For the past three years, Mike Dianna and his Bearded Face Productions have organized the Mustang Rock and Roast in Corolla.
Held the third weekend in October, the event is filled with rock music, oysters and roast … barbecue, along with an opening performance by the kids from the Mustang Outreach Program, a nonprofit organization established in 2012 with the mission “to encourage and cultivate children’s creativity and individualism through music.”
But not this year. Organizers announced on Oct. 12 plans to cancel the Oct. 17-18 event because of state restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We held out on making this announcement as long as we could, but unfortunately things have not improved enough for us to comfortably move forward with Mustang Rock & Roast 3,” said Dianna in a statement. “The safety and well-being of our fans, musicians and staff is our top priority. We are looking forward to hosting our Mustang events in 2021 with hopes of gathering people together again, but right now we ask everyone to show some love to the Mustang Outreach Program.”
In May, the similarly conceived Spring Jam that offered music without the oysters and barbecue, which the kids opened for as well, was canceled due to COVID-19.
More than 80% of the income needed to keep the program running comes from the two festivals and community concerts. With these events being canceled this year, the organization lost the bulk of its funding, organizers said.
“The fans and musicians are not the only ones who have suffered from the cancellation of both Mustang 2020 events,” said Dianna. “If you were planning to attend Mustang Spring Jam or Mustang Rock & Roast this year, we would deeply appreciate you donating your ticket cost or a portion of your ticket cost to the program. Your generous donations will save this special program and allow us to help the kids keep making music.”
Samantha Pugh plays lead guitar and sings in her Mustang Outreach Cinco Mustangos band. She misses the shows and performing.
“A few weeks ago, we would have had the Rock and Roast, and that was definitely one of my favorite events of the year,” she said. “My all-time favorite event of the year was the Spring Jam, which I was so sad we missed that last spring. That was, it’s so much fun going to and then playing and then being able to stay back and listen to the bands that are real bands that are have established themselves.”
Started in 2012 by the nonprofit’s music directors Ruth Wyand and Mike Dianna, the Mustang Outreach program works with kids to hone their onstage musical performance skills.
Sam Wills was one of the first musicians to become a part of the program, playing lead guitar with a group of friends that eventually became the Side Project. He’s in his senior year at Clemson University now, majoring in mechanical engineering. Looking back on his time with Mustang Outreach he sees it as invaluable to helping him get to where he is today.
“It was definitely a confidence booster in general to see if I’m kind of on the path to go and do this and I can be working alongside everybody … getting in and actually doing,” he said.
Wills always showed a flair for the music he was playing, but for the first two years when he was performing, his expression never changed and he never moved.
“I was terrified. I was trying to ignore the fact that there were people there watching,” he said.
Ruth Wyand has had a career in professional music for 40 years. Pre-COVID-19 — and probably after — she performed in northeastern North Carolina as Ruth Wyand and the Tribe of One.
Even before she began the Mustang Outreach Program, she was giving music lessons and many of the first kids in the program were her students.
“Some of those kids I had since they were 8 years old, now they’re seniors in college,” she said.
Suddenly everything came to a halt.
“It was disappointing because I saw the progress after working with them, the brand new kids from last September to March,” Wyand said. “Seeing their progress, and they’re finally getting it, they’re finally clicking together as a little band and then all of a sudden it’s like you pull the plug.”
Until spring of 2019, Mustang Outreach had struggled to find a permanent home. The instruction continued, the bands kept playing, but the rehearsal spaces had limitations.
Then local store Jubilee Music outgrew its space in Kill Devil Hills. An area contractor donated labor to build soundproof rooms and a handicap accessible restroom, giving the program a permanent home with options for instruction that it had never had before.
“It was really, really set to grow leaps and bounds over this next year. We had a lot of plans in the tank,” Dianna said. “We had that space built out and had a half a year under our belt. We kind of started thinking, ‘We could do this, we can do that,’ and there was a lot of excitement about what we were gonna be able to do this year. But it (COVID-19) killed all that.”
The effect has been devastating.
“I felt like everything I worked for with Mustang in the past few years has just been pulled out from under me,” Wyand said.
Dianna, whose son is in the program, has seen the effect on the kids as well.
“I know they miss having things to do. They miss social engagement. That’s a big thing. They don’t really want to admit it but they do miss the social engagement.”
The devastating impact has been more than psychological. The program is facing significant financial headwinds.
“The music program has almost gone broke because a big portion of our income was from tuition from the kids, and from Mike Diana’s Festivals. (We have had) neither has for six months,” Wyand said.
Wyand had been able to handle the overhead at the their Kill Devil Hills location through an innovative use of the space. Realizing that the cubicles that had been set up as lesson and rehearsal rooms could have another use, she got a grant from the Outer Banks Community Foundation to convert the space into a tutoring center.
“I took everything out and put it into private tutoring rooms. And also put up the drum baffles as Plexiglas baffles for study pods to help kids with online learning,” she said.
The kids are going back to school, though, so the tutoring will slow down, but Wyand is making plans to bring her Mustang Outreach kids back.
“As of Nov. 9, we’ll be starting to do the bands again. Just one band,” she said. “(We) set up the room where everybody’s going be in their own (Plexiglas) station. I’ve had 23 families whose kids that want to come back. We’ve made it possible for them to come back in a safe way.”
For the kids who will be coming back, there’s a feeling of friendship and camaraderie that they’re looking forward to renewing.
Kira Walters has been playing keyboards with Pugh since they first entered the program, and as the music becomes more challenging, the time together with bandmates has become more fun.
“I really like the environment when we’re practicing together,” she said. “It’s really more fun now than it used to be, just because we all feel more comfortable together.”
And after a few years of playing together, the musical challenges have grown as well.
“We started to take on the challenge of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns and Roses and that has been definitely a project,” Pugh said.