kellie, and Taylor have each reached an upper echelon of achievement as performers. There are other highly talented individuals who perform their entire lives without achieving anything near their level of success, even for a moment. But those individuals continue to perform because that’s who they’re supposed to be. Performing is what they love to do and live to do.
I think of my next-door neighbor growing up in Dorchester in the 1960s and 1970s who passed away in 2018. About 10 years older than me, a drummer, he and some friends started a band in his basement. Eventually, they took over the garage. By the time my family moved from Dorchester, the band had an 18-wheeler parked outside the house to carry their equipment from one gig to the next. It was cool living next door to a popular rock band, despite the loud music. They never got that national contract and never made it big but continued to tour New England with a loyal following for 40 years.
Or my sister, a multi-talented performer who found her niche in musical comedy while living in Chicago after college. Achieving success in musical theater in Chicago, she moved a bit north and became an overnight sensation, as they say, in Milwaukee with her appearances in local theater and her one-woman shows, including Carolin’ Carolynne, which was on the verge of becoming a Milwaukee Christmas institution.
She probably could have enjoyed a life well-lived in Milwaukee but she had to try to realize some bigger dreams of hers in New York and then Los Angeles. A couple of national tours and other marquee performances under her belt, she continues to find ways to make her creative mark. She even once wowed the crowd at a NECAP TAC meeting – and believe me, that wasn’t an easy bunch to impress. I’m still waiting to hear whether she was the person who bought the $2 billion Powerball ticket at a Los Angeles County gas station. If she did buy the ticket, I have no doubt she’ll open a theater and probably a school.
That’s two incredible performers from just our small block of three triple-deckers in Dorchester in the 1970s. There are plenty more out there.
When you are ready to start attending events again, support their efforts, and enjoy their work.
It doesn’t have to be a 5-show New England staycation that rounded out the previously mentioned August 2009 weekend.
Friday night: Taylor Swift with Kellie Pickler, Fearless Tour in Connecticut
Saturday afternoon: Ayla Brown in Milford, MA
Saturday night: Sara Evans at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium
Sunday afternoon: James Taylor with John Williams & the Boston Pops at Tanglewood
Sunday evening: my sister’s performance in Menopause the Musical ® in Pittsfield, MA
It could be a holiday concert at your neighborhood high school.
It could be a play or musical at the local college. Who knows, you might meet the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.
What a wonderful world.