Poet Terry Hummer reads prose and plays saxophone. Musician Billy Cioffi sings Hummer’s words and strums his guitar. Backup singers melodically chime in — all to create the soulful ambiance evident in the television episode “The AmeriCamera Project,” where Hummer and Cioffi fuse poetry with rock ‘n’ roll.
“The AmeriCamera Project” is an episode in the Tempe-produced television music series “Songwriters’ Showcase,” which features live performances by Arizona musicians. The episode was nominated for two regional Emmy awards this year — “Best Program or Special” in the arts and entertainment category and “Best Live Production” in the audio editing category.
This is the second year an episode of the two-season show “Songwriters’ Showcase” was nominated by the Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Televison Arts and Sciences, which will name the Emmy winners Oct. 6 at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
“Songwriters’ Showcase” features all types of musicians from established Valley performers to highschool students dreaming of fame, said show producer Mary Fowler. To be considered for the show, the musicians only have to write their own music.
“I think people would be surprised at just how much professional live music is out there,” Fowler said.
The show currently reaches Phoenix and Northern Arizona residents but is planned to air, starting this fall on PBS in the Tucson region, where local performers are already lined up for the show, Fowler said. The show airs on Tempe’s city channel (Channel 11), Eight Arizona PBS (KAET, Channel 8) and 15 other city cable channels in Arizona.
“I look at (an Emmy nomination) as a way to guage our work at Tempe 11 against the work of everyone else in our area,” said show director Greg Wolfe. “We are doing work that is comparable to what you can see in broadcast television in the area.”
The Tempe show has a budget of $5,000 per season, whereas many of the stations nominated for an Emmy — like those affiliated with larger national networks — can spend around $50,000 on a single episode, Wolfe said.
“Songwriters’ Showcase” is most similar to the popular PBS show “Austin City Limits,” but unlike ACL, it incorporates interviews with the performance itself, Wolfe said.
In the case of AmeriCamera, the episode tells the story of Hummer, an English professor at Arizona State University and widely published poet, and Cioffi, an English literature graduate student and director of music at the Tempe Center for the Arts. They began creating original music together when they met at ASU and started converting Hummer’s poems into songs, Cioffi said. The experiment quickly evolved into an album and larger project examining the boundary between poetry and music.
“It’s as if American music is kind of a strange image-creating device that takes pictures of people’s soul, and no other medium can do it; it is the only medium that can get this particular angle,” Hummer said in the television episode.
The AmeriCamera project encompasses all the elements of music, including the literary, Cioffi said. One of the qualities that sets American music apart from the rest of the world is its use of literary allusions, a practice popularized by Bob Dylan, Cioffi said. “I believe the American song is a unique form of literature,” he said.
The duo has most recently toured the East Coast with the project, has a second album in the works and hopes to work with more colleges as educational entertainment, he said.
“We feel like we’re on the edge of something,” he said. “Just to be nominated is sort of a validation of what we are trying to do.”
The third season of “Songwriters’ Showcase” will begin taping in November. The show currently airs at 10:30 p.m. every Saturday on Eight, Arizona PBS. It can also be viewed at any time on the Tempe 11 YouTube channel, via http://evtnow.com/40n.
Michelle is a Senior studying print and multimedia journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or email@example.com