Music | Can You Hear Us Now?: Rich Panessa and SUSWA give voice to small-town musicians. 

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Rich Panessa sits behind the control panel of KTIM 101.9, St. George’s “Environmentally Friendly” Low-Power FM radio station, and spins tunes by the likes of Bob Seger, Johnny Cash and—as part of his mission to help promote music generated in this part of the state—local artists. Musicians drop by the cozy studio on Sunset Boulevard to talk about what they’re doing and/or perform live. Panessa also takes time on air to make announcements concerning the organization over which he presides: the Southern Utah Songwriter’s Association, or SUSWA.n

Panessa calls his radio show The American Dream, after a song he wrote. The station, because of its low power, only gets to St. George, Dameron Valley, Ivins, and Kayenta. “I’ve interviewed about 20 local artists since starting the show about a year ago, but it’s sometimes hard to get people over to the radio station at 10 in the morning.”

Panessa says he got the job of president at a SUSWA meeting he didn’t even attend. He says fellow members of the group told him, “Hey, you’re our new president.”

Now, “I’m busier in retirement than I was when I was working.”

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to call him a semi-retired songwriter and musician. Panessa’s voice betrays an Eastern U.S. origin. He moved here from Warwick, N.Y., just outside of New York City. Panessa says he and his wife Sheila chose St. George as a retirement community “after I looked it up on the Internet,” he says. “People were expecting us to go to Florida,” which is, after all, just a short plane ride from New York. Turns out, southern Utah was worth going the extra thousands of miles.

Upon moving, Panessa got a job at the local branch of Bert Murdock Music and quickly started meeting local musicians and discovered a rich community of singer-songwriters who play the type of music he prefers—folk and country. He also found SUSWA.

Fast-forward to 2008, a busy summer for SUSWA. The organization released its second and third CDs this summer. Panessa says they released one in 2005 that included both singer-songwriters and, for lack of a better term, “rock” bands. But, Panessa says, this time around, they wanted to release CDs with a more consistent sound. They also hoped to get more artists involved. The two discs feature a combined 35 cuts, including Panessa’s now defunct Dixie Troubadours doing a ’50s-style rock & roll number called “Saturday Night.”

The rock CD includes southern Utah acts City of Ashburn and Dave Kreitzer & the Embrace—the type of bands that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on most college radio or modern rock stations.

To be included on the CDs, each act contributed $135 dollars. Besides covering the costs of recording, says Panessa, each act received CDs that they could sell at their own gigs.

SUSWA also hosted CD release parties in the area. The rock bands played The Electric Theater in downtown St. George, a converted movie theater. The singer-songwriters did a couple of shows at Jazzy Java, a local coffee house. Jazzy Java, The Electric Theatre, KTIM, and a local entertainment publication, The Independent, were all sponsors of the project. The acts contributed the tracks, which were then remastered at Spiral Studios.

One of Panessa’s ongoing projects, he says, is trying to get more local venues for music. He recently found out about a café in the nearby community of Virgin whose owner has just recently decided to feature live music.

Panessa, who claims to be “a songwriter who knows how to play, perhaps, a little more than three chords,” as opposed to a bona fide musician. He says he and some friends played the cafe a couple of times, but he didn’t want to commit weekly gigs. So, he drew up a schedule for the place that includes him, as well as some other SUSWA members.

Panessa is also committed to expanding group membership to include more young, up-and-coming artists. He figures that, just because they perform music with a harder edge, they still write their own material and therefore fit right in with SUSWA’s overall mission.

He says that SUSWA’s membership has grown to not only include its original core of folk-oriented artists but local rock, country and classical musicians as well as songwriters. “It tends to be inspiring,” says Panessa, “because we now have people between 18 and 25, and they have new ideas and new types of music.”

For more on SUSWA and the solid southern Utah music scene, check out And, if you find yourself in St. George, stop into KTIM and thank Panessa for getting the word out beyond his station’s low-powered radius.

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Jon Pike

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