IT’S ALMOST MIDNIGHT. People are starting to huddle around the stage at the Fayetteville Town Center. The air is electric as the large group mills about the ballroomlike space, anxious for the final act of the evening to begin and the fireworks that’ll announce the first moments of the new year. A raucous round of applause and cheers greets the two musicians as they take the stage.
Joel Ludford stands well over a foot taller than his partner, Anna Horton, but with the bell of his sousaphone positioned above his head reflecting the stage lights, he towers like a giant. The rest of their instruments, what seems like far too many for just two people, fill the front of the stage. There are guitars—both acoustic and electric—a ukulele, mandolin, saxophone, bass clarinet, upright bass—all of them replacements for the instruments the duo lost on the road.
This performance is a special occasion of sorts for Joel and Anna, who make up Arkansas folk-pop outfit Handmade Moments. Not only are they billed as the headliners for Last Night Fayetteville 2016, the city’s New Year’s Eve music and art festival, but this show also marks the band’s homecoming, the first time they’ve performed in the state since leaving on tour for the West Coast almost a year before.
The energy in the room is already high, given the holiday. But the vibe is bolstered by the fact that the Handmade Moments fans in the audience, myself included, have been eagerly awaiting the band’s return to The Natural State. Anna and Joel have become well-known for their spirited performances, and it’s not uncommon for the entire audience to wind up dancing and singing along. Personally, I made the 2 1/2 hour drive up from Little Rock specifically for the show, and I’m eager to hear the band’s new material, in addition to my old favorites.
Ever since I stumbled across Joel and Anna’s previous band five or six years ago, the popular funky-folk group Don’t Stop Please, I’ve kept a close watch on the musicians’ career. I was immediately struck by their talent, but I particularly fell in love with their bubbly personalities and upbeat energy. And judging by the size of the crowds that tend to turn up at their shows, I am clearly not the only one they’ve had that effect on.
The chemistry between Anna and Joel has always been palpable. So, while I was certainly a little disappointed when Don’t Stop Please called it quits a few years back, I wasn’t surprised that the duo would continue on, shifting their focus to their side project, Handmade Moments. Since going their own way, Joel and Anna have been constantly traveling the country, performing their songs and collecting fans from Los Angeles to Miami, and even made their way south of the border to Argentina. But tonight, they’re back home, centered in the spotlight.
Dressed in a shimmery silver track jacket, worn halfway open to expose his bare chest, and bell-bottom pants patterned in vertical black-and-white stripes, Joel positions his fingers on the keys of his sousaphone and sounds out the opening notes of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Anna holds down the rhythm, beatboxing and snapping in time with the iconic song before belting out the lyrics in her sultry soul-singer drawl.
“Oh, baby, give me one more chance,” she sings on the refrain, microphone in one hand, gesticulating with the other. “Won’t you please let me back in your heart?”
After the first couple of songs, Anna and Joel are joined onstage by Nick Caffrey and Will King, a couple of their old Don’t Stop Please bandmates, as well as guest fiddle player Michael Schembre, formerly of Arkansas bluegrass band Mountain Sprout.
The musicians are all smiles as they kick off the next number together. Anna’s curls swirl around her face as she dances frenetically onstage in her colorful tie-dyed jumpsuit, the scars on her back hidden by the psychedelic pattern, her bare feet pounding the stage. Sweat beads on Joel’s forehead as he bobs in time while strumming his new guitar, his hair now cropped short, his face no longer framed by the long golden locks he had when the duo first set out on tour.
In between songs, Joel and Anna engage the audience, making jokes and laughing. They say how happy they are to be back in Fayetteville, to be back home in Arkansas. They profess their belief in the power of love and their disgust at the tyranny of war; their belief in the importance of clean energy; and their disappointment in the current political climate.
“2016 was pretty brutal,” Joel says, before launching into the final song of the night, another cover, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” And most of the audience seems to nod in agreement with Joel’s statement because, yes, in a broad sense, he’s right. But the truth is, for Anna and Joel, “brutal” hardly begins to cover it.
SHE AWOKE ON HER BACK, her clothes matted with blood. Her battered body had come to rest on top of a pile of debris on the floor. Everything in the bus had been smashed and thrown about. The seats were destroyed, as well as their beds.
What happened? she thought. Her head was pounding, and her thoughts were cloudy. For a moment, she felt like she might be dreaming, but something told her this was real, and something had gone terribly wrong. She could hear the others moaning in pain. Then she heard Joel’s voice.
“Is everybody all right?” he called out from the driver’s seat. “How’s everybody’s head doing? Does anybody feel like they can’t move?”
“What happened?” she asked. She was so confused. Where were they? Where had they been going?
“We just got in a car wreck, Anna,” Joel told her as calmly as he could. “It wasn’t our fault; don’t worry.”
Anna looked around the bus, trying to understand what was going on. Her friend Timo had managed to get to his feet after being thrown into the stairwell of the bus, but the folding metal door was so bent, he was unable to pry it open. She turned her head toward the back of the bus, where her friend Hannah was still in the same spot where she’d been sitting a minute before, but now she was clutching her arm and screaming in pain, and there were streaks of red on the bus’s white walls.
Anna’s eyes landed on their solar-power station, and it looked as though the batteries might have exploded.
That’s not good, she thought. That’s gonna be expensive to replace.
“Joel, what happened?” she asked again.
“We’re gonna be all right. The wreck wasn’t our fault,” he said.
Everything seemed foggy. She went racing through her memories, desperately searching the file cabinets of her mind, but nothing quite made sense. Before she could organize her thoughts, Anna heard loud voices coming through the bus’s shattered windows; then there were people at the door.
“Don’t worry, guys,” they said. “We saw what happened, and we’re going to get you out of here. The ambulance is on its way.”
Anna turned her attention to the front of the bus, where Joel sat behind the steering wheel. He seemed calm, collected. The sunlight glinted off the pieces of glass tangled in his long blond hair. He was flexing his hands, making sure they still worked. The hands and fingers he used to fret his guitar and strum his mandolin—the tools he used to transmit the music in his brain and his heart to his instruments.
“I think my legs are f***ed,” Joel said. “I can move, but they hurt like hell.”
Anna watched as he managed to push himself backward out of the driver’s seat and felt a wave of panic ripple through her body when she saw his feet come into view. They were drenched in sticky crimson, the flesh on top of his left foot sheared away.
Timo moved to the rear of the bus, climbing over the rubble, to try the back door. It swung back on its hinges, and the afternoon sun poured in, illuminating the chaotic scene inside the vehicle. The paramedics had arrived and helped Anna and Timo out of the bus, sitting them on the curb.
From their vantage point, positioned behind the vehicle, they couldn’t quite get a sense of the full extent of the damage. But the short school bus that had doubled as the band’s tour vehicle and home for the past five months was absolutely destroyed. All the hours they had spent converting the bus to run on vegetable and waste oil in order to reduce their carbon footprint. All the time and money they’d put into installing a rooftop stage and solar power station to run their equipment so they could perform wherever they went. All their plans to drive down to South America, busking along the way and sleeping in their mobile habitat. All of it, crushed and reduced to useless scrap. Every window, all 16 of them, had been shattered, and the front end of the bus was a tangled mess of metal and machinery, caved in on the driver’s side.
What about Joel? Anna thought, still dazed. What about Hannah? And then, subsequently, Wait … what happened?
Then she heard screaming.
Joel was being wheeled away on a stretcher as he bellowed in pain.
The helicopter was on its way.
THAT FIRST DAY in the hospital was a nightmare, Anna says. Still reeling from the shock of the wreck, she was left largely on her own in the ER after her scans showed that aside from a minor concussion and some lacerations on her lower back, she hadn’t suffered any major breaks or injuries. She didn’t know where she was, where her friends were. So she mostly just lay in bed crying. The image of Joel being wheeled away by paramedics as he screamed in pain after being removed from the wreckage replayed over and over in her mind. She wasn’t even sure, now, whether he was alive or dead.
Eventually, around 8 that evening, after a series of conversations with the hospital social worker and a number of her and Joel’s family members, she was able to piece together what had happened earlier that day.
It was May 21, and the duo had been making their way to their next gig with their friends Timo Vergauwen and Hannah Mosby. They’d spent the past two months touring up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, eventually making their way to Ashland, Oregon, where they performed on top of their bus in Ashland’s downtown Lithia Park on May 8. With their eye-catching mobile setup and infectious energy, the band had had no problem drawing a crowd. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day—Mother’s Day, in fact—and the show couldn’t have gone any better. Then, after spending a little more than a week in Grass Valley, a small community northeast of Sacramento, they’d headed south on California Highway 49.
“On the road to San Luis Obispo to play for the folks at @rottawinery tomorrow,” Anna wrote on Instagram after snapping a selfie about 10 minutes into the drive. “Maybe we’ll play a bus-top show tonite somewhere!” Sitting in the back of the bus with her friends Hannah and Timo, she tapped Share and started absentmindedly scrolling through her feed.
Around the same time, just after 2:30 p.m., a truck and an SUV had been fighting over a northbound lane on Highway 49. As the lane merged, the two vehicles collided and drifted into oncoming traffic, where they struck the band’s bus head-on.
The social worker explained that Anna and Timo had both been taken in an ambulance to Mercy San Juan in Carmichael, outside Sacramento. Joel and Hannah, on the other hand, had been sitting on the driver’s side and had been airlifted to the trauma clinic at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.
Hannah had suffered a substantial concussion, a broken tibia and fibula, a severe laceration to her left forearm, facial trauma and multiple internal injuries. Joel, however, had been in the driver’s seat and received the most direct impact. When the two vehicles slammed into the front of the bus, the force of the collision was so strong that it rocketed Joel’s femur back into his pelvis, shattering it on his left side. The skin on his right heel was completely ripped away from the underlying tissue. A large gash tore deep into the top of his left foot just below his three small toes as well, leaving the tendons exposed.
That evening in the hospital, the social worker was able to put Anna in contact with her godmother, a Eureka Springs resident who was working in nearby Fresno, to let her know what happened and arrange for her to come care for Anna. She was also relieved to find out, after hours of worrying, that Joel had survived. She was able to speak to him later that night, and he told her he’d be going into surgery early the next morning to reconstruct his hip.
IT’S SO STRANGE to watch life unfold from a distance and even more so to see a tragedy unravel the lives of those struck by such an unfortunate event. Modern technology has the potential to bring us so much closer together, connecting us over thousands and thousands of miles. But you can’t reach through a computer screen to place a comforting hand on the shoulder of someone suffering.
Like many of Handmade Moments’ fans, I found out about the band’s accident via social media. A couple of days after the wreck, Anna posted a photo on Facebook of what remained of their bus—the front end crumpled like a wad of paper, a spiderweb of cracks spread over the windshield, tires burst and flat on the gravel junk lot.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’d actually just corresponded with Anna and Joel about a month before when I reached out to them about performing at my upcoming wedding, scheduled for early June. I was disappointed when they had told me that despite being honored and flattered, they didn’t think they’d be able to make it back to Arkansas in time for the ceremony. But I knew what a great time they’d been having out on the West Coast, and I had wished them all the best. Now I found myself staring in stunned disbelief at the destroyed vehicle I’d seen pictured in so many tour photos throughout the year.
“It makes no sense how we survived, but I am so grateful,” the caption read. “If anyone has a guitar Joel can borrow for the next couple weeks while he’s in the hospital, that would be so wonderful. I know he’s gonna want to play to stay sane.”
Over the next several months, the rest of their fans and I watched their recovery from afar through a series of photos. We saw Joel wearing a hospital gown and sitting in a wheelchair next to his bed, his gaze cast down at the mandolin in his hands as he strummed out a tune. Joel laid up, sensors attached to his bare chest and an IV protruding from the back of his hand as he handled a worn-looking guitar. Joel and Anna smiling after shaving his head because of all the debris that had become tangled in his hair. Anna by his side before yet another surgery, one of three major operations he’d undergo, in addition to a few procedures to remove the remaining glass, metal and fiberglass from his body.
For 3 1/2 weeks, we watched their hospital stay play out, their spirits never appearing to waver. In almost every photo of Joel in the hospital, he’s holding some sort of instrument. When not lost in concentration while playing, he’s always smiling, whether he’s being visited by friends or spending his birthday in a hospital bed. Anna is perpetually by his side, and looking at the images, you can clearly see their determination to not let anything—the accident, their injuries, the loss of their instruments—slow them down.
About a month after Joel’s discharge, he and Anna went right back to busking. A photo on the band’s Facebook page showed them playing a show at the Summer Nights festival in their temporary home of Nevada City, California, Joel still wheelchair bound. But while the duo were certainly eager to return to performing, there was a more pressing reason for getting back to work so quickly: They needed the money.
Anna’s sister started a GoFundMe campaign while Joel was still in the hospital and raised an impressive $17,873 from fans and friends to help the band with their mounting medical bills and loss of income from their canceled tour. And as soon as they were able, Anna and Joel hit the road once again. They bought a Chevy Astro van, and after only a couple of weeks of Joel being back on his feet, the band set out for the Burning Man gathering in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. From there, it was back to touring the West Coast yet again. They made their way up to Portland and Ashland, then all the way back down to Santa Barbara, stopping in Reno and Napa and everywhere in between. Along the way, Joel and Anna came across a used step van for sale and decided the large box-shaped vehicle would be the perfect replacement for their bus.
As the year began to wind down, it was time for the band to make their way back home to Arkansas for the holidays. They booked a tour through Colorado and steadily inched closer to The Natural State in their new vehicle one show at a time, with their homecoming performance on New Year’s Eve serving as the grand finale.
“IT WAS DEFINITELY a positive experience, I think,” Anna tells me when I meet up with her and Joel the afternoon before their Last Night Fayetteville performance. “As horrible as it was when it happened—I mean, it was obviously mortifying and terrifying. You don’t think about it until it happens. In an instant, someone that you love so much could just be gone. But that wasn’t the case, and we survived.”
Joel’s and I have driven the band’s new tour van out to West Fork, where he and Anna are staying with some friends. The beauty of the open rural land stretching out from the property is striking, and there doesn’t seem to be a neighboring house in sight, just a massive lawn giving way to open fields bordered by forest. The isolation of the area is comforting, and I can easily see how this would be an ideal spot for some R&R after having been out on the road so long. Even cellphone reception is sparse out here, despite the fact that we’re only about a half hour’s drive from of Fayetteville.
Joel tells me before we arrive that Anna hasn’t been feeling well, so when we find her inside the house, she’s wrapped in a robe, trying to rest up before the night’s big performance. But even through her illness, Anna seems radiant. She smiles when Joel walks in and gives him a hug before turning to me, thanking me for coming all the way out here to talk with them.
We decide to chat outside because it’s such a lovely day, and they lead me over to some log seating around an unlit fire pit. Their friends’ dog follows us and begs to be petted while we talk, so I oblige. Sitting across from me, Anna covers herself with a blanket and cuddles up next to Joel, resting her head on his shoulder.
It’s been a little over seven months since the accident that almost claimed their lives. So even though that’s why I’ve come to see them, I’m honestly a little nervous to ask Anna and Joel to discuss it. Because I imagine that reliving such a horrific experience must be fairly traumatizing in its own right. But it’s immediately clear that the musicians are happy to talk about the experience. They seem almost cavalier about it at first, but the longer we chat, I realize that the seriousness of what happened is not lost on them. It’s something they’ve come to terms with and something that’s made them stronger.
“Everything we had, including our instruments, was destroyed,” Anna says, “but it was really amazing. People really came together, helped us out, and it was beautiful, a beautiful experience. And then once Joel was walking again, every step of the way was just really positive and hopeful and good. Once we started playing shows again a couple of months later, it was amazing, just getting back to it.”
“It’s nice to be alive after a wreck when you almost died,” Joel continues. “In fact, it’s way easier to get depressed now that I’m healthy again. Does that make any sense? It doesn’t. I don’t know. It’s weird. When you’re in those dire straits, or when I was in them, I had to choose to keep rocking because I could’ve not, and that could’ve led to just a really bad life. You have to rehab really quickly from that kind of s***, I think. Or it’s easier to rehab if you just get on it really quickly. It’s been good for me. It’s been good for my outlook. You just have to go for it.”
ALMOST 10 HOURS later, Joel and Anna are finishing up their homecoming set by singing about “trees of green” and “skies of blue,” reveling in the notion that despite its problems, this really is a wonderful world, one that they’re lucky to still be part of. The audience applauds and cheers the band, but fairly quickly, we make our way outside for the fireworks display.
There’s no music playing out on the Fayetteville Square now. Just the steady, excited buzz of the crowd, their eyes cast toward the sky. But somewhere among the throng of revelers, I know there are these two people who almost had their lives taken away in an instant, and I’m still simply in awe of their indomitable spirits. It would’ve been so easy for them to give up. No one would’ve faulted them for not getting back on the road after such a traumatic experience. But for Anna and Joel, to stop performing after all they’ve been through and everything they lost would’ve made their survival and recovery all for nothing.
So as the last minute of 2016 ticks away, friends and loved ones gathered on the square draw near to observe the passage of one calendar year to the next. We all count down out loud, “Ten! Nine! Eight! …” And when we finish, the sky erupts in vibrant colors and phosphorescent starbursts. The display serves as a symbol, a celebration of new beginnings and a welcoming of the new year and what’s to come. For the band, that means a chance at a do-over—another sustainable touring habitat to renovate, another trip out to the West Coast to share their music. And if Handmade Moments has anything to say about it, 2017 will be their best year yet. They’ve got lost time to make up for, after all.