Nat Colten and Jeri Katherine Howell have traveled the world, but to them, there’s no place better than home. In June, they released an album about their beloved hometown — Frankfort.
Nat and Jeri had the love of travel instilled in them at a young age while attending school at Good Shepherd Catholic School where Nat’s mother, Marianna Colten, was a Spanish teacher.
“She was the person in my life that got me into Spanish and traveling and culture,” Jeri said. “She would bring in music and dance in our Spanish classes, and she encouraged both of us to learn songs in Spanish and play different styles of music.
“She created opportunities for us to play in school and at community functions. We played at the Grand Theatre and we played at the Kentucky United Nations Assembly.”
Marianna served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador.
Another travel influence of Nat and Jeri’s was Marty Schmidt, the former music teacher at Good Shepherd.
“We learned so much about folk music from cultures around the world,” Jeri said.
“She also instilled in her students a joy of playing and singing,” Nat said. “Her classroom was an auditory playground. She had all kinds of wind and percussion instruments.”
Jeri said Marty also travels. “Her and Mariana stood out to me as strong women who traveled the world. I’m blessed to have them as teachers and still present in my life.”
While still in elementary school, Jeri and Nat attended the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Whitesburg and honed in on their guitar, banjo, singing and songwriting skills.
“(Through the school) I’ve developed relationships with musicians and mentors,” Nat said. “And it’s influenced a lot of our musical style. My style of banjo playing is considered old time clawhammer or drop thumb.”
Jeri said, “My guitar is an old time rhythm guitar. I bring in different elements to challenge myself.”
They said they consider themselves folk Americana singer songwriters.
For more than 15 years, the two have been performing together and separate in various bands around Frankfort. Jeri has played with Stirfry Musette, Better Together and the MetaFours. Jeri also previously released two solo albums — “Branch to Branch” in 2008 and “Collage” in 2013.
For the past five years, they mostly have been playing together as a duo.
In 2015, the duo took their music abroad to Ecuador. “We took our instruments and shared our culture and music with the kids mostly,” Nat said.
They also visited the family that Nat’s mother lived with when she was serving in the Peace Corps. His mother started a school there.
“That’s what influenced her work as a teacher,” Nat said. “She brought those experiences to her classroom and imparted that passion into the two of us.”
In 2017, Jeri received a Fulbright Program fellowship to teach English in Costa Rica. Jeri’s main role was to teach English in high schools, but her and Nat also shared with the schools, and other community groups, Kentucky folk music and dance.
“I quit my job in anticipation of her receiving the fellowship so I could move there with her,” Nat said.
While Jeri was teaching, Nat traveled the country with a man and his wife who played music typical to the region. He also spent some time in Nicaragua practicing the language, visiting farms and helping Peace Corps volunteers.
“What I think about most from that trip is how much it made me reflect on my own culture and my own country,” Nat said, “both as it relates to itself and how it relates to other countries. There are so many similarities between rural areas in Costa Rica and our country.”
Jeri said she didn’t write the application for the fellowship to perform music, but when she got there, it became clear to her that music, dance and storytelling was a quick way to connect with people on a vulnerable level.
“It breaks down barriers,” she said. “Everyone enjoys music. It makes you trust one another. Performing our music from a place that we loved, helped other people share their music from a place they loved. It felt comfortable.”
Nat said when he and Jeri sit down to write music, they write about personal things. “We use it as a form of therapy. During the performing process, you’re so vulnerable to your audience, and that’s the same in another country. It broke down so many barriers.”
After spending 10 months in Costa Rica, the duo returned home to figure out their next course of action. After attending a conference for Fulbright alumni, she was able to apply for start-up funding for a program she learned about at the conference involving the use of beat making and hip hop while working with youth in development and a healing context. She used the funding to start HeartBeats at The Kings Center. Since starting the program, the children at The Kings Center have written several beats and recorded a song and a music video.
Nat said he and Jeri also did a song writing program with HandsHealingHearts, which is now called Yes Arts. They have also worked with women from drug court.
Jeri is currently the program director at Josephine Sculpture Park and a teaching artist with two teaching artists directories — Kentucky Arts Council and Berea College. She is also in grad school pursuing a master’s of science in community and leadership development at the University of Kentucky and she is a research assistant.
Nat works for Kentucky State University at the research farm. He provides support for faculty research and general farm maintenance and the event center. He is also a grad student with his research focused on the impacts of crop livestock integration on water quality and soil nutrient management.
In January and February of 2020, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeri traveled Europe performing with alum from the Kentucky Music Ensemble and her professor from Centre College, Nathan Link.
She returned home just as the pandemic hit, and like the rest of the world, she and Nat were stopped dead in their tracks. With the increase of extra time on their hands, they decided to go to work creating the album they had spent the previous five years writing music for.
“Even though COVID slowed down the collaboration process, it created an opportunity to make something big,” Jeri said.
The duo went to work completing the writing of 10 original songs that make up their debut album “Holding On,” which was released in June. When it came time to record, they had to get creative.
Nat and Jeri recorded most of the album in their living room, with assistance from friend Jordan Ellis. Other instruments had to be recorded remotely and dubbed in, like the bass by Nathan Link and drums by Jordan, who also recorded and mixed the album. Ellie Miller played the fiddle and viola and Braden Urevick also played guitar.
The title track “Holding On,” boasts a lot of meaning for Nat. “The song encapsulates a time of great transition for me,” Nat said. “I was changing jobs and shifting into a new profession. I had also experienced physical trauma from a car accident. I made a very intentional decision to be more true to myself and open myself up to the world and opportunities and make myself more vulnerable.
“That’s reflected in my music and increased my capacity in my music and especially my song writing because I’m more comfortable with myself.”
The song that means the most to Jeri is “Feel So.”
“I wrote that right after we moved back home from Costa Rica,” Jeri said. “While living there, I applied for all these jobs and had several interviews and had no offers. When we got home, it was the first time in my life I didn’t have a plan. That broke me down in new ways where I had to snap myself out of it and ask myself what I really wanted and what brings me joy and what is my place in this world.
“I was meditating a lot and trying to figure out where the world and my community’s needs intersected with my skills and talents. I talked with mentors and I started community arts projects. Things started happening that gave me meaning. ‘Feel So’ made me encourage myself and others around me to pursue what makes them feel good.
“When we perform it live, we ask people to perform it with us. Jordan’s drumming makes that song really fun. Now, when I listen to it, I just really want to dance. Both ‘Feel So’ and ‘Holding On’ are songs about refresh, renewal and rebirth.”
Jeri said the album as a whole “is very much place based and is a reflection of interconnections of community.”
“For the majority of the songs, the community is Frankfort,” she said. “Some songs are about travel and our path of coming home to Frankfort. It’s a homecoming album. We traveled a lot, but always came back home.”
Even as they traveled, Nat said they always found themselves looking for attributes in other places that they valued in Frankfort.
Jeri said some songs are focused on people and others are focused on nature.
“Even those songs still have a connection to human social dynamics,” Nat said. “They’re about our role as humans in a natural landscape.”
The album is available anywhere music is streamed. A physical copy can be purchased at Poor Richard’s Books, 233 W. Broadway St., or at www.jerikatherinehowell.com.