On May 20, Alton Eugene actually got lost in the Moore neighborhood where he spent most of his teen years.
“It was shocking. I mean, all my landmarks were gone. I knew that neighborhood inside and out, and on that day ... I didn't know what was what. The street signs were down; houses that I expected to be on certain streets weren't there. It was a lot to take in that first day,” he said.
In the aftermath of the EF5 tornado that ravaged the town where he grew up, the Oklahoma City musician/singer is helping others find hope. The day after the May 20 tornado, the Westmoore High School graduate, 26, wrote and recorded the uplifting anthem “Hope Song,” which he subsequently released on iTunes and Amazon.com, with proceeds benefiting the city of Moore's disaster fund.
Now, Eugene is headlining and organizing HopeFest, an outdoor benefit concert Saturday at the Myriad Botanical Gardens. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, with proceeds going to Feed The Children's Tornado Relief Fund.
“When Feed The Children first heard Alton's song, we were immediately touched. It's a beautiful piece that captures the essence of the people of Oklahoma,” Erin Engelke, the nonprofit's vice president of communications and public relations, told The Oklahoman in an email.
‘I dropped everything'
When Eugene, then 13, and his family relocated from San Antonio to Moore in 2000, they moved into a house newly built after the May 3, 1999, EF5 tornado that previously devastated the Oklahoma City suburb.
His parents, Alton Buggs Sr. and Carol Buggs, still live in the same place. While his mother was at work in Oklahoma City, Alton Eugene, as he is known professionally, knew his father was home May 20 when he saw footage of the twister on TV.
“Once they showed a view of the tornado from Southmoore High School and they said it's between Western and Santa Fe on 19th, I dropped everything and left,” said Eugene, who at the time worked at an Edmond car dealership but now works as a music producer for Tate Publishing in Mustang.
His parents' house was just three doors down from Briarwood Elementary, one of the schools destroyed by the tornado.
“I'm more thankful that my dad is alive. While the house sustained damage and they're going to have to gut it and do some restoration — the insurance company has already come out — every 20 or 30 feet you're getting closer back toward Briarwood makes a difference in terms of how much damage your house sustained,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
The next day, Eugene was on the phone with a friend who suggested he turn the harrowing experience into a song.
“Immediately, I heard a melody going through my head, and I sat down at the computer and made the track for the song in about two hours,” he said.
He called Chris Williams, the music minister at the church he attends, and wrote the rest of the song and recorded it over the next three hours at the Connection Church worship pastor's home studio. Eugene posted it the morning of May 22 on YouTube, and it has since garnered about 185,000 views.
“The verses, I really just wanted to capture the destruction, the devastation, kind of the stress and how much people were distraught ... transitioning into the pre-chorus and then into the actual hook where the song promotes and brings back to the forefront the hope,” said Eugene, an ACM@UCO alumnus.
He said Kris Canfield at Feed The Children, whom he knows through Camp Shiloh, a summer camp for inner-city youths, reached out with the idea for HopeFest. Along with Eugene, the lineup includes the Jeremy Thomas Quartet, Will Gaines, Lindsey Bailey and more.
In addition, Eugene and Critical Mass Productions will complete the filming of his official “Hope Song” music video at the concert.
Engelke said all funds collected at HopeFest will support Feed The Children's long-term recovery efforts for those affected by the May tornadoes.
Eugene credited “the grace of God” for letting the song have such a positive effect.
“I wrote the song intending just to encourage and inspire people, not knowing that it was gonna do what it has done, and the doors that have come open from it.”