A half century ago, I drove to the Hollywood Bowl to attend a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. For me there was nothing quite like hearing in person the iconic folk trio cover Bob Dylan, singing that “too much of nothing makes a man feel ill at ease” and wondering how many times cannonballs must fly “before they’re forever banned.”
Themes of vacuous, vacant living and humankind’s warring madness are as relevant today as when I was in my 20s. And so it was that on a Wednesday in May I traveled to Hollywood to see another trio, Girl Named Tom, perform live at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard.
I’ve never met the Liechty siblings — Caleb, Joshua and Bekah — but given the small pond Mennonites swim in, I know plenty of people who know them. When they walked on stage at the crowded Troubadour, it seemed like I was applauding my own kids.
I became a member of the Girl Named Tom fan club while watching YouTube videos of them singing in front of a pond, next to a stairway in their home and in front of a fireplace at a church camp. A good word filtered down from First Mennonite in San Francisco after they played in church just before COVID made in-person services a relic. I watched their “GNT Tonight” YouTube shows with great interest, admiring the tight harmonies. Their musical dexterity. Their friendly, engaging manner.
Like so many, I had never watched The Voice, but when I heard Girl Named Tom was going to be on the program, I had to tune in. I had admired their “Helplessly Hoping” on my laptop a few dozen times when suddenly, there they were, softly harmonizing, chairs spinning, bringing Crosby, Stills and Nash to life.
Sitting in a balcony seat at the Troubadour, I thought about other youngish singers/musicians/bands with Mennonite connections. There are many more, but I think of Travis Oberg, The Stone Foxes, The Steel Wheels, Theory Expats, House of Doc, 40 Watt Hype, Kansas Bible Company and Farther Along. I remembered all those fine Mennonite college and Congolese choirs that have touched my soul. I’ve preached a lot of sermons, but nothing communicates with more power and depth than word mingling with melody. Good music reaches in and grabs us at our deepest places of ache and joy.
Days before our trip to the Troubadour, a troubled, racist white teenager drove a few hundred miles to shoot innocent shoppers, mostly Black, at a grocery store in New York. The next day an angry man opened fire in a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Southern California. And then, a few days after our Hollywood trip, another disturbed teenager shot and killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in his Texas hometown.
At the Troubadour, before playing a catchy tune the group composed, Joshua voiced the hope that in these difficult, divided times, we find ways to walk together. It echoed Rodney King’s plaintive words spoken years ago, not too far from Hollywood, asking, “Can’t we all just get along?”
It’s not Girl Named Tom’s responsibility to fix the world’s problems, nor to speak to every ill afflicting humanity. A preschool teacher in the balcony, well-versed in GNT hits, said to me, “They seem like such nice kids.”
Yes, I thought, and here they are, just in their 20s, a time when most of us are sorting out who we are becoming, only they are dealing with the heady stuff of fame, people lining up to wait on Santa Monica Boulevard for hours just to see them.
How will they choose to live their lives? What will they say through their music? How directly will they speak to the anguish of our historical moment — people lying dead in grocery stores, between church pews, in an elementary school classroom?
It’s not for me or anyone to tell GNT how or what to become. I believe they have a foundation — the home they grew up in, the Ohio Mennonite world, Goshen College, diverse friends along the way — all of which they can lean upon. Their inspiration — to compose compelling tunes, to find just the right words, to blend voices, to mesh niceness with gritty, compassionate power — comes from within and beyond, and from the experiences of life.
At the Troubadour, we patrons stood and applauded until Caleb, Joshua and Bekah reappeared for an encore. Caleb asked if we would indulge them, giving permission to sing an arrangement their dad authored of Psalm 23. Everyone knew their dad died a few months earlier, and the grief had to be fresh. And so they sang in tight harmony “I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” Then they exited the stage, toward their future.
Stephen James Penner is a retired Mennonite pastor and former Mennonite Central Committee worker in Reedley, Calif.