PHARR -- It seems to be quite a common occurrence with Winter Texans. First they retire from their long time position, then they find themselves in a whole new line of work. Judging from the WT’s down here, that could be anything - from volunteering in orphanages, becoming entrepreneurs to living out their dreams.
For Chris Schurman, it certainly was the latter. As a young girl she would pick at her family’s old upright piano in the back parlor. Her sister’s took lessons but Chris began to put tunes together herself.
“I came home from Sunday School one time and I picked out Jesus Loves Me with one finger,” she said. “I don’t read music at all. It’s all self-taught. Eventually I advanced to where I am now.”
“Now” is the award winning performer she has become playing the piano, organ, accordion, Dobra, omnichord and harmonica. First, though, she grew up, got married, had four children, worked at Maytag for 30 years and retired.
“Before retiring my life was rather busy and boring,” she said, chuckling.
Over those years her music was a sideline hobby to everything else in her life. Free at last from restrictions of work after retiring, she began to follow the signals she was given.
First a friend in charge of a senior center invited her to perform.
“She asked me to do a program,” she said. “I thought, ‘Ok, I can get a dozen songs together and do a program. That was really the start of my going out on my own.”
Coming to Texas 19 years ago, Chris began attending the jam sessions and playing at different parks.
“Some friends of mine came here to visit some friends and I went along with them to a jam session at Sleepy Valley,” she said. “I got up to sing there which began my career down in the Valley. The next year I came down for three months and have been coming ever since.”
One day she heard a man yodeling and decided to add that to her repertoire.
“I tried so hard to learn how to do that which I eventually did,” she said with a proud grin on her face. The test came when she was at an Avoka Music Festival in Avoka, Iowa.
“I was at a restaurant in Avoka where they invited all the musicians coming to the music fest to sign up and sing for their dinner giving a half-hour show. Paul Belanger, long-standing yodeler, happened to be singing when I stopped by,” Chris said, deep into the memory. “When I talked to him telling him how I was trying to yodel he told me to go get my accordion and sing. I did Chime Bells (a famous yodeling song) and did surprising well.”
After that she got several gigs and Paul even asked her to perform with him. He was the one who nudged her into recording her first CD. Now there’s four on the market.
“Those recordings weren’t easy. A three-minute song can take one hour to do. I did my own harmony,” said Chris, with a gratifying smile.
By the mid ‘90s Chris was entering contests and placing high on the winning scale. In 1995 she placed second in the Misc. Musicians Contest playing the piano at the Elkhorn Valley Musical Festival in Fremont, Nebraska. Then there were 1st place winnings as a female instrumentalist, yodeler and numerous other awards - 32 in all.
2005 found her receiving the highlight of her life when she was inducted into the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame. Again highly honored she was inducted into the Nebraska Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
Humbly, she credits people who have lead her and guided her over the years in her career. Bob Everhart, another acclaimed yodeler, has been a big influence in her life.
“When I first started coming to music festivals, I offered to help and was able to run a bunch of stages for him at the festivals. Doing that I met a lot of the entertainers - some of them pretty big names.”
These days Chris will still be found playing gigs and jams in the Valley and back home in Hastings, Nebraska or wherever the call comes from. She even brought notoriety to the Valley in Hastings when she won the top recipe in the Cakes, Pies and Other Desserts category with her Texas Grapefruit Pie.
“I never really cared much for them before coming to Texas because they’re never quite as good as when you take them right off the tree,” she said.
No doubt - if she enters she will win - whether it be playing the instruments she loves or singing the songs which are dear to her. Just keep looking around. That slim lady with the big voice will leave a lasting impression.