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Musicians From Missouri And Kansas Helped Finally Finish Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States Project

Joey Clift
Our Fifty States Project
A Los Angeles-based TV writer banded together with musicians from across the country last year to record an album about every single state in the country.

After a project to encapsulate all 50 states into songs went unfulfilled for years, a handful of musicians from Kansas and Missouri took it upon themselves to finally make it happen.

In the early 2000s, Midwestern singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens announced an ambitious project. He was going to record an album about every single one of our 50 United States. And he kicked the initiative off with folksy ballads honoring cities like Chicago and Detroit.

People who lived in the Midwest, where cities don't typically get national shout outs like this, were especially excited: What state would he do next? What places or people would he feature?

But as soon as he started, Stevens stopped making state-themed albums — after only completing “Michigan” and “Illinois.”

“I was actually a big Sufjan Stevens fan,” says Ryan Drane, who lives in mid-Missouri. "We were all kind of waiting for more states to come out and they never did."

Eventually, it came out that the project had only been a tool for self-promotion. Stevens never really intended to write an album about all 50 states.

But it’s not like people’s desires to hear their home states immortalized as musical albums just went away. People were invested.

That’s in part why when Los Angeles-based TV writer Joey Clift decided to finally finish what Stevens started last year, 200 musicians from around the country — including some from Kansas and Missouri — were immediately on board. And what resulted were over 500 eclectic songs tackling the people, places and history of the entire United States, its territories and the moon.

Ryan Drane
Our Fifty States Project
The "Missouri" album for Joey Clift's "Our Fifty States Project" features tributes to Walt Disney and Mark Twain.

Among his many contributions to the "Missouri" album, Ryan Drane wrote about the everlasting legacy of Mark Twain, who like Drane, was born in a small town outside of Columbia.

“I didn’t go out of my way to sound like Sufjan, but I wanted to capture what he did. Like, I loved how he told songs about famous individuals from the state," he explains.

Drane also wrote about his enduring love for Missouri's rivers and how they formed the state into the country's most unique shape. And about Marceline, Walt Disney's hometown.

"Disney built the entrance to Disneyland to mimic Marceline, Missouri. And it was so surreal the first time I was there," Drane says. "It always amazed me that he came from such a small town, such a small place, and built himself up."

The "Kansas" album has a similar tone to the "Missouri" album. You just have to swap the salute to Mark Twain with an homage to Jason Sudeikis.

“I think everyone was like ‘Oh, yeah, I can’t wait until he talks about me and my state.' But he never did. So then we had to," says Austin Schauer, who grew up in Topeka.

Schauer and his wife, Ellen Keegan, collaborated on a song about the evolution of the Kansas prairie for the album.

“The original impetus of the song is that when I was a kid, we would go on field trips to find prehistoric fish bones because Kansas used to be an ocean millions of years ago,” Schauer says.

Like many songs on these albums, “Prairie Ocean,” is both earnest and funny, simultaneously educating people while also poking fun at Kansas teens for not knowing the story: "When you're a teenager, you don't know anything about the past, so you can't grapple with it."

Austin Schauer and Ellen Keegan are both aspiring comedy writers who met at the University of Kansas.
Austin Schauer
Austin Schauer (left) and Ellen Keegan (right) are musicians, as well as aspiring comedy writers. Together, they wrote and performed a song on the "Kansas" album called "Prairie Ocean."

When Adam Winney, who grew up in Overland Park, heard about the project — he knew he had to write an anthem for Kansas' state flower. He'd been watching for years as people made annual pilgrimages to giant fields of them.

“Sunflowers are definitely a part of the identity of this state," Winney says. "It's a very patient plant. You have to grow it for most of the year just for it to come out for like a couple months. And there was something about that patience that I wanted to touch on in the song.”

Ryan Drane says while it would have been fun to see what Sufjan Stevens came up with for a Missouri-themed album, he's pretty happy with how this all turned out.

“It just meant a lot to get to finish the project. I was so glad Joey did it,” he explains. “He really gave a lot of small musicians a chance to fulfill Sufjan’s dream.”

All of the albums for "Our Fifty States Project" can be streamed online — including the "Missouri" and "Kansas" albums.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer at KCUR, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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