Coloring her own world
Is it any wonder that a child raised by cultured hippie parents would grow up to paint her life with colors, music and words? Way down in the southern part of Arizona, Evelyn Roper grew up with a brother and tended to animals and gardens on a ten-acre back-to-the-land homestead in Benson. She deemed herself most fortunate in that she had four parents who were influential in her pursuit of music and art.
“My mom and stepdad were middle school teachers in Benson and built their own house,” Evelyn says and compares the different lifestyles of her two sets of parents that provided balance in her life and a foundation of creativity.
“I got to do the city life in Tucson with dad and my stepmom and then live in the middle of nowhere with mom and my stepdad,” she recalls. “I loved it, I feel so fortunate because growing up where I did, I was given lots of freedom. We had discipline and chores but once our chores were done we had the rest of the day to create and imagine and play and just be a kid,” she laughs about farm life and adds, “We learned real quick that if you stayed at home after your chores, mom would find more chores.”
So the sibling duo would head out all day. “My brother and I made forts in the riverbed—we’d be down there all day.” Evelyn also spent a lot of time reading in her favorite tree, where she would climb up its branches with a book in hand. “I got into fairy tales from all over the world. I was the kid who would read the cereal box, the newspaper, whatever I could get my hands on. Books are still a treasure to me.”
Although her parents weren’t really musicians, Evelyn was exposed to diverse genres of music. “All of my parents have music going all the time, from classical to Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t get Jimi back then. I didn’t want to listen to my parents’ music and nobody’s parents were listening to that back then,” she chuckles. But at the age of nine, Evelyn had a revelatory awakening. “My mom was cleaning out the shed. She opened up this trunk and there was a little three-quarter size guitar. She picked it up, tuned it and played this little blues run and the first part of Wildwood Flower.”
Evelyn was suddenly smitten in that moment when kids first realize their parents are more than just parents and may have had a previous life before the kids arrived. “I thought she was a rock star! She picked that guitar up and played, and I thought ‘Oh, my God!’”
Her mom imparted enough musical wisdom to Evelyn to inspire her right on down the road to guitar lessons. “I had to take that guitar without a case on the school bus, into the classroom, and once a week I had to walk to guitar lessons during my lunch break,” she recalls, giving a new twist to the old I-had-to-walk-miles-to school litany.
She was taught sight-reading and traditional methods but discovered that playing by ear came easy to her and she could mimic by observation. Somewhere down the line she realized that some country music was the easiest to play. “I discovered Hank Williams’ songs were only two and three easy chords and I could figure them out.”
She was enthralled with the Beatles’ songwriting when she first became aware that the Sgt. Pepper’s album had lyrics on them and the realization suddenly hit her: “I made the connection that songs had words and somebody actually had to write them. Right there, at that point, was the defining moment.”
Since her parents also drove school buses, Evelyn had a makeshift practice room that doubled as a studio. “I would play my guitar in the school bus because it had great acoustics.” When her brother was given one of those large cassette tape recorders, she utilized that as well.
“We recorded the whole Star Wars movie and produced it with our voices. We discovered you could sound like Darth Vader by talking into a milk bottle,” which she says her brother did with excellent results.
Once out of high school in 1985, Evelyn traded the country life for the streets of Tucson and got a job as a preschool teacher. “It was run by a Ph.D. and we had to have lesson plans. I was doing the same thing my mom was doing as a full teacher but I was getting paid minimum wage and changing diapers,” she says. While she was teaching she also attended classes at Pima Community college, where her dad was teaching humanities.
“At one point I was working at the preschool, going to college and at night I worked at a sports complex that had six fields of year-round baseball leagues,” and that’s where she ran into Gunnison’s Ben Roper, who had just started working there. “He had been working construction on the Grand Butte Hotel. They had just finished up so there wasn’t any work in the valley and his sister was living in Tucson,” Evelyn recounts.
In barroom serendipity, fate pushed them into each other’s path on Halloween… so she sent him a beer and after chatting, wrote down her phone number. They got married in Tucson in 1990 and had a bouncing baby boy, Colton, a year later.
Moving to Loveland for work, the small family expanded three years later to include another son, Zach. For the most part, Evelyn’s day revolved around taking care of their boys but she did a bit of waitressing on the night side.
“All the time I was raising the boys, I had been playing and writing at home but never had the confidence to play out,” she confesses and adds that her friends today have a hard time believing any of it.
In a tiny Mexican restaurant lounge, as Evelyn was closing out her waitressing shift, there was a very loud man who was playing guitar rather poorly, and she must have figured that at least she could play better than that.
“I don’t know what possessed me but I went over and said, ‘I play a little, too,’ and I picked up his guitar and just played it. My boss heard me and said, ‘You’ve been holding out on us.’“
That launched Evelyn into playing open mic nights there. “I had validation, confirmation that I could play and that I could actually play along with other people. That kicked off my career,” she says.
Their next move, following a construction job in Cañon City, lasted about a year. “We were trying to get back to Gunnison,” she said of their strategy, which wasn’t working. “It was pretty in Cañon City but miserable—we didn’t live in town and we had one car and two kids. We were broke and miserable and I said, ‘We can be broke and happy in Gunny… Let’s get out of here.’“ So they loaded up the car and moved home.
After a girl’s night out at the Coachlight’s karaoke, Evelyn was encouraged by friends to meet up with local guitarist Chico Dominguez and keyboardist Porter Phelps, the duet called Rawhide. The initial jam session turned out to be an audition and she suddenly found herself planted into her first band. Simultaneously, she signed on to play in a weekly house band as part of a western show at Waunita Hot Springs and it became a steady gig for 14 years.
“When your dad is a Humanities teacher (and your stepmother an art teacher), you go on vacations to museums,” Evelyn says of her childhood tours into art appreciation. “All my life I was exposed to all kinds of art but I never thought that I could do that or even want to,” but seven years ago she picked up a brush and started painting. “A blank piece of paper to me is really exciting,” she says. “There is no doubt my innovation came from my childhood environment.”
Her canvases are filled with the colors of the west…the deep golds and reds of canyons, vibrant purples and greens of mountains and meadows, and the glacial blues and whites of winter solace.
“I want to keep exploring the creative side of music, painting and photography, expressing my gratitude for the beauty I see, hear, feel and live in everyday,” she says.
Evelyn’s world spills into her music and artwork. “It keeps the insanity at bay. The diversity of the terrain, the desert, lakes, forests, timberline, rivers and most of all, the views for miles on top of any high place makes this area so blessed.”
Catch this cowgirl songstress on reverbnation.com by searching for Evelyn Roper/Opal Moon or her band’s website at www.opalmoon.com, and on Facebook. You can see her art and photography on Facebook at Cowgirl Bliss Photography.