Think back to early March 2020. Before quarantine, before masks, and before we knew what was ahead. It’s a foggy time to remember, but I know I still planned on seeing Taylor Swift in concert that summer. How cute.
At this time, before livestreams and virtual concerts and quarantine music, it seems one local musician was ahead of his time.
As talk of COVID-19 began in Colorado, Derwood Willhite’s daughter, who is 12, asked him to write a song about the virus. And she wanted him to call it “The Sickness.”
Willhite, who goes by the stage name Tensas, thought it was a good idea.
“I have to give credit to my kid for asking me. She wanted to be documented,” Willhite said. “I wanted to explain it to her and explain it to the world in my own words.”
He wrote about how it might feel to not see family or attend funerals. He wrote about the odd feeling of not wanting to get too close to friends or strangers.
“I wanted to let the world know what I was feeling,” Willhite, who lives in Divide, said. “I had the lyrics written down and then Colorado shut down.”
He spent four days alone in a small mountain cottage recording “The Sickness,” which opens with these words: “Just let me be/to walk around.” “Oh sickness don’t hold me down,” Willhiite sings later in the song. “Sickness don’t take me now.”
When he released “The Sickness,” along with a few other songs, in May 2020, everything had changed. All of his live shows were canceled. Everybody’s live shows were canceled.
And most artists were apparently just starting to write music inspired by the pandemic or inspired by having extra time at home because of it. For example, Taylor Swift’s quarantine album, “folklore,” came out a couple months later in July.
Meanwhile, Willhite kept making music.
“The virus freed up some time to focus on what I wanted,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good to slow down.”
He wrote songs that will be on his new album. He got better at playing the mandolin. He also gave attention to growing his new record label, Tall Tale Records.
“Folk songs and storytelling is what I grew up around,” he said. “If I’m passionate about that, I want to help other people with that.”
Willhite’s stage name is inspired by where he grew up in northern Louisiana. Specifically, the Tensas River, which runs for 250 miles. It was the site of some of his favorite memories fishing with his grandfather.
When Willhite joined the military, he left Louisiana for North Carolina. In 2011, he moved to Colorado for a simple reason: “No humidity.” He used his G.I. bill to study business, which has come in handy as Willhite has started his own record label and dove into a full-time music career.
Most recently, Willhite released a song that speaks to another side of the pandemic.
Called “Lovely Bones,” he wrote the song inspired by some losses and gains of the last year or so. In July 2020, a close friend died from a motorcycle crash. Around the same time, he made a new friend, something Willhite says doesn’t come easy to him.
“Losing more loved ones last year made me realize that if I could only record just one more song for the world to hear, this would be the one I want to leave behind,” Willhite said.
You could think of “The Sickness” and “Lovely Bones” as two musical anthems of 2020 and all that it brought.
“They’re two very different portrayals,” he said. “And two different ways people feel about things right now.”