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Word on the Street: Basking in Waves of Progress

MADISONVILLE, KY (7/19/13)—Full-spectrum progress is rarely a measurable, down-to-the-speck concept. Oftentimes, authentic progress is evidenced by an anomalous, subjective feeling imparted upon an individual or a collective group through a set of direct or indirect experiences. And it’s the aforementioned sense of subjectivity that’s key, because, like beauty, the notions of development and growth are ultimately in the eye of the beholder. To put it bluntly, it’s up to the observers—the people of Hopkins County and west Kentucky in this case—to recognize and appreciate the encouraging changes around us rather than focusing on the negatives that can tarnish our perceptions.

So, why examine this concept here? And how does this perspective on progress connect with our community?

While I could recount a variety of past experiences that would answer these questions adequately, I’d rather point to something specific that took place a week ago.

It was the night of Friday, July 12th, and myself, as well as a couple of close friends, suddenly found ourselves completely immersed in this peculiar sense of progress as we stood on my back porch in Madisonville, listening to the sounds of positive change emanating from the downtown district.

Yet, it had taken a full day—or perhaps even years in retrospect—ripe with tedious, but rewarding, business-related efforts and enjoyable interaction with people in our community before we were once again led to what has become a fairly familiar realization as of late: our area is growing in the right direction.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Much like any other day, Jessica Dockrey and I completed our summer morning routine, which includes getting my daughter ready for the day, taking her to stay with a member of my family so we can focus on business, eating breakfast upon our return, taking showers, putting some fresh clothes on, and pounding away at a variety of Sugg Street Post-related tasks until the late afternoon. The difference with this particular day, however, was that we would be participating in the City of Madisonville’s second installment of the 2013 Friday Night Live summer concert and entertainment series.

As with the first FNL we attended back in June, we were excited to check out the event’s entertainment lineup and to talk with attendants about the Sugg Street Post. We were also eager to see our friends out at the event having a good time with their families.

So, as the mid-morning quickly turned to late-afternoon, we packed up our table, a banner, some blank note cards for an advertising giveaway, business cards, and a few fold-out chairs, and headed toward the city’s downtown district to set up our booth.

As before, we were lucky enough to have a spot on the corner of Court and Union Streets where we could see the performance stage while also meeting with a variety of FNL patrons.

Though attendance for the event underwent gradual growth throughout the evening, the turnout for the summer concert series, which was made possible via a partnership with Baptist Health Madisonville and the Hopkins County Tourist and Convention Commission, was perhaps the best I’ve seen in four years by the time 7:30pm rolled around.

Along with booths from a variety of businesses and organizations, a motorcycle show hosted by the Hopkins County Central Archery Team on East Center Street, and onsite food and refreshment services—which included the Madisonville-Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce’s beer garden—the event also boasted a three-part musical lineup that included Larry Grisham and The Beat Daddys, Elvis impersonator Brad McCrady, and the acclaimed Boscoe France Band.

Furthermore, we (Jessica, close friend and photographer Jeff Harp, and I) got to meet and talk with a lot of fresh faces that were excited about the Sugg Street Post and the support we try to offer up to the local arts and entertainment scene in western Kentucky. For our fans and supporters, we are truly grateful.

Yet, by the time 8:15pm rolled around, we were physically and mentally exhausted. It was the culmination of a work week that seemed to stretch much farther than five days and we were ready for some down time at home. While we didn’t want to miss what was surely going to be one of the biggest and most anticipated shows of the season—a live performance by Guitar Center’s national 2012 Battle of the Blues winner and Hopkins County native, Boscoe France—we succumbed to our human frailties and packed it up, ready to relax in the comforts of our own home.

With most everything unloaded, we took off our shoes, popped open a couple of brews, and headed out toward the back porch of our home on the south end of town to take in the relaxing sights of the night sky. And as we walked past the threshold some six to seven blocks away from downtown Madisonville and FNL, we were greeted by the soulful howls and bluesy wailing of The Boscoe France Band cutting a smooth grove into the evening air.

We weren’t going to miss the show after all.

I was born here, and I’ve lived in or nearby Madisonville for the majority of my life, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been able to hear music from an event this clearly. Not only could I hear the performance, but it was truly phenomenal music. We all looked at each other and seemed to exclaim the same sentiments in unison, “This is awesome!”

And it truly was awe-inspiring in that moment. To us, it was a sign of where our small town is headed.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half set, we all felt as though we were witness to something special. It was pure. It was evolution. It was a triumph for our local scene wrapped up in a seemingly simple package of sound waves, nice weather, and cool night air. It was about friendship and a shared vision. Sure, there may have been a handful of local folks trying to get some sleep that night, but, on the whole, our town was truly alive. It was electric, loud, and stunning.

We were at home, relaxing in a chair with our feet kicked up, and we could hear the sounds of progress, the rumble of bikes roaring down the streets, the clickety-clack and groan of a train passing through the darkness, reminding us of what a great place we have to call home.

____________________________________________

Want to learn more about Madisonville’s 2013 Friday Night Live summer concert series? If so, click the following link: 

http://www.madisonvillegov.com/Madisonville_Kentucky/index.asp?Page=Friday%20Night%20Live

To learn more about Boscoe France and The Boscie France Band, click here or click the YouTube player attached below this article.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo provided by Boscoe France

Read more...

Word on the Street: Basking in Waves of Progress

MADISONVILLE, KY (7/19/13)—Full-spectrum progress is rarely a measurable, down-to-the-speck concept. Oftentimes, authentic progress is evidenced by an anomalous, subjective feeling imparted upon an individual or a collective group through a set of direct or indirect experiences. And it’s the aforementioned sense of subjectivity that’s key, because, like beauty, the notions of development and growth are ultimately in the eye of the beholder. To put it bluntly, it’s up to the observers—the people of Hopkins County and west Kentucky in this case—to recognize and appreciate the encouraging changes around us rather than focusing on the negatives that can tarnish our perceptions.

So, why examine this concept here? And how does this perspective on progress connect with our community?

While I could recount a variety of past experiences that would answer these questions adequately, I’d rather point to something specific that took place a week ago.

It was the night of Friday, July 12th, and myself, as well as a couple of close friends, suddenly found ourselves completely immersed in this peculiar sense of progress as we stood on my back porch in Madisonville, listening to the sounds of positive change emanating from the downtown district.

Yet, it had taken a full day—or perhaps even years in retrospect—ripe with tedious, but rewarding, business-related efforts and enjoyable interaction with people in our community before we were once again led to what has become a fairly familiar realization as of late: our area is growing in the right direction.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Much like any other day, Jessica Dockrey and I completed our summer morning routine, which includes getting my daughter ready for the day, taking her to stay with a member of my family so we can focus on business, eating breakfast upon our return, taking showers, putting some fresh clothes on, and pounding away at a variety of Sugg Street Post-related tasks until the late afternoon. The difference with this particular day, however, was that we would be participating in the City of Madisonville’s second installment of the 2013 Friday Night Live summer concert and entertainment series.

As with the first FNL we attended back in June, we were excited to check out the event’s entertainment lineup and to talk with attendants about the Sugg Street Post. We were also eager to see our friends out at the event having a good time with their families.

So, as the mid-morning quickly turned to late-afternoon, we packed up our table, a banner, some blank note cards for an advertising giveaway, business cards, and a few fold-out chairs, and headed toward the city’s downtown district to set up our booth.

As before, we were lucky enough to have a spot on the corner of Court and Union Streets where we could see the performance stage while also meeting with a variety of FNL patrons.

Though attendance for the event underwent gradual growth throughout the evening, the turnout for the summer concert series, which was made possible via a partnership with Baptist Health Madisonville and the Hopkins County Tourist and Convention Commission, was perhaps the best I’ve seen in four years by the time 7:30pm rolled around.

Along with booths from a variety of businesses and organizations, a motorcycle show hosted by the Hopkins County Central Archery Team on East Center Street, and onsite food and refreshment services—which included the Madisonville-Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce’s beer garden—the event also boasted a three-part musical lineup that included Larry Grisham and The Beat Daddys, Elvis impersonator Brad McCrady, and the acclaimed Boscoe France Band.

Furthermore, we (Jessica, close friend and photographer Jeff Harp, and I) got to meet and talk with a lot of fresh faces that were excited about the Sugg Street Post and the support we try to offer up to the local arts and entertainment scene in western Kentucky. For our fans and supporters, we are truly grateful.

Yet, by the time 8:15pm rolled around, we were physically and mentally exhausted. It was the culmination of a work week that seemed to stretch much farther than five days and we were ready for some down time at home. While we didn’t want to miss what was surely going to be one of the biggest and most anticipated shows of the season—a live performance by Guitar Center’s national 2012 Battle of the Blues winner and Hopkins County native, Boscoe France—we succumbed to our human frailties and packed it up, ready to relax in the comforts of our own home.

With most everything unloaded, we took off our shoes, popped open a couple of brews, and headed out toward the back porch of our home on the south end of town to take in the relaxing sights of the night sky. And as we walked past the threshold some six to seven blocks away from downtown Madisonville and FNL, we were greeted by the soulful howls and bluesy wailing of The Boscoe France Band cutting a smooth grove into the evening air.

We weren’t going to miss the show after all.

I was born here, and I’ve lived in or nearby Madisonville for the majority of my life, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been able to hear music from an event this clearly. Not only could I hear the performance, but it was truly phenomenal music. We all looked at each other and seemed to exclaim the same sentiments in unison, “This is awesome!”

And it truly was awe-inspiring in that moment. To us, it was a sign of where our small town is headed.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half set, we all felt as though we were witness to something special. It was pure. It was evolution. It was a triumph for our local scene wrapped up in a seemingly simple package of sound waves, nice weather, and cool night air. It was about friendship and a shared vision. Sure, there may have been a handful of local folks trying to get some sleep that night, but, on the whole, our town was truly alive. It was electric, loud, and stunning.

We were at home, relaxing in a chair with our feet kicked up, and we could hear the sounds of progress, the rumble of bikes roaring down the streets, the clickety-clack and groan of a train passing through the darkness, reminding us of what a great place we have to call home.

____________________________________________

Want to learn more about Madisonville’s 2013 Friday Night Live summer concert series? If so, click the following link:

http://www.madisonvillegov.com/Madisonville_Kentucky/index.asp?Page=Friday%20Night%20Live

To learn more about Boscoe France and The Boscie France Band, click here or click the YouTube player attached below this article.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo provided by Boscoe France

Read more...

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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  • Published in Music

Area Musician Helps to Put Paducah Scene in KET Spotlight

PADUCAH, KY (3/17/13)—Western Kentucky, as well as the surrounding region and state of Kentucky itself, is brimming with talented artists and musicians working in a variety of genres—and it has been this way for decades. Yet, regardless of the raw talent an area may hold, the growth and success of a community’s arts, history, entertainment, and music scene depends largely on the support of appreciative, like-minded individuals. Taking this idea to heart, the downtown arts and entertainment district in Paducah, KY has truly flourished over the last 15 to 20 years thanks to the efforts of dedicated volunteers, fervent patrons, ambitious non-profit organizations, and a bevy of talented artists. Today, the shining example they have set, as well as the close-knit society of creative minds that has pulled together as a result, stands as a beacon to other area’s looking to reinvent and connect their own local cultures.

Knowing this truth from many memorable firsthand experiences over the last decade, acclaimed regional musician and award-winning thumbpicker, J.T. Oglesby (pictured to the left), set out to get Paducah’s thriving, multi-faceted music scene recognized on a broader scale. Specifically, he wanted to see Paducah musicians, their fans, and their inspiring reverence for the roots of Kentucky music featured on Kentucky Educational Television (KET).

So, what did he do? He called KET and told them it was a good idea.

“It was really just a lack of shyness and curiosity just to see if I could do it,” says J.T. candidly. “I called up KET and said, ‘Give me somebody in charge.’ They asked what I meant and I told them, ‘Give me somebody who can make me a TV show.’ [laughs] They connected me with [producer] Brandon Wickey. Once we got to talking, I pitched the idea of promoting some of my friends and the Paducah scene on a TV show...I wanted to promote Paducah because they are advancing music, but still promote indigenous Kentucky music. They are moving forward, but are honoring and respecting the musicians that came before all of us in the process.”

While J.T. felt that the initial reaction he got from Wickey was positive, over two years passed without any further contact. As a result, J.T. assumed that his idea had been brushed off. Avoiding too much heartache over what he thought was a great but forgotten idea, J.T. forged ahead, playing music for regional audiences, promoting Kentucky’s rich musical lineage, and spending time with his family.

Then, several weeks ago, J.T.’s phone rang. It was Wickey, and he was ready to discuss details.

“A few years had passed and then, out of nowhere, Brandon [Wickey] called me up and asked if I still wanted to do the show. I told him I did,” says J.T. of the unexpected call. “He said that he wanted to get [former Bawn in the Mash member] Nathan Blake Lynn, the Solid Rock’it Boosters, and JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers on board for the show.”

Having played both with and alongside each of the locally-based groups and musicians Wickey wanted to feature on the show, contacting them and garnering their interest was a relatively easy task for J.T..

From there, Matt Grimm—one of KET’s various contributing producers for their ongoing weekly magazine program, Kentucky Life—was assigned to the project and things really started to move.

In fact, it was no time before KET and J.T., as well as several others, were helping to organize a full-on community-based concert featuring each of the aforementioned artists. What’s more, Paducah’s premiere arts, music, and film venue, The Maiden Alley Cinema, agreed to host the show on March 1st.

It was at this point that the upcoming event looked to be a “perfect storm” for showcasing the talents and culture of Paducah that J.T. sought so diligently to exhibit—there was a non-profit arts and community-based venue, a handful of fine Paducah area musicians, and a respected statewide television network ready to lend their hand in making the show a success. And if that weren’t enough, a mere week or so before the show, J.T. was fortunate enough to access a true piece of west Kentucky music history: Mose Rager’s ‘50s-‘60s era Gibson ES-225T electric guitar.

Revered by many as the forefather of thumbpicking—an intricate style of guitar playing that originated in west Kentucky where the thumb plays rhythm and the forefingers play the melody simultaneously—Mose Rager is truly a musical legend and an inspiration to many area artists. In fact, when searching out information on the talented innovator in a face-to-face context, one may find that Rager’s history carries with it a sense of indefinable colloquial mythos rivaled only by his ability to play. To really put his prowess in perspective, consider this: Rager is oftentimes credited with teaching the thumbpicking style to internationally recognized musician and country legend, Merle Travis.

Deeply inspired by both Mose, the man, and the style he imparted to our region, J.T. decided he would also give a very special nod to our area’s musical roots by playing the storied vintage instrument alongside his longtime friends and band-mates, the Solid Rock’it Boosters, during the Paducah concert.

While J.T. had started—and currently still is—working with a number of other outlets to document the historic Gibson, which include the Folk Studies Department at Western Kentucky University (WKU), local musician Patrick “Patson” Richardson, photographer Amy Hourigan, members of the Sugg Street Post, and others, he knew performing with it during the soon-to-be-aired concert would be an invaluable way to get it out there in the public’s eye even more.

With everything in place, J.T. contacted the Sugg Street Post crew and asked us if we’d like to come down and check out the show with him. In addition to KET’s presence, he noted that an accomplished student photographer/videographer from WKU, Mike Rivera, would also be in attendance gathering footage for a documentary on the guitar.

Having missed out on much of Paducah’s musical flavor thus far, we jumped at the chance to check out the concert, as well as a portion of Paducah’s thriving cultural tapestry—and are we ever glad we did.

After arriving in Paducah’s historic, riverside arts and entertainment district about two hours before the show was scheduled to start, photographer Jeff Harp, J.T., and I made our way under an illuminated arch-style Maiden Alley Cinema sign near the main roadway, walked down a widened brick alley, and arrived at the side entrance of the venue.

Once inside the roomy location, we made our rounds with J.T., meeting with several of the musicians that were to perform that night, speaking with producer Matt Grimm, and catching an impromptu, multi-artist jam session that broke out in the hallway adjacent to the quaint auditorium-style stage/theatre area. And it was the latter—listening to the foot stompin’, historic folk and blues-tinged rockabilly sounds coming from the intermingling group of performers in the hall, which included the likes of J.D. and Jessica Wilkes, Josh Coffey, Eddie Coffey, Nathan Blake Lynn, Nathan Brown, and Todd Anderson—that made us realize these performers were part of something special. This unplanned, corridor-bound display of comradery was a microcosm of what their scene was all about: unity, spontaneity, and a love for creativity.

With only minutes to go before the doors were opened to the public, Grimm and other members of KET’s crew made last minute adjustments to their cameras, the sound was checked one final time, and the Maiden Alley Cinema/Paducah Film Society’s Executive Director, Landee W. Bryant, informed us that the show was sold out. It was undoubtedly going to be a memorable night.

And so it ensued. Patrons of all ages flooded into the theatre, filling nearly every seat.

However, before the music began, Landee came before the crowd and explained that the non-profit, community-based theatre, art, and music venue was facing a potentially threatening situation: digital conversion. While the Maiden Alley Cinema currently utilizes 35mm film in their projectors, Landee made note that studios are quickly converting to digital formats exclusively, which leaves longstanding, film-based theatres with two choices: convert to digital projectors at a cost of approximately $50-80,000 or close down. While major theatre franchises will likely have little problem making the sweeping change, the Maiden Alley Cinema is a locally-operated, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. As a result, completing this process will depend largely on the support of regional donations. In expanding upon this concept, members and supporters of the cinema presented a short, comedic film explaining the process and its potential pitfalls before the musicians took to the stage. So, if you love the arts and would like to show your support for Paducah’s Maiden Alley Cinema, please take a moment to check out the “About Us” section on their official website by clicking here.

Following soon after, the lights were dimmed and the music kicked-off with the traditional folk and “sluegrass” sounds of The Wheelhouse Rousters. Composed of Nathan Blake Lynn, Josh Coffey, and Eddie Coffey, the trio performed a variety of historic and original acoustic tunes, and even took the time to illuminate some of Paducah’s more interesting musical history between songs to the delight of the audience. Making for an even more interesting set, each member took on different instruments. From the use of tenor, acoustic, and resophonic guitars, to the sweet, high-end strumming of a mandolin, the low-end thump of an upright bass, and the engaging bite of the fiddle—not to mention the alternation of vocals—their set was well-rounded and charming in an old-world sense. In honesty, sitting back and simply enjoying their roots-based style was much like stepping back in time.

After a hardy round of applause for The Wheelhouse Rousters, the Solid Rock’it Boosters took to the stage with their energetic and raucous blend of celebrated country and rockabilly. On this particular night, the band consisted of Nathan Brown on vocals, rhythm guitar, and kazoo, John Wurth on drums, J.T. Oglesby on lead guitar, Josh Coffey on fiddle, and Todd Anderson on the upright bass. Standout performances from their set included a solid rendition of Merle Travis and Tex Williams’ classic western tune, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)”—during which J.T. performed on Mose Rager’s legendary Gibson ES-225T—and a stirring version Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” (which was later made even more famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford). And while these may have been some of their more memorable tunes, the intense fiddle playing of Josh Coffey, J.T.’s fast-paced thumbpicking, and Todd’s intricate bass solos were tremendous parts of their overall performance.

And here’s the only bad news of the night…

Due to some unfortunate time constraints, we missed the final performance by swamp-blues and rock-infused Paducah music scene mainstay, J.D. Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, which is composed of J.D. and Jessica Wilkes, Rod Hamdallah, and Preston Corn. However, several follow-up conversations with those in attendance confirmed that their set rocked the house quite thoroughly.

Luckily, even though we missed out on the final act, KET captured much of the three performances on film for an installment of their aforementioned series, Kentucky Life, which will be airing on May 11th at 7pm (CT) and May 12th at 4pm (CT). In addition, the segment will also be available for viewing on the series’ official website: http://www.ket.org/kentuckylife/. Fans of the show are encouraged to interact with host Dave Shuffett and the producers of Kentucky Life via their Facebook site at facebook.com/kentuckylife.

As Grimm explained to us several days after the concert, “We are producing a segment featuring the Paducah music scene for our weekly magazine program, Kentucky Life. Now in its 18th season, this year the show has had a music emphasis. We are excited about the opportunity to feature the breadth of talent and different styles you can find in Kentucky.”

Regarding the general details and intention of the series, Grimm says that, “Kentucky Life is an award-winning weekly program that aims to document Kentucky’s great diversity. While individual stories focus on local communities, the Kentucky Life crew strives to connect each one to the state at large—to help Kentuckians celebrate their unique regional characters and cultures while bringing them closer together through stories of the rich heritage we all share.”

Other music/history scenes, areas of the state, and performers featured on the acclaimed KET series thus far, include Cumberland River of Harlan County, a “Chitlin’ Circuit” retrospective that focuses on the history of African American musicians (based in Christian County), Tin Can Buddha from Jefferson County, Paul Gilley from Morgan County, Renfro Valley of Rockcastle County, Billy Harlan of Muhlenberg County, a retrospective piece centered on 1950’s hills music via John Cohen’s photography (based in Knott County), and Coralee & the Townies of Fayette County.

While it may at first seem somewhat peculiar that a simple suggestion on J.T.’s behalf helped to spark such a distinctive show and overall experience, as well as KET’s interest, Grimm says it’s really not that uncommon. In fact, many of the show’s story ideas come from faithful viewers of the program.

Overall, however, it was a deeply collaborative effort spawned and made possible by many hands both at KET and in the Paducah community. And, in the end, that’s what the entire night was all about: showcasing a portion of what the Paducah music scene has to offer and the sense of appreciation for creativity the community shares.

Though the growth of a scene like Paducah’s takes a notable amount time and effort to create and successfully maintain, they show that it is not only possible, but that it’s also enjoyable and fun—and the example we witnessed that Friday night was inspiring to say the least. If anything, we should all take note of the possibilities that await our own communities here in Hopkins County. While we, as a whole, have made strides in the realm of promoting arts and entertainment over the last decade, there is still plenty of work to be done.

To check out a live performance from the Solid Rock'it Boosters, which took place during the Maiden Alley Cinema's 2nd Annual Oktoberfest in 2012, click the video player attached below.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp

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Gear Guide—Alonzo Pennington’s Custom Harper ‘Goldie’

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (3/6/13)—Good music is born from a musician’s experiences, feelings, or ideas. Yet, without the proper instrument, attaining the desired expression and personality of a song can be difficult or nearly impossible. Fortunately, modern musicians have a plethora of finely tuned options at their disposal. From variations in tonewoods, string gauge, and speaker construction, to the customization of electronic pickups, drum heads, microphones, and beyond, contemporary players have the ability to dial in exactly what they want or need to get their “dream tone.”

But, on the flip side, figuring out the differences between each of these options can become a major, and often times confusing, learning process. That’s the beauty of it, though—it takes time to age into a fine musician.

So, instead of trying to lay everything out on the proverbial table, the Sugg Street Post would like to bring you periodic information about the instruments area musicians use to get the sound you hear live or on their records. Enter: The Gear Guide.

For this installment of the Gear Guide, we would like to bring you an in-depth look at the specs and story behind Alonzo Pennington’s custom, handmade Harper “Goldie” goldtop.

A multi-talented musician with over three decades of experiences on the road, at home, and in the studio, Alonzo Pennington is one of our area’s most respected and skilled artists—and for good reason. He’s played with some of the world’s most notable musicians, inlcuding Chet Atkins, John Michael Montgomery, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd (just to name a few); he’s the only artist to have garnered the title of International Thumbpicker two different years (1999 and 2011); his full-length record, Thumbin’, was chosen as the 2011 Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame “Album of the Year”; and he’s played Nashville’s premiere country music venue, the Grand Ole Opry. Yet, what really sets Alonzo apart at the end of the day is his untainted love for all “good” music, regardless of genre.

Though Alonzo’s musical “home” lies in the rough-edged vein of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn-style electric blues, which often times manifests via The Alonzo Pennington Band, he’s also extremely adept in the genres of country, jazz, bluegrass, folk, and, of course, thumpicking. That being said, it’s no wonder that Alonzo sought out a “main” electric guitar that could accommodate a breadth of styles with ease, articulation, and original flair. As a result, Alonzo turned to a skilled, locally-based luthier, custom guitar builder, and one of his close friends, Jacob Harper of Harper (JIH) Guitars. After contacting Jacob and discussing some of the specific options he could incorporate into the guitar, it wasn’t long before Alonzo had a one-of-a-kind, handmade, solid-body Harper “Goldie” that fit his hands and multi-sided needs like a glove.

Today, Alonzo uses “Goldie” to produce everything from chiming, but well-rounded clean tones, to screaming, overdriven lead lines.

Yet, what makes “Goldie” tick outside of Alonzo’s seasoned technique and spontaneously artistic approach? Read on.

Harper (JIH) Guitars Custom “Goldie” Solid-body—Tech Specs

Pickups—Two uncovered Seymour Duncan “Pearly Gates” zebra-style humbuckers
Body Wood/Design—Harper-style double cutaway mahogany body with maple top
Neck Woods—Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, trapezoid inlays, and cream binding
Neck Shape—Rounded profile
Finish—Classic goldtop style
Tuners—Locking Schaller brand tuners
Bridge/Tailpiece—Tune-o-matic style bridge with stopbar tailpiece
Volume/Tone Controls—Volume and tone controls for bridge and neck pickup; standard 3-way toggle switch (rhythm /lead/both)

In addition to utilizing a relatively heavier gauge set of strings (.11-.48 Dean Markley brand strings) and a classic Ibanez TS-808 overdrive pedal—both of which are staples of many notable electric blues players’ sounds—Alonzo also runs his handmade Harper guitar through an ‘80s-era Ernie Ball Volume Pedal that was originally his dad’s (award-winning thumbpicker Eddie Pennington) and an Aphex Exciter. The amplifier Alonzo uses with this setup is a first generation Fender Hot Rod Deville that has four, ten-inch Jensen ceramic “Mod Speakers” and Groove Tubes.

So, how did the creation of “Goldie” come about?

“‘Goldie’ is actually the second guitar that Jacob [Harper] has built for me,” explains Alonzo, “and it’s made to fit my hands. I’ve had her almost a year now and she’s my main electric guitar.”

In regard to the vibe and tone of the guitar, Alonzo says that, “‘Goldie’ reminds me of a vintage [Gibson] Les Paul—the feel of the neck, the weight, and the screaming tone are all there. This guitar literally makes me perform better, too. It’s comfortable to play and I don’t have to spend half of a gig looking for the tone I want. It’s just there when I plug in.”

Handmade and customized in every aspect by Jacob Harper of Harper (JIH) Guitars, “Goldie” is truly a one-of-a-kind instrument. In addition to being constructed from high-quality, hand-selected tonewoods, Goldie is also adorned with high-end components that usually don't come standard on modern, mass-produced instruments.

“I’m very lucky to play one of Jacob’s guitars,” says Alonzo. “Some of the other people playing his axes include the guys from Uncle Kracker, Drew Lambert from Sam Hunter & The Two Tones and the Glen Templeton Band, Ronnie Paul Kingery who is also from the Glen Templeton Band, Chip Adams from the Louisville School of Rock, and Hunter Borowick of Louisville's Unleashed, just to name a few.”

To read an in-depth interview with Alonzo Pennington, which includes several high-quality photos, please click here.

To learn more about Alonzo, to hear his music, or to purchase merchandise such as albums and t-shirts, check out Alonzo’s official site by clicking here. You can also find music from Alonzo and the Alonzo Pennington Band on Facebook and ReverbNation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Harper (JIH) Guitars, please visit their official website by clicking here. You can also check out a variety of custom instruments from Harper Guitars by visiting their "JIH - Custom and Handmade Guitars" Facebook page.

If you’d like to check out some of Alonzo’s music right now, simply click on the ReverbNation music player attached below this article.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp

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