Songwriter Immortalizes Lost Snowboarders

Songwriter Immortalizes Lost Snowboarders

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SUNDANCE, Utah (AP) -- Nashville songwriter Danny Flowers' ode to three Utah snowboarders swept away by an avalanche in December has struck a chord with the victims' families and rescue workers.

Flowers -- who penned "Tulsa Time," "Before Believing" and other classics for the likes of Don Williams, Eric Clapton and Emmylou Harris -- has a new song that is creating a stir. Only this bluesy tune, created within weeks of the Dec. 26 slide near Sundance ski resort, is tugging at heartstrings instead of purse strings.

Sundance and Flowers have donated 200 CDs of "Above the Avalanche" to the families of the victims -- Michael Hebert, Adam Merz and Rod Newbury -- and the rescuers who logged so many hours in the cold and snow to find them.

"What an awesome man," Vae Graham, Newbury's mother, said Monday of the 56-year-old songwriter. "He has such a big heart. It's such a beautiful song and it depicts so much the way the families feel. I don't know how he did it."

Utah County sheriff's dispatchers told Sgt. Tom Hodgson, who supervised search-and-rescue efforts, he had better have a hankie handy when he heard the song.

"I listened to it on Sunday. It was very touching," said Hodgson, who has 50 more copies in his office to give to rescuers.

"He didn't even know these people, but he expressed everything those boys represented to their families, and he did it in such a poignant manner. It's quite a tribute."

Flowers learned about the tragedy in January, when he and 11 other artists performed at Sundance as part of its Bluebird Cafe series. Hebert's body had been recovered by that time, but Merz and Newbury were still missing. Sundance Executive Director Ray Grant says the avalanche and the prolonged search cast a pall over the resort for weeks.

It touched Flowers as well.

"The part that resonated with me the strongest was what the parents were going through, knowing their children were buried under the snow and yet they couldn't get to them," Flowers told The Salt Lake Tribune. "My heart went out to them."

As the days passed, Flowers passed his free time pondering. Inspiration came. Lyrics and the song followed. For instance, he was snowshoeing at Sundance when he found a rose petal in the snow.

The petal became part of Flowers' prose:

A bouquet of roses, growing in the snow
There to remind me, of what I already know
Although I can't see you, my eyes are deceived
I know you're still standing right next to me.

Flowers recalls the day he and Sundance photographer Susan Spaeth trekked to the slide area:

"I saw this big cloud coming over the mountain Timpanogos. Susan said, 'Look at that. I've only seen that twice in my life.' And I looked up and where the sun was hitting the cloud, you could see all the colors of the rainbow in it. Looking at that and then down below at the avalanche site that was roped off, that's when it really hit me . . . that the victims were not there. They were up there."

That moment is etched in Spaeth's photo on the CD's cover and in Flowers' chorus:

But I saw a rainbow high up in the air today
Letting me know that everything is OK
(it said) 'Please don't cry, Momma, I'm all right,

I'm up here shining in the sky tonight'

A mortician's son, Flowers said death was a part of daily life during his childhood. So was a growing certainty that there is life after this life.

"The soul never dies," he said. "That's what I'm trying to convey in the song. I believe their spirits are alive and well."

That message is not lost on listeners. Grant says there was not a dry eye in the Owl Bar on Jan. 25 when Flowers debuted the song. After Flowers returned to Nashville and recorded the song, he phoned Grant and said, "It's yours. This is my gift to the families."

Sundance did the art for the CD and made the copies.

Craig Knight, spokesman for the victims' families, says the song is greatly appreciated. "They all love the song. It's such a nice tribute," he said.

Vae Graham received a copy of the song on Easter -- the same day her son's body was found by hikers -- from Hebert's mother, Darlene. Graham played it at Newbury's funeral.

"I've just about worn it out," Graham said. "It's helped me to believe what I always thought: that Rod is in a much better place and I don't have to worry about him anymore. I'm so grateful to the hikers who found Rod and to Flowers for this tribute. It has provided closure."

Graham e-mailed her thanks to Flowers. "He's an awesome person. I can't wait to meet him when he comes back," she said.

Flowers returns to Sundance next month.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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