When Alban Riley was a boy growing up in Texas, he says he couldn’t decide between being a forest ranger or a musician—as he puts it, between Smokey the Bear and Chuck Berry. In love with the outdoors, Riley was also a budding guitarist, mostly self-taught, with “just enough chords to learn songs.”
As a kid, he would take his guitar to a muddy ditch and pretend he was sitting by a Louisiana swamp, or along the Mississippi river, and imagine himself an entertainer, like one of his idols, Texas rockabilly star Johnny Horton. He never considered putting his passions for music and the outdoors together, until a friend suggested a trip down the Mississippi.
“When I was 19, I spent the summer rafting down the river with a songwriter friend of mine,” Riley said. “It was literally a passage for both of us into writing and singing folk music about environmental issues.” Inspired by protest singers of the era like Pete Seeger, and earlier folk pioneers like Woody Guthrie, he started writing his own songs.
Since then, Riley has performed his tunes to audiences of kids and adults from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
From a song urging folks not to release balloons, to a ditty succinctly titled “Take Your Stuff Back,” Riley packs a direct environmental message into a catchy package.
Hundreds of miles away, and a couple of decades after Alban Riley’s Mississippi river trip, young John Burns faced a similar dilemma. Born in Queens, New York, Burns’ love of the outdoors took him to the University of Vermont and a degree in environmental studies. But almost by accident, he developed a talent that changed his life.
The lanky redhead learned to juggle in high school from the bestseller, “Juggling for the Complete Klutz.”
Burns says he became obsessed with juggling, spending two or three hours a day practicing in college. After graduation, as an instructor with Outward Bound, his fellow campers thought Burns was nuts for carrying around all his juggling equipment— including clubs, balls, and devil sticks— on grueling wilderness expeditions. He taught juggling to anyone who showed the slightest interest. But it never occurred to Burns that juggling was anything but a sideline to his real calling, environmental issues.
“It was funny for me,” Burns said. “I saw them as two different things. I could never combine the two different groups and two different sides of my personality.”