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Pat Harvey - Madisonville's Organic, Free-Range Artist

MADISONVILLE, KY (10/1/13) – The word that comes to mind when I think of Madisonville artist Pat Harvey is “organic.” The guy, and everything he creates, just seems to come about naturally, even when there’s struggle involved. I don’t really know how else to explain it. And I don’t mean “organic” in the sense of environment-friendly or naturally-grown either, though I guess Pat and his creations could fit into those categories, too. What I really mean is that Pat, his interactions with friends and family, his artwork, and his approach to music seems purely genuine and intrinsic to who he is. He’s real, and he’s arrived where he is today by remaining true to himself through the good times and the bad.

But Pat hasn’t merely survived life untainted; the grasp he has on his internal passions and the affinity he holds for creativity has allowed him to flourish as a person. From nearly 20 years of playing music and his longtime love of bluegrass, to his relatively recent entrance into the art world and the ensuing festival hops he’s been a part of as a vendor, Pat’s reactions to the world around him have resulted in an ongoing stream of positivity and colorful artwork that stand in stark contrast to an oftentimes drab, pessimistic world around us.

Yet, that’s not what he would say. In his own humble words, he says, “For me, it’s kind of like yoga; I feel better when I’m creating and when I’m not I don’t feel balanced. It’s just something that I have to do. It can be painting or playing guitar—I’ve just got to do something or I’m not as happy as I could be. I’ve got to do it whether someone looks at it or not.”

And his modest words ring true when you spend time with Pat, when you visit his home, when you talk about art and music, when you share a few drinks and laughs, and you have a minute to really see what he’s up to “behind the scenes.” 

What you can expect when you pay Pat a few visits…
When you first walk into his open, forest-lined backyard, you may notice a brightly-colored, yet partially rusted and wheel-less, caged-in Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be hovering about three feet off the ground in the far corner of his property. Pat—who dons a respectable beard and long hair, as well as the occasional faded pair of overalls over a Ramones t-shirt—explains that the VW is the lynchpin of his latest masterpiece: a coup for his chickens Darnell, Cabbage, Tiny, and Alize’. The seat-less vehicle is their nightly roost. Next, Pat may take you on a tour of his studio and garage while he points out automotive projects in-progress, jars of fermented hill-gold, old music equipment, and unique pieces of art that have never really seen the light of day. He says they’re part of his “personal stash.” Then, you might meet Pat’s family—his wife Amy and his daughters Lillian and Mandolyn—all of whom seem to be just as “organic” in their own rights. And once they’ve welcomed you inside their inviting home, you’ll notice several stringed instruments propped up in the corner of their living room, as well as several instrument cases and pieces of textile material adorned with Pat’s vibrant designs and his pseudo pop-art takes on iconic musician portraits. At this point, you may start to feel comfortable and relaxed, and while you have to go, they ask you to stay. It’s hard to leave and that’s when you know you’ll be back someday. 
One of the best parts of these experiences, though, is that Pat‘s candid. He’s straightforward and down-to-earth. He’ll tell you like it is from his point-of-view. There will be no high-brows here, but that’s also the beauty of it all. 

Who is Pat Harvey and what is his artwork all about? He’ll tell you right now. But don’t be shocked when it gets real. 

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Were you born here in Madisonville? 
No. I was born in Evansville [Indiana]. 

I didn’t know that. 
Yeah, I lived in Evansville until ’98, which was when [Amy and I] moved to Diamond [Kentucky]. My grandfather owned some property out there and we just wanted to get out of the city, so we moved. After we moved, we had our kids [Lillian and Mandolyn]. I started my business when we were down there, too. We decided to move to Madisonville because most of the work I was doing was here. 

How old were you when you moved from Evansville? 
Golly, man. [laughs] Let’s see - I was born in ’74 and I’m 38 now, and that would have been 14 years ago, so you do the math. [laughs] I guess it was around my mid to late-20s. I was old enough to drink. I know that because I moved to a dry county and I was like, “What the heck?” [laughs]  

What county is Diamond in? 
Webster County. 
You said you started a business there. What business are you talking about? 
My lawn care business [Harvey Lawncare]. I didn’t start that when I first moved down there, though. I worked at a couple different places before that. I ended up working for a guy who had a lawn care business and I thought, “Man, I can do this,” so that’s what I did. 

What was your childhood like? Were your parents pretty cool people?
Yeah. My dad was a cop actually. 

I would not have guessed that. [laughs]
Yeah, you’ve met my dad before, haven’t you? 

Yeah, he was here the other night. 
Well, he’s not a cop anymore, but he sure as hell used to be. 

What’s your dad’s name? 
Tom. Actually, his name is Realous. That’s his real name. That’s my middle name. It’s a family name. 

What does that name mean? 
It means I’m the realest, man. [everyone laughs]

We’re going to have to fit that into the title somehow. “Pat Harvey – The Realous Man You Ever Met.’ [everyone laughs] So, what was your mom like? 
She was cool, you know? Man, I wasn’t even prepared for questions about my childhood, though. Really, it was just normal stuff. My parents stayed together. They weren’t divorced or anything. I had a lot of teenage angst, so I probably would have wished they were divorced to be cooler or something. That’s something I probably would have thought back then. [laughs] But yeah, I had a pretty normal upbringing over in Evansville.

So, how did you and Amy meet? 
I met her at Chuck E. Cheese’s. [laughs] Seriously. I was Chuck E. Cheese. That was my job. I was the character and Amy was doing prep work. That was a really fun job. 

Really? I was thinking that would be a terrible job. 
No, not at all. It was freakin’ awesome. Chuck E. Cheese’s dressing room is right next to the beer tap, so... [laughs] The manager was really cool, too. Plus, you’d put the outfit on and it was like you were unstoppable. I mean, what is anyone going to do to you? You’re Chuck E. Cheese. [laughs] You could flirt with all the cute girls and smack the guys in the head. The guys might get a little angry, but what are they going to do? You can just laugh and say, “I’m Chuck E. Cheese.” [laughs]

So, basically, you had boundless freedom as Chuck E. Cheese? 
Definitely. Amy and I go back to Chuck E. Cheese’s sometimes and it’s really romantic. We’ve even got our own little table and everything. [laughs] Some of the same people work there, too. 
At what point did you really get into music? 
I always liked music, but I guess I was in my 20s when I really got into playing music. A friend of mine gave me a harmonica when I was about 19 and I messed around with that for a while. Then, the same guy gave me a guitar. I’ve been struggling with it ever since. His name was Jeremy Cates. He’s passed away since then. As a matter of fact, the paints I used for the bullfrog piece I have in my living room – the “horny toad” – have crushed flowers from his funeral mixed in them. That’s the first painting I ever hid a bird in. 

Yeah, the birds are like your signature now. I still can’t find all the birds you hid in the John Lennon case. You said there were five, but I can only find three. 
You’ll just have to keep looking, man. No one except Amy and our kids knew about the “bird thing” for a long time. I didn’t tell anybody about them. They were almost always in my paintings, though. Then I started telling people who had bought my paintings about the birds, because they own them. Now, I’m not so secretive about it. I think it’s pretty neat. They’re in every single one of my paintings, but you have to find them. 

Is there a purpose or story behind the birds? They look like a little like crows. 
The reason I put them in there is based around Jeremy – the guy I mentioned earlier who gave me the guitar. He was a painter too, and he always hid scarecrows in his paintings. I always thought that was really cool. 

So, with music, was there something specific that made you want to get into playing?
I just have this thing inside of me that makes me want to play. I’m sure you have it too; you play, so there’s a desire there and you’ve got to do something about it. I’ve never been really good at playing music, but I really enjoy doing it. I have a lot of fun playing. I actually played with a reggae band in Evansville back in the day. They were pretty good. I was the rhythm guitar player. The guy that was the leader of the band was a Jamaican drummer and a professor at the University of Evansville, which was right down the road from where I lived at the time. I’ve always been into bluegrass music, and reggae is actually very similar as far as the off-rhythm guitar parts go. One of the guys in the band found out I was into bluegrass music and asked me to jam with them sometime. At the time, I couldn’t stand reggae music; it made me seasick listening to those bass lines. But once I started playing with those guys more often, I really developed a strong sense of appreciation for reggae. The guy that led the band was on top of it, too. He had all these code words for changes in the songs and he was a drummer. He was like Phil Collins. It was funny in a way, though, because he was the only black guy in the band. The rest of us were white kids, but we sounded like—and were—a real, legitimate reggae band. We got to play a lot of different shows, too.

What was the name of the band? 
Riddem Culture. 

How long did you play with them? 
A year or two, I think. Then Paul, the leader of the band, ending up moving. He went to a different college to teach. We all separated after that. It was a lot of fun, though. That was one of my first real experiences as far as playing with people and having to learn all these different parts. 
You’ve been a fan of bluegrass for a long time. What’s the story behind that attraction? 
I remember being into bluegrass when I so young that people would ask me where my parents or grandparents were at when I’d go to bluegrass music festivals. [laughs] It’s funny, because none of them were ever into bluegrass music, but I was. I had an old Volkswagen van when we lived in Evansville and we’d drive down to Kentucky to Beaver Dam or Rough River where they have the Governor’s Cup Fiddle Championship, or we’d go to these folk competitions in Petersburg [Indiana]. The folk competitions are really cool, because it’s not just fiddles—it’s banjos, guitars, upright bass, harmonicas, and pretty much any acoustic instrument. I was really into, man. It hit me when I was young, listening to all those cats like Bill Monroe, that I really dug it. I always listened to stuff like Jimi Hendrix, and I thought that bluegrass music was just for old people, but I realized that the old players just didn’t have amplifiers and all that stuff. If you listen to that old Bill Monroe stuff or anything that the Osborne Brothers did—or any of those cats from the very beginning—they get after it. It’s just a different deal. It was a totally different era at that point. But once I understood that, I gained a lot of respect and appreciation for what they were doing. Once I realized that, I was hooked. I’ve loved it since a very young age. They used to do a jam thing in Evansville that was based around bluegrass music, and we would go—but, of course, we would be the youngest people there every time. They loved seeing young people like us there, though. We stuck out like sore thumbs. Things have changed a lot since then, too. 

Yeah, it really has. Now, Americana, folk, bluegrass, and roots-style music has become one of the strongest genres for the younger generation here in the US. 
Definitely. It’s totally changed since we first got into it back then. 

Would you say that’s still your favorite genre of music? 
I will always love bluegrass. I think I’d just say that acoustic music is my thing. If you go to a bluegrass festival and you watch some people standing around their tailgate with a banjo, a fiddle, a mandolin, an upright bass, a dobro, and whatever else, and they don’t have amplifiers whatsoever and are straight getting it, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find something better than that. That’s just badass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best. I love it. I love it because it is what it is; you can take it anywhere and you don’t have to have a bunch of stuff like microphones, PA systems, digital effects, or auto-tune. You just go for it. It’s very organic. 

It’s interesting to think about how old a lot of the instruments used in bluegrass really are. Some of them have existed in some form for centuries. 
Bluegrass music just has a drive to it that I’ve always been attracted to. When I was a kid, I was really into punk rock and metal music—or anything that was loud, heavy, and energetic for that matter—but, honestly, I think bluegrass is a really similar thing. It was just a different generation that started playing it. Once you can get your head around that, it changes everything. You start hearing these guys like the Osborne Brothers, who had a drummer and an electric lap steel player, and you realize that they’re really tearing it up. It’s just badass. Anything Jimmy Martin did is badass, too. He’s one of my favorites. 

Another cool aspect is the comradery. A lot of the times that I’ve seen a bluegrass type of show or concert, all these different people from different bands will jam together onstage just for fun. The whole scene seems pretty tight. 
That was one of the coolest things about Romp Fest [in Owensboro] this year. There were a lot of great guys there playing. David Grisman was there and he’s one of my favorites. When I think of mandolin players, I hear David Grisman’s sound. The way he plays mandolin is amazing. Part of the reason Mandolyn’s name is Mandolyn is because I think the mandolin is one of the most beautiful sounding instruments in the world. In the right hands, man, you just can’t beat a good mandolin player. David Grisman is definitely in the top three best players in the world. One of my latest paintings was of David Grisman and I got to personally hand it to him at Romp, which was really cool. 
When did you first get into artwork and painting? 
I got into painting about three years ago, but I’ve always kind of had a leaning towards art on some level. I never painted, though. What got me into painting was my decision to start working with these guitar cases. I thought I would make a fortune from painting on them, which I would parlay into a hotel chain or some crap. [laughs] At the time I came up with the idea for painting guitar cases, I was just doing spray paint and stencil work. The “Jolly Randy” logo I have—the skull and crossed banjos—was a spray paint stencil actually. I made a lot of little things like that. Then, one day, I was messing around, and I thought, “Man, I bet I would have a lot more control if I tried using a brush.” So, I did, and it changed everything. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t tried it sooner after I started. It really did change everything. 

Was there anything in particular that pushed you to take a step into that new, relatively unknown territory? Was there a muse, so to speak? 
Well, I got all these cases from [late Backstreet Music store owner and talented local musician] Randy Herrick. I was just starting in on these guitar cases right before Randy passed away [in 2011] actually, and I had been doing a lot things with [Plowin’ Todd Cowan and] the Sodbusters at the time, which Randy was a part of. I was having a lot of fun. Then, my mom passed away and Randy died right after that. It was about 19 days after my mom passed. So, I didn’t have that outlet anymore. We all stopped playing. I had to do something. All this crap was coming down at once, it was winter time, and I was stuck in the house. So, I sat down in the basement for three months and just painted. My friend Jeremy, who I mentioned earlier, passed away unexpectedly right around that time, too. He passed away in January. He was only 36. October is when Randy passed away. They were two of the closest friends I ever had, so losing them, as well as my mom, all at the same time, was really hard. Plus, like I said, I didn’t have an outlet to play music anymore, so I had to do something. I just painted. 

Yeah, every time I saw the Sodbusters, you guys seemed really close. 
Yeah, we were definitely tight. We did a lot of stuff together and played a lot together. We went a lot further playing together than I could have ever imagined, too. It was always great. We were like brothers. 

And it was you, Randy…
It was me, Randy, Pat [Ballard], and Todd [Cowan]. Brian Hawkins came in a little later, too, but he was definitely right there with us. He played harmonica and washboard. All those guys are really great. 

So, during that time, did it just feel like all this creativity you had brewing inside was about to explode? 
Pretty much. I was working on these cases and everything, and it just went from there. Some of the first cases I wound up painting were for two kids who lived across the street from Randy. Their mom had bought the cases from Randy at Backstreet Music before he passed, and I knew where they were. They were in the shop. She said she still wanted to have them done, so I got them and painted them for her. 

Were those the very first cases you painted? 
No, the “Jolly Randy” was the first case I ever painted and the second one was of Johnny Cash. Then, I did the Bob Dylan case. It was at that point that I realized I might be onto something really cool. So, I got some canvases, and I painted all the people I really wanted to put on a case – Bob Marley, Cash, Zappa, Dylan, and all the people I really love. That’s really how all of it started. Now, though, I paint simply because I love it. I love to paint. I enjoy the crap out of it. There’s no negativity or sadness to it at all. It gets us into festivals, too, so I’m riding this thing as far as I can. The painting has taken me so much further than music as far as getting out there and meeting people. 

It’s funny, because the case that really got me noticed was an old mandolin case that Todd Cowan gave me. I painted Bill Monroe on it – of course – and I took it to the SPBGMA [Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association] festival down in Tennessee, walked around with it all day, and nobody wanted to buy it. Then, at the very end of the day, Danny Clark, who was the marketing director for the International Bluegrass Music Museum [in Owensboro, KY] ended up buying it. He said, “I’ll buy this piece from you, but you have to promise that you’ll come to Romp and sell these.” So, I was like, “Of course I will.” Then, when I was at Romp with my new cases, I got to meet this guy named Ed Ward, who founded the Milwaukee Irish Fest. It’s the largest Irish cultural gathering in North America actually. There were 146,000 people there last year. Well, Ed invited us to come up there and he gave me my own tent right up by the bluegrass stage. It was freakin’ awesome. We had a blast. It was the first year they had bluegrass music at the festival actually. They drove us in and out every day and put us in a nice hotel. It really was amazing. 

Did you end up selling a lot of art there? 
Yeah, I did really well actually. I made some decent money and met a lot of really cool people in the process. 

In my humble opinion, your paintings are really phenomenal, man. I really dig the bright colors you use for figures and instruments. When I see one of your pieces, I know it’s yours immediately. As far as I understand, though, you’ve never actually had any formal education or professional training when it comes to art. Is that correct?
Yep. I’ve never really had any education or training. My uncle is a high school art teacher – he actually taught me when I was in high school – and my sister is a poet. I think it just kind of runs in the family, man. But no, I’ve never had any training to speak of. That doesn’t really surprise me all that much either. I mean, sometimes I step back and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that just came out of me,” but it comes naturally I guess. 

You told me before that you’ve come a long way with brushes and techniques through trial and error. Could you talk about that a little bit?  
I never knew much about brushes, and I still don’t. I still look at basic painting books and think, “Wow, that is awesome. I can’t believe I didn’t know that already.” [laughs

So, what’s your process when approach a new painting?
It always starts so minute. That’s what’s cool about it to me; I’m focusing on these little pieces of what will eventually be the whole. It starts coming together and then I kind of have to focus back in on the little things. It’s always about the tiny parts until the very end. Then I can step back and look at it as one thing. All the little pieces make this huge thing at the end and I love it. It does take me a long time to do it, though. It’s just the way I do it. It probably takes way longer than it would for most. But, you know, I just do my thing, and when I get it right, it’s right. I think a lot of my problem is that I just don’t know proper techniques. I think we’ve talked about this, too, but I tried to paint strings on an instrument with a little tiny detail brush that you couldn’t paint much more than a quarter-of-an-inch at a time with one time. If I had just used the right kind of brush, I could’ve painted one straight line for each string and it would have taken me ten seconds. It took me about four hours, though, and it never looked right, so I just got rid of the strings. [laughs] That one ended up being called “No Strings Attached.” [laughs] I tried at least. 

What’s the most frustrating part of finishing a painting? Are there points where you’re throwing stuff at the walls?
Yeah, there are times like that. Painting is very relaxing, but it can also be super frustrating at times. The worst thing is when there’s a deadline or you’re trying to get something done for someone quickly – like that stupid [John] Lennon case, man. [laughs] That was the hardest thing that I’ve ever painted by far. Seriously. 
Really? Well, it looks great, man. I’m honored to own it. I’m not trying to be a suck-up or anything, but it really is amazing. 
Oh, I hated that case. It drove me crazy. I painted on that one for a month straight. I know I put at least 60 hours of work in on that one—at least. I worked on it every single day when I came home and it changed so many times. Really, if there hadn’t been somewhat of a deadline on it, I would probably still be painting on it, and it wouldn’t be what it is now. But, at the same time, if I never had deadlines, I’d probably never get anything done, and I look at that case now and I think, “Ok, that looks pretty cool.” But while I was doing it, I always felt like it was missing something and couldn’t figure out what it was. I would try something different, but I felt like I couldn’t ever find it. I really struggled with that one. In truth, I always struggle when I’m making something for someone else. When I do it for myself, it’s easier. A lot of the times, I’ll have pieces sitting around that I’m not sure I’ve finished yet, and I’ll hang them up and look at them for a while. I won’t be sure what I want to do with it yet. I might decide to change or add something after I’ve looked at it for a while. If I decide it’s a go as it is, I’ll put a bird in it if it doesn’t already have one, I’ll sign it, and I’ll put clear coat on it. Once the clear coat goes on, there’s nothing else I can do. It’s done at that point. 

It’s funny how that works. If you’re creating something for someone else’s enjoyment or pleasure, it’s so much more stressful. The final product is usually fulfilling, but the process leading up to it can be really hard. When we interview a person or group, and we know them personally or we really respect what they’re doing, there’s a lot more pressure there. You want the person or group you’re writing about to think it’s amazing. It’s a lot different than sitting at home and writing a story for yourself. 
You’re exactly right. I worried and I stressed, because I really wanted that Lennon case to be the best thing I’d ever done. Really, though, I always want everything I do to be “the best thing that I’ve ever done,” you know? If I’m doing stuff that I don’t think is the best, I might as well quit. I want everything to be better. I mean, you can see how my work has evolved over time. I consider the stuff I do now to be pretty simple, but, back when I started, the paintings I made were extremely simple. Everything is a learning process; I’ve learned something from every piece I’ve done. I paint in layers, which is cool, and it works well, but it can get muddy if you’re not careful. It starts getting funky. But it’s all good, because you can just put some white paint over the mistakes and start again. That’s another reason I love painting. If I make a mistake, I can fix it. I really don’t think you can mess a painting up so bad that you can’t fix it. You can just paint the whole thing white and start over completely if you do. 

You said the John Lennon case actually has a few paintings under what you see on the surface, too, right? 
Oh, it’s got several underneath. [laughs

I think that’s pretty cool. 
At some point in the future, if you ever have access to one of those machines that allows you to look through layers of a painting, you’ll see all kinds of stuff under there. [laughs] You know where it says, “All You Need is Love”? Well, before that, it said, “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace,” and it looked awesome. I thought it was perfect, but, when it was all done, the background color just wasn’t right. When the background is off, you pretty much have to start all over again, so I changed it. I wanted to make something John Lennon would think was pretty cool, you know? I wanted something he would appreciate if he was still alive. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever. 

Are well-known musicians and instruments natural subject matter to you? 
Yeah. That’s pretty much all I paint, because music was really my first creative output. It’s what I’ve done for so many years now. I’m almost 40 now and I started playing when I was 20, so it’s been half of my life. Then, recently, I picked up the paintbrush, and that just underlines the music. It’s just where my mind is at. I mean, almost everything I do has to do with music in some way. I can only think of a couple of pieces that aren’t directly related to music. That’s what I like; that’s where I’m at creatively. Plus, it works out really well in relation to the whole music festival scene. That’s a perfect fit for us, because we get to hang out and sell my stuff to people that appreciate it. I mean, most of the people who buy my art have a beer in their hand and a tattoo on their arm somewhere. They’re not like some high-brow cats in a fancy art gallery. So, I do really well at music festivals. I feel like those people get me. If you’re there to see a music festival, you’re going to get what I’m doing, you know? It works out well. My kids love it and so does Amy, so it’s perfect. 
You do a lot of work on something that resembles raw, un-stretched canvas, too. What led you to start using that kind of material for paintings?
Well, I was given a lot of it several years ago. It’s the brown fabric they use to make the Carhartt clothing out of. It’s perfect, too. You can get different effects with it. Some of my paintings are on a raw piece, but I’ve washed pieces before painting them and it frays the edges a little bit. 

That’s really cool, because Carhartt’s a big part of our local community, but people all over the world wear their clothes. 
Yeah, when we were in Wisconsin, people asked me what it was. I asked them if they knew what Carhartt was and they were all like, “Oh yeah, Carhartt is awesome! Carhartt’s the best!” [laughs] I was like, “Well, that’s what this is. You could wear this painting on your foot for three months and not get a hole in it. It’s badass. It’ll protect you from wolverines and everything else.” [laughs] I love painting on it. It’s really heavy, too. You look at this stretched canvas right here—it’s a joke. You could poke your finger right through it, but that Carhartt fabric is the real deal. 

Before I started painting on that fabric, I was painting on stretched canvas. That stuff is way too expensive, though. I started looking around and I realized that there is crap everywhere to paint on. So, I was painting on old pieces of wood, old metal, and anything else I could recycle in some way. In fact, I really don’t paint on stretched canvas anymore at all. I bought most of the canvas I have a while ago. It just seems ridiculous to me to pay 15 or 20 dollars per canvas. It was once I had started painting on wood and stuff like that that I got the Carhartt fabric. When I tried it, I loved it. I’ve had other artists ask me how I can paint on it, because it’s not stretched, and I guess most artists use an easel when they’re painting. I just lay out on the ground, though. I made a huge banner for these folks one time, and it was like eight by three foot, but I just laid it out on the ground. 

Are your paintings oil or acrylic? 
It’s all acrylic. Everything I do is acrylic. I want to mess with oil paints, but I just haven’t done it yet. I’ve only been painting for three years, so I’m really trying to focus in on the acrylics so I can learn how to use them better. 

With the cases and fabric, do you have to prep or prime them before painting? 
Yeah, I use Gesso. It’s basically just a type of primer. It’s awesome, though, because you can put Gesso on pretty much anything and acrylic paint will stick to it. If I didn’t use that on the cases, none of the paint would stick. I’ve tried it before. I use white Gesso, because when you try to paint on something dark it’s really hard to get the colors right. The white makes the colors pop much better. They make clear Gesso, too. At the end of the day, it just gives the paint something to bite into. I really don’t know what I’m doing, though. [laughs

Ultimately, do you have a goal you’d like to reach through painting? Or is it just something you’re having fun with?
I don’t’ really have a goal. I just want to go wherever I can with it. Like I said, I’ve been really surprised by how far I’ve gotten with it so far. It’s taken me a lot farther than I ever got through playing music. It’s fun and I enjoy it, but it would probably be a hassle if it was how I had to make my living. Although, at the same time, I would love to make a living doing it, because it would beat the crap out of what I’m doing now. [laughs] I just like it and I really enjoy it, man. I don’t care if anybody else likes it; I dig it. I would still do it whether anyone liked it or not. That’s not why I ultimately do it. I’ve got all kind of things I’ve made that are just lying around the house.
The name of your art page on Facebook is Bad Apple Paintwerks. Where did that name come from? 
Amy’s always throwing out names and, if it were up to her, she’d call it something like “Apple Blossom Something or Another.” [laughs] Well, I wanted to take that and make it something a little edgier, and that’s where Bad Apple came from. Basically, I was just wanted to find a way to put all my stuff in one spot where people could look at it online. The Facebook page didn’t cost anything, so that was great. It’s worked out pretty well so far, but you’ve got to put a link to my stuff in here. [laughs] I’m sitting just over 100 likes right now and that’s got to change. [laughs] Seriously! It hasn’t always been Bad Apple Paintwerks, though. Before that, it was Buffalo Pick, which was kind of an inside joke.

You definitely deserve more “likes” than that. We’ll put a link in here and try to get more people on your page for sure. 
Man, in all honesty, you’re the only person in all of Madisonville who’s bought one of my pieces. It’s hard to sell art here. It just feels like there’s something holding people back in Madisonville, but I’m not completely sure what it is. 

Well, that actually relates back to something I wanted to ask you about. Why should people appreciate the talent of local artists and musicians? 
That’s somewhat of a personal question. If you don’t appreciate art, then that’s your deal. You can’t make someone appreciate something like art against their will. And, really, art has no face value by itself; it’s not worth anything on its own. Art’s value comes from the personal connection someone might have to it. For me, it’s pretty easy to say why art is important. If you’re sitting around feeling bad because you’re stuck in one place—which can also apply to the creative part of your brain—art can serve as a vehicle to move forward in a sense. For me, it’s kind of like yoga; I feel better when I’m creating and when I’m not I don’t feel balanced. It’s just something that I have to do. It can be painting or playing guitar—I’ve just got to do something or I’m not as happy as I could be. I’ve got to do it whether someone looks at it or not. But I can’t tell somebody else why it’s important. 

Well, in closing, do you want to give any shout-outs? 
I want to thank Flavor Flav and Chuck D. [laughs] I also want to thank the Hopkins County Art League, because they’re trying to do their thing. I think it’s a good deal. Anybody in town that’s into any kind of art should probably check them out. In doing so, they might meet some great, new people. I met a ton of people through the Art League that have helped me out in other areas as well. There aren’t a whole lot of young people that are members, but I think that could change. If more young people were involved, I think it could bring something new to the table at the very least.  

_________________________________________________

To check out Pat Harvey’s artwork, visit his official page, Bad Apple Paintwerks, by clicking here.

To learn more about the Hopkins County Art League (HCAL), click here

Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos by Jessi Smith

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Gear Guide: Last Ride of a Legend

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (4/1/13)—It was born in Kalamazoo during the peak of the “golden age”; it’s survived countless state-hopping road trips and a fully involved house fire; it’s graced the hands of highly skilled artists known all over the world for their remarkable talents; it’s seen the Smithsonian and the Grand Ole Opry; it’s recently garnered the attention of area newspapers, the Hopkins County Genealogical and Historical Societies, and Western Kentucky University’s Folk Studies Department, just to name a few; and it stands as one of only several intact instruments that helped to bring a purely western Kentucky style of music to full fruition. But, odds are, it—a 1959 Gibson ES-225TD—would have been just another collectible guitar without the pivotal touch of its late owner, Mose Rager.

A native of Muhlenberg County, Mose Rager placed a vital stamp on the enduring style and sound of western Kentucky thumbpicking in the early to mid-20th Century. Putting this prowess in perspective, it was Rager that taught globally acclaimed country musician and Kentucky native, Merle Travis, how to thumbpick during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the style is coined by many as “Travis Picking” today, Travis never shied away from letting the public know that Mose was one of his most important early mentors.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While Rager never really gained any widespread “spotlight” notoriety for his fervent and innovative approach to the intricate, dual-toned thumb style, his rich musical legacy continues to inspire and directly influence many of the region’s most notable contemporary artists.

Among this group of Rager-inspired artists is Nortonville, KY resident, award-winning thumbpicker, and “all-terrain” musician, J.T. Oglesby (pictured above).

A longtime friend of the Rager family, Oglesby has spent years listening to and studying Rager’s storied, but relatively rare catalogue of music, the hand-me-down stories of his lengthy life, and the historic mystique that has come to envelope the region-specific style he helped to propagate.

In turn, Oglesby recently got the “dream-like” chance to take Mose’s well-seasoned 1959 Gibson ES-225TD electric guitar on what he says could easily be its “last ride” in Kentucky—a ride that is still underway as of this writing.

In addition to recording a slew of both traditional and modern tracks with the guitar thanks to the help of local musician, Patrick “Patson” Richardson, Oglesby has also been in talks with the Western Kentucky University Folks Studies Department regarding a documentary style piece focused on the instrument and recently played/showcased the instrument at a Paducah-based concert filmed by KET that is to be televised in May.

In honoring this momentous, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime occasion, while also drawing attention to the upcoming celebration of Rager’s life and music—Mose Rager Day—which will be held at the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close, the Sugg Street Post would like present our readers with a look at the life of Mose Rager and the influence he had on the thumbpicking style, some in-depth research conducted on his beloved 53-year-old Gibson, and the backstory that led Oglesby to the instrument.

* Mose Rager was born on April 2nd, 1911 in Drakesboro, KY (Muhlenberg County) and passed away in Greenville on May 14th, 1986 at the age of 75.

* Mose was a family man that primarily worked as a barber. Among other things, he was also employed by several coal mines throughout his life. Interestingly, he served out a short stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Paducah, KY.

* Described by many area musicians as the “father” of thumbpicking, Mose—by all historic accounts—taught legendary country musician and Muhlenberg County native, Merle Travis, how to play the innovative style for which he is now popularly known (“Travis Picking”). In paying homage to his roots, however, Travis never shied away from giving full credit to Mose for teaching him the style. Along with his lengthy, hit-making recording history and live performance prowess, Merle Travis also starred in several western movies and TV shows. In turn, his music was also featured on nationally released films and national syndications. For example, Travis performed alongside Frank Sinatra in one of his original songs, “Reenlistment Blues,” which would be used in the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.

Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

PHOTO: Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. 

* Inspired by the African-American-based and parlor-style guitar playing of his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones, as well as the increasing popularity of bluesy guitar “rags” prevalent during the early half of the 20th Century, regional native Kennedy Jones is credited with actually creating what came to be known as thumbpicking or “thumb style.” While Jones is noted as the originator of the style—and is also known for using a “Hawaiian” style steel guitar thumbpick for the very first time, which are still used today—his relatively nascent approach was taken to new, innovative heights by the likes of Mose, Ike Everly, and fellow “thumbpicking originator” Arnold Schultz. It was this group of artists that, as many accounts attest, truly produced what’s now known as Western Kentucky Thumbpicking.

* For several years, Mose spent time on the road as a professional touring musician and played alongside Grandpa Jones, Curly Fox, Texas Ruby, and other WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry stars of the day. However, after being involved in a bus crash, Mose immediately stopped touring. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The radio tag WSM, which was fashioned in 1925 by the station’s originators, The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM’s Barn Dance program and live music venue would eventually be renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927)

* Mose performed a striking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” at the Grand Ole Opry. The guitar he used that particular night was the Gibson ES-225TD seen in the attached photos.

* Throughout his life, records and firsthand accounts indicate that Mose rarely played the same guitar more than once or twice. As these same accounts evidence, he often borrowed and traded guitars with other local musicians. As mentioned in a previously-released post found on the Ohio Fingerstyle Guitar Club’s official website:

Like many struggling non-famous guitarists, it was told that if Mose ever got a guitar—he didn't have it for long. Sometimes he didn't even have one. Merle Travis joked on the album, Travis Atkins Traveling Show, that Mose “would sometimes borrow a guitar from one person, play it for a while, and then give it back and borrow a guitar from somebody else.”

However, both his Gibson ES-125 (now on display at the Merle Travis Center in Central City, KY; see photo below) and the ES-225TD were among some his most beloved instruments and remained with him throughout much of his life.

* While Mose played alongside a plethora of talented musicians during his life, including country music star, Chet Atkins, Central City sensations, The Everly Brothers, jazz master, Lenny Breau, country music star, Merle Travis (of course), and many others, Mose was apprehensive when it came to recording his works. In fact, many described Mose as being “studio shy.” Interestingly enough, one of his sessions, which may or may not still exist on record, was captured through a little bit of sly maneuvering on the part of fellow musicians and engineers. As the story goes, when he paid a visit to a recording studio in Central City, the recording “light” had to be unscrewed. The reason: as soon as the light would come on signaling that recording was underway, Mose would simply freeze up.

* Today, acclaimed area musician, entertainer, and the unequivocal “king” of the thumbpicking style, Eddie Pennington, as well as other acclaimed performers (Alonzo Pennington, J.T. Oglesby, Steve Rector, Paul Mosely, and more) give credit to Mose for inspiring their deep affinity for the west Kentucky style.

* The following excerpt taken from David K. Bradford’s, “The Unstrung History of the American Guitar: The Guitar and Early 19th Century American Music,” provides an insightful historical look at Mose’s influence and the thumbpicking style:

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, ‘Jonesy’ was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’” Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time ... I ever seen Arnold Shultz ... this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager. Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

The ES (Electric Spanish)-225 was introduced to the Gibson family of guitars in 1955 and was discontinued in the latter half of 1959. This model, like others, was manufactured at Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo, MI factory, which relocated to Nashville in 1984.

Throughout the model’s comparatively short-lived, four-year production run, two main variations were manufactured—the 225T (Thinline) and the 225TD (Thinline/Dual Pickups)—each of which had three finish options (tobacco sunburst, a lighter cherry-style sunburst, and the more expensive “natural” option, which was denoted with an “N” on the model number; ex. ES-225TDN).

While both models sported many of the same features, including a single Florentine-style cutaway, thinline-style hollow-body construction, a maple laminate top with “f” holes, a maple laminate back, mahogany sides, a one-piece mahogany neck, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot-style fretboard markers, 20 frets, a four-ply black/white celluloid pickguard, single-layer binding on both the neck and body, a 24 ¾” scale length, a set neck joint, nitrocellulose lacquer, and similar body dimensions, the original 225T utilized a single P-90 pickup that was situated (oddly enough) at an angle between the neck and bridge. In turn, the inaugural “T” model donned a single volume and single tone control. The 225TD, which was introduced in mid-1956, sported two more conventionally positioned P-90s—one at the neck and one at the bridge—as well as a three-way pickup selector switch (bridge, bridge/neck, and neck), two tone controls, and two volume controls.

Though both models originally used a longer, wrap-around style trapeze tailpiece—much like the first run of early ‘50s “goldtop” Gibson Les Paul models—the 1959 ES-225 models were fitted with both a rosewood bridge/base combo and a shorter non-wrap nickel tailpiece (as seen on the ‘50s and ‘60s era ES-125T, TD, and TDC models). Therefore, when using this seemingly insignificant cosmetic peculiarity as a dating tool, it would seem that Mose’s ES-225TD was produced in one of Gibson’s most desirable “Golden” years: 1959. Though the shorter tailpiece and wooden bridge/base could have been fitted to the guitar at a later date, it’s unlikely as the rest of the guitar is completely original. What’s more, Mose’s ES-225TD sports the darker brown sunburst finish, which is considered to be rarer than the redder, cherry-type sunburst.

While the ES-225TD is more or less considered a forerunner to Gibson’s later, ‘60s era model, the ES-125TD, many guitar aficionados point out that the 225’s neck joint was deeper set and, consequently, stronger than its psychedelic-age heir. Additionally, the ES-225 was manufactured with a block of wood (probably maple or mahogany) attached to the underside of the top below the bridge area, which helps to reduce feedback when the guitar’s signal is pushed hard through a “dimed” amp. Though the block does not extend through the length of the body as in the larger semi-hollow ES-335 model, the later ES-125T, TD, and TDCs are completely hollow inside. One other distinctive difference between the models is the neck profile. Like most of Gibson’s ‘50s era guitars, the ES-225’s neck shape, more commonly known as a “U” profile, is slightly larger and rounder than its later ‘60s era counterparts.

As with most semi-hollow and hollow-body style guitars, the tone Mose’s ES-225TD produces is somewhat warmer and more dynamic than that of the average solid-body guitar (i.e. Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster, SG, etc.). In the case of Mose’s vintage 225TD, this tonal characteristic is further enhanced by a combination of seasoned tonewoods and the thinner, “midrangey” signal produced from Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups. Taking into account the simultaneously two-sided sound of the thumbpicking style—both low rhythm and higher melody/lead lines—it’s no wonder that many thumb style practitioners oftentimes prefer a full sounding, big-bodied acoustic or a similar hollow/semi-hollow electric. The reason: the warmer tones of these dual pickup guitars accentuate the rhythm played by the thumb while still retaining enough snap to allow the melody/lead lines to cut through the mix.

Other electric hollow/semi-hollow guitars commonly used by well-known thumbpickers include Gibson’s Super-400, L-5, Byrdland, Super V, and various other ES models (such as the 335, 330, 175, and 125). As mentioned earlier, Mose’s fully hollow ES-125 was among his small group of favorites. Gretsch’s various Chet Atkins signature models, as well as similar hollow/semi-hollow productions like the White/Black Falcon, Country Club, the Eddie Cochran tribute model, the Anniversary line, and the Electromatic G5422 line, are also mainstays of the thumbpicking world. Though these particular instruments are among some of the most commonly used, thumbpicking—like any other genre of music—has been taken to a variety of differing guitar styles over time (both with and without success).

Though I’ve always loved the guitar—my parents have pictures of me in diapers holding guitars at family gatherings, around the house, and everywhere else—but Mose died before I seriously started playing.

I was first exposed to thumb style guitar playing when I was in my teens. I heard [Kennedy Jones’ “thumbpicker anthem” and Merle Travis’ hit single] “Cannonball Rag” on KET’s, Kentucky Afield. I liked it even though I was really into punk and metal at the time. I had no idea of what all was going on during that song. I thought it was two guitars playing with one doing lead and the other playing rhythm. A few months later, I ran into my cousin [award-winning thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington and saw him play both parts at the same time. I was blown away, man. I had no clue you could back yourself up with rhythm while playing lead. I had already wanted to learn classical-style guitar; the main reason was that I loved the idea of using my fingers to pick. It just seemed to me, at least at the time, that if I could pick out a melody, I could pick out five melodies if I used five picks—my fingers in this case. [laughs] Eddie started teaching me how to thumbpick not long after. I learned really quickly, but I was also playing 12-plus hours a day. I wore holes in all my jeans from resting the guitar on my leg; I had callouses on my forearms from resting them on the body of the guitar; and I wore all the finish off the neck of my guitar in a single year. Seriously, that is all I did, and it didn’t stop for years.

I had just turned 17-years-old and Eddie introduced me to all the thumbpickers. He took me around to the contests and get-togethers, too. It was at a contest that I met Mose Rager’s family. Mose’s wife, Mrs. Laverda, was a sweet and pleasant lady. I remember meeting her and his daughter, Marilyn, who goes by the nickname, “Frizz.” The nickname was given to her by Merle Travis as a kid because of her really curly blonde hair. Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, and I hit it off really well.

One day, I got a phone call from a mutual friend, Joanna Fox, who was living in Drakesboro, KY at the time. Many know her from her time as a teacher in Muhlenberg County. Basically, Joanna always used to call me out of the blue whenever she had something she knew I would like. She is related to [musician] John Prine, and when John was awarded his Kentucky Colonel certificate, she called and asked me to give it to him because she knew I was a fan. That’s just how she was. Joanna was a really nice and interesting person that always has something interesting going on. Well, one day, she called and asked me, “Would you want to play Mose’s guitar?” Within a few weeks of starting to learn from Eddie, he introduced me to recordings of Mose. I was immediately drawn to Mose’s music and personality on the recordings. So, when Joanna asked me if I wanted to play his guitar, I was beyond excited. I agreed to meet them at the fire station in Drakesboro and when I showed up, Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, Mose’s grandson, Anthony, and Joanna were there. They had two Gibson guitars and an amp with them. One was the guitar I am currently borrowing—the ES-225TD—and the other was a Gibson acoustic that was finished with an orange sunburst, but I’m not sure of the model. The amp was Mose’s personal amp, but, for some reason, I really don’t remember anything about it even though I ended up playing through it for several years. Well, that night was the start of a very long friendship that continues to this day.

Frizz showed me her home, which was right across the road from the fire station at the time, and gave me a standing invitation to visit at any time. I more than took her up on it. Every chance I got, I was there over the years. I would pick Mose’s guitars, look at family photos, have her tell me stories about him, and would listen to every recording she could dig up. It was not uncommon for me to show up around 6pm and stay until sun-up.

Around this time, I got to traveling as a musician quite a bit. [Slaughters, KY native and acclaimed musician] Chris Knight and I had standing gigs in Nashville and had started talking to labels, publishers, and the like. I would head to Nashville and stay as long as needed, then I would come home and run to Drakesboro to hang out with Frizz and learn more about Mose. I remember being in Seattle at one point and encountering my first recordings of Django Reinhardt. He is another “top hero” of mine now, but I had never heard of him at the time. I don’t even know if I stopped by the house when I returned from the airport after that. I headed straight to Drakesboro to play his recordings for Frizz. [laughs]

Frizz and her husband, Larry, had a house fire several years ago. They lost Mose’s amp and acoustic guitar in the fire, but they saved the electric—the ES-225TD—that I’m borrowing and recording with right now. Merle Travis used to draw cartoons for them when they were kids, too. Luckily, they managed to save the cartoons that Merle drew, but lost a ton of recordings of Mose. They no longer live in Drakesboro. Mrs. Laverda lived in Drakesboro until she passed away. Frizz and Larry bought Mose’s old house when he and Mrs. Laverda bought their new place right behind what is now known as “The Four Legends Fountain” in Drakesboro. The last house Mose lived in is still there, but his old house is gone.

I was with Mrs. Laverda the last time that Chet Atkins came to visit her. Chet’s health was failing and he died not too long after that. Chet spoke so highly of Mose, and he thanked Mrs. Laverda for always being hospitable and kind to the throngs of musicians, including himself, that would come to pay homage to Mose. I knew that day, as my friend drove off to take Chet back to Nashville, that it was going to be last time I saw him. You could just tell that his time was short, and he passed not long afterward. Mrs. Laverda made sure I was with her when Chet came that day. She was getting frail herself and I helped her stable herself so she could walk over and see him. It was all pretty emotional, because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era. In a way, that is how it is for me now. It is an honor to have the guitar of a personal hero, but, at the same time, I also know I am watching the end of an era once again.

Over the years, the Ragers have become a part of my family. I love them all, and they have shaped my life in ways they will never fully understand. It started out years ago, as a kid trying to discover all he could about his hero. Now, it is ending as a man that is trying his hardest to preserve the memory of a family that he has grown to love. It goes way deeper for me than just honoring a hero; I was fortunate to have the opportunity and recognized it. If I hadn’t recognized it, I would not have acted on it. If I hadn’t acted on it, my life would be totally different today. My past would be totally different. My attitude would be as if it belonged to another person. The whole family shaped my outlook, music, and various other aspects of my life.

Mose was an innovative, unique, and wonderful person. His influence on music and musicians goes far beyond the notes he hit on his guitar. 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me have many things in common: we both still love Mose’s music, we both still love to hear his stories on tape, and we both have a profound admiration for the man that gave this area its own singular style of playing, which has influenced the world. But, we also have differences. Among them is a better understanding of why Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and countless other musicians’ lives carried with them such an impact from Mose. It was his spirit in general. He was the wise man on the mountain that not only played music is such an amazing way that it blew your mind, but also had a deep insight into people, happiness, and life so much so that that it made you examine yourself and discover things you may not have ever noticed otherwise. There was something about Mose that made you want to be good. Not just musically good, but good as a person. He made you feel like he cared, because he did. The shoddy recording methods of the time period he lived in could not squash the inner spirit of this man. He was a happy soul, and that carried across through his music, stories, and that massive laugh of his that he was not shy about unleashing. I can hear his laugh in my mind clear as I can hear the melodies of his songs.

I came to borrow Mose’s guitar just as a whim actually. I thought it would be cool if I played it on the show we filmed for KET in Paducah on March 1st. When I asked Frizz, she told me that she had no problem with it, but she had given it to Cameron, who is her grandson, and that he would have to give his okay or else she wouldn't feel right. The next day, I messaged Cameron's dad and asked if he could ask Cameron about me borrowing it. The next day, Frizz called and told me to come pick it up.

I sent out a few emails letting a few people know that I had the guitar and then went and picked it up. One of the people I emailed was Dr.Erika Brady, who is the head of WKU's Folk Studies Department. I was already planning on recording some with the guitar while I had it, too. I had contacted Patrick “Patson” Richardson about doing a recording and documentary-style project with me as well. Patson has been filming video of me in the studio while I’m recording tracks so we would have both audio and video of the guitar. Erika contacted me a day or two later and said she had a student, Mike Rivera, that had just been asking her about the whole music history of Muhlenberg county. She asked if I wanted to have them get involved. I told her it would be an honor, and that is how the idea of doing a full-fledged documentary got off to a start. Erika and I have met and talked about plans, but we were both really sick the first go around, so the meeting was short and sweet. [laughs] There is both a short-term and long-term project that we are working on. The short-term project is "What can we get recorded and documented before I return the guitar?" The long-term idea is still to be discussed more in-depth.

To hear a rare recording of Mose Rager in the studio, click here. Additional recordings can be found by searching "Mose Rager" on YouTube. 

If you would like to participate in celebrating the life and longstanding legacy of Mose Rager, please visit the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close for Mose Rager Day.

To learn more about Mose Rager and the thumbpicking style, click the video player attached below this article. 

For additional “Gear Guide” articles, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos of J.T. Oglesby and Mose Rager’s ES-225TD/ES-125 by Jeff Harp
Historic photos provided courtesy of J.T. Oglesby

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  • Published in Music

Gear Guide: Last Ride of a Legend

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (4/1/13)—It was born in Kalamazoo during the peak of the “golden age”; it’s survived countless state-hopping road trips and a fully involved house fire; it’s graced the hands of highly skilled artists known all over the world for their remarkable talents; it’s seen the Smithsonian and the Grand Ole Opry; it’s recently garnered the attention of area newspapers, the Hopkins County Genealogical and Historical Societies, and Western Kentucky University’s Folk Studies Department, just to name a few; and it stands as one of only several intact instruments that helped to bring a purely western Kentucky style of music to full fruition. But, odds are, it—a 1959 Gibson ES-225TD—would have been just another collectible guitar without the pivotal touch of its late owner, Mose Rager.

A native of Muhlenberg County, Mose Rager placed a vital stamp on the enduring style and sound of western Kentucky thumbpicking in the early to mid-20th Century. Putting this prowess in perspective, it was Rager that taught globally acclaimed country musician and Kentucky native, Merle Travis, how to thumbpick during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the style is coined by many as “Travis Picking” today, Travis never shied away from letting the public know that Mose was one of his most important early mentors.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While Rager never really gained any widespread “spotlight” notoriety for his fervent and innovative approach to the intricate, dual-toned thumb style, his rich musical legacy continues to inspire and directly influence many of the region’s most notable contemporary artists.

Among this group of Rager-inspired artists is Nortonville, KY resident, award-winning thumbpicker, and “all-terrain” musician, J.T. Oglesby (pictured above).

A longtime friend of the Rager family, Oglesby has spent years listening to and studying Rager’s storied, but relatively rare catalogue of music, the hand-me-down stories of his lengthy life, and the historic mystique that has come to envelope the region-specific style he helped to propagate.

In turn, Oglesby recently got the “dream-like” chance to take Mose’s well-seasoned 1959 Gibson ES-225TD electric guitar on what he says could easily be its “last ride” in Kentucky—a ride that is still underway as of this writing.

In addition to recording a slew of both traditional and modern tracks with the guitar thanks to the help of local musician, Patrick “Patson” Richardson, Oglesby has also been in talks with the Western Kentucky University Folks Studies Department regarding a documentary style piece focused on the instrument and recently played/showcased the instrument at a Paducah-based concert filmed by KET that is to be televised in May.

In honoring this momentous, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime occasion, while also drawing attention to the upcoming celebration of Rager’s life and music—Mose Rager Day—which will be held at the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close, the Sugg Street Post would like present our readers with a look at the life of Mose Rager and the influence he had on the thumbpicking style, some in-depth research conducted on his beloved 53-year-old Gibson, and the backstory that led Oglesby to the instrument.

* Mose Rager was born on April 2nd, 1911 in Drakesboro, KY (Muhlenberg County) and passed away in Greenville on May 14th, 1986 at the age of 75.

* Mose was a family man that primarily worked as a barber. Among other things, he was also employed by several coal mines throughout his life. Interestingly, he served out a short stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Paducah, KY.

* Described by many area musicians as the “father” of thumbpicking, Mose—by all historic accounts—taught legendary country musician and Muhlenberg County native, Merle Travis, how to play the innovative style for which he is now popularly known (“Travis Picking”). In paying homage to his roots, however, Travis never shied away from giving full credit to Mose for teaching him the style. Along with his lengthy, hit-making recording history and live performance prowess, Merle Travis also starred in several western movies and TV shows. In turn, his music was also featured on nationally released films and national syndications. For example, Travis performed alongside Frank Sinatra in one of his original songs, “Reenlistment Blues,” which would be used in the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.

Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

PHOTO: Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. 

* Inspired by the African-American-based and parlor-style guitar playing of his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones, as well as the increasing popularity of bluesy guitar “rags” prevalent during the early half of the 20th Century, regional native Kennedy Jones is credited with actually creating what came to be known as thumbpicking or “thumb style.” While Jones is noted as the originator of the style—and is also known for using a “Hawaiian” style steel guitar thumbpick for the very first time, which are still used today—his relatively nascent approach was taken to new, innovative heights by the likes of Mose, Ike Everly, and fellow “thumbpicking originator” Arnold Schultz. It was this group of artists that, as many accounts attest, truly produced what’s now known as Western Kentucky Thumbpicking.

* For several years, Mose spent time on the road as a professional touring musician and played alongside Grandpa Jones, Curly Fox, Texas Ruby, and other WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry stars of the day. However, after being involved in a bus crash, Mose immediately stopped touring. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The radio tag WSM, which was fashioned in 1925 by the station’s originators, The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM’s Barn Dance program and live music venue would eventually be renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927)

* Mose performed a striking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” at the Grand Ole Opry. The guitar he used that particular night was the Gibson ES-225TD seen in the attached photos.

* Throughout his life, records and firsthand accounts indicate that Mose rarely played the same guitar more than once or twice. As these same accounts evidence, he often borrowed and traded guitars with other local musicians. As mentioned in a previously-released post found on the Ohio Fingerstyle Guitar Club’s official website:

Like many struggling non-famous guitarists, it was told that if Mose ever got a guitar—he didn't have it for long. Sometimes he didn't even have one. Merle Travis joked on the album, Travis Atkins Traveling Show, that Mose “would sometimes borrow a guitar from one person, play it for a while, and then give it back and borrow a guitar from somebody else.”

However, both his Gibson ES-125 (now on display at the Merle Travis Center in Central City, KY; see photo below) and the ES-225TD were among some his most beloved instruments and remained with him throughout much of his life.

* While Mose played alongside a plethora of talented musicians during his life, including country music star, Chet Atkins, Central City sensations, The Everly Brothers, jazz master, Lenny Breau, country music star, Merle Travis (of course), and many others, Mose was apprehensive when it came to recording his works. In fact, many described Mose as being “studio shy.” Interestingly enough, one of his sessions, which may or may not still exist on record, was captured through a little bit of sly maneuvering on the part of fellow musicians and engineers. As the story goes, when he paid a visit to a recording studio in Central City, the recording “light” had to be unscrewed. The reason: as soon as the light would come on signaling that recording was underway, Mose would simply freeze up.

* Today, acclaimed area musician, entertainer, and the unequivocal “king” of the thumbpicking style, Eddie Pennington, as well as other acclaimed performers (Alonzo Pennington, J.T. Oglesby, Steve Rector, Paul Mosely, and more) give credit to Mose for inspiring their deep affinity for the west Kentucky style.

* The following excerpt taken from David K. Bradford’s, “The Unstrung History of the American Guitar: The Guitar and Early 19th Century American Music,” provides an insightful historical look at Mose’s influence and the thumbpicking style:

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, ‘Jonesy’ was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’” Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time ... I ever seen Arnold Shultz ... this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager. Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

The ES (Electric Spanish)-225 was introduced to the Gibson family of guitars in 1955 and was discontinued in the latter half of 1959. This model, like others, was manufactured at Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo, MI factory, which relocated to Nashville in 1984.

Throughout the model’s comparatively short-lived, four-year production run, two main variations were manufactured—the 225T (Thinline) and the 225TD (Thinline/Dual Pickups)—each of which had three finish options (tobacco sunburst, a lighter cherry-style sunburst, and the more expensive “natural” option, which was denoted with an “N” on the model number; ex. ES-225TDN).

While both models sported many of the same features, including a single Florentine-style cutaway, thinline-style hollow-body construction, a maple laminate top with “f” holes, a maple laminate back, mahogany sides, a one-piece mahogany neck, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot-style fretboard markers, 20 frets, a four-ply black/white celluloid pickguard, single-layer binding on both the neck and body, a 24 ¾” scale length, a set neck joint, nitrocellulose lacquer, and similar body dimensions, the original 225T utilized a single P-90 pickup that was situated (oddly enough) at an angle between the neck and bridge. In turn, the inaugural “T” model donned a single volume and single tone control. The 225TD, which was introduced in mid-1956, sported two more conventionally positioned P-90s—one at the neck and one at the bridge—as well as a three-way pickup selector switch (bridge, bridge/neck, and neck), two tone controls, and two volume controls.

Though both models originally used a longer, wrap-around style trapeze tailpiece—much like the first run of early ‘50s “goldtop” Gibson Les Paul models—the 1959 ES-225 models were fitted with both a rosewood bridge/base combo and a shorter non-wrap nickel tailpiece (as seen on the ‘50s and ‘60s era ES-125T, TD, and TDC models). Therefore, when using this seemingly insignificant cosmetic peculiarity as a dating tool, it would seem that Mose’s ES-225TD was produced in one of Gibson’s most desirable “Golden” years: 1959. Though the shorter tailpiece and wooden bridge/base could have been fitted to the guitar at a later date, it’s unlikely as the rest of the guitar is completely original. What’s more, Mose’s ES-225TD sports the darker brown sunburst finish, which is considered to be rarer than the redder, cherry-type sunburst.

While the ES-225TD is more or less considered a forerunner to Gibson’s later, ‘60s era model, the ES-125TD, many guitar aficionados point out that the 225’s neck joint was deeper set and, consequently, stronger than its psychedelic-age heir. Additionally, the ES-225 was manufactured with a block of wood (probably maple or mahogany) attached to the underside of the top below the bridge area, which helps to reduce feedback when the guitar’s signal is pushed hard through a “dimed” amp. Though the block does not extend through the length of the body as in the larger semi-hollow ES-335 model, the later ES-125T, TD, and TDCs are completely hollow inside. One other distinctive difference between the models is the neck profile. Like most of Gibson’s ‘50s era guitars, the ES-225’s neck shape, more commonly known as a “U” profile, is slightly larger and rounder than its later ‘60s era counterparts.

As with most semi-hollow and hollow-body style guitars, the tone Mose’s ES-225TD produces is somewhat warmer and more dynamic than that of the average solid-body guitar (i.e. Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster, SG, etc.). In the case of Mose’s vintage 225TD, this tonal characteristic is further enhanced by a combination of seasoned tonewoods and the thinner, “midrangey” signal produced from Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups. Taking into account the simultaneously two-sided sound of the thumbpicking style—both low rhythm and higher melody/lead lines—it’s no wonder that many thumb style practitioners oftentimes prefer a full sounding, big-bodied acoustic or a similar hollow/semi-hollow electric. The reason: the warmer tones of these dual pickup guitars accentuate the rhythm played by the thumb while still retaining enough snap to allow the melody/lead lines to cut through the mix.

Other electric hollow/semi-hollow guitars commonly used by well-known thumbpickers include Gibson’s Super-400, L-5, Byrdland, Super V, and various other ES models (such as the 335, 330, 175, and 125). As mentioned earlier, Mose’s fully hollow ES-125 was among his small group of favorites. Gretsch’s various Chet Atkins signature models, as well as similar hollow/semi-hollow productions like the White/Black Falcon, Country Club, the Eddie Cochran tribute model, the Anniversary line, and the Electromatic G5422 line, are also mainstays of the thumbpicking world. Though these particular instruments are among some of the most commonly used, thumbpicking—like any other genre of music—has been taken to a variety of differing guitar styles over time (both with and without success).

Though I’ve always loved the guitar—my parents have pictures of me in diapers holding guitars at family gatherings, around the house, and everywhere else—but Mose died before I seriously started playing.

I was first exposed to thumb style guitar playing when I was in my teens. I heard [Kennedy Jones’ “thumbpicker anthem” and Merle Travis’ hit single] “Cannonball Rag” on KET’s, Kentucky Afield. I liked it even though I was really into punk and metal at the time. I had no idea of what all was going on during that song. I thought it was two guitars playing with one doing lead and the other playing rhythm. A few months later, I ran into my cousin [award-winning thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington and saw him play both parts at the same time. I was blown away, man. I had no clue you could back yourself up with rhythm while playing lead. I had already wanted to learn classical-style guitar; the main reason was that I loved the idea of using my fingers to pick. It just seemed to me, at least at the time, that if I could pick out a melody, I could pick out five melodies if I used five picks—my fingers in this case. [laughs] Eddie started teaching me how to thumbpick not long after. I learned really quickly, but I was also playing 12-plus hours a day. I wore holes in all my jeans from resting the guitar on my leg; I had callouses on my forearms from resting them on the body of the guitar; and I wore all the finish off the neck of my guitar in a single year. Seriously, that is all I did, and it didn’t stop for years.

I had just turned 17-years-old and Eddie introduced me to all the thumbpickers. He took me around to the contests and get-togethers, too. It was at a contest that I met Mose Rager’s family. Mose’s wife, Mrs. Laverda, was a sweet and pleasant lady. I remember meeting her and his daughter, Marilyn, who goes by the nickname, “Frizz.” The nickname was given to her by Merle Travis as a kid because of her really curly blonde hair. Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, and I hit it off really well.

One day, I got a phone call from a mutual friend, Joanna Fox, who was living in Drakesboro, KY at the time. Many know her from her time as a teacher in Muhlenberg County. Basically, Joanna always used to call me out of the blue whenever she had something she knew I would like. She is related to [musician] John Prine, and when John was awarded his Kentucky Colonel certificate, she called and asked me to give it to him because she knew I was a fan. That’s just how she was. Joanna was a really nice and interesting person that always has something interesting going on. Well, one day, she called and asked me, “Would you want to play Mose’s guitar?” Within a few weeks of starting to learn from Eddie, he introduced me to recordings of Mose. I was immediately drawn to Mose’s music and personality on the recordings. So, when Joanna asked me if I wanted to play his guitar, I was beyond excited. I agreed to meet them at the fire station in Drakesboro and when I showed up, Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, Mose’s grandson, Anthony, and Joanna were there. They had two Gibson guitars and an amp with them. One was the guitar I am currently borrowing—the ES-225TD—and the other was a Gibson acoustic that was finished with an orange sunburst, but I’m not sure of the model. The amp was Mose’s personal amp, but, for some reason, I really don’t remember anything about it even though I ended up playing through it for several years. Well, that night was the start of a very long friendship that continues to this day.

Frizz showed me her home, which was right across the road from the fire station at the time, and gave me a standing invitation to visit at any time. I more than took her up on it. Every chance I got, I was there over the years. I would pick Mose’s guitars, look at family photos, have her tell me stories about him, and would listen to every recording she could dig up. It was not uncommon for me to show up around 6pm and stay until sun-up.

Around this time, I got to traveling as a musician quite a bit. [Slaughters, KY native and acclaimed musician] Chris Knight and I had standing gigs in Nashville and had started talking to labels, publishers, and the like. I would head to Nashville and stay as long as needed, then I would come home and run to Drakesboro to hang out with Frizz and learn more about Mose. I remember being in Seattle at one point and encountering my first recordings of Django Reinhardt. He is another “top hero” of mine now, but I had never heard of him at the time. I don’t even know if I stopped by the house when I returned from the airport after that. I headed straight to Drakesboro to play his recordings for Frizz. [laughs]

Frizz and her husband, Larry, had a house fire several years ago. They lost Mose’s amp and acoustic guitar in the fire, but they saved the electric—the ES-225TD—that I’m borrowing and recording with right now. Merle Travis used to draw cartoons for them when they were kids, too. Luckily, they managed to save the cartoons that Merle drew, but lost a ton of recordings of Mose. They no longer live in Drakesboro. Mrs. Laverda lived in Drakesboro until she passed away. Frizz and Larry bought Mose’s old house when he and Mrs. Laverda bought their new place right behind what is now known as “The Four Legends Fountain” in Drakesboro. The last house Mose lived in is still there, but his old house is gone.

I was with Mrs. Laverda the last time that Chet Atkins came to visit her. Chet’s health was failing and he died not too long after that. Chet spoke so highly of Mose, and he thanked Mrs. Laverda for always being hospitable and kind to the throngs of musicians, including himself, that would come to pay homage to Mose. I knew that day, as my friend drove off to take Chet back to Nashville, that it was going to be last time I saw him. You could just tell that his time was short, and he passed not long afterward. Mrs. Laverda made sure I was with her when Chet came that day. She was getting frail herself and I helped her stable herself so she could walk over and see him. It was all pretty emotional, because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era. In a way, that is how it is for me now. It is an honor to have the guitar of a personal hero, but, at the same time, I also know I am watching the end of an era once again.

Over the years, the Ragers have become a part of my family. I love them all, and they have shaped my life in ways they will never fully understand. It started out years ago, as a kid trying to discover all he could about his hero. Now, it is ending as a man that is trying his hardest to preserve the memory of a family that he has grown to love. It goes way deeper for me than just honoring a hero; I was fortunate to have the opportunity and recognized it. If I hadn’t recognized it, I would not have acted on it. If I hadn’t acted on it, my life would be totally different today. My past would be totally different. My attitude would be as if it belonged to another person. The whole family shaped my outlook, music, and various other aspects of my life.

Mose was an innovative, unique, and wonderful person. His influence on music and musicians goes far beyond the notes he hit on his guitar. 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me have many things in common: we both still love Mose’s music, we both still love to hear his stories on tape, and we both have a profound admiration for the man that gave this area its own singular style of playing, which has influenced the world. But, we also have differences. Among them is a better understanding of why Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and countless other musicians’ lives carried with them such an impact from Mose. It was his spirit in general. He was the wise man on the mountain that not only played music is such an amazing way that it blew your mind, but also had a deep insight into people, happiness, and life so much so that that it made you examine yourself and discover things you may not have ever noticed otherwise. There was something about Mose that made you want to be good. Not just musically good, but good as a person. He made you feel like he cared, because he did. The shoddy recording methods of the time period he lived in could not squash the inner spirit of this man. He was a happy soul, and that carried across through his music, stories, and that massive laugh of his that he was not shy about unleashing. I can hear his laugh in my mind clear as I can hear the melodies of his songs.

I came to borrow Mose’s guitar just as a whim actually. I thought it would be cool if I played it on the show we filmed for KET in Paducah on March 1st. When I asked Frizz, she told me that she had no problem with it, but she had given it to Cameron, who is her grandson, and that he would have to give his okay or else she wouldn't feel right. The next day, I messaged Cameron's dad and asked if he could ask Cameron about me borrowing it. The next day, Frizz called and told me to come pick it up.

I sent out a few emails letting a few people know that I had the guitar and then went and picked it up. One of the people I emailed was Dr.Erika Brady, who is the head of WKU's Folk Studies Department. I was already planning on recording some with the guitar while I had it, too. I had contacted Patrick “Patson” Richardson about doing a recording and documentary-style project with me as well. Patson has been filming video of me in the studio while I’m recording tracks so we would have both audio and video of the guitar. Erika contacted me a day or two later and said she had a student, Mike Rivera, that had just been asking her about the whole music history of Muhlenberg county. She asked if I wanted to have them get involved. I told her it would be an honor, and that is how the idea of doing a full-fledged documentary got off to a start. Erika and I have met and talked about plans, but we were both really sick the first go around, so the meeting was short and sweet. [laughs] There is both a short-term and long-term project that we are working on. The short-term project is "What can we get recorded and documented before I return the guitar?" The long-term idea is still to be discussed more in-depth.

To hear a rare recording of Mose Rager in the studio, click here. Additional recordings can be found by searching "Mose Rager" on YouTube. 

If you would like to participate in celebrating the life and longstanding legacy of Mose Rager, please visit the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close for Mose Rager Day.

To learn more about Mose Rager and the thumbpicking style, click the video player attached below this article. 

For additional “Gear Guide” articles, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos of J.T. Oglesby and Mose Rager’s ES-225TD/ES-125 by Jeff Harp
Historic photos provided courtesy of J.T. Oglesby

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