by Rich Kirkpatrick

Have you ever experienced a moment in life where you felt really alive? When I think of bears and the word “upstream” I immediately picture a grizzly bear snatching a salmon with his massive claws as it jumps upstream, arching into the air. We are taught that to swim upstream puts us in great peril. Truthfully, any creative endeavor worth its salt drives the artist, musician, or entrepreneur directly into the dangers of the unknown. Where else would one want to be? Most would rather stay with the current than risk the fate of the salmon. Swimming upstream simply requires more effort than many are willing to spend. When it comes to music, Old Bear Records aims to create more than a sound. It’s birthing a community–a tribe.

Values focus us when the path of least resistance tempts us to coast. We come to life when tough waters test us. Old Bear Records, beyond a musical style, is about creating music that breeds such coming-to-life moments–not just for the listener, but for their artists as well. The path to such a moment is not well worn. Most of us shy away from paying the price. It is much like the saying, “If I knew it would cost me this much, I’d have never wanted to be such an inspiration to people in the first place!” But, such a cost is the journey for those who dare to let their light shine in the midst of our human brokenness and imperfections.

As Anthony Hoisington, one of the founders of Old Bear Records says, “We need to create the working man’s music.” The blue collar image of the job of an artist swims against a current of self-indulgent and quick-fix fame or popularity. Working people are proud of what they create, whether or not the masses think their work is worthy or not. They work for a higher purpose— their family, their company, their community, and their God. Yes, they know that doing so is rewarding to themselves. There is nothing more satisfying than a carpenter building a home that a family occupies or a musician writing a song that holds a widow’s hand through grief. Music that draws out the coming-to-life moment requires hard work.

The Honesty of Embracing Who You Are

As a young worship leader, Old Bear artist Luke Lauber was told he would have a rather short go at it as a worship leader unless he changed his voice. Luke felt the pressure to fit in the vein of what modern worship demanded and even a bit of guilt by wanting to write music that was not “in the style.” You might as well have demanded of this very tall young man to shrink from over six feet to five-foot-five. Such words probably shrunk more than his ego. The system compels us to copy and live as chameleons, not artists. This was until Luke heard his producer at Old Bear ask, “What is your voice? Who did God make you to be?” Most people don’t like something new–at first. But, Luke experienced a surprising come-to-life moment by joining the Old Bear tribe and creating music with them.

Jonas Woods constantly lived under the demand to write songs for a demographic as a Nashville artist. “I grew tired of people dictating to me what my music and ministry was supposed to be. I’m compelled to write from my heart.” What does the Old Bear sound mean to Jonas Woods? “It’s not always popular….at the end of the day I have to be honest with myself.” Honesty seems to be a dominant theme in the Old Bear sound. The choice is to embrace who you are or chase the tone and style of others–swim upstream or float with the river downstream.

Does it matter if the “industry” asks us to write a song? What if you write a song for yourself that no one is asking for? Weston Skaggs felt one of his songs, “Pocket Sized God” was not so good, particularly because it would never fit in the typical industry categories. Producer Chris Hoisington of Old Bear countered this sentiment with something that surprised Weston, “No, that’s good. It’s you.” The invitation to create honestly demands the dangerous steps into unknown territory. Perhaps at some point, we must untether ourselves from what is conventionally practiced if it means losing who we indeed are. We walk against the wind.

As Legend Orzora prepared for her recording project with Old Bear Records, she spent a lot of time trying to reverse engineer the likes of Lauren Daigle, Elevation Worship, and other popular Christian artists. She was challenged with a question: “What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said?” Describing her experience with Old Bear Records Legend says, “I have seen how God is very strategically bringing person after person to the Old Bear family…God is unveiling a new sound of the Kingdom.” Honesty requires relationships. One is less likely to discover who they truly are without the safety of a healthy family.

Producing Music for Misfit Toys and the X-men

The tribal and family bonds of Old Bear artists, producers, and support people is one of Old Bears most brilliant and visionary aspects. Eric Lee Brumley, another Old Bear Artist, says it’s like being a mutant and then being invited to join the X-men. “I stumbled upon this hidden community. Like the X-men, I didn’t realize there were people just like me. I found my home,” says Eric. He found a community that is helping him unlock more of his full potential as a musical artist and as a person.

There are real benefits to being a part of the tribe at Old Bear. Weston Skaggs says, “Part of the struggle is retraining our instincts…Tearing away bad habits… to hear the sound in our heads that we want to express. It might be working for three hours in the studio, but then starting over.” The superpowers of producing music is indeed a team effort. To pull out of the artists their best and honest selves are intentional, not accidental. This is true even if there is no set musical “style” to the Old Bear Sound. The values are what makes Old Bear authentically unique which can be seen in how they describe their work–and it is true even in the words they use.

A fly on the wall might hear some very unique family lingo at Old Bear. Every family uses their own lingo that reinforces their values and identity with their words in an unwritten glossary. When you hear,“Aww…one more time,” this means that you are going to keep doing it about 50 times until it feels right if producer Jeremy is tracking you. Another inspiring phrase heard around the studio exhorts, “Dude, you’re just lying to me!” Well, Old Bear is about being honest in the studio as well as life. To the recording artist, being asked for “raw gritty” is an invitation not a complaint. But, you know you are on the right track when Chris turns to look at you and finally asks, “You feel like sushi?”

It is obvious that the words spoken by the leaders and artists at Old Bear Records create a freedom and belonging in their tribe. When an artist like Luke Lauber is cast aside because his voice is unique to the typical worship leader, he joins other “X-men” at Old Bear. It is often the questions such as,“What is your voice?” that brings out their artists’ best work. We all fail when we deny who God designed us to be. We can’t create what we are meant to create, otherwise. The Old Bear Records “sound” exists as a tribe of people discovering the powerful coming-to- life moments found in a thriving artistic community.

An Eye to the Future of the Old Bear Sound.

The sound of Old Bear Records is less about one unifying genre and more about shared passion and values. The belief in honesty, community and creating music that every working person can relate to drives their vision. Anthony Hoisington says that this is lived out in knowing his artists’ story and believing that God has a place for each to express themselves. Anthony lays out the dilemma this way: “The hardest thing: you create the music, but you have to live it out. It’s always a struggle to live out what we create in the studio.” Even after the honesty is caught on tape, the commitment to live it out keeps this tribe of artists moving forward.

Edward Chilungu–who is currently working on Old Bear’s first-ever instrumental project– describes the God-factor in the sound. “I felt God’s presence in the room (studio). It felt like there was so much worship put up before the Lord. The Holy Spirit was upon the music and us–doing something special. Playing the piano seemed easier. God’s here.” Indeed, the unifying factor in the current and future sound is a desire to authentically express worship through the music created and performed. From our natural instinct, creating an environment like Ed describes means traveling upstream.

The future of the sound of Old Bear is indeed heading somewhere, but where? Anthony sees the coming days of the music like this way: “Its always evolving. Man, we think everything is kind of fresh and original, but it’s not. It’s been done before in some way. The difference for Old Bear artists is the coming-to-life moment.” Look out for more “coming to life moments” captured on tape by Old Bear Records. Something so rare means you have to swim upstream to get it.