Country Music

How a Donated Guitar Made a Homeless Musician Genuinely Smile for the First Time in Two Years

All it took for John and June to become homeless was a broken hand and a layoff.

Unfortunately for them, they happened simultaneously, leading to the couple being evicted shortly thereafter. They anticipated being only two weeks without a home. It has now been almost 20 months.

John and June initially met in California, and yes, those are their actual names. He was a construction worker and guitarist; she was a data entry specialist and an occasional vocalist. John has been a musician for more than 35 years and without a guitar for his entire time on the streets. You’ve likely passed by them at the intersection of McDowell Road and Seventh Avenue, which has become their regular corner. Maybe you’ve rolled your window down and handed them a water bottle or some spare change before. Now, you can give back in a big way.

On August 5, country artists Drew Cooper and Laura Walsh, along with local clothing company Cloud Covered Streets and Phoenix-based app Bravo Tipping, will come together at Scottsdale’s Rockbar to get the couple back on their feet. The goal, between the show and a GoFundMe campaign, is to raise $7,000 to provide John and June with an apartment lease, clothing, food, and bus passes.

John and June themselves will open the night by playing about a dozen songs: mostly originals and a few covers. 

Robert Thornton, owner of Paper Clouds Apparel and Cloud Covered Streets, is organizing the event. He met the duo while out on a homeless outreach mission. Thornton says he conducts such missions all over the city at least twice a week, providing care packages and letters of hope to Phoenix’s homeless community while taking the time to strike up a conversation with them. It’s the ethos behind Cloud Covered Streets, the offshoot of his Paper Clouds Apparel clothing line, wherein both companies’ proceeds go to children with special needs and the homeless, respectively. When he met John and June two months ago, he was struck by June’s words.

“Hearing her say, ‘I want to work. John and I are two of the hardest-working people you’ll meet but what, am I going to go interview like this? No one is going to hire me looking like this,’” he recounts. “This is a person who really doesn’t want this. They want more than anything in the world to be working. When she told me about John being a musician, I knew what angle to take.”

He posted a picture of John on Facebook, telling his story, asking for donations to buy the man a guitar. Within a couple of days he had raised $300 from patrons around the country and headed down to Bizarre Guitar to purchase a Fender acoustic with a hardshell case. Upon hearing John’s story, the music store threw in a new set of strings and a strap. Drew Cooper, a Tucson country musician and one of Thornton’s best friends, drove up to present John and June with the gift and the announcement that they would open for him at his upcoming Phoenix gig.

“Just to see someone who has been burnt on life have a spark for a second again, that was one of the most incredible things,” Cooper says. “I’ve been lucky enough to play a song and have someone come to tears because of it, but a song reflects on a moment in someone’s life. These two came to tears because maybe they thought, ‘Maybe we’re not all alone like we thought we were.’”

For John and June, that guitar has been a symbol of brighter days ahead. Thornton will be picking the couple and three of their friends up from the intersection that they frequent, taking them to receive haircuts, showers, and new clothing, and then to Rockbar to spend the evening among those looking to support them. His short-term goal of the evening is to allow them a whole day of feeling “like a normal human being,” capped by a night in a hotel after the show. There’s an excited conviction in Thornton’s voice when he describes the upcoming day, a palpable sense of community that also runs through the same explanation he gives to the rare detractor – those that feel that the homeless should fend for themselves.

“I want to take people when I hear them say that and go, ‘Hey man, how would you get a job if you didn’t have an address, a place where you can keep your hygiene up, if you didn’t have transportation to get to work, an alarm clock to set to make sure you get to work on time? How would you get a job?’ It’s this vicious cycle where once you’re on the streets, it’s hard to get off.”

John hopes to land a position as a forklift operator or just “something with advancement,” and June would like to go back to data entry, something that she loves. They’re just looking for consistency, in both their personal and professional lives, and now, a country music show could be the thing that provides that. Music was once John’s passion, but now it’s become his escape, and hopefully a beacon of better days to come.

“Having that guitar, as much as it’s really rocked us being out here, it’s made it that much better,” John says.

June leans in, looking at her partner as they recount being given the guitar, the show, their second lease on life.

“I hadn’t seen him smile like that in almost two years,” she says. “Music was missing in his soul.” 
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Kristian C. Libman