Story by: Robbie Veglahn
It’s Sunday morning, and lifetime Village Presbyterian member Stormy Shank is celebrating her 97th birthday – but she’s dancing like a 20 year old groupie. “For the Beauty of the Earth” has been one of her favorite hymns since she was a little girl, but this “hillbilly-tized” rendition has brought her to her feet. All because of one band.
East grad Becky Bliss and her husband Nathan left Kansas eight years ago. Since then, they have toured both the US and Europe, won the SongCircle songwriters $10,000 contest in New York and gained a spot in Amazon’s top 100 albums of the year as founding members of the indie-folk band Barnaby Bright. They’ve released four albums, built a following of 18,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and play around 200 shows every year. And now, they’re back.
After eight years of touring the country and Europe, the Bliss’s have moved back to Prairie Village and are now the house band of the Village Presbyterian Church – leading worship at the alternative “Gathering” service, which is a more casual contemporary service at Village.
Both classically trained musicians, Becky recorded her first solo in a professional recording studio at the age of five – about the same time she was first went to Sunday school at Village – and was in choir her entire four years at East.
After graduating from the University of Kansas, Becky decided she needed a consistent guitarist to form a band with if she would ever hope to make it out of Kansas and onto the national scene. That’s when her booking agent introduced her to a guitarist who happened to be looking for a singer: Nathan Bliss.
The two immediately hit it off, and Barnaby Bright was born. With a name as unique as their americana-indie-folk hybrid sound, it didn’t take long for the band to release their first album and get their music on iTunes and Spotify. After that, a U.S. and European tour. As they describe it on their website, then came the “high-falutin’” awards, along with a growing fan base and upcoming tours.
But eight long years and countless shows can take a toll on any relationship, in this the one the Bliss’s had with their music. It just took a sign to tell them that they needed to come home.
Already on-edge and “burnt out” from a grueling year of 200 plus shows and over 50,000 miles travelled, Nathan walked into the New York City venue for soundcheck of one of the biggest shows of their tour. But before he could even get through the door, a massive chunk of ice slid off the frigid roof and struck him in the back of the head.
After being rushed to the ER, Nathan was diagnosed with a concussion and received ten staples in the back of his scalp. Yet the Bliss’s still decided to make a mad, Deep Purple-esque scramble back to the venue, arriving just five minutes before curtain. And sure enough, the show did go on – albeit a show wrapped in a bloodied hospital bandage.
While they were able to pull it off that night, the Bliss’s realized how thin they were being stretched.
“We like to joke that we have crammed 20 years of marriage into eight,” Becky said. “At the same time, all of these experiences can really zap your creativity if you never get a chance to be home. We took that show as a pretty clear sign it was time to scale back a bit and spend time with our families who both still live in Kansas City.”
Becky and Nathan knew that if they came back, the details would work themselves out. And sure enough, some “divine timing” found them in Friendship Hall of Village Presbyterian Church.
About a month after moving back, Tom Are, the senior pastor at Village, reached out to Becky and Nathan about a job opening – after all, she had grown up working in the childcare room.
For years, the Gathering had been one of the least attended services compared to the always packed “traditional” services, attracting mostly younger members of the congregation. Now, the Gathering is full every Sunday, with everyone from millennials to 97 year old Shank.
According to Are, people are drawn to the service because it isn’t just regular church – it’s like a free, spiritual concert every Sunday.
The band intertwines their music into every aspect of the service, whether it’s providing a tranquil mandolin-and-banjo backdrop to the pastor’s prayer, or thematically choosing their pieces and hymns based on the scripture and sermon that day.
The job gives the band the freedom to branch out while still giving them a home; whether it’s embarking on their next big tour in September, their free concert in the Village sanctuary this Friday, or Nathan’s audio-engineering and songwriting classes being taught out of his office.
Eventually, they will move on and return to their full time tour schedule. But for now, they are spending time finding themselves and making worship meaningful for everyone around them – and making 97 year olds dance in the process.