Tuttle Creek State Park vibrated with waves of sound last weekend as country artists from Thomas Rhett to Alan Jackson performed at this year’s Kicker Country Stampede.
Alongside these famed country stars, a team of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters signed song lyrics for deaf audience members on a nearby small stage of their own.
Susie Stanfield, who has supervised Kicker Country Stampede’s team of ASL interpreters for 13 years, also teaches deaf and hard of hearing students in the Manhattan area.
Stanfield said Kicker Country Stampede has ASL interpreters present and working during performances, whether or not there was a guest request for them.
“That’s not very common,” Standfield said. “I don’t know of any other concert festival that does that, but I think Stampede plans to keep us for as long as we want to do it, which we’re thankful for.”
Brittany Ramsey, an ASL interpreter at Kicker Country Stampede for seven years, works with deaf elementary school students in the Manhattan area.
“Deaf people, they still hear the noises to some degree, or feel the beat,” Ramsey said. “But the lyrics aren’t there. It’s nice to put the words into a more visual language for them, so they can experience the same thing that hearing people can.”
Stanfield said there are multiple levels of deafness, but those who are hard of hearing to those who are completely deaf benefit from the ability to watch an interpreter sign along with performances.
“Deaf people enjoy music,” Stanfield said. “They like the beat. There are variations of deafness. Some people who call themselves deaf have quite a bit of hearing. But even somebody who’s totally deaf likes the beat of the music. They have the right to have access to it, including the lyrics.”
Ramsey said deaf individuals are still able to enjoy live music as much as anyone else due to their ability to feel sound vibrations. This paired with interpretation of song lyrics into ASL turns concerts into a complete experience for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
“Oftentimes, people don’t understand why we would be signing music because deaf people can’t hear it, but the lyrics are an important, artistic part of songs,” Ramsey said. “So, it’s just understanding that we’re able to give deaf people a chance to get that full artistic appreciation that hearing people get from music.”
Both Stanfield and Ramsey learned ASL and interpreting skills early in life and have since made careers out of it.
Stanfield, who grew up in Alabama, said she became interested in learning ASL and interpreting in her young adolescent years when the family of a young deaf woman joined Stanfield’s church.
“I started learning some sign language from her,” Stanfield said. “And her mother took me to some classes, and I started interpreting church for her. It all just went from there.”
Ramsey said she learned sign language “organically.” She grew up in California, where there was a large Deaf community, before attending the University of Northern Colorado to earn a degree in educational interpreting.
“My first year here at [Kicker Country Stampede] was seven years ago,” Ramsey said. “And it was terrifying, but I feel like I’ve gotten more comfortable and more excited about it as the years have gone by.”
Ramsey said interpreting music into ASL is a fun challenge.
“I work with deaf kids normally, but interpreting music is a whole different beast,” Ramsey said. “And I love it. It’s more artistic.”
No matter how challenging, Stanfield said, the difference the interpretation team makes at Kicker Country Stampede each year for those who are deaf or hard of hearing makes the work worthwhile.
“We have varying attendants, but when we have deaf people, they’re always very appreciative,” Stanfield said. “Sometimes they don’t know there are interpreters, so they’re really surprised when they show up and find that we’re not just doing the headliners, we’re doing all the main-stage acts. They’re very surprised when they realize they didn’t even need to ask for it.”
Stanfield said American Sign Language is the fourth most used language in the nation.
“I’m a firm believer that everybody should learn sign language because not everybody’s going to go to a foreign country, but a large majority of the population will eventually lose their hearing,” Stanfield said. “That’s just a fact of life. As we get older, we lose our hearing, so we might as well learn that language now.”
Even Kicker Country Stampede attendees who are not deaf or hard of hearing notice the team of interpreters and take interest in them.
“I’ll catch myself watching them even though I’m not deaf, and I don’t really know how to sign,” Lauren Kulper, a Kicker Country Stampede attendee, said. “But they’re fun to watch anyway because they’re up there kind of dancing while they interpret, and they seem like they’re having a good time. They’re doing a good thing, and I appreciate them.”
Each year, the team of ASL interpreters, when not onstage interpreting performances, sit together in the same seating section and have gotten to know some of the people who hold tickets for the seats around them.
“We enjoy being out here,” Stanfield said. “For us, it’s a good time to get together. The crowd has told us over the years that we’ve kind of just become part of the entertainment. They tell us all the time, ‘We would miss y’all if you weren’t here.'”
Ramsey said one woman, who attends Kicker Country Stampede each year and has interacted with the interpreters in previous years, brought Ramsey a stuffed sloth toy, knowing that Ramsey likes sloths.
“She held on to that conversation for a whole year and remembered that I love sloths,” Ramsey said. “I just like that relationship between us and, not only the deaf people, but the other people that come to the Stampede, as well. It’s awesome.”