Wading thigh-deep in the reedy pools of North Utah's Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Conner Youngblood gazes across the water as if it's just him and the grebes. In reality, there's a videographer standing behind the Tennessee-based musician, filming the music video for Youngblood's track, “Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge,” a tribute to the unique beauty of this ecological gem on the edge of the Great Salt Lake.
Youngblood's ethereal composition, which combines minimalist lyrics—“Like a flood, you come and go”—with percussion, piano, and American Coot calls, was produced with the environmental-education nonprofit Sustain, which pulls music fans into the world of conservation. (The collaboration with Youngblood is the fourth in the organizaton's Songscape series on treasured public lands.)
By layering ambient natural sounds with the song's instrumentation, Youngblood evokes the mosaic that is Bear River, an estuarine haven that hosts more than 200 kinds of birds. That includes more than 70 nesting species such as White-faced Ibises and Western Grebes. “It's near and dear to our hearts,” says Kandy Richards, the treasurer of Great Salt Lake Audubon. The chapter helped get the music video off the ground—and in the water—with a grant of $1,000. “We thought it was a really intriguing idea—a way to reach a new generation of individuals who would be interested in conservation and birds and the environment,” Richards says. “This was kind of our biggest soundscape yet, and has had the biggest response,” adds Betsy Mortensen, Sustain's co-founder.
As it turns out, Younglood is the ideal ambassador for this mission. His mom has been as Audubon member for close to five years, and he's always relied on the outdoors to decompress. It's the best place for him to think clearly about his music, he says. But he also wanted “Bear River” to reflect what the refuge means for those who live and work in the area. “This time, I felt like I was writing for someone else,” Youngblood says. “It’s for those who call [Utah] home.”
Now he counts Bear River as one of his inspirations. Months after the immersive visit to the refuge, Youngblood, who recently wrapped up a tour with the German band Milky Chance, says his mind still wanders back. It was one of the more beautiful landscapes he's been to, and the experience has made him constantly attuned to birds wherever he is. “What I wouldn't have paid attention to before, I do now,” he says. “I see every single one.”
h/t to our own inspiration for this story, Michael Graff and Trevor Paulhus's profile on Youngblood in Southwest magazine
This story originally ran in the Summer 2018 issue of Audubon as “A Refuge Becomes Music.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.