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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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The Courthouse

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/21/13) - A siren could be heard in the distance. There were loud popping sounds accompanying the bright flashes, which were accentuating the night sky. Exploding firecrackers added to the excitement of the occasion. A marching band struck up a hearty rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner.” The street signs were adorned with flags and brightly colored placards. The old courthouse was lit with red and blue lights. As always, the courthouse was the focal point for the annual Independence Day celebration. The townspeople lined the streets to witness the pageantry of this patriotic event. It was a time to also reflect on the one hundred and twenty-seven celebrations which had come before.

A cannon salute signaled the festivities of the 1886 celebration. The town was not only celebrating the birth of the nation, but a new courthouse as well. People came as far as fifty miles away to see this wondrous structure. It was an extremely ornate building supported by marble pillars. In the center of the structure was an impressive clock which chimed on every hour. Each window was individually sculptured with lead glass in each pane. Over the huge double entrance was carved: COUNTY COURTHOUSE. At the top of the steeple, a flag stood motionless in the hot summer air. There was loud cheering as Civil War veterans rode proudly past on their spirited steeds. The mayor proclaimed: "This building is dedicated to all those individuals who are committed to keeping our country free." With that, the crowd roared its resounding approval. The courthouse was the picture of modern architecture and gothic beauty.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, a different celebration was being held. The long overdue monument to the Civil War dead was being dedicated. A local resident who had served directly under General Grant was the first to speak: "It was a scary time for the country and for a nineteen-year-old soldier." He continued: "I remember how badly I felt when I heard that President Lincoln had been shot. I truly believed the country had lost the only person who could put it back together again." The recent assassination of President McKinley was still in the minds of the people in the audience. The old soldier gave way to another who had fought on the opposite side. This gentleman had fought gallantly under General George Pickett, having survived the famous charge at Gettysburg. He spoke in a high, piercing voice: "It was a time of stubbornness and unmitigated pride. We thought we were fighting for a principle, but we were really caught up with the aura of the times." There were more speeches that day and more painful memories. A bugle sounded taps as the flag was raised to half-mast atop the courthouse steeple. The courthouse was sullenly quiet. We were mourning the recent loss of a President and the passing of a bygone era.

Fifteen years later, the country was in the middle of the First World War. There were streamers galore, each sending a message of support to doughboys everywhere. Lemonade flowed freely to quench the thirst caused by the boiling sun. A sign was hung over the courthouse entrance. It read: WE SUPPORT OUR BOYS. There were patriotic essays read aloud by local dignitaries. An essay by a ten-year old girl from a nearby county was declared the winner. She wrote how proud she was of her country. She also wrote about the beautiful countryside with its colorful flowers and towering sycamore trees. The day could not have been complete without a parade. In keeping with the mood, the parade's theme reflected support for America in its war effort. The courthouse chimed a resounding eight times signifying the end of a perfect celebration.

In 1933, the country was in the middle of a horrible depression. The courthouse, in fact, housed all kinds of helping agencies created by the Roosevelt Administration. However, today's celebration was anything but glum. There was an abundance of food and drinks available in the makeshift cafeteria located in tents in back of the courthouse. The courthouse had just received a new coat of paint inside and out. It looked and smelled like a new building. There was promise in the air. Hope could easily have been the theme for this year's gathering. The courthouse was being visited today by the Governor himself. He was to speak about the New Deal program and what it meant to farmers. This was a farming community and what he had to say would be important to everyone in the county. The band played "Happy Days Are Here Again" as the Governor approached the microphone. He spoke very succinctly: "Farmers are important to this country if we are ever to get out of this mess. The President has authorized a new program which will provide assistance to farmers in this county." The Governor proceeded to tell the audience about yet another bureaucratic program that was sure to cure the farmer's ills. The audience responded with polite applause. They had hoped the news would be about new farm markets instead of another program designed to enlarge government. Mr. Jackson, a local farmer, summed it up best: "Looks like we are going to have to build another courthouse, because this one is already filled with government agencies." Even the disappointing speech by the Governor failed to dampen the celebration. The traditional parade was already beginning to form. The courthouse was a fitting monument to the spirit of the people there. A new coat of paint would soon be doused on the economy. At least that seemed to be the pervading view of this small farming community.

“Cantaloupes and watermelons for sale," shouted a teenaged lad. This was a familiar cry in this part of the country. The area’s watermelons and cantaloupes were considered the finest within a twelve-county radius. Today, local residents could dine for free on these tasty treats. The annual celebration, as always, had its share of long-winded speakers. Another monument was being dedicated. This one was to honor those brave soldiers who had fought and died in World War II. The war had been over for four years. The beauty pageant was just getting under way. The mayor had successfully fought to have the winner represent the county in the state beauty contest for the first time. Cars were blocking the parade route and had to be removed by an accommodating tow truck. The courthouse, for the first time, began to resemble an aging landmark. Surrounding structures were springing up everywhere. Some former tenants of the courthouse had moved across town to another location. There was talk of constructing a new building to take its place. Progress had come to this area. People in New York may soon be eating those famous watermelons and cantaloupes. The celebration continued with the courthouse oblivious to all these changes.

It was 1968 and some area residents felt the annual celebration should be postponed. The Vietnam War had stirred a great deal of controversy between the old and young in the community. Families were torn apart by their divergent views. How could an Independence Day celebration be of any meaningful value in such an atmosphere? One of the local politicians sensed that something was needed to charge up this event. He invited one of the more controversial presidential candidates to speak. This candidate's radical views were known widely throughout the country. While his candidacy was anything but serious, his ideas were further fueling an already divided nation. An elevated stage was constructed at the entrance of the courthouse in accordance with the speaker's wishes. The candidate was introduced to the overflowing crowd. "I plan to make this country stronger by winning this war," assured the confidant speaker. "The rights of the working man will be uppermost in my mind when I'm your President. No long-haired hippie radical or whining member of some minority group will have a voice in my administration." A hissing chorus of boos and catcalls poured forth from the crowd. The speaker looked ominously at the distracted mob. With a menacing smile, he said: "When I'm elected President, I will come back to this area and hang all of you anarchists." A hush fell over the audience and they listened to the rest of the speech in almost total silence. The candidate finished and the mayor asked if anyone else had an opposing view. The first speaker was adorned with metals from both World War II and the Korean War. He spoke almost in a whisper: "I may not agree with all of the protest against the war and other issues in our country, but I will defend any American's right to speak out." A thundering applause could be heard as the speaker stepped down from the platform. A young man with shoulder length hair and protruding beard spoke next. "Today, I have heard what America is all about. It is not about stifling opposing viewpoints and beliefs, but about the importance of everyone being allowed to think what they want without being afraid of reprisals." The day was filled with countless other such testimonials. A marching band joined a solitary guitar player for a most unusual version of "America the Beautiful.” A new generation of sounds echoed off the old courthouse until the break of dawn.

The theme of the 1986 celebration was: "SAVE THE OLD COURTHOUSE.” A new county building had finally been built in 1985 and most of the former courthouse occupants had moved out. There had been talk for over forty years of what would become of the courthouse if a new building took its place. Now, the community was faced with the problem of either leveling the beloved structure or finding another use for it. Committees were forming to raise money to maintain the old building and to determine some meaningful ways to make use of its heritage. The once proud steeple was in need of repair. The huge clock had not worked in over three years. This faithful friend to the community was dying a slow death from decay and neglect. If the ornate structure was to see many more Independence Day celebrations, it must have a helping hand. The community had totally mobilized all efforts to see that this old friend would be around for a long time. This year's festivities were centered on the courthouse, much like the first celebration back in 1886. It was time to pay homage to a dear friend.

We are now celebrating Independence Day in the present. The courthouse has had a new steeple since 2000. The tower clock now proudly chimes again. Housed in the courthouse is a new generation of occupants ranging from artists to gourmet cooks. Visitors come from miles around just to admire its renewed beauty. No one can remember when the community was without this magnificent structure. It has been the meeting place for many important events. It has been a stabilizing force for the people in this area. The courthouse stands as a beacon of the past, ready to make many more contributions to this community's heritage.

________________________________________________________

For some, writing is a way of life. For Madisonville resident Mike Barton, it’s also a part-time job and a leisurely love affair. Along with authoring five insightfully written business books, which includes Recognition at WorkBuilding a Fundamentally Sound Corporate Compliance Program, and Incentive Pay: Creating a Competitive Advantage, as well as numerous published articles and short pieces, Mike holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Evansville. And while Mike’s in-depth sense of business know-how has led him to employment as a teacher/professor, an HR Administrator with Baptist Health Madisonville, and a talented lecturer, he says that he simply loves to write. Period. In turn, the Sugg Street Post recently got in touch with Mike and found that he was interested in submitting some of his works to our website. Of course, we were happy to oblige.

 

Sugg Street Post
Written by Mike Barton
Photo by Jeff Harp

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  • Published in Music

Harper Guitars: One-of-a-Kind Music in the Making

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/13/13)—Good music, like artwork, transcends the boundaries of time. Be it Bach or the Beatles, there’s no denying the virtually indefinable sense of universality and timelessness that flows through a powerful song or performance. It’s, in a word, electric. And while the innate “magic” of a truly talented artist, as well as their approach and technique, may ultimately define the sounds they create, it’s easy to wonder if the enduring music we enjoy on a daily basis would have ever became a reality without the aid of a skilled craftsman’s vision: an instrument.

While modernity yields an exceedingly accessible music market flooded with affordable, yet oftentimes machine-made and outsourced instruments—many of which are actually well-made, high-end productions—the mystique of an instrument constructed and customized by the hands of a true artisan remains unmistakable. In fact, it’s the touch of man that has become a sought-after commodity in an instrument-making age full of exact replicas and “perfect” tolerances.

Need evidence? Simply take a look at the current value of many vintage guitars. Though today’s vintage guitar market has shared in the nation’s overall economic downturn, a well-preserved 1959 Gibson Les Paul may still fetch well over half-a-million dollars in an auction-type setting. Why, you ask? To sum it up generally, it was produced at the pinnacle of an era that valued close attention to details and fine, hands-on craftsmanship.

Fortunately, however, there are still craftsmen out there practicing an old-world approach to the process with striking results. One of these artisans is Jacob Harper of Harper (JIH) Guitars.

A native of western Kentucky and a current resident of Boonville, IN, Jacob Harper displays a proficiency for producing some of the most beautiful, playable, and uniquely custom guitars in the region and, as some would argue, possibly the country. From his remarkable, signature solid body and hollow body designs, to his rather unorthodox creations like the “Hellhound” double-neck guitar/bass, Jacob’s particularly functional pieces of creative art work are known for instigating a drop or two of drool from the mouths of regional musicians. What’s more, accomplished performers like west Kentucky bluesman and thumbpicker extraordinaire, Alonzo Pennington, as well as Uncle Kracker’s touring guitarist, Kevin McCreery, have turned to Harper Guitars for their custom instrument needs both in the past and present.

Yet, for all the praise and trial-and-error know-how Jacob has accrued since he first started building guitars in 2007, he remains a humble, down-to-earth musician, architect, and family man that simply enjoys his time spent in the workshop.

In looking at his early inspirations, though, it’s really not that much of a surprise that he’s such an unassuming, albeit talented, human being.

In addition to a love for playing and listening to a diversity of musical styles, Jacob’s family has always been involved with architecture or construction in some manner. In fact, his childhood home in Cadiz, KY—a log cabin style residence—was constructed entirely by the sweat of his father and uncles’ brows. Undoubtedly, it was this continuous exposure to design and architecture that would eventually lead Jacob down a fulfilling path of architectural education and employment that bleeds into his custom guitar work today. Viewing these facts from an outside perspective, it seems that Jacob was simply destined to effectively combine the two facets—music and architectural design—at some point.

But how did he learn the "ins and outs" of being a luthier? What’s the actual process of making a guitar like? What keeps him inspired to create such intensive works of functional art? And what does Jacob have in mind for Harper Guitars in the future?

To find out the answers to these questions and more, myself, as well as Sugg Street Post writer Jessica Dockrey and photographer Jessi Smith, recently paid a visit to Jacob inside his two-level workshop and studio space in Boonville. The results of the intriguing encounter are as follows.

Luke Short: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you and where are you originally from?

Jacob Harper: I’m 37, I believe. [laughs] I was born in Cadiz, KY. I was raised there and that’s where I grew up.

LS: What was your childhood like there? What were you into as a kid?

JH: We all grew up on, well, it wasn’t really farm, but it was a good-sized piece of land down by Lake Barkley. There wasn’t much to do other than to create your own fun. It was basically like you’d leave in the morning and wouldn’t come back until night. We’d just be out running around all day. It was a lot of fun.

LS: Is your family originally from this area?

JH: No. My grandmother is actually from India. She’s British. My granddad was from the states. He was in the Navy when he met my grandmother. Then they settled down outside of Christian County and they ended up moving to Rockcastle, which is near Eddyville, KY.

LS: Did you make it through school alright?

JH: I made it the whole way through Trigg County High School [in Cadiz, KY] and then I went to Murray State University for five years.

LS: What did you study at Murray?

JH: I studied Industrial Technology Design, which is focused on drafting, design, and architecture. My dad is a contractor, and when I was a kid, he was always building houses. I helped build them, became interested in that process, and I started drawing plans for him when I was 17. I just decided to do that in school and I’ve worked for architectural firms and civil engineers even since.

LS: What are some of the places you’ve worked for?

JH: Right out of school, I worked for a civil engineer based out of Benton, KY. From there, I went to work for Murray State in their Capital Construction Program. After that, I went to work for a place based out of Lexington, KY. We all worked in a satellite office in Paducah. I did that for probably five or six years. I moved there for that job. I met Andrea, my wife, during that time. She worked at Enterprise [Rent-A-Car]. Well, she ended up getting a promotion to the position of district manager in this area [Boonville, IN], so I said, “OK, you’re making more money than me, so I’m moving with you.” [laughs] We moved up here and she wasn’t happy with Enterprise, so she went to work for Alcon Pharmaceutical Sales. As for me, I work for Hafer Associates here in Boonville. They’re an architecture firm. I’m a project manager there.

LS: That sounds like a higher-level job.

JH: It can get pretty hectic trying to find personal time. It’s an eight-to-five job, but I often find myself working overtime. Plus, it’s pretty intense work, but I find time to be a dad and eat supper. I’m usually out here in the workshop most nights. I wake up extra early in the morning to come out here, too.

LS: At what point in your life did you get into music?

JH: I’ve always been into music. My mom’s a country singer and my grandmother was a piano player. She played in church for years. My dad has eight brothers and only two or three of them don’t play music. Some of them are professional studio musicians and others are weekend warriors, so I was always around that. They were always playing music, so it was just a part of my life even at a young age.

LS: Was there a point where you really started gravitating toward a certain genre and developed your own musical identity, so to speak?

JH: It’s kind of weird. I was always turned off by country music growing up, because my mom was a country singer. I guess I just thought it wasn’t “cool enough,” you know? It’s like you’re trained to be that way. On the flip side, the people who really started buying my guitars were country musicians. As I got older, I didn’t mind listening to country, and I actually appreciate pickers like [Brad] Paisley and [Ricky] Skaggs and all those other guys. But when I was younger and in high school, I dropped out of band because it wasn’t “cool.” I started playing in a rock band instead. We played heavy metal and rock, and it was a blast. I was probably way too young to be playing in bars, though. [laughs] That’s what I went more towards, as well as blues. The blues were what a lot of my uncles played.

Jessica Dockrey: What instrument did you play in band?

JH: I actually played saxophone.

LS: I played saxophone in band, too, but I was like you and quit because I didn’t think it was “cool enough” for me.

JH: There’s a low retention of saxophone players out there I guess. [laughs]

LS: I really kick myself sometimes now, though. If I could still play sax, I’d be doing Pink Floyd covers all day.

JH: [laughs] I still want to go get a sax every once in a while.

LS: I took piano lessons, too. I took them for about three years and then did the same thing—I quit because it wasn’t “cool”—and now I kick myself for that, too.

JH: As my son grows up, he will learn to play piano, because that’s the gateway to all other instruments. [laughs] I kick myself, too, because my grandmother had free lessons waiting for me if I wanted them, and she was an amazing piano player. I tried it out for maybe six months and just gave it up. That was so stupid of me. [laughs]

LS: So, at what point did you really get into playing guitar?

JH: I was probably 15-years-old and my dad had an acoustic, all my uncles played music, and I’d see and hear them playing all the time, so I wanted to do that too. So, I got my dad’s acoustic and I went through an entire guitar lesson book in about three days. It came pretty easy to me, but it hurt [my fingers]. You’ve learned guitar too, so you know what I’m talking about. I would play for six hours every day. I would just play, play, and play. That’s how I got into it.

LS: When did you say to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to build a guitar”?

JH: I was in Paducah in 2004 or so, and I just had an itch to build some furniture. I maxed out credit cards and bought a lot of tools during the process. I wasn’t married yet, so it was easy to do that. Building furniture was fun for a while. I had a friend there that I played music with at the time, and he was also a woodshop student from Murray State who was working for a guitar builder out of Mayfield [Kentucky]. I went over there with him and watched what he was doing one time, and the guitars the guy was making were amazing. I believe the guy’s name was Brad Smith. Afterwards, I said to myself, “I’ve got the tools to do that, and I’ve been playing for 20 years, so maybe I should try it out.” That’s how it all got started. It was kind of rough in the beginning, though. [laughs] I didn’t go to luthier school, so I had to make all my own mistakes. I’ve probably learned a lot more making those mistakes, though.

LS: On that subject, tell me a little bit about the first guitar you ever made, which, as I believe, was a Gibson Les Paul-style solid body.

JH: With basically any guitar, the math is the same, which is something that I should have paid more attention to when I first started. I should’ve looked at the details closer. That’s what I’ve learned: it’s all about the details and precision. You know, you measure things a hundred times and cut once. My first guitar was really rough; it felt like a baseball bat. [laughs] It was far too heavy.

LS: To you, what is the hardest or most frustrating part of building a guitar?

JH: Setting up the fretboard and getting the frets right is the hardest part, because there are so many things that you have to make just right all at once. A lot of companies have machines that they throw the guitar in and they bend the neck and shave things off, but I still do all of that by hand, and I’m sure other guitar builders still do it by hand, too. But that’s definitely the hardest part; that’s where you really have to slow down and take your time.

LS: Is that mainly because of the spacing between frets, fret height, fretboard radius, etcetera?

JH: I could start to tell you, but there are so many little critical dimensions to consider—the curve of the neck, the angle of the neck to the body, and on and on.

LS: What’s the story behind your workshop? When did you move to Boonville, IN and when did you get all your equipment set up?

JH: Well, we’ve been here six years now. When we moved up to Evansville, I had already been building guitars. I think that “number eight”—that hollow-body over there [points to a black guitar in the studio area]—was probably the last one done during the transition. We moved up to Evansville, I lived with my brother for a while, then we lived in an apartment, and I would travel back home to my dad’s place on the weekends and work in his barn. I had to relocate my entire shop from Paducah to my dad’s barn so I could keep on building. Then we moved up here [to Boonville, IN] and lived in an apartment for a little while, but it wasn’t long before we said, “This is ridiculous. We’ve lived in and owned a house before.” I hated living in an apartment. So we started looking for places, and I think this [the Harper’s current home] was the first place I went and looked at. I like it because of all the potential it had for housing a proper shop in the garage area. It’s a really old house. It was built in the 1800s and it has some issues. I love fixing stuff up, though, but it takes me away from building guitars.

LS: Is woodworking something that you’ve always had an interest in or was it something that just developed out of the blue?

JH: Well, my mom’s dad was a fine woodworker. He built furniture. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a machinist in the military, and he was kind of a “fix anything” type of handyman. Then, my dad’s brothers, as well as my dad, were all woodworkers, contractors, fine furniture builders, and finish carpenters. My dad and all his brothers actually built the log cabin we all grew up in. It was just always something I was around. With what I’m doing now, I already knew how to use the tools, so it was simply getting them.

LS: The tools are definitely expensive. So, tell me a little bit about the layout of the shop?

JH: To put it simply, it’s one part dirty and one part clean. You kind of have to keep the two parts separated. The downstairs portion is the woodshop. I do all the work I can in there up to the point of finishing, and then I bring it upstairs to actually apply the finish. I’m using all the space I can downstairs. I can’t buy anymore tools, because I don’t have room for them unless my wife decides to let me use the garage part. Maybe this interview will help with that. [laughs] As far as a layout goes, though, I’m always working on how things are set up. I’ve amassed so many tools, and they’re all specialty tools, so figuring out places for all of those where I can actually find them when I need them has been fun. I play music and I wanted a practice space, so I built this studio and an isolation booth up here on the second floor. Well, a paint booth was a necessity, so I eventually made the isolation booth my paint booth.

LS: I know there are a variety of tools used to create a guitar by hand, but what are some of the main tools that you use during the process and what is their function?

JH: Oh, that’s a hard one. [laughs] They’re all equally important. You know, there’s a lot of roughing out—because I get rough pieces of wood from sawmills, some of which still have bark on them believe it or not—and you’ve got all your heavy machinery like the table saw and the band saw that help to take the original piece from a rough form to a dimensional piece of lumber. Then, you go into all the carving stuff—hand carving tools, planes, and spokeshaves, all the way down to needle files and beyond. I mean, the whole finishing process is intense. I could seriously spend an entire day telling you all the things I’ve learned about finishing.

LS: You mentioned that you get some of your wood from local sawmills. Is that where you get all of your lumber?

JH: There’s a mill north of here. I get a lot of my ‘big stock’ stuff from there, like mahogany and maple. I usually find all my really highly figured stuff on eBay. I find it one piece at a time that way. I have to see detailed pictures of it before I buy it, though. I’ve paid $350 for a relatively smaller, highly figured piece of wood before.

LS: Did you acquire all your equipment at once or did you acquire it over time?

JH: It’s been a process of maxing out credit cards to get my bigger stuff in the beginning. Then I got married and we agreed that I needed to stop doing that. [laughs] But, at the very least, it’s set me up. I always argue that it’s an investment, which rarely works with her. [laughs] Since I started selling guitars, I haven’t made any profit. It all goes back into tools. At times, when I need something like a new jig or something like that, I’ll just make one myself instead of going out and buying one for $400 right off the bat. Then, I’ll buy a new one when I can, when I have the money. Right now, though, I’ve been able to cover most of my costs from selling guitars and we’re all happy.

LS: As far as smaller stuff goes, do you turn to places like Stewart-MacDonald?

JH: Yeah, Stewart-MacDonald is a big company for me right now. If I ever stepped up production, I’d really have to look at that, though. Stewart-MacDonald is great, but it’s a little expensive.

LS: What are the most common types of woods that you use? Also, what are some of the more exotic woods you’ve used?

JH: Maple and mahogany. Those are the most common. I’ve also used Korina, sapele, Honduran mahogany, African mahogany, highly figured maple, plain maple, rock maple, sugar maple, soft maple, purpleheart, ebonies, zebra woods, rosewood, and some others. I’m not big enough yet for them to bring the Lacey Act down on me, though. I’m not traveling to South America to get my lumber or anything if that’s what you’re getting at. [laughs]

LS: What happened with the Lacey Act and the Gibson Guitar Company is insane. It’s interesting that they were the only company to come under fire, because every other big guitar manufacturer—as far as I understand it at least—was using and importing the exact same woods.

JH: What kills me is that Gibson is probably a steward of forestry in those countries where the forests are pretty much raped on a daily basis. Gibson comes in and says, “No, we want to have wood to use in the future. Let us show you how to do this the right way.” Still, though, they came after them. I think it was all political. I guess everyone at Gibson was republican or something. [laughs]

LS: You mentioned that getting the frets correct is one of the hardest or most frustrating parts of building one of your guitars. What’s the easiest or most enjoyable thing about a build to you?

JH: I really enjoy the carving process, especially when I make hollow body and carved top guitars. I still do all of that by hand. I use the “old school” method where I’ll just lay out a kind of topography with the wood and sit there and work that down with a router. Then I’ll get a handplane and knock off all the edges, and I’ll handplane everything else down smooth. That part is tedious and your hands have blisters all over them at the end, but it pays off when you get some finish on it or see someone playing it on stage.

Jessica Dockrey: That makes me think of Alonzo Pennington’s guitar, “Goldie." That guitar is so beautiful. I love it.

JH: Yeah, that one came about when I had a little extra money and I was in between builds. When that happens, I just build my own guitar out-of-pocket. With the one Alonzo now has, I was actually sitting out here one night thinking to myself, “If I’m going to build a guitar, what am I going to do with it?” Well, I got to looking at my goldtop Gibson Les Paul in the studio, and I thought, “I’m going to see if I can beat Les Paul.” [laughs] Evidently, Alonzo thinks it does.

LS: I would have to agree with that, too. A handmade guitar that is well-build will beat a mass-produced instrument—like a Les Paul for example—the majority of the time.

JH: You know, there’s a really fine line that you have to cross. You can have a really, really expensive piece of trash. I definitely know what I’m doing, but I don’t always know everything about the wood I get from mills. I don’t know how much they’ve dried it and I don’t have the big, costly equipment you need to test a piece of wood’s moisture content. Keeping that in mind, I try to buy wood well in advance of a build so it can acclimate. If I worked with fiberglass or graphite, it might be easier, but that’s not what I want to do.

LS: A lot of people that aren’t that into the technical aspect of guitars don’t realize how much changes in temperature and humidity can severely alter, or even permanently damage, tonewoods. You really have to take care of a good instrument for it to retain its value and tone.

JH: When you tell a guitar store that you’re having problems with the neck or fretboard, they sometimes heat the neck until it pops off. If you leave a guitar in a car, it can do the same thing. It’s like putting your guitar in an oven basically.

LS: How many guitars have you made since you started building in 2007?

JH: I’m on my 35th guitar right now. I’ve built more and more each year. I’ve probably made four this year so far.

LS: How long does an “average” build typically take to complete?

JH: My standard solid body flattop guitars usually take around two months to make. If I get more weekends at home, it may take a week less. The killer part about guitars is that you get everything to the finishing stage, you put the finish on, and you have to wait. Then you put more finish on and you have to wait more.

LS: Is that just part of the drying process when you use nitrocellulose?

JH: Yeah. In about a week-and-a-half, I can have a guitar ready for finishes, but then it takes a month or a month-and-a-half for the finish to cure.

LS: Wow, I had no idea that it took that long.

JH: A lot of the bigger companies use different finishes. For example, PRS [Paul Reed Smith Guitars] use acrylic-based urethanes that dry super quick and become really stable. They look really good and they probably have their own mixture, but all the “gear heads” love the nitrocellulose finish. They say nitro is the best and that’s what I use. I think there are ovens and drying rooms that you can set up that make the process go faster, but I don’t really have room for that at the moment.

LS: I actually think it’s cool that you let it dry and cure naturally, so to speak. You’re not rushing it and it seems like a much more organic process in that sense. So, who are some of the guitarists you’ve worked with? I know Alonzo Pennington is a well-known customer, but who are some of the others?

JH: Yeah, Alonzo is definitely a more well-known customer. One of my buddies from college, Bryan Fox, has actually bought four from me. He’s buying his fifth from me right now. He collects guitars and I guess he believes in me. [laughs] The first guitar I made for him was inspired by Waylon Jennings’ famous black and white, leather-bound [Fender] Telecaster. He’s like, “I want that,” and I was like, “I don’t work with leather!” [laughs] He said he just wanted my take on it. So, I hand carved a rose and all the vines on top of a really nice piece of figured, black-dyed maple. It turned out great. He just shoots me new ideas and we go with it. After I finish up with the two I’m working on now, I’ll start in on his next one.

LS: Yeah, tell me about the two you're working on now—the paisley bass and the Gretsch-inspired white hollow body.

JH: Yeah, I’m building those for two other guys that have been good to me. They’re friends of Bryan [Fox] up in Louisville, KY. One is for Chip Adams, who is the director of the Louisville School of Rock. He’s a great guy. He said to make him a bass and it’s turning out well. The other guy, Kevin McCreery, who’s friends with both Chip and Bryan, used to play with Tantric. I guess I got with Kevin right as he was starting to work and tour with Uncle Kracker, which is what he’s doing now. He’s a touring guitarist. Bryan was like, “Get Kevin a guitar right now!” I was like, “Well, I’m finishing a guitar right now, so take it!” [laughs] I gave it to him and he ended up really liking it. After that, I got with him about making another one, because guys like him get endorsed by the bigger companies, like G&L and Gibson, and they send guitars for them play. There was a point where I didn’t see him playing my guitar all the time and I was like, “No. I can’t deal with this.” So, I stayed on him about building another one. He said that he had always liked Gretsch White Falcons, so I told him I’d do my take on it. I’m hoping they don’t have a patent on white paint and gold sparkle binding. [laughs] Other guys that play my guitars are Drew Lambert from Sam Hunter & The Two Tones and Ronnie Paul Kingery of the Glen Templeton Band. They were actually both in the Glen Templeton Band. Ronnie wanted a guitar and Drew saw the whole process, became interested in my stuff, and had me build a bass guitar. Drew’s was the five-string black and green bass I made. It turned out really well.

LS: That reminds of me of something I wanted to ask you. What’s been one of your favorite guitars to build so far?

JH: “Goldie” was my old standby. I played it out a lot. That’s really hard question, though. In truth, my favorite is always the last one I’m finishing.

LS: Is there anything that you get “third-party” help on during a build?

JH: Up until about two guitars back, I did every single detail myself. Now, though, I’ve got a good friend, Tony Dorris—who has his own amp company called Volition Amps—helping me out with installing and wiring the electronics. He makes his own effects pedals and amps. They’re all boutique. Tony’s kind of like a mad scientist, too. Of course, he’s a down-to-earth, awesome guy, but he has this mad scientist thing where when he talks to me I’m like, “I can tell you how I want this to sound, but I have no idea what you’re talking about right now.” [laughs] He’s done the wiring in the past three guitars. If it’s artwork outside that I do, he’s doing artwork on the inside. Now you can take off my [electronics] covers and it’s like human anatomy in there. Everything’s laid out perfect. Before, I’d just wire everything myself and it wasn’t perfect, to say the least. I got pretty good at soldering, and I can read a schematic just fine, but I didn’t know the real technical theory behind what I was hooking up. So, Tony is my go-to guy for all the electronics. It’s pretty cool too, because we bounce ideas off each other and come up with new wiring possibilities.

LS: So, is your son, Ian, who is two-years-old, rocking out on the guitar yet?

JH: If he could pick up a guitar, it would be smashed. [laughs] I call him Sid Vicious.

LS: Where did the idea come from for your signature “Harper scroll” cutaway on your guitars?

JH: There are actually two different things that are kind of like my signatures: the scroll on the bout of the body and the headstock scroll. The headstock scroll is kind of 3-D. On some of my earlier designs, I was drawing inspiration from the blueprint of an old F5 mandolin I had. I liked how they did the scroll and I tried to incorporate that scroll in those designs, but I actually made a mistake by cutting it at the wrong angle. That’s really how that came about and you can see how the design has changed over time in my guitars. Some of it comes from a need for simplicity too, especially when it comes to putting the binding on.

LS: I was actually thinking that applying the binding, especially when it comes to the "f-holes” on one of your hollow bodies, might have been another one of the most difficult or frustrating parts of a build too.

JH: Oh man, it really is sometimes. I think of it as the game of Operation where it buzzes when you touch the sides. That’s just how frustrating it can become. [laughs]

LS: With so many guitar companies making instruments on a mass-produced scale, what makes a handmade, custom guitar special now?

JH: You can really argue for both sides of the market. If I ever expanded and had to step up production, I would probably add a CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine to my equipment just to cut the rough outs, because you can lose a finger working with your hands. I’d rather have a machine doing that part for me. There’s something to say about people who mass produce guitars, too, because they have specific tolerances they work with. You can pick up one guitar and then another down the road and they’ll feel the same. There’s consistency there. When you do it by hand, you really have to take your time. You get a guitar, take all the critical dimensions from it, write it all down in a notebook, and you say, “That’s going to be my next guitar.” Then, you have to look back at it and figure out everything you did, and you’ll sit there with a micrometer and measure it all out. It’s a slower process, but you can feel a real difference in the end product. There are always going to be these little imperfections that remind you it was handmade. They’re not bad imperfections. With wood grain, the bigger companies will trash a body blank with a small imperfection because they can, whereas I’ll work that imperfection into the guitar as a focal point. It’s just a lot of work doing it by hand and getting all the tolerances the same. Now, you can pick up one of my guitars and say, “That’s a good feeling neck,” and you can pick up another one and it will feel the same. It’s taken me a while to get to that point.

LS: I think those little imperfections are things that people should still value about anything handmade. You know, making instruments by hand is how it all started, and you’re carrying that tradition into the modern world.

JH: For sure. There’s definitely something to say about the way I make them, too. You know, the guy who’s playing one of my guitars knows that it was made it a shop and knows all the specific components it was made with—the woods, the design, and all the electronics. I also send my customers pictures of the process so they can see exactly what’s happening and where I’m at with it, which is something I think is pretty cool. I’ll give them a CD of all the pictures I took, too; they go all the way from the chunk of wood I got at the mill to the finished product. I don’t really know if there’s an argument about which way is better—handmade or mass-produced—but it’s kind of like, “Why do you buy the Rolls-Royce instead of the Ford?” I’m not saying my guitars are a Rolls-Royce, but it’s the same concept.

LS: Specifically, what are some of the customization options that you offer? Is it pretty much wide open to the customer?

JH: I love that each guitar is different. People call and they’re like, “I have this idea and I hope I can make it happen.” And really, the sky is the limit, but I’m learning something new every time. I like to stay with my shape just to keep my name and signature out there. Fortunately, unique finishes are really a popular thing, so I don’t have to change the body shapes too much. With finishes, I’ll try anything pretty much. I’ve been successful with all of them so far. The last one that I did, a flat black eight string guitar, was difficult. That was the first time I’d done a flat finish on a guitar. It’s nothing like going to Lowe’s and picking out flat paint. It truly is a pain. On that guitar, I had it all completed, everything on it, and all the electronics had been tested, but all of a sudden the paint started cracking on the back. There were big red cracks. It was basically some kind of chemical reaction between the lacquer I used and the paint that caused it to happen. So I had to strip everything off. I had big chemical gloves on and got some heavy grit steel wool and just worked all of it off. I try to be as clean as I can with filters, but with satin finishes you get it all glassy, put it in the paint booth, spray it, and you hope that one little piece of dust doesn’t land on it. But it’s all whatever the customer wants. I can get different woods, electronics, tuners, bridges, and I can make the finishes happen.

LS: I know that you won’t build an exact clone of a well-know style of guitar. For people who ask you why you won’t make one, what do you say?

JH: I won’t, because it’s just a waste of time. You know, for the guy who decides to call Stewart-MacDonald, orders a Les Paul guitar kit, and puts it all together, that’s fine. But if you’re calling yourself a builder and you’re using a kit, you’re really not a guitar builder. There’s so much knowledge to gain when it comes to really building a guitar, from tools to wood to processes. I actually want to make a name for myself and the company. I want this company to last into the future, and I think having a signature shape on a quality guitar is the key. It’s what keeps me up at night. I’ll send a guitar out and I’ll just worry about it making to the customer safely, and I really hope the customer loves it. I’ve had guitars go out and the customer will call and say there’s something wrong. I’ll pay to have it sent back and I’ll fix whatever is wrong on my own dime. I don’t think I’ll ever turn a customer away after they've paid when something’s wrong or if there’s something they don’t like. Everyone is genuine about any issues they have, too, so I’m always going to make it right. I think that’s the only way to be.

LS: What you do really is an art form. There aren’t that many people that are true luthiers, but it’s a centuries-old craft. With that in mind, what keeps you inspired and moving forward?

JH: Getting custom build orders and having people call and say that they have a new idea is really what gets me inspired to do this. I could build a copy of one I’ve made before and be just as happy, though. I really enjoy doing it. If I did any more volume that what I do now, I could see certain parts of it becoming kind of monotonous, but I just really love doing all of it. You know, there’s the kid in school who has to explain what their dad does for a career and some say an accountant while others say a firefighter. Of course, the kids are going to think the firefighter is awesome.

LS: So, basically, you want to be the dad who builds rock n’ roll guitars. [laughs] That’s a pretty cool profession to pursue. Why do you think music and art forms like guitar building are still relevant and important for people to hold on to, to respect?

JH: It’s a release. It’s a universal way to communicate with people. Anybody could talk about music and art and find common ground. Or, at the very least, it can start a discussion. Plus, I think it makes the world a little bit smaller. It brings everything together. You can learn more about other cultures through music. It may sound lofty, but it’s true. As far as what I listen to, it really depends on my mood. I’ll listen to just about anything other than hardcore rap, but I’m a Beastie Boys fan from way back believe it or not.

LS: At the end of the day, why would you ultimately tell someone to check out Harper Guitars?

JH: You’re getting something boutique. A lot of people will argue that something boutique just costs more, but that’s not the issue. There are regular guys and girls out there making things with their hands and I think that’s worth the extra money to get that. You know, it’s like the “Walmart versus Ma & Pa stores” argument. Walmart makes it easier to get everything in one place, but when you spend a little extra time searching things out you can get something better usually. When people get my guitars, they know that every little piece of it has been looked over and all the details have been paid close attention to. Plus, I’m a musician. I’m not going to give someone something that I don’t enjoy playing. I put a lot of care and time into it because it’s something I really enjoy.

_______________________________________________

Want to find more on Harper (JIH) Guitars, such as additional photos, how to order a custom creation, artist testimonials, and more? Visit the official Harper (JIH) Guitars website at this link: http://www.jihguitars.com/. You can also interact with Jacob Harper or peruse additional photos of his works by visiting the “JIH – Custom & Handmade Guitars” Facebook page.

To read a “Gear Guide” on Alonzo Pennington’s custom “Goldie” guitar, which was made by Harper (JIH) Guitars, click here. A full interview with Alonzo Pennington can be found here.

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

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The Shed

freedigitalphotos.net

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (5/9/13) - For some, writing is a way of life. For Madisonville resident Mike Barton, it’s also a part-time job and a leisurely love affair. Along with authoring five insightfully written business books, which includes Recognition at WorkBuilding a Fundamentally Sound Corporate Compliance Program, and Incentive Pay: Creating a Competitive Advantage, as well as numerous published articles and short pieces, Mike holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Evansville. And while Mike’s in-depth sense of business know-how has led him to employment as a teacher/professor, an HR Administrator with Baptist Health Madisonville, and a talented lecturer, he says that he simply loves to write. Period. In turn, the Sugg Street Post recently got in touch with Mike and found that he was interested in submitting some of his works to our website. Of course, we were happy to oblige.

So, without further ado, we would like to present the reader with Mike Barton’s second perceptive contribution: “The Shed”. 

The tiny shed was tucked away between two gigantic sycamore trees. It was adorned with tan siding and a well-cured roof. The doors on the structure needed to be replaced. In fact, on a sunny day, the holes in the door converted the shed into a toaster oven. Inside, there were four electrical outlets, an ancient refrigerator, and a fluorescent light that dangled from the ceiling. The shed had been used to store garden equipment and various discarded items. However, it was never meant to be a garden shed. It would be the site of many wonderful memories for the family who occupied the adjoining house.

The family included a husband, wife, and two sons who were three years apart. The oldest son was the first to realize the value of the shed. He thought his destiny was to be a “major” rock star. He convinced his father to convert the shed into a makeshift studio for his rock band. He invested money in insulation that was placed strategically in the gaping holes inside structure. A few particle boards were placed on the walls to give the shed some degree of sophistication. On the particle boards, abstract drawings were made by the band and other visitors. Some of the artwork was a bit over-the-top. For example, “We Are the Best Rock Band in the World” was placed tactically on the three particle boards that were nailed to the walls. The band was named 2 Weak to Notice, which was also prominently displayed throughout the shed.

The first concert “rocked” the neighborhood. The band members invited friends and acquaintances to hear their songs. The parents and youngest son attended this concert and cheered along with the teenage audience. Near the end of the concert, the father was brought to tears with a rocking rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama”. The band announced that this song was for the father who allowed them to convert the shed into their personal “Abbey Road” studio. The concerts became a regular Friday occurrence over the next two years until the oldest son went off to college.

The youngest son was now ready to convert the shed into a “rocking” clubhouse. The shed would now become home to the “KORE”. The KORE was the official name for the friendship group comprised of five individuals including the youngest son. The KORE spent hours in the shed playing video games and practicing on their musical instruments. A window air-conditioner had now been installed so the summer heat radiated by the tattered doors of the shed would be bearable. The KORE would spend the night on old mattresses strewn in the shed. In fact, one of the group’s members stayed in the shed almost two weeks during the summer. He would come into the adjoining house to eat, shower, and use the bathroom. Other members of the KORE also stayed in the shed overnight because of the inviting atmosphere.

The youngest son soon formed his own band. This band, which was called Holden’s Rye, was soon practicing in the shed. The band’s name came from Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe the band should have been called Lord of the Flies, because the shed was often plagued with bugs and an occasional nocturnal creature. The band’s practices permeated loud noises throughout the neighborhood. However, it seems the neighborhood welcomed those voices that sometimes sang off-key along with their loud guitars that often needed tuning. Like the band before, Friday concerts were a common happening. Neighbors would sometimes attend these concerts along with the youngest son’s parents. During this time, the oldest son would often return and jam with his younger sibling. The band played concerts in the area and even did one concert at Western Kentucky University.

The shed has now been converted back to a storage area for garden tools and unwanted items. However, the memories remain. The parents often visit the shed and recall the joy it brought to the family. The shed has weathered an ice storm and high winds. It has had a new roof installed as a result. The youngest son now works as a classic rock disc jockey in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He is now in a new band called The Fair-Weather Kings. The oldest son still enjoys listening and jamming with his brother. They have a love of music because of this little shed’s influence.

One only has to close their eyes and think of the eerie sounds that use to be emitted from this “rocking shack”. Some of those sounds included laughter, loud singing, and an occasional heated debate. The shed stands as a reminder of how one small outbuilding became the focal point for a family.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Mike Barton

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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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'Old Ship' Sails Again

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (2/21/13) - “Old Ship," located at 304 Union Street in Madisonville, dates back to 1857 and features Federal style architecture. The “Old Ship” was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The landscaping is also graced with a unique stone fence, “Carlow’s Stone Wall”, which was moved to the site in the 1970s.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo by Jeff Harp

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Gear Guide—JT Oglesby’s Historic 'Playtime'

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (2/19/13)—The intrigue and beauty of many instruments—especially those vintage gems that have gained a seasoned character both in sound and appearance—often times lies in the story behind them. Of course, decades-old, top-quality woods and old-world USA craftsmanship are paramount to collectors—and are all but impossible to duplicate in a modern, mass-production facility—but it’s often the blemishes, the idiosyncrasies, and the tale a dated instrument can tell that becomes just as, if not more, important. Once uncovered, its tale becomes priceless, intangible mojo and—if you’re listen hard enough—the odyssey it has undergone comes through in the vibration of each note.

While previous installments of the “Gear Guide” have been partially focused on the technical specs of a certain guitar, bass, or drum kit, we’d like to bring you something a little different for this go around. We’d like to present you with J.T. Oglesby’s historic “Playtime” archtop guitar. No, it’s not a collectible Gibson or an early Fender, it’s by no means a perfect “player,” and we don’t know what it’s made of, but its warm tone and captivating story precedes the materials from which it is constructed.

How did we come to find out about this strikingly curvaceous piece of history? During a recent interview with revered, longtime area guitarist and musician, J.T. Oglesby, at Madisonville's own Glema Mahr Center for the Arts, we had the chance to not only document the instrument in photos—thanks to local photographer Jessi Smith—but were also able to find out the story behind the piece soon after.

A lover of music and guitars, as well as history and art in general, J.T. has played his fair share of both new and vintage instruments over the years, and while his main guitar is a 1994, custom-built Langejans acoustic/electric, he says the Playtime archtop holds a very special place in his personal guitar archives.

So, what makes this guitar so significant on both a historic and personal level for J.T.?

As he explains, “This Playtime archtop was bought by Harry Marsh—a man I knew personally who still has relatives in Nortonville, Kentucky. According to a hand-written note that’s glued inside the guitar’s body, which is visible through the bass side f-hole, Harry bought it at five o’clock on July 7th, 1944 at the Nortonville Variety Store. I obtained the guitar from my wife’s [Savannah Oglesby’s] grandmother, Jane Smith. There’s actually a family picture of her playing it back in the 1950’s.”

But how is an archtop differentiated from other guitars? In short, archtop style guitars were produced as far back as the turn of 20th Century and still remain a popular choice for jazz, blues, and indie guitarists today. In fact, one of the first electric guitars ever produced was an archtop. Generally speaking, most archtop guitars are defined by having a fully hollow body and a distinctive arched or bowed top (usually with f-holes in the top similar to that of a violin).

Though J.T. has an affinity for archtop guitars, and has owned several over the years, he explains that the Playtime is special on several different levels.

“This one is special for several reasons,” says J.T. of the decades-old guitar. “It was my wife’s grandmother’s for one. I learned to play guitar at her grandmother’s music barn when I was a kid. They named her place Jim’s Opry after her husband, Jim. The other reason is the historical value. I had never even heard of the Nortonville Variety Store and it was in my hometown. To me, the guitar is really a piece of history and a work of art. When I play it, it’s like reading a local history book and my mind goes wild with stories and questions. I am a huge local history fan, so this guitar is really like a step back in time for me.”

Regarding the guitar’s specs, J.T. explains that, “As far as the wood and any technical specifications go, I really don’t know anything. I know it does not have a truss rod, but other than that I’m clueless. When I first got it, there was dust all over it and it only had two strings. I took it apart and cleaned it up. Then I strung it up with Martin brand, light-gauge ‘silk and steel’ strings. There is no pickup on the guitar or anything, so it’s purely acoustic.”

However, while J.T. has a special attachment for the guitar and its full, yet simultaneously jangly and warm tone, he says he has no plans on playing it on-stage unless it’s a special occasion.

“I may record some songs on it in the studio just so we can have them to put up as a family keepsake, but I would never play it live unless the situation was right,” says JT. “I play far too aggressively and don’t want to risk damaging it. However, I’m working on a project at the moment that will feature Colonel JD Wilkes from the Legendary Shack Shakers on harmonica, Greg Martin from the Kentucky Headhunters, and several guys from Bawn in the Mash, and there’s a good chance I’ll use the Playtime on some of those recordings. It has a great swing and gypsy type sound that I think will be great for a few rhythm tracks. But again, I would never play it live unless it was something like a solo gig at a fine arts type venue.”

For now, the historical guitar’s journey carries on thanks to a musician respectful of both art and his musical roots. And, who knows, its history may just now be getting started.

To check out previous Gear Guide articles via the Sugg Street Post’s “The Lounge” and “Blogs” sections, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo by Jessi Smith

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