So many stories and songs to share

9:57:34 AM CDT - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

By Shannon Littlejohn

Bryan Masters has a lot of stories to share and a lot of ways to communicate them.

As director of interactive communications for WSU, he broadcasts university news on the Web. As a designer, he produces direct yet visually compelling messages. As a photojournalist, he catches whole lives in fleeting moments.

As a songwriter, he layers lyrics into the tunes turning in his head or tunes into lyrics. He's never really sure which comes first.

"My best songs? I don't remember writing them," says Masters. He counts about 45 of "probably about 300" of the songs he's written as "keepers."

Those keepers are vessels for his own story, a story he sings to audiences in Wichita, across the state and around campfires at his favorite annual event, the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan.

Bryan Masters

Bryan Masters

During summer, he swaps paying gigs for street music. Midnight on a Saturday will find him playing along the brick avenues of Old Town, just a guy and a guitar and songs of life of personal revelation and relationship politics in a style that Masters describes as a melding of rock, country and folk.

Still, to most audiences, "anyone standing in front of a room with a guitar looks like a folk singer," he says.

Then, on the first Wednesday of every month, he shares his songs and encourages other songwriters at the Songwriter Circle at the Artichoke Sandwich Bar, a Wichita eating and drinking establishment known for its support of acoustic music and great sandwiches.

"There are no microphones, no PA," says Masters, who has hosted the Songwriter Circle for three years. "We just sit in a big circle in the middle of the room and sing."

Although he admits that performers have occasionally outnumbered listeners, Masters says the Songwriter Circle has become a popular ongoing event.

"Once we had 23 writers and 110 observers. In the 'Choke. On a Wednesday. Go figure," he says.

Joe Stumpe started dropping by the Songwriter Circle after arriving in town to work as a food writer for The Wichita Eagle. Stumpe performs his own material at various venues around the city.

"Bryan's the anchor of the songwriting circle," says Stumpe. "Really, he's a great songwriter. My girlfriend, Carrie, loves his CD; she plays it nonstop."

Masters has recorded two CDs, the first an early solo effort titled "So Low." The most recent CD, "Thundar the Boy Giant," has gained the most attention from critics and buyers like Stumpe's girlfriend. It's Masters' original tunes but with backup by friends who are counted among the best acoustic musicians in Wichita.

After Uche Onwugbufor met Masters at a mutual friend's birthday party/music jam, he started getting e-mails inviting him to the Songwriter Circle. Onwugbufor, who goes by "Uche" for performances, had only been playing music for about five years, but had written some songs. He finally ventured into the Artichoke one Wednesday evening.

"I'd only played for a few people, and that was it," says Uche of his foray into the circle. "Bryan kept looking at me like, 'Are you gonna play?' I said, 'But I didn't bring a guitar.' Bryan said, 'I'll loan you one.'

"It's the greatest thing because I have to write a song every couple of months," Uche says. "He encourages everybody."

"It's been interesting," says Masters. "Some folks have many songs to share, and some have only one or maybe a couple. It lends some credence to my theory that everybody has at least one good song in them, waiting to get out."

The Songwriter Circle can be an intimidating environment for people who aren't accustomed to performing, he says, and the crowd noise can be oppressive. Some folks try it once and never come back, but still more are compelled to come back and tackle it again.

"I've watched that circle from the beginning, and I've seen some very good writers emerge, like little singin' butterflies from their cocoons," he says.

Masters didn't start his own songwriting career until the early '80s during a period of unemployment.

"Problem was, I didn't play a musical instrument and I could only write so many a cappella songs before I realized I needed to buy a guitar and learn how to play it," he says. "I probably would have chosen piano over guitar, but I lived in an upstairs apartment and was much too lazy to haul a piano up the stairs."

Learning a musical instrument topped off a lifetime self-professed obsession with music that began in his hometown of Coffeyville, where an impressionable 8-year-old saw Jerry Lee Lewis perform live at a local rodeo.

"That show gave me a glimpse of the fact that music can really make people feel something unexplainable and special. My response was to read everything, anything about music. Rock, pop, blues, country. I remember lying awake way into the night with a transistor radio under my pillow, dialed in to KAAY in Little Rock. They played tons of cool music that I couldn't hear anywhere else."

Masters grew up to a varied career in communications, starting as a paper carrier for The Coffeyville Journal and working into circulation, platemaking, paste-up and photojournalism through high school. He worked for The Arkansas Times while living in Eureka Springs, came to Wichita State for a bachelor's in journalism and worked on the Sunflower; he later served as photo editor for the Wichitan magazine and KS magazine.

After completing master's coursework at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he fell into page design and worked for The Wichita Eagle for nine years. He then worked as director of Web development for a local Internet service provider.

Masters has been at WSU for two years making the university's Web site as helpful and interactive as possible. In Web design, as in songwriting or any other form of communication, his goal is to make information obvious.

With music, Masters hopes to make his message not only clear but heartfelt, a goal he's worked toward since writing his first song more than 20 years ago. Meanwhile, he has performed in bands from Shoobachs to Stick Men, Howdy and Newspaper Blanket, and currently plays either solo or as a duo with local guitar and mandolin wizard Dennis Hardin.

Regardless of the playing format, the song form is what he loves best.

"A song interests me when it makes me feel something, and when the melody and music are well-matched, emotionally, to the lyrical content," says Masters. "Everyone knows where they're from and that's the part of those listeners' hearts that I'm aiming for."

If you have a song in your heart, or just want to enjoy original local music, the next Songwriter Circle is 7 p.m.-9 p.m. (the crowd usually lingers much later) Wednesday, June 2. For more information, contact Bryan Masters at www.bryanmasters.com, where you can also buy his CDs and check out photos from past gigs.

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