On a gorgeous spring Saturday night in Plano, Meryl Evans swayed to the sounds of Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Texas Music Revolution in Oak Point Park Plano. She had only recently become familiar with the stars of the festival such as Texas legend Hubbard and honky tonk queen Margo Price, yet she found herself enjoying the performances and wanting to know more.
For the next 48 hours, Evans, a 48-year-old digital marketer, researched the music from her weekend discoveries. She couldn't find the set lists from Saturday night, and after reading GuideLive's review of the show, she emailed me.
"I'm deaf and don't catch some songs unless I already know them," her email read. She wanted to know the names of the songs Hubbard and Price had performed so she could find them online and listen to them while following along with the lyrics. But not "Snake Farm," one of Hubbard's signature songs — Evans already knew that one by heart, thanks to its sublime groove and funny lyrics.
Maybe you're thinking what I was thinking: How much of the music can she hear? What does it sound like? Am I allowed to ask?
Over the course of more emails, Evans shared fascinating details. That March 2018 concert in Plano was only the second concert she'd ever been to. This mother of three's first real concert was a few weeks earlier in February, with Texas country songwriters Josh Abbott and William Clark Green at the House of Blues in Dallas.
Though she grew up adoring classic musicals like Oklahoma!, Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls — and attended theatrical performances at Casa Mañana Theater in Fort Worth as a kid — concerts were different.
"I never got invited because a lot of people didn't understand how I hear music and thought I'd be bored," says Evans, who was born deaf to hearing parents.
Consider 2018 the beginning of Evans' love of live music.
Is it necessary to hear to enjoy a concert?
Lots of deaf people go to concerts, says Myra Martin, deaf consumer and interpreting manager at Hired Hands Inc., a Dallas-based sign language interpreting agency. Just a few weeks ago, at Pink's concert at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter signed to a small group of deaf fans near the front.
Martin explains that many deaf people enjoy the "visual experience accompanied by the vibration and what they feel" during a concert. "They are also affected by the people around them: their emotions, their responses and the overall vibe of the concert," she says.
And, of course: Being "deaf" implies levels of hearing loss, but how much a person can or can't hear differs, Martin points out.
An interpreter like the one at the recent Pink concert wouldn't helpful to Evans, however. After being diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss at 8 months old, Evans was outfitted with hearing aids a few months later. When she was a toddler, her parents enrolled her in a program at TCU geared to help deaf children develop oral skills as opposed to learn sign language.
"I learned I was better off not becoming fluent in ASL," she says. (And in fact, she earned a C in ASL in college.) Most people she knows do not know ASL — and many of her friends and family are not deaf.
"I didn't want to start relying on ASL so much that I neglected to keep up my lip-reading and speech skills," she says.
"I'm neither part of the deaf culture nor the hearing world. So it can be a struggle socially," she says.
Evans is engaging and enlightening. Speaking with her and her husband, Paul Evans, at the William Clark Green concert at Lava Cantina in The Colony, her bubbly personality and constant smile ruled the conversation.
Meryl's musical evolution
Learning catchy, repetitive numbers from musicals in Evans' earliest years made getting into rock music a natural progression, thanks in large part to MTV. Music videos — even those without captions — helped her become attuned to what many of her hearing friends were enjoying when she was attending Southwest High School in Fort Worth.
As she began dating Paul while attending American University in Washington, D.C., Meryl continued to find new ways to connect with music. The radio still wasn't much of an option, and neither were cassette tapes, though the ones that came with printed lyrics certainly made music more accessible.
In a highly romantic move, Paul, who is not deaf, made customized mixtapes for Meryl. But instead of actual songs dubbed onto a blank cassette, he would write out lyrics to selected tunes.
"It was heartwarming," she says. "Most of the time the lyrics came in letters he sent me while he lived in D.C. and I was in Fort Worth. He's always found ways to accommodate me."
Prominent lovey-dovey hits of the day on her mixtape included Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." Other memorable love songs included Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You," Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" and Breathe's "Hands to Heaven."
When she turned 33, Evans received a cochlear implant, taking the place of the hearing aids she had used her entire life. Immediately, she said her capacity to enjoy music increased, as did her quality of life.
"Some say I lip read and speak better since getting the implant," she says. "There are advantages of having the cochlear implant, as there's no more feedback like I had with the hearing aids. They'd squeal in the quietest of settings, which was embarrassing."
Her concert schedule is mainly country-leaning these days, which is as much of a shock to her as anyone else. She had long held the popular misconception that country music was all "I lost my girl, she took my dog and my house," she jokes. But after a friend introduced her to artists such as Green and Abbott, as well as the television show Nashville, her opinion changed. These days, Evans appreciates the relatable, sincere and often humorous lyrics that can be found in the country music canon.
In order for her to get the most out of a concert, however, she still needs to plan ahead more than the average concert attendee. Using Amazon Prime's streaming music service, Meryl studies lyrics. When an artist doesn't have lyrics readily available online, as was the case with Ross Cooper, the country artist who opened the Lava Cantina concert, she might email them to request them. (She did so with Cooper, who happily helped.)
Today, Evans finds herself listening to fewer musicals and leaning more toward newer music, like the songs heard on American Idol and The Voice. Her youngest son, 15-year-old Zachary, has turned her on to Imagine Dragons.
"I was so into Whitney Houston in the '80s," she says. "Her songs were the only ones I could recognize on the radio. But Train is one of my new faves. I'd love to go to one of their concerts."
The thrill of inclusion
Now a middle-aged mom, Evans is falling in love with concerts in the way some did back in high school.
It's better that she's experiencing concerts now, anyhow, she says. She thinks that as an impatient teen she would've "quickly gotten bored" had she gone to a show where she didn't know many of the songs.
Evans now knows what she likes and dislikes, even if she doesn't necessarily understand why.
"There are things about music I'll never grasp," she says. "Like when people say something's 'pitchy' or what it means to have tone, rasp, body, range or versatility. There are people who don't sound good to me, and people that sound amazing, but most fall in between."
She gets a thrill from recognizing a song as it's being played on stage — which isn't all that different from the thrill the hearing community gets from a favorite song at a show. But for Evans, it's not about a long-held memory. It's a jolt of inclusion.
For the first time, Evans is experiencing a concert like everyone else in the room. They're hearing the same thing, just through different ears.
Correction, 9:15 a.m. May 29, 2018: An earlier version of this story stated that Meryl Evans is 52 years old when she is in fact 48. We regret the error and think she looks fabulous for her age.