Sam Shepherd and Genene Blackwell didn’t come into this world together.
But they’ve navigated much of their lives since then as an inseparable pair.
Both born prematurely and with significant visual impairments, the duo were in the same NICU at the same time, began preschool together, started piano lessons together, rode the same bus, marched together in the world’s only blind marching band, graduated together, and would eventually collaborate with their band InnerVision. They are as intertwined as two individuals can be, and like Adams and Jefferson or Bird and Magic, it is impossible to tell one of their stories without telling the other.
For those unfamiliar, Innervisions (1973) is also the name of arguably the most famous and critically-acclaimed album of Stevie Wonder’s career. Naming their band in the vein of this album makes sense as Sam and Genene share their love of funk, soul, rock, and jazz with Wonder, along with their visual impairments.
Trying to make a living in Columbus as a musician has enough hurdles, but try adding being blind to the mix. It’s not like Sam or Genene can drive, and public transportation in this city —especially pertaining to those with disabilities—is sorely lacking. With the help of grandparents and parents, who double as managers, the duo have been playing the summer festival circuit. They’ve been making appearances in Columbus and beyond at Plum Run Winery (Grove City), Buckeye Lake Winery (Thornville), Tucci’s (Dublin). Mudflats (Galena), and Notes (Downtown).
Their long-term goals are humble. Sam stands firmly in practicality. He wants to build a life upon his craft.
“I want to make enough to pay the bills and make a living,” he said.
Genene’s response is closer to the heart. She wants to “bring joy to people’s hearts through my music,” she said. Those may be the least pretentious statements made by any musician. In the history of the world. Ever.
I was lucky enough to recently watch an InnerVision show at Oliver’s, a hidden gem of a downtown restaurant, where live blues is performed on Friday and Saturday nights. I asked the duo if they get butterflies before live performances. But Sam takes it in stride.
”Sometimes not being able to see the crowd is good for stage fright,” he said.
Well played, sir. Well played.
The dimly lit and intimate venue and motif was perfect for the duo as they seamlessly transitioned between blues, jazz, soul, rock, and pop covers. They touched on all the standards: “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Hound Dog,” and “Summertime.” The crowd, along with the waitstaff and bartenders, were bewitched with InnerVision’s musical chops and entertained by Sam’s witty banter with audience members.
To put it bluntly, InnerVision is a well-oiled machine. Genene rocks the keys and Sam, who handles most of the vocals, jumps between guitar, bongos, trombone, and harmonica. InnerVision isn’t a couple of acoustic frat bros fumbling through a local open mic night; they are musical prodigies who take no prisoners and kill the audience with kindness.
And I don’t think the term prodigy is hyperbolic as both musicians can hear a piece of music once or twice and have it mastered (instrument, lyrics, vocals) within 30 minutes. Their only assistance is the occasional YouTube tutorial or bouncing ideas off each other.
When asked to name their favorite artists, Genene is decisive:
“Adele and Alicia Keys. Those two are the best.”
Sam is a little more traditional with favorites such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Sam Cooke, and Aaron Neville. The influence of classics come from his dad; his soul comes from inside.
However, in true InnerVision fashion, the duo put their own touches on contemporary hits. When you catch them live, ask them to perform their stripped-down, bluesy version of the Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” This cover alone is worth the price of admission.
Despite their visual impairments, Sam and Genene are like many other 27 year-olds and enjoy going to the gym, checking social media, listening to music and watching superhero movies. Unlike other 27 year-olds, their lives are significantly impacted by their disabilities, but not so much that they are giving up their dream of playing live music for a living.
What exactly can be attributed to InnerVision’s seamless on stage chemistry? Maybe it is their cosmic connection and the fact that they have known each other for the entirety of their 27 years? Maybe it’s the fact that they are brother and sister in every way except biologically? Maybe they share a bond that only persons with disabilities can share?
What I do know is that you should go see them live. Sam and Genene don’t need your pity or charity. They, like all Columbus musicians, need your attention, social media likes and cover charges. Actually, just go ahead and book them for the next event you are hosting. You will get three hours of world class musicianship from two people who are making their way by letting their inner lights shine. •
You can catch multiple InnerVision shows this month, from Worthington to Gahanna to Lewis Center. For more, visit innervisionmusic.com.
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