(ROGERS, Ark.) – About the time Eli Marks became seriously interested in his guitar lessons at age 14, he was strapped with an impossibly old, virtually unplayable guitar. Enter the Bentonville-based I’ll Fly Away Foundation.
The founders of that music-education and songwriter focused organization donated a new Epiphone acoustic guitar that eased Eli’s mind – and his fingers. All of which helped lead to the recent Arkansas Arts Academy graduate’s being accepted into the Belmont University music program.
“The guitar made all the difference for me. I was able to practice for long hours, really, for the first time. That encouraged me and I started making progress,” Marks, now 18, said.
For I’ll Fly Away Foundation, named for the famed gospel song penned by Albert E. Brumley in 1929, the guitar donation and Eli’s success is a good example of what it strives to do for thousands of youngsters in this part of the country – to help develop lives through the power of songwriting and music.
“It’s thrilling to see someone like Eli take a guitar as a high school freshman, learn to play and make music, and turn it into a college career,” said Betsy Brumley-Bernier, granddaughter of Albert Brumley and chairman of the I’ll Fly Away Foundation.
While Marks settles into college life this fall and starts learning his way around Nashville, Brumley-Bernier and her husband Kevin Bernier look to expand I’ll Fly Away Foundation’s imprint on the northwest Arkansas music scene. The foundation’s “You Can Fly” songwriting program for school-aged children has been active in southern Missouri schools for years, and its reach in northwest Arkansas’ schools is on the rise.
“This is important because studies have shown that students involved in music score 7.2 points higher on I.Q. tests,” Kevin Bernier said. “They have better attendance rates and graduation rates than kids not involved in music programs.”
Eli is a perfect example, Brumley-Bernier said. “His high school music studies have led him to Belmont. We want to see a whole lot more of that,” she said.
Meanwhile, the foundation is organizing a new songwriters association in northwest Arkansas based on a successful model from Columbus, Ohio. The Berniers envision the songwriter association acting as a hub for more performances, workshops, seminars and guest panels featuring top-level songwriters from across the country. Similar, they said, to what they brought to Bentonville last April with their first Power of Music Festival.
The Power of Music Festival – a three-day event with big-name sponsors, Coca-Cola, BMI, SESAC and other music industry organizations – hosted performances by six Nashville Hall of Fame songwriters, among dozens of other professional singer/songwriters, and a series of seminars and workshops with music industry leaders and experts.
“Power Of Music Festival was the biggest event we have ever done, and it was truly a magical weekend of shows, events and panels,” Brumley-Bernier said. “We already have commitments from some of the same Hall of Fame songwriters for 2018, and many more incredible songwriters and performers.”
The festival featured, among others: Tony Arata, who wrote the No. 1 hit “The Dance” for Garth Brooks, and many more hit songs; Beth Nielsen Chapman, writer of “This Kiss,” performed by Faith Hill, and a long list of other hit songs; Jerry Salley, who has written hits for Loretta Lynn, The Oak Ridge Boys, Toby Keith, and the list goes on; Richard Leigh, who has written for a who’s who of Nashville stars; Thom Schuyler, writer of “Love Will Turn You Around” sung by Kenny Rogers, and many more; Carl Jackson, with too many hit-song credits to list; Fred Knoblock, yet another Hall of Fame writer; and Roger Cook, who wrote the timeless Coca-Cola theme song of the 60s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” and the British-invasion 60s hit “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.”
“We brought some of the most renowned and accomplished songwriters in the world to Bentonville last April. And we’ll do it again in 2018,” Brumley-Bernier said. “This is what we do. And the plan is to build a dynamic and powerful music community in northwest Arkansas. Everyone in the world now knows about Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and we hope the songwriter community will become as well known, one of these days.”
One songwriter at a time, Kevin Bernier added – “and one student at a time,” he said, nodding toward Eli.
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