Wyoming woman goes live with music after back struggle

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – Legend has it that Jonni Marie Wiltse has been a vocalist since birth. “According to my parents, I was singing as an infant coming out,” she said. “My cry was a song.” The now 23-year-old Cheyenne native didn’t take music lessons as a child, however. Music was her older sister’s “thing,” and she didn’t want to step on any toes. As the youngest of three daughters – all of whom had their particular hobby – she gravitated toward gymnastics.

But even as she developed her skills as a competitive gymnast, Wiltse never lost her sense of wonder around music. She was enchanted by the piano, which she learned to play secretly.

“I had to teach myself behind her back,” she said. “I’d walk behind her when she was playing piano and memorize where her hands were. And then, when she was out of the house, I’d teach myself.” Fast forward to 2021, and Wiltse can now be seen playing live every Thursday during Dillinger’s open mic night.


Finding beauty in the pain

Wiltse’s gymnastics career took a turn when her body started rejecting the sport, quite literally. Back-to-back injuries occurred around 9, and she broke her spine for the first time at age 12. “I didn’t know that I broke it, and I continued to compete on a fractured back for two years,” she said. “We found it when they were x-raying my scoliosis.”

She was 14 by then, and her doctor advised her to quit gymnastics if she didn’t want to be on a stretcher. Wiltse’s parents divorced the same year, and because her mom was out of town often as a flight attendant, she spent much time with her dad, an editorial photographer.

This formative period was marked by stretches without internet access or even food because her parents couldn’t afford them during their legal battle. But it was also Wiltse’s first introduction to music as a coping mechanism.

“I was getting tossed back and forth between the two for years and years,” she said. “So through that, music, books, and writing saved me. … I remember lying on the couch at 14 years old in the summertime, listening to my iPod Touch, and ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver came on, and I had a soul reaction, like, ‘What is this sound? How did I find this?’ That launched me.”

She deeply loved indie folk music, especially artists such as The Head and the Heart and Fleet Foxes. Wiltse was so obsessed with consuming as much of this music as possible she got yelled at for having her headphones in during class. It even led to her first D in math class – but that didn’t slow her down.

The more variety of songs she listened to, the more her interest blossomed. When she branched out into soul music, Wiltse finally found her authentic sound – a unique mix of folk and soul.

Changing course

Music wasn’t Wiltse’s only interest as a teenager, however. Her father’s job in photography had instilled a love of the camera at a young age, and by the time she was a junior at East High School, she decided to graduate early to pursue a career in modeling.

She took classes through several schools to get enough credits to finish a year early, and by the time her junior year was over, she was headed straight for Houston, Texas. “I was in such a hurry to get out,” Wiltse recalled. “I put in an incredibly challenging year as a junior … just to peace the hell out. I had so little belief that I would have any impact here. And still, I can already see how I’m going to outgrow what Cheyenne will be able to offer me, but (at 17) I didn’t think there was even going to be a platform.”

Wiltse returned to Cheyenne because she needed to flee a bad relationship, and when she got back, she was lost. She had forgone college to break into the modeling industry, and now she was back in her hometown without a degree or any clue what to do.

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

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