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
- JT Oglesby
- Kentucky Educational Television
- Kentucky Life
- Maiden Alley Cinema
- The Wheelhouse Rousters
- Solid Rock'it Boosters
- JD Wilkes
- The Dirt Daubers
- Josh Coffey
- Jessica Wilkes
- Nathan Brown
- Todd Anderson
- rock and roll
- Gibson Guitars
- Mose Rager
- Merle Travis
- Nathan Blake Lynn
- Matt Grimm
- Brandon Wickey
- Landee W Bryant
- Paducah Film Society
- Bawn in the Mash
- John Wurth
- Rod Hamdallah
- Preston Corn
- Eddie Coffey