Just moments before he went on stage to perform as the featured entertainment at the Sarpy County Historical Museum’s fundraiser luncheon Saturday, Steve Justman was scribbling feverishly on a notepad with a Sharpie.
“I usually don’t get a set list going until the last minute,” said Justman, who had driven in from his home in Chicago the day before to play the 30-minute set for the 90 assembled museum boosters at Bellevue University’s administrative center. “I like to see what the crowd looks like, how they’re interacting. When I get that, I play what feels right.”
The theme for the fundraiser luncheon was “The Roots of Americana” and Justman, well-heeled in bluegrass, classic country and folk music generally on his guitar and banjo, was looking around and felt in his element.
With a wide cross-section of the audience certainly able to appreciate, if not sing along to some seminal songs of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Justman had called on his discerning musician’s eye to craft a rounded and respectable register of favorites.
“When it gets down to it, whatever it is, it’s just good, old music,” Justman said.
Justman is the father of Sarpy County Museum Director Ben Justman, who saw an opportunity to capitalize on his dad’s musical acumen — the elder Justman refers to himself as “a museum of songs” — and give the museum’s most-invested patrons a harmonious treat.
Ben Justman employed his father last year for another such concert at the old train depot adjacent to the museum. It was an instant sensation.
“People really enjoyed what he brought to it,” Justman fils said. “When it came time to start thinking of ideas for this fundraiser, I asked him if he’d be willing to come back out and do another one and he said he would. He plays songs people remember, songs that spur some memories.”
Asked if he had adopted any of his father’s musical abilities, Ben laughingly demurred. “I used to be able to sing,” he said. “Wayne Newton and guys like that. Then I turned 10.”
“But he appreciates,” Steve Justman said. “He knows music. He understands it. He can place it in context.”
Accoutred in a Hawaiian shirt and straw fedora, Justman pere walked out onto the stage — well, just a performance space, really, right at crowd level — to start the music. He threw a few winking barbs at his son, thanking the crowd for helping provide Ben with employment and getting him out of the house.
Then he strummed right to it with a signature 1951 Hank Williams Sr. tune, “Hey Good Lookin,’” parlayed into Buddy Holly’s 1958 “Well... All Right.” He then launched into a folk version of The Platters “Only You” from 1955 before he broke out the banjo to channel Pete Seeger and The Weavers version of “Irene, Goodnight.”
“This is one of those songs that sold a million records,” the musician told the crowd. “Back when songs could sell a million records. Tell a kid that today and he’ll say, ‘What’s a record?’”
The song crescendoed in a full, sung chorus from the audience.
Steve Justman trotted the guitar back out for Dean Martin’s 1956 chart-topper, “Memories Are Made of This.” Just prior to Steve’s performance, Ben had made reference to an affinity for Dino.
“I’m into that stuff, the crooners,” Ben said.
The sixth song started again on guitar.
“I’ll bet a lot of you will know this song from the first notes,” Steve said.
Three plucked, vibrato notes later, and no fewer than half-a-dozen people whispered with little effort at subduing their excitement: “Sentimental Journey.” Recorded at the height of the last hard push to end World War II, the tune rode the worldwide airwaves into every ship, beachhead and bombed-out church from the South Pacific to Central Europe.
Steve rounded out the set with “Singing the Blues” by Guy Mitchell and Marty Robbins, “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which Justman said he first watched performed on TV in the early 1960s by a clean-cut Nelson “in a cardigan sweater like Perry Como”) and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.”
The up-tempo number got the crowd toe-tapping and hand-clapping. Steve Justman took his bow. The set list worked.
“Give everyone a little something,” he said. “That’s the best thing I can do.”
His son agreed.
“When you talk about the roots of Americana, he’s got it,” Ben Justman said.
The fundraiser, featuring tickets for lunch, a raffle and a silent auction netted more than $3,000 for the museum.