A half hour before they took the stage at Vegetable Buddies, the members of Stretta, a Nashville based band, mingled with friends and family and warmed up their fingers, wrists and vocal chords.
Before they got up to play their cover set of James Brown, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5 and other famous pop artists, the five-member band made its way from the bar of familiar faces to the dressing room to reminisce about where they came from, how they came together and how far they have come.
JR Ottow and Jon Myers, the two lead vocalists, are originally from South Bend. Jon was born in Mishawaka, raised in Bremen and graduated from Penn High School. JR grew up in South Bend and graduated from Clay High School in 1997. Although there’s about a 10-year age difference between the two front band members, their upbringings and introductions to music were similar, and their paths crossed more than once to bring them full circle back to the same stage and rhythm.
“There are no musicians in my family,” Jon says. “I was just a kid and I heard music and I liked it and was drawn to it. I wanted to figure it out, so I just did it, and I liked singing.”
Jon played around South Bend as a solo act until he moved to California. Later, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he met Stretta drummer Ray Balz and decided to start a band in 2002.
“I never knew Jon when I lived here,” JR said. “When I was of age to go out, (Jon) was already gone.”
Before joining Stretta, JR also carved her own path into music in South Bend. She sang in high school, joined a barbershop chorus, sang karaoke and eventually began singing with bands in the South Bend area. JR moved to Nashville of her own accord and found Stretta amidst her search for a new band to sing with.
“I auditioned for the band years ago and didn’t get in, but it just wasn’t my time yet,” JR said.
There may not have been a place for JR when she first auditioned, but as time went on and she found herself in the same southern city as the fellow Indiana native, her persistence paid off. The band also forgot about her after her first audition.
“I kept it quiet as to how I initially met them,” JR said. “I think I actually did tell (them), ‘You do remember who I am, right?’”
Her first audition submission fell off the band’s radar, but JR subbed in for a couple of gigs while another lead vocalist prepared to part ways with the band. It was Glen Kuykendall, the lead guitarist, who sold his fellow bandmates on JR.
“When she came and sat in that night I was telling these guys, ‘Hey wait a minute, I think you ought to seriously consider her,’” Glen said.
The bumpy introduction did little to hamper JR’s integration into the group in 2011, especially because the South Bend roots gave Jon and JR an extra connection. Their hometown connection did not bring the band itself back to South Bend often, however, though Jon and JR come back to see family every year. March 8 was something of a homecoming gig for the lead vocalists, one marked by simultaneous observations of familiarity and change.
“As much as it’s the same, it’s different. It all looks exactly the same and it’s all very familiar, but then I see new things in between stuff,” Jon said.
“Kudos to South Bend,” JR said. “Being an outsider now, it does feel foreign even though this is where we grew up. But South Bend is kind of cool now.”