HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (8/2/13) – To create, one must be inspired. Early on, when discovering one’s love for music, that motivation is drawn from music itself. A song is just so good that simply immersing yourself in it isn’t enough. It becomes your muse for creation.
Nationally recognized thumbpicker and Hopkins County resident, JT Oglesby, believes that there is more to making music than merely constructing it. He believes that modern musicians should pay homage to those who have influenced them first and foremost. Musicians of the past should be recognized as their musical stylings are passed on to future generations of music-makers that, in turn, are able to embellish upon them.
Kentucky music started pouring out of the Appalachian Mountains during the 18th century and, throughout the American folk music revival of the 1960’s, Appalachian musicians heavily influenced the early development of old-time, country, and bluegrass music. Bill Monroe—the “father” of bluegrass music—was born in Ohio County, Kentucky. And Merle Travis, whose syncopated style of finger picking set him apart from the rest, hailed from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. It is no secret that Kentucky’s history is rich with musical talent.
Recently, the Sugg Street Post sat down and talked with award-winning thumbpicker JT Oglesby about his life, his muses, and some of the current musical projects he is involved in.
What makes JT Oglesby tick? How has music shaped his journey through life? And, was he really roommates with iconic Nirvana front man, Kurt Cobain? The answers, as well as some amazing photos, can be found below.
Jessica Dockrey - So which guitar is your “go-to” guitar?
JT Oglesby - The acoustic guitar that I normally play was made for me in 1994 by Del Langejans in Holland, MI. There was a five year waiting period to get one of these guitars back then. I signed with Decca Records around that time and they contacted Del Langejans about doing a sponsorship with me. He doesn’t do that because he makes guitars one at a time, so he told me he’d give me a guitar and let me skip the waiting period.
That guitar was in a house fire recently and I almost went to jail over it. I was starting to walk in the house to get it and a fireman was like, “Get back! This house is on fire!” I said, “I don’t care! This is my property!” He was like, “Do you want me to get the cops over here?” I said, “Do what you want. He’s going to have to pull me out of my house. There is a guitar in there that I’m getting.” He said, “You’re not going near that house.” I said, “There is a guitar in there worth $10-20,000. There is only one in the world. It was made in 1994 just for me. I know exactly where it is and I’m getting it.” So, the cop came up and said, “You’re going to have to get back, man.” I said, “We’re fixing to get bad. You’re going to have to take me to jail because you are going to have to drag me out of that burning house.” The fireman was like, “Look man, if you step back I will try to get that guitar for you. We’ll make a deal.” I said, “Isn’t that how the world works?” [everyone laughs] So I walked back with the cop, and about 5-10 minutes later, he brought my guitar out. Smoke was coming out of the sound hole. It’s fine, perfectly fine. Actually, it’s deeper sounding. I think it sounds better now.
Luke Short - It aged it—real fast. [laughs]
JT - Yeah, it’s aged. I haven’t changed the strings yet. They’re covered in smoke. When I get done playing, my hand is black. But I got it back. That’s all that matters. That’s the guitar I want to pass down to my sons. I was willing to die to try and save it. That guitar is like me, man. It’s been beat the s*** out of. It’s been through fires, seen its licks, and been all over the country. You can tell it’s been worn and traveled.
When I play electric, I love to play my Danelectro. It’s messed up right now and I can’t play it, so I’ve been playing a cheap early ‘90s [Fender] Telecaster I bought. If I need a Tele sound, I’ll have it, but I don’t want to play it overall. At one point, I decided I wanted a baritone guitar. [Kentucky singer-songwriter] Chris Knight and I decided we needed a baritone. So, I went to a friend of mine who is a steel guitarist and sells steel guitar strings. I took that Tele in there and had him put the biggest strings he had on it. Man, I couldn’t bend them. I used it as a baritone with Chris Knight for years. Now, it’s just my full-time electric guitar. I’m used to it. It has high action and it buzzes when you get up in the 12th fret, but I know all that so I know how to compensate for it.
Jess - Yeah. Just work around it.
JT - Yeah. I know how to adjust the tone when it’s too tinny. I know it. It’s beat up. LLKM [Long Live Kentucky Music] is carved into it. It’s stickered all up. [everyone laughs] I scratched the Fender logo off of the headstock, too. I paid money for it. I’m not going to advertise for them. So, I scratched that out.
Jess - You mentioned MHH Productions earlier. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually is?
JT - Midwest Hillbilly Hardcore. They do music promotion for Farmageddon Records. I’m really into Farmageddon. It’s like gothic Americana, doom country, hellbilly—things like that. I call what I’m doing with this one band right now, called Johnny Law, honky stomp. It’s hard core. MHH is a Terre Haute, IN based promotion and booking company. Aaron Pup Syester is the founder. They had us up there this past weekend. Next weekend they are having the Stellar Corpses, which is a psychobilly band. They had Joe Buck up there. He’s a badass from Murray, KY. They had him on Halloween, which was an insane show because Joe Buck is insane anyways. He’s a one man band, but he isn’t like Patson [Patrick Richardson]. He has a beat and he’ll jump from guitar to mandolin to banjo and stuff while he keeps that bass drum beat going.
We’re all tied in. I’ve played with Hank Williams III and he’s played with Hank Williams III. That seems to be the common thing with these guys. We’re all sort of branches out from two bands –The Legendary Shack Shakers and Hank Williams III. Those are the two bands all these guys spawned from. Everybody in The Solid Rocket Boosters is basically a member of The Legendary Shack Shakers or The Dirt Daubers, which is another spinoff from the Shack Shakers. All these other guys I keep running into are all tied in. My bass player is Hank William III’s guy and he’s with him all the time. When he’s not with Hank, he’s with me. That just seems to be the thing. We’re just a bunch of country cats and skaters that dig metal and punk. I was on the Pedals Plus trick team here in Madisonville for bicycles at one point.
Luke - I was on their skate team when they started getting skateboards and stuff.
JT - Yeah? I was on their bike team man! Rick [Caskey] got pissed at me and fired me because I wiped out real hard at a show I did out at the mall and a bunch of people laughed at me. I flipped the whole crowd off. [everyone laughs]
Rick had a quarter pipe and part of it came off as a launch ramp. He told me, “I want that ramp back.” I was like, “You’re not going to get your damn ramp back. You fired me.” So, after a couple hours had passed, he called my mom. Mom was like, “I’ll talk to him.” She walked out of the house to talk to me and I had a big bonfire going. It was the launch ramp. [everyone laughs] I was like 14-years-old. I poured gas over it and set it on fire.
That’s another thing—we’re all ex-skaters and stuff. We grew up in the country listening to Conway Twitty and, I hate to say Merle Travis and Merle Haggard because it’s cliché anymore—but we did. We grew up listening to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Junior. Then again, at the same time, we were listening to Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys, Dead Milkmen, and all these other guys man—T.S.O.L. and The Faction. We listened to all this stuff and then turn around and we’d be listening to Slayer, Mayhem, and all this other black metal stuff just because it was intense.
So here we were, just a bunch of hicks that knew all this hardcore stuff and loved adrenaline. So, here we are today. We love our country, we love Hank Williams, and we love Waylon Jennings, so we’re going to play like that. It’s in our blood. Merle Travis is a big one for me. But, at the same time, I want it to rock, you know? [laughs] So I just hooked in with a bunch of cats who have meshed all this together. It’s a total new scene. As far as I know, there has never been anything like it before. You’ve got guys like Phantom of the Black Heels, Slim Cesna’s Autoclub—one of my favorite’s—and 16 Horsepower. 16 Horsepower was a major one until they broke up. David Eugene Edwards, the lead singer of 16 Horsepower, formed Wovenhand. Now, they are good, you know? He draws a lot from Nick Cave, Joy Division—stuff like that—but he also puts some world music into it. He’s hardcore into Shamanism, so he’ll draw from that as well, but he’s also a hardcore Christian. Actually, Wovenhand is classified as a Christian band. How? I don’t really know. There are a lot of bands that a lot of cats don’t know about. I took my friend and drummer, Clint Combs, with me to a show once. Clint’s mind was blown. He was like, “I didn’t even know this existed. I love country and all that, but dude, all these guys are metal heads and punk guys. They are seriously hardcore.” I was like, “Yeah man. These guys are still skating and everything.” He loved it. He told me, “About three years ago you tried to introduce me to this kind of stuff, but I didn’t get it. Man, I have to tell you, I get it now.” [everyone laughs]
Jess - Well, tell me a little bit more about your life growing up. Where were you born?
JT - I was born in Hopkinsville [Kentucky]. I lived on Chicken Road. Now it’s just called Animal Circle. It was country back then. Now, it’s a lot of houses. There wasn’t any of that then. My brother and I, we would just hang out because there weren’t really any other kids around. Cooksie—Greg Rodgers—lived down the street from me. Me and Cooksie would go set rabbit boxes out. We would just do stuff you do in the country, because you don’t have anything else to do, you know?
My dad had a guitar, which I still have. I used that guitar when I was playing with Chad [Estes] in The Blackgrass Saints. But dad had an electric guitar I couldn’t touch, too. He wouldn’t let me touch it. The acoustic I could play sometimes, but he wouldn’t let me touch his electric. He had a Fender Champ [amplifier], too. That’s where I got my Fender Champ. Dad knew how to play G, C, and D. He played “Fox on the Run” and I remember hearing that over and over. My uncle was in bands and he had long hair and was really flamboyant. He wore big bellbottoms, wildly colored polyester, and platform shoes. He was like the David Bowie of Western Kentucky or something. [everyone laughs] He was insane. I loved him though. We were tight.
My wife Savannah says I’m more like my grandmother than anybody else in my family. My grandmother, on my mom’s side, was an Oates. Warren Oates, the actor, is one of my cousins on that side of the family. Anyway, my grandmother was orphaned when she was a kid and was raised by my great aunt, “Mama-P”, and great uncle, “D-Daddy”. They were basically my grandparents, because they raised my mom, too. Actually, I was named in honor of D-Daddy. His name is JD, so when I was born my mom and dad named me John Thomas and called me JT in honor of my uncle. He and I are tight as can be—always have been. He was a circuit preacher down in Nortonville for a while, but then he moved to Herndon, KY. I would go with him and we’d hit up like four churches in one day. I’d go down there and ride the circuits with him every Sunday.
Jess - Where you actually playing at the churches with him?
JT - No. I wasn’t playing then. I plucked a little. If you look at my Facebook page you’ll see pictures of me all the way back in diapers on the guitar. I’ve always been drawn to guitars. I’ve always been drawn to music. I remember, I had a Mickey Mouse record player and I would listen to The Ventures over and over again. “Walk Don’t Run”; I loved it. [everyone laughs] What’s really funny is when I was about 25, I met Nokie Edwards, the guy that wrote that song. He’s a former member of The Ventures. He had a BBQ cookout and we sat and played “Walk Don’t Run” together. That was kind of cool.
Luke - I bet that was kind of surreal.
JT - Yeah. I told him, “Man, do you know how long I’ve been a fan of you?” He was like, “How long?” I said, “Since you and Mickey Mouse were my two favorite artists.” [everyone laughs]
Jess - That’s awesome.
JT - Here’s another funny story for you. Now, I’m a huge rockabilly fan, more psychobilly than rockabilly really. I don’t know a whole lot of pure rockabilly even though The Solid Rocket Boosters play a lot of pure rockabilly. But, one day, I’m sitting there and I’ve been hanging out with this dude all day in Nashville, TN. I noticed that Elvis kept coming up in conversation. I’m not a real big Elvis fan past the Sun Record days. I’m just not a big Elvis fan. So anyways, me and Thom Bresh, which is Merle Travis’s son, have been buddies since I met him in Oklahoma when I was like 17. So Bresh had a gig that night, and me and this other cat just kept talking and hanging out all night. He was just super cool. We’d been talking about everything and Elvis kept coming up. He kept dodging all these questions about Elvis and I kind of assumed he was like me. I thought, “Maybe this cat is not an Elvis fan.” But we talked about everything. It was just like hanging out with a buddy.
So he and I are sitting there together while Bresh is doing his show. Bresh was like, “I have a real good friend here tonight. He’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He made this little lick famous.” [JT plays the lick on Luke’s acoustic Seagull] I was like, “Oh my God. Scotty Moore is here! There is no denying who made that lick.” He said, “My buddy, Scotty Moore.” I was in my seat looking around everywhere. That’s the Sun Record days and that’s the dude that did it, man. He said, “Scotty, will you stand up?” That old cat I’d been hanging out with stood up right beside me. All day long I’d been hanging out with Scotty Moore and I didn’t know it. After I found out who he was, we got to talking. He was like, “Look, all I was trying to do behind Elvis was pick like Merle Travis. I couldn’t do it. That’s how Rockabilly pickin’ came around.” Therefore, you can kind of credit Merle Travis, who is from here, right outside of Greenville, KY.
Anyways, I tried everything back when I was younger. I played basketball. I didn’t like it, because you couldn’t hit people. I moved on to football. I was good at football, but then I found bicycles and freestyling. I got into freestyling hardcore on bicycles. I mean hardcore. I got on the Pedals Plus trick team and I shredded my body and bike. Eventually, I got tired of it and I went to skating. I got a [Powell Peralta brand] Per Welinder street model board that I just loved. Matter of fact, I’m thinking about getting a tattoo somewhere of the skull from that board on there. I rode and rode. About that time, we moved to Nortonville. So, I had several guys that I ran with that skated and we got in trouble for wall riding at the bank and stuff. I was about 12 or 13 then. I skated until I was 16.
When I was 16, I got a [Pontiac] Trans-Am and that’s when I realized how much of a damn gypsy I was. The first weekend I had it, I put 500 miles on it. Mom told me not to leave town. I broke down way out of town and mom and dad had to come and get me. One night, I just randomly decided that I wanted to go see the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. I wasn’t supposed to leave Nortonville, but I drove to the distillery anyway. After I got there, I decided it wouldn’t be that far for me to go to Knoxville, TN. So I drove on to Knoxville. Then I decided I might as well go on to Gatlinburg, TN. [everyone laughs] I drove to Gatlinburg. I had to be in Nashville early the next morning and I was broke. I called my parents collect and they’re like, “Where are you?” I told them, “I’m in Galtinburg. I don’t’ know if I’m going to make it home or not. I may need you to come get me. Of course, there were no cellphones at the time. We made it in by the skin of our teeth. I got home about four or five in the morning, fell asleep, woke up, ate, and headed to Nashville. I was just around. I’ve always been a drifter. Some people say I’m a loner, but it’s not really that I’m a loner so much as a drifter.
Jess - I’ve always been the same way. Of course, when you are traveling around you are always somewhere new, meeting new people. You’re never really alone, but you are kind of by yourself.
JT - For the people that are stationary, you’re a loner. You know? But you’re not. You’re always out meeting and making new friends. Can you pull up YouTube for a minute?
Jess - Yeah.
JT - Type in Phantom of the Black Heels, “I’m Raising Hell Again.” This will give you an idea of some of the cats. Hear the banjo?
Jess - What’s interesting about it is that so many people think that you can’t make new music. They think it’s all been done, but it really hasn’t. This song is kind of eerie sounding.
JT - Now type in The Legendary Shack Shakers, “Blond Blue Wrist.” Do you remember back when that vampire cult down in Murray killed those people?
Luke - Yeah. I remember that.
JT - This is what this song is about. I was in New Orleans and they were headed to New Orleans. The Shack Shakers have songs on True Blood, Duplicity, and on a Geico commercial.
Luke - Do they really? I didn’t know that.
Jess - I didn’t either.
JT - Steven King actually listed The Legendary Shack Shakers as one of his favorite bands.
Luke - I’ve wanted to get into playing banjo man.
JT - Yeah? I had a banjo. I played gigs some with it. Have you heard The Dirt Daubers? [JT pulls up The Dirt Daubers on YouTube] That’s my friend Jessica [Wilkes] that is singing. My buddy J.D. Wilkes is the frontman. They are based out of Paducah. Mark Robertson is on bass.
Luke - Is that a ukulele banjo?
JT - It’s a mandolin banjo, actually. He played that at the last gig I played with him. It was awesome. A lot of times I’ll play the washboard with them.
Jess - Tell me a little bit more about life growing up after you set out gypsy-style.
JT - After I got my car, I was traveling all over the place listening to cats playing the guitar. I was buying a lot of instrumental cassettes at the time, too. Everybody kind of thought I played guitar because I was so into it, but I never did. I used to hang out in Crofton at the pool hall a lot. My friends and I would go down to B-Line because they’d sell us liquor when nobody else would, because we were underage. My buddy’s dad owned it. We would hang out in there and if the cops came we’d just sneak out the back and run down the railroad tracks. My friend Chuckie Wallace played the guitar some, so I decided I wanted to play some, too. I took my dad’s acoustic and I took his electric. I call his electric guitar the “Satan Signature Series.” I took it with me one night, and while I was pulling out at a gas station, a woman t-boned me going 60 miles per hour. The neck of that electric guitar went completely through my dad’s acoustic guitar. So, insurance-wise, we got enough money to get another acoustic. I got a 12 string and hated it. I traded it back in for an Alvarez limited addition.
Well, I had cracked a vertebrae in my back at one point, and I couldn’t really do anything. One day, my grandfather said, “G. M. Clayton has a barn right across the road where they play music every Saturday night. You ought to go over there and try to learn with those cats.” Well, I was already interested in thumbpicking, without realizing it was thumbpicking, because [KET’s series] Kentucky Afield has “Cannonball Rag” as their intro song. I had never heard anything like it. That’s cool, you know? So I went over to G. M. Clayton’s barn that night and [internationally-recognized thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington just happened to be there. Eddie’s my cousin. He played and I was like, “What the hell?” [laughs] Well, he thought I played too, so he was like, “Get up here!” So, I got up there and I didn’t know how to play anything. He said, “Take it.” I said, “I don’t know how to play.” He said, “You don’t know how to play and you still had balls enough to get up here?” [laughs]
He offered to teach me how to play. So, I took him up on it and he taught me a few songs. Within three months I was playing at the international championship out in Arkansas. I took 3rd place and all I knew were three songs. The next year I went back and became national champion. At that same time, I was building the band with Chris Knight and he and I were practicing, goofing, drinking beer, and fishing. We were serious, but not real serious. Chris was writing songs and we were playing them.
Chris went to Nashville one night when I was in Seattle. I was going to Seattle a whole bunch back then—it was early in the ‘90s during the grunge outbreak—and music was everywhere. I think I taught Kurt Cobain’s stepbrother rockabilly.
I met Kurt Cobain one time. That’s a story I’d actually like to set straight, though. I’ve heard everything from, “JT was best friends with Cobain,” to “JT lived with Cobain.” No, no, no. The real story is that I missed a plane. A friend had told me about this band called Nirvana. This was after [Nirvana’s freshman album] Bleach, but before [Nirvana’s chart-topping album] Nevermind. They were playing downtown in the U District in Seattle. I was at the bar and Cobain came up and he got a beer. I said, “Hey man, I’m really enjoying it. Y’all are rockin.’” He was like, “Thanks man. I appreciate it.” Then he walked off. That was it. I was not friends with Cobain. His stepbrother went to Seaholm High School, so I knew his stepbrother, but not him. Technically, I can’t even verify that it actually was his stepbrother. Someone told me he was his stepbrother after the fact. It’s not like he came to me and told me he was Kurt’s stepbrother or anything like that. You know how stories grow and escalate. That’s the true story about it. I never claimed to be best friends with Kurt Cobain. It was just a brief meeting.
So, I was in Seattle and Chris [Knight] called me and he was like, “Man, I’ve got things going. I went down to Nashville and did a writer’s night. A guy approached me, gave me his card, and he wants me to come talk to him. He works for BlueWater Publishing.” He said, “You need to get back down here and we need to get something moving.” So we booked every Tuesday night at Jack’s Guitar Barn. Monday night was Keith Urban’s Four Wheel Drive. That was his first band when he was down there. They played Monday night at Jack’s. Jack’s was co-owned by Steve Earle. So, we had every Tuesday night and we hit it religiously.
We were sleeping in the back of Chris’s truck. Chris met up again with Frank, the guy who gave him his card, but Frank didn’t remember him. So Chris just gave him a rough demo that he made at home. Next thing you know, Frank calls Chris up and he’s like, “Look. Here’s the key to my house. You can stay here.” So we were living in style then. He signed Chris with BlueWater Publishing and they were sticking us in the studio 12-14 hours a day recording demos. We’d do what we could. We recorded everything Chris had written and then we’d also do covers.
During that time, Frank got hired by Decca [Records] and signed Chris to Decca. Then we were really high rollin’, because we were on Decca’s expense account. Chris and I had the first number one album on the Americana format. A lot of cats don’t realize that. Americana was a brand new format because they didn’t know where to put us. We were too rock for country, too country for rock. So Frank was like, “There is this new format called Americana. I think that’s where you need to go.” So he started pushing us to Americana, and boom, we had the first number one on it. They had Chris and I booked for two weeks in L.A., plus 315 other tentative dates. At that time, my son was about to be born and they were pushing me to get new gear. I wouldn’t do it and they were getting pissed. I quit because I didn’t want to leave my son. I mean, he would have been walking before he ever met me, you know? Plus, I didn’t like the whole commerciality of it. I didn’t want to wear a damn cowboy hat. I quit music for like five years altogether.
Jess - You didn’t play at all?
J.T. - Nope. I wouldn’t even listen to it. I would only listen to talk radio. It burned me that bad. Eventually, I started getting back into it again. [James] Mike Harris, Pat Ballard, and I started doing gigs around Hopkins County. It was fun. It broke me back in, but I wanted to branch out more. So, being the wanderer that I am, I met a couple guys from Paducah and I decided I wanted to go there. J.D. Wilkes and Layne Hendrickson invited me down, so I went. There was a cool scene in Paducah and I didn’t know anybody, so I started going down there and hanging out. I met a bunch of people. We all hit it off and now we are like brothers. It’s been a wild ride man. I’ve met a lot of my heroes.
Jess - Who are your ultimate heroes?
JT - Django Reinhardt, a gypsy jazz guitarist from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Mose Rager from Drakesboro, KY. He’s been dead for years. Odell Martin from Allegre, KY. Odell is dead as well. There are so many. Slim Cessna from Denver, CO. He’s amazing. That would probably be the top ones right there.
Jess - So what musical projects are you currently involved in?
JT - Right now, I’m with The Solid Rocket Boosters, which is based out of Paducah. I’m also with Call Johnny Law, which is based out of Glasgow, KY. Patson [Patrick Richardson] and I have a band we’re putting together called The Balls, because there is two of us. [everyone laughs] Our insignia is a flag. I’m holding a guitar, he’s holding drums, and we’re shaking hands in the middle. I’m going for the whole Colonel Sanders look because I’m a Colonel, a Kentucky Colonel.
Recently, I worked on a show with KET spotlighting the Paducah music scene. That’s another project I’ve taken part in lately.
Jess - How did you come to help KET with the Paducah music scene project?
JT - Five years ago, I was sitting around drunk one day reflecting on my first couple gigs with The Dirt Daubers. The Dirt Daubers actually formed in England at a film festival. J.D. Wilkes has a film called Seven Signs. Well, they were presenting it at this film festival over in England, and they decided that before the movie started J.D. and his wife Jessica would get up there and play a few Kentucky folk songs. Well, the first person on his feet was Les Claypool from Primus. Les confronted J.D. in the back and told him that he needed to form a band. So before J.D.’s first American gig, he contacted me and was like, “Dude, can you come down and help us?” So I went down there.
Anyways, it was around that time, I was drunk, and out of the blue I was just like, “Man! Friggin’ Dirt Daubers rock!” I love them. So I called up KET and I was like, “I need somebody in charge of shows.” They sent me through to this guy and he was like, “This is Brandon Hickey. Can I help you?” I said, “You need to do a show about my friends down in Paducah. The Dirt Daubers rock!” [laughs] They said they’d take it into consideration. Well, about four months ago I got a call from Brandon Hickey saying they’d gotten a green light for the show. I had almost forgotten I’d ever called them. I’m hoping, with these new contacts at KET, that they might take my advice on other projects they should consider. A vision without any ambition or drive is like a wingless bird dreaming of flight. I’ve never been afraid to ask anybody to do anything. You can’t be shy. You only go through life once. It’s not like it’s going to kill you and if it does it’s your time. I’ve always had that approach about everything, man. I’ve done a hell of a lot. I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve met a lot of people. Just approach others as human beings. That’s the main thing.
Jess - How did you meet your wife, Savannah?
JT - That’s a funny story. I was having a busy year when I met her. I was playing with The Dirt Daubers and Bawn in the Mash.
Jess - I love Bawn in the Mash!
JT - The Solid Rocket Boosters is a combo of Bawn in the Mash and The Legendary Shack Shakers. Josh Coffey, their fiddle player, is like a brother to me.
OK, Savannah. The Glema Mahr Center for the Arts contacted me and they wanted me to do some music for the play Grease. I had to turn them down. I was too busy. Then, I got to thinking about it and decided to go for it anyway. So, I called [Glema Center Community Programs and Marketing Coordinator] Lynn Curtis back and told her I had a lot going on, but that I still wanted to help. Lynn told me that all she needed was for me to make the last week of practices and the shows. She didn’t expect me at every single practice, because she knew I could handle it. Regardless, I did manage to make every single practice. I’d drive in from Henderson or wherever, make the practices, and go back to gigs. Savannah was doing make-up for Grease. Come show time, [Glema Center Director] Brad Downall came up and was like, “Ok. Time to go get make-up.” I was like, “I’m not doing make-up.” Brad said, “You need makeup. Go see Savannah.” I looked in there, saw Savannah, and was like, “Alright. I’m getting make-up. [everyone laughs]
So, I go in there and she’s listening to “Happiness is a Warm Gun”— I’ll never forget that. She had a killer playlist on her iPod. I kept letting everybody else go in front of me and I just kept talking to her. We did this over and over before each performance. At one point, she lost her phone. She gave me her number so I could text it and try to help her find it. So, I texted her. So she goes, “Well, you have my number.” I couldn’t tell if it was an, “Ok. You have my number,” or an, “Oh crap. You have my number.” Maybe she thought I was a creeper, you know? [laughs] So a few days passed, I texted her again, asking if she found her phone. I didn’t hear back for a while. Then she sent me a friend request on Facebook. I was like, “Cool. It’s back on.” I was just getting out of a relationship and she was just getting out of a relationship. Of course, she had just moved back from England too, so I sent her a message on Facebook. I didn’t hear anything back. I sent another. I didn’t hear anything back. So I sent this apology message, “I’m sorry. I’m not a creep. I won’t bother you anymore. I hope I didn’t offend you. I wasn’t trying to flirt.” Stuff like that. And then, out of the blue, I get this long message back from her and in it she said, “I wouldn’t mind if you did flirt.”
So, one night I sent her a message letting her know that I was going to be with Bawn in the Mash at The Apple in Murray, Kentucky with [local musician] Johnny Keyz and his girlfriend, Devon. They love Bawn in the Mash. Well, Savannah had sent me a message that she was going to be in Paducah for a cast party. At one point during the night, Savannah sent me a text that said, “We’re getting in the hot tub.” I pretty much picked Johnny and Devon up and threw them in the car. I didn’t even pay my tab. I had to drive completely back to Murray the next day to pay my tab.
So, we got down there and Savannah and I got to talking. The group of us went for a walk. Eventually, she separated from the group to look at some sculptures by herself. I was on it. [laughs] We left the crowd and went walking. It was the most magical night of my life. We sat down at the pier and we talked. We talked about the history and architecture of Paducah. It was just the most beautiful night I’ve ever had. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I kissed her down on the pier and it was magic. We just realized we are pretty much one and the same. She’s adventurous, she loves to travel, and she’s just perfect for me. She is my soul mate. I’ve learned a lot from her and she’s learned a lot from me. It’s been a great relationship. My family just worships the ground she walks on. I couldn’t ask for a better mother for my kids. Savannah has been a really good role model to them. She’s really been a blessing to my whole family.
Luke - She plays music too, doesn’t she?
JT - Yeah, she plays the guitar and she writes some. She plays the saw some. I love the saw. I call it the poor man’s theremin. That’s a fully Appalachian instrument that was developed in the Appalachian Mountains. I like the spooky sound of it. I’ll play minor chords and then I get her to play the saw behind me.
Jess - Tell us a little bit about The Dirty Rounders.
JT - We were one of the first acoustic bands around here back in the mid to late ‘90s. Everybody was going full electric. So, around the time I quit the Nashville scene, I came back to Hopkins County and I was like, “I’m going to form a band and break every rule they have for music around here.” You had to have lighting, your set-list, and everybody wanted to be famous. I’m completely against that, man. Forget fame. So I was like, “Look man. We’re going to wear ripped up jeans, use candles for lighting, and we’re not going to have a set-list. We’re going to play acoustic instruments, we’re going to cuss, and we’re going to play whatever the hell we want to play. If they throw us out, they throw us out.” [GypsyLifter frontman] Chad Estes, my brother Joey, and I did it. I would play guitar, mandolin, banjo, and rain stick. Joey would play everything I played, but he’d play accordion, too. He’d beat on his mandolin case for rhythms. We just did anything we felt like. Whatever we felt like, we did it. I created the band name one night when Joey and I were out cruising through the country drinking beer. We were drinking [Budweiser] ponies. I hate Bud ponies. I only drink microbrews and imports. I like really like porters and stouts.
At that time, I was just drinking Bud ponies because that’s what I had. I was drunk and I was listening to a Doc Watson song that says, “Rations on the table and the coffee’s getting cold, and some dirty rounder stole my jelly roll.” [everyone laughing] I was like, “That’s it Joey. We’re the Dirty Rounders.” We had a pretty good following. Cats were coming in from Bowling Green and everywhere else to check us out. But we’d always promised ourselves that the minute it stopped being fun we’d quit. One night, we were playing at CP Shootstraights in Madisonville back when it was open and it just hit us all. We just decided that was it. None of us were having fun anymore. That was the end of The Dirty Rounders.
Jess - Why is music so important to you? What is it about music that drives you through life?
JT - Music is what I am. I’m an instrument for my muse. I had to put the time in to learn to play the way I play so that I can translate what I hear from my muses. I don’t do a dang thing. It’s all something else and every musician needs to realize that and open themselves up to it. Let whatever it is—your muse, if you want to call it God, whatever it is, that spirit that comes through true musicians—break through. The true musicians need to open up, because it’s totally spiritual. If you don’t open yourself up to it, then you’re just not going to be as good as you could be. If you think too much about it, get onstage, and you remember everything you hit, then you didn’t do it. You didn’t let your muse go.
I make music because I’m supposed to do it. For some reason, I’ve been picked to be able to translate what the muses want to say. So, I totally give it up to that. I can’t do anything else. If I’m doing anything else, music will continuously claw at my thoughts. I was an engineer in the automotive industry and I’m good at math. Music is math. But at the same time, I’m just an instrument. I don’t take credit for the music I make. I know some people think I have an ego, but I really don’t. I’m actually a pretty quiet person. I talk a lot at times, when I’m comfortable. If I’m not that comfortable, I won’t talk at all. Sometimes that gets mistaken as me being stuck up or a jerk. It’s really not like that. And I constantly have melodies running through my head. Sometimes people speak musical notes in my dreams. It’s just what I am, so I surrender myself.
Jess - Why do you think music is so important to a community and the people in it, collectively?
JT - Music reflects community. The music industry is pumping out stuff right now to sell records and it’s not reflecting our community. It’s not reflecting the hardships, the unemployment, or the drug abuse. It’s out of touch, you know? People will listen to songs that do address those issues and it bothers them because they don’t like seeing it or thinking about it. It’s a reflection of society. Well, you know what? We are society. A lot of the time, people turn a blind eye to these things, but that’s the truth. I can only relate what I see, you know? A lot of the songs that bother people are nonfiction, whether they like it or not. That’s what bothers them—music, not corporate music, but real music by real musicians that actually reflect community and what transpires in our day to day lives. If you don’t like it, you can change it, you know? Music is a mirror for what’s going on right now. Too many people right now are ate up with fame. Everyone wants to be famous. Yeah, money would be nice, but what would fame get you if you don’t have the money? What is fame?
Jess - A lack of privacy. [laughs]
JT - Yeah! A lack of privacy. I don’t want fame. I want to see the scene continue, but I want people to know about the ones before us who made it possible for us to do what we’re doing now. I want to pay homage to them. At the same time though, I have to make music in a different way, because, otherwise, they won’t relate. You have to make old-world stuff relatable. Music is everything to me. Music is it. I can’t imagine my life without music. I’d be in bad trouble. I’d be in jail or something. I was heading that direction before I found music. Once I found music, I poured everything into it and I’ve had a great life since. It’s not for everybody. You can’t be materialistic. You can’t be obsessed with money. You can’t care what other people think about you. Compliments and scolding are the same thing—vibrations on your eardrums. And they’re just present for a moment. In everybody’s mind, you are what you are right at that second. So, if you’re doing well at that second, you’re great. You’ve always been a great guy. The next minute, if you do something bad, you’re a bad person who has been a bad person his whole life. Who cares? If they praise you, that’s great. If they scold you, that’s great. A musician’s job is to move people. If you get done with a show and all they are doing is clapping mildly, then you’ve failed. If they are flipping you off, you’ve succeeded. If they are cheering for you, you’ve succeeded.
Jess - How do you think the local music scene could be improved?
JT - The local scene could be majorly improved. All lot of local musicians, whether they want to realize it or not, are trying to be commercial. They are all trying to get on the radio. They all want to be rock stars. Sometimes it feels like nobody cares about making good music—music that is real. I’ve gone into too many studios and heard, “Oh, that’s too long. We need to cut that down, otherwise it won’t make radio.” I’m like, “That’s not going on the radio. That’s not why I’m making it.” I think the older musicians should be teaching the younger musicians. I also think that the younger musicians should be paying more attention to what they are saying. Bands from this area should be trying hard to make the scene. They should be stirring people up and inspiring them. They should be paying homage to the ones who came before them. I think we need to pay more homage to our community’s history. Be proud of it! I’m so tired of hearing people say, “This is just Madisonville. This is just Hopkins County. This place sucks. We can’t do anything in Hopkins County.”
Jess - Oh, I hate that. That’s part of the reason we started Sugg Street Post.
JT - I started that whole LLKM thing.
Luke - Yeah. Talk a little bit about that.
JT - There are a lot of people who take credit for starting it, but if you look back at my old videos on YouTube, you’ll see where I put LLKM at the end of them a lot of times. I started that as a joke. It was a total joke. I was playing a festival down in Tennessee and a buddy of mine was there with his bluegrass band. I was like, “You don’t know a damn thing about bluegrass. You’re not from Kentucky.” And they were kidding me about being from Kentucky. So I took a sharpie and wrote LLKM on my shirt. I was like, “That means, long live Kentucky music—not from Tennessee.” Well, from there, I started writing LLKM on everything. People should be proud of where they’re from. I’m tired of hearing people down themselves. Everybody, including my wife, was trying to get me to trademark LLKM and sell shirts and stuff. I was like, “I don’t want it to be that. I want it to be something for the people.”
Since then, people have claimed ownership of LLKM. But I will swear on anything you want me to. I started that back in the day and the proof is on my old YouTube videos. Now everybody has a slogan they can hold onto to. Be proud of being from Kentucky. At the end of all of my gigs, I always shout out LLKM, “Long Live Kentucky Music.” We should be preserving our heritage and preserving our music. I really pushed it and it caught on. Long live Kentucky Music.
JT Oglesby currently contributes "On the Frets," a weekly guitar lesson video column, to the Sugg Street Post. Click here to check it out.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jessi Smith