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Schoolhouse rocks again

It's probably a very small percentage of us who have any cherished memories of high school English class. Face it, listening to some ancient specimen drone on about dangling participles or moldy poets is no one's idea of big laughs.

Five years ago, Reynolds High School teacher Chris Gragg hit a wall with his senior English class. Trying to inspire his students to appreciate the power of words and language was getting nowhere.

The solution to his problem came after a short walk over to his record collection.

'It was music and music lyrics that had been my therapy and, at times, kept me from feeling completely alone,' Gragg recalls. 'I began to bring music and lyrics into the classroom, and my students discussed and examined them as we had previously analyzed more traditional poetry.'

What began as tentative common ground for the discussion of words and imagery soon bloomed into something much larger: a full-scale musical project called Deep Roots.

Gragg encouraged his students to write their own song lyrics. And what good are lyrics without music?

'Why not find musicians to bring these kids' voices to life?' Gragg wondered. 'Ten weeks and $3,000 on my personal credit card later, we celebrated, at a small CD release party, the release of 'Deep Roots,' an eclectic 12-song CD.'

Gragg notes with pride that the first CD broke even financially and that Deep Roots has turned an increased profit each following year, resulting in a self-sustaining program.

The Deep Roots project, now in its fifth year, has attracted about 250 local musicians who have stepped in to compose tunes for the fledgling wordsmiths. The latest edition, 'Deep Roots V,' holds true to Gragg's eclectic vision, with music reaching from folk to funk to some fairly raging rock.

Among the highlights is the sentimental country crackle of 'Helen,' performed and composed by the Countrypolitans with lyrics by student Hayley Eiden; the defiant tango 'Jefecito' from Spigot and Oliver Perez; and the twitchy techno-pop of 'Thought You Should Know' by Sugarbang and Joe Quijada.

The overall quality of both the music and the lyrics is excellent, with the student lyricists often finding the words to express heartache, frustration and triumph in dramatic fashion.

'Many students who have graduated come back the next year to hear the new CD,' Gragg says. 'Lots of them stay in contact, and at least a dozen have told me that they write all the time now. One former student sent me poems he wrote between military maneuvers in Afghanistan!'

Local musicians have been enthusiastic in their support of Deep Roots, as has recording engineer Dave Fleschner, who has recorded the majority of the tracks since the project's inception. Singer-songwriter Jane Wright has been a part of four Deep Roots albums and welcomes the chance to interact with high school writers.

'I'm from Alabama,' Wright says. 'We never had anything like Deep Roots. I'm happy to do something for high school students that was never done for me.'

Yet there's more to this endeavor than scribbling a few catchy phrases. The students help out from the beginning to the end of this process, making the whole enterprise like an internship in the music business.

'Kids help design the covers, make posters and fliers, organize the concert, create banners, write press releases, sing backup, help maintain the Web site, handle sales and display their art, photography and poetry at the release,' Gragg says. 'It's really about proving that they can do something Ñ follow through on a project from inspiration to completion. They don't have to limit themselves to little assignments and accomplishments.'

Says Wright: 'I think for most of the kids, it's a chance to be a part of something with meaning Ñ something with more value than just a grade on a paper.'