Music can be a powerful ally in the fight against drunk driving

Before he was the guitarist for country music artist Kaitlyn Baker, Thomas Estep dreamed of joining the Army. Growing up, that hope was closest to his heart. Due to health complications, however, his application to the Army was denied and he saw his dream fade.

This was when he turned to music. Kaitlyn Baker grew up in the same town in Virginia as Estep and saw his skill and love for the music. She invited him to join her band as the lead guitarist. They toured together for half the year of 2016 playing concerts and participating in radio and television programs. They shared stories, laughs and aspirations.

Thomas playing his beloved guitar

“Thomas was brilliant. He just absorbed music,” Kaitlyn explained. “We were on the road for five or six months and, in that short time, he became like a brother to me.”

He and Kaitlyn both saw music as a source of healing—they both believed in the healing effect of playing and listening to music.

At 2:15 AM January 1, 2017, Kaitlyn faced a reality she never even dreamed could happen—Thomas’s guitar was forever silenced. In the early hours of the morning, a drunk driver crossed over the median on a Virginia highway and killed him in a head-on collision. In an instant, a drunk driver killed her dear friend and bandmate.

Kaitlyn had planned to join Thomas to go out that evening. Instead, she made the last minute decision to stay home with her mother, who was recovering from a recent surgery.

Thomas told her it was completely fine and even called her to wish her a happy new year. Kaitlyn wasn’t able to pick up the phone, but Thomas left her a message. In the message, he thanked her for letting him play music with her and for all the opportunities that had come with their travels in the past year.

As soon as Kaitlyn listened to the message, she texted back “Thank you!”

She never received a reply.

Her parents told her the next morning that a crash occurred during the night. They said they thought Thomas was involved. Kaitlyn immediately called Thomas’ mother. As the conversation continued and her fears were confirmed, she heard his mother coping with the horrific loss of her son. Kaitlyn remembers that phone call as the most difficult conversation she has ever had with anyone.

After the funeral, Kaitlyn felt lost. She stepped away from the music scene for a while because of it.

“I contemplated never playing music again,” Kaitlyn said. “The entire band was shaken and, quite honestly, music made me feel all the more broken. Every time I tried to write or even sing a song, I would think of Thomas. What if he were here? What if I could sing just one more song with him? What if I had been there with him? What if…”

Her perspective toward music changed as well. Songs promoting drinking and driving had an entirely new meaning to her. It made her sick to think of any genre saturated with a dialogue about drinking and driving – and not condemning this deadly choice.

After a few months of mourning and struggling with the loss, Kaitlyn turned a corner. She started thinking about her unique platform within country music. Then she realized she could change the dialogue. She picked up a pen and began to write. Her song Blackbird came out of her struggle and choice to write once again

“I realized then that my music is not only a way to heal from this hole left in my life — my music is a platform to share this powerful message,” Kaitlyn said. “It still is difficult. Every day is difficult. But everyone deals with grief in different ways. Sharing my heart through music is how I deal with it.”

Kaitlyn honors Thomas with her music

But she didn’t stop there.

One day her publicist gave her information about Mothers Against Drunk Driving® and the mission of No More Victims®. She valued the lifesaving work of MADD and sought to find some way to get involved. So, she reached out to her local office in Virginia and learned about the Law Enforcement Recognition dinner in September. She made up her mind to perform there.

At this event, Kaitlyn performed for 47 police officers from 34 different agencies around Virginia. Thomas’ mother and father also presented at the event. Mr. Estep was the keynote speaker and praised the police officers for their work in the fight against drunk driving. Mrs. Estep presented an award to a law enforcement recipient who was also Thomas’ best friend.  MADD Virgina Program Director Chris Konschak commented on what a special night it was.

“Kaitlyn and her band’s participation in the law enforcement awards made it a really special night,” he said. “It allowed officers to hear from a local rising star about how important their lifesaving work is. It was an inspirational night for everyone.”

Kaitlyn Baker shared a love of music with her guitarist Thomas Estep. After he was killed by a drunk driver, she too turned to music for hope. She now takes every day as an opportunity to share that hope with other people, and she says she has no intention of ever stopping. As she puts it, her passion for music has become a passion to fight drunk driving with music.

“Drunk driving is such a deadly crime. And police officers put their lives in jeopardy every day to keep drunk drivers off the roads. If I can encourage them and also have a platform to fight against drunk driving with my music, I will. I was honored to take part in ending drunk driving that night.” – Kaitlyn Baker