J.T. Stivers, a Freeport resident and English teacher at Freeport High School who has studied some of the world’s major religions, will perform music from his new CD, “Threadbare Agnostic,” on Friday, May 13, at the Freeport Community Center.
The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and will be sold the night of the show, but seats can be reserved by emailing Stivers through www.jtstivers.com.
Stivers, who sings and plays guitar, studied for three years in New York City with Linc Chamberland, a recording artist and jazz guitar master. He has recorded with the likes of Rahmlee Davis from Earth, Wind and Fire, and Kurtis Blow, one of New York’s seminal rappers.
Stivers, 58, grew up in Barrington, Ill. His family moved to Camden when he was 16, and he attended Colby College for two years prior to taking a self-described “leave of absence” to New York. There, he did contracting work by day and played music at night.
“After 11 years in New York City, I moved back to Maine to finish college as a non-traditional student at Colby and eventually got married to the wonderful Elizabeth Williams,” Stivers said. “We started out together in Topsham, but moved to Freeport about eight years ago. Our kids, Harry and Marny Stivers, both attended Freeport schools. Harry is at St. Lawrence University, and Marny is graduating from FHS this June and will attend the University of New Hampshire.”
In “Threadbare Agnostic,” Stivers says he delves into his perspectives on faith, doubt and wonder through musical genres inspired by Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Loreena McKennitt. Stivers talked about his CD and his spiritual journey with the Tri-Town Weekly.
Q: What inspired you to produce “Threadbare Agnostic?”
A: As is true for most of us, musings and questions about religion, the nature of God and faith have been with me in some way or another since I was a child. While I am no religious expert, I have read most of the Bible – some parts many times – and I have read much of the Koran. I know enough about Buddhism and the Tao to be conversant, and there’s much about Eastern philosophy I find attractive. Anyway, songs about these things show up at the doorstep of my mind every few years, and I realized about two years ago that I was gaining a critical mass of related songs. This inspired me to compose about four more to have enough for a CD, which I finished and produced at the first of the year with the help of my musical partner and co-producer, Tom Blackwell. I hope to share this music with as many people as possible and have a dialogue-through-music about this significant aspect of our lives. The title, “Threadbare Agnostic,” is meant to evoke, with a chuckle, the internal struggle between cynic and believer.
Q: Tell us about your own spiritual journey.
A: I was raised a Christian Scientist and attended that church as a youngster, and I learned very early on through my experiences there that there is a gap between religious profession and how we actually conduct ourselves – no surprise there. There is something in my wiring that simply cannot accept that any organized religion somehow has an exclusive purchase on the exact path to salvation, or goodness, or truth, since religion is organized and defined by people, who, significantly, are all flawed in some way or to some degree. I have grown to appreciate these flaws and find the ensuing pursuit of faith all the more powerful, and even beautiful, because of them. That said, whatever my views or beliefs, I know I am not wise enough to know “the answer” or to find fault in others’ convictions, so long as killing or the degradation of others is not sanctioned by a particular faith.
Q: Are these topics that arise in the classroom?
A: Only indirectly. Separation of church and state! Anyway, it is unavoidable that related issues arise in the classroom, and we explore the moral, ethical, political and social aspects of religion when appropriate. One can’t ignore the role of Christianity in the creation and development of what we now know as New England, or in the religious fervor behind and emanating from John Winthrop’s “City on the Hill,” or in Biblical interpretations that both justified and vilified slavery, or in the spiritual significance of the land for native Americans, or in the anti-Semitism that drenches Elie Wiesel’s “Night” in states of horror and dread that tax the imagination.
Q: Do you perform often, and where? And who’s in the Threadbare band?
A: I have a band I play in regularly (averaging about twice a month) called Cuppagroove, but that band is a wholly secular affair. The upcoming performance of “Threadbare Agnostic” at Freeport Community Center on May 13 will only be the second performance of this material with this handpicked band. To really promote the CD and get the Threadbare Band out there on a regular basis would require a time and financial commitment I just don’t have, since I want to stay both married and employed. Pity, because this band is smokin’. The Threadbare Band features Luc Bergeron on drums, Geoff Ives on piano, Rob Babson (whom area residents will know as one of the Freeport Players on “Radio”) on guitar and vocals, Geoff Chartier on bass, former student and current 317 Main St choral director Brad Longfellow on vocals and Tiffany Farley on vocals. I play guitar and sing. For more information on the bands and our performance schedules, check out www.cuppagroove.com and www.jtstivers.com.
Q: How would you describe this music?
A: “Threadbare Agnostic” features a wide variety of styles and genres, including a few songs with Middle Eastern influences (one of which might be described as Arabic rock). The CD also features folk, samba, jazz, rock and bluegrass. I have some of Maine’s most prominent musicians helping me out on the album, including mandolin master Joe Walsh, violinist Andy Happel and vocalist Andrea Re. FHS language teacher Diane Whitmore even helps out on vocals.
Q: Who are your favorite writers, and why?
A: I currently teach AP English language and composition and, along with Rich Robinson, I co-teach American Studies with Geoff Dyhrberg and Charlie Mellon. Rich and I mainly handle the related American literature and writing instruction, while Charlie and Geoff are the American history experts. I have many favorite writers. I love George Orwell’s exacting diction and his perspective on human nature. I love Victor Hugo’s (and his translator’s) “Les Miserable” because of its loving and generous depiction of human folly and redemption. I love Toni Morrison’s lyrical and unflinching exploration of suffering and her appreciation for and acceptance of the “other” in our midst. I love Dave Barry because he makes me laugh. I love Pete Dexter’s “Deadwood” for the tremendous power of his writing and his poignant evocation of longing. There are others – these are today’s.
J.T. Stivers of Freeport and his Threadbare Band will perform music from “Thredbare Agnostic” on May 13 at the Freeport Community Center.