HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (2/18/13)—He’s known and respected as one of our region’s finest musicians, he’s internationally recognized for his thumbpicking prowess, he’s played alongside some of the world’s most notable musicians, and he’s performed at some of the country’s most recognized venues, including Nashville’s revered Grand Ole Opry. But, for Alonzo Pennington, playing music is much more than a superficial talent that garners him acclaim and financial success. For Alonzo, music resides deep within his DNA and it pours out through his fingers and vocal chords when he takes to the stage or studio. As a result, Alonzo’s outlook on music is truly unfettered, pure, and artistic.
So, what kind of music does Alonzo play? In truth, he’s all-terrain. From twang-laden country tunes and his work with full-on, multi-piece jazz ensembles, to his world-renowned thumbpicking and his powerful, rough-edged blend of blues—which seems to be where his real “home” lies—Alonzo’s love for music is apparent in the breadth of genres he enjoys. “Good music is good music regardless of the style,” he explains, and it’s this approach that has allowed Alonzo to freely incorporate a variety of elements and instruments into his original music over the years. Additionally, it’s allowed to him to be an entertainer in the most literal sense of the word. And, if this weren’t enough, he’s skilled on more than just the guitar and microphone; he also plays a mean fiddle, bass guitar, mandolin, drums, and more.
Yet, beyond the awards, the variety of awe-inspiring abilities he possesses, and all that he and his family have done to keep the local music scene and thumbpicking style alive, Alonzo is a humble, down-to-earth soul that simply enjoys playing music and creating new things.
But who is Alonzo? What is his outlook on music? And how did he get to the point he’s at today?
Fortunately, myself, photographer Jeff Harp, and writer Jessica Dockrey had the privilege of interviewing and photographing Alonzo a few weeks back. And not only did we find out the answers to the questions above, we also spoke about his newest, soon-to-be-released album, Roll On, his take on the region’s music scene, his family’s amazing history, and much, much more.
Luke Short: What’s your full name?
Alonzo Pennington: My full name is Edward Alonzo Pennington.
LS: Where did the name Alonzo come from?
Alonzo: I was named after my fourth great-grandfather, and he has quite the interesting story. He was supposedly the first white man legally hung in the entire state of Kentucky, and it was for murder. If you actually search my name online, it will bring up a lot of stuff about him. People sometimes get that confused until they see the date. Then it’s like, “Oh, well Alonzo’s not in trouble then” [laughs]. In the 1840’s, my great-grandfather was known to be a horse trader and a fiddle player. He was from Christian County, Kentucky, just northeast of Hopkinsville. Well, one day, he and a guy that he was neighbors with got into a disagreement. About a week later, they found his neighbor’s body in a cave. So, they go after my great-grandfather, but when they go to question him, they found that he had disappeared. He had decided that he wasn’t going to get a fair trial, and he’s saying the whole time, “I didn’t do this.” Well, about two years go by, and he’s moved to Texas and he’s tried to change his image. At the time, there was a 2,000 dollar bounty on my great-grandfather’s head. Then, this doctor heard about a guy playing fiddle down in Texas that matched my great-grandfather’s description, so he went down there to see, and, sure enough, it was my great-grandfather. They brought him all the way back from Texas up to the other side of Cadiz, KY in Canton on a flatboat. They gave him a “mock trial”; the judge turned his back to my great-grandfather when he went to speak. The punishment was to hang him. Of course, the whole time he’s still saying that he didn’t do it. So they go to hang him, but the first time they try, the rope breaks. It was supposed to be a sign by God that he was an innocent man. They weren’t supposed to rehang him, but they started putting another rope up. Well, while they were putting the new rope up, my great-grandfather sat down on his coffin and began to play his fiddle. He played a tune that’s now known as “The Pennington Farewell.” Then they hung him again. Two years later, a guy named Eli Cisney, who was dying of tuberculosis, came forward and confessed to the murder. So, my great-grandfather really was innocent. It’s interesting, because my granddad, before he passed away, still had the fiddle and what would have been his third great-grandfather’s Bible. My dad [world-renowned thumbpicker, Eddie Pennington] has all of that now. You know, my great-grandfather was known for being a musician, and when they arrested him in Texas, he was onstage playing fiddle in a square-dance band. They came and just took him right off the stage, and that was it.
LS: Why did they decide to name you after him?
Alonzo: My dad always said that if he had a son, he’d name him [after thumbpicking forefather] Merle Travis, but my mom didn’t exactly go for that [laughs]. So, I was named Edward Alonzo instead.
LS: Where is your family from originally?
Alonzo: My dad grew up in Nortonville, Kentucky and my mother was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. They met in Louisville, Kentucky while my dad was in mortuary college. I think that was about 1977. They got married in 1979 and moved to Princeton, Kentucky. My dad worked at Morgan’s Funeral Home until about 1993. Since then, he’s kind of done his own thing—just sharpening saw blades and traveling playing music.
LS: How did you first get into playing music?
Alonzo: I actually started out playing the fiddle. My granddad played the fiddle and I always wanted to be like my dad and granddad when I was little. So I started playing fiddle when I was five-years-old. I just kind of graduated to the guitar when I was about seven. The guitar was where I kind of fell love with the music side of everything. I enjoy playing the fiddle, but the guitar is what has really become home to me.
LS: Was your dad the one who really taught you how to play?
Alonzo: He always showed me different things, but he never really gave me a full-blown lesson or anything. If I wanted to learn something, I’d say, “Hey dad, what’s this?” and he’d show me. A lot of it came from just listening and being around a lot of other musicians. Of course, my dad always had me around a lot of great musicians when I was little, and I know that was a big asset for me. I can do some of the things I can do because I got to be around people like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed at a very young age.
LS: What was one of the first songs you learned to play?
Alonzo: On the fiddle, one of the first things I learned was “The Tennessee Waltz.” That was one of my granddad’s favorite tunes and he played it a lot. My grandmother used to tell the story of how, one day—after I’d only had my fiddle for a couple days—I just picked it up on my own and started playing “The Tennessee Waltz.” I was figuring it out without anybody showing me anything. The first song a lot of people learn is [the Carter Family’s] “Wildwood Flower” or something like that with a really simple melody, so I learned something like that on guitar. But, instead of learning a lot of single string picking type things on the guitar, I learned a lot of thumbpicking first, which is where you use your thumb to play the rhythm and your forefingers to play the melody.
LS: And that’s a style that Merle Travis and Chat Atkins were known for, right?
Alonzo: Yeah, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins were known for their use of that style, and it’s a style that’s from right here in Kentucky.
LS: Merle Travis was really one of the style’s inventors, too, wasn’t he?
Alonzo: Yeah, Merle Travis, Mose Rager, and the Everly Brothers’ father, Ike Everly. It’s a true western Kentucky style of music.
LS: Is it fair to say that were able to play guitar naturally?
Alonzo: Yeah, I’m pretty lucky. I haven’t had to work at it as hard at it as some people I know, because it does come natural to me, but there are a lot of other things that I have work a lot harder at. For instance, school wasn’t one of my favorite things to do [laughs], but I made it through.
LS: Growing up, who were some of your biggest influences?
Alonzo: The thumbpicking guitar stuff and all the guys involved with it, and even people that weren’t necessarily famous but were great guitar players—like Odell Martin and others like that—had a huge influence on me. But when I was about 12-years-old, there was a guy on my school bus that had a brother that played guitar, and he said, “Hey man, my brother showed me this song [by legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn] called, ‘Pride and Joy’.” Well, he wanted me to come over after school so he could let me listen to it, and he played the intro lick. When I heard it, I was like, “Man, I’ve got to learn how to play that,” and that was it for me. Then it was like, there’s Stevie Ray Vaughn, and BB King, and then there’s Jimi Hendrix, and it just opened up so much more to me. Being that I’d already learned a [thumbpicking] style that’s a lot more complicated—because there’s more intricacy and a lot more going on when you’re using your thumb and all three fingers—the blues came easier to me. A lot of the blues is about styling and technique. You know, anybody can play the note from here to here, but it’s how you get there that matters. A lot of it is about little things that you can’t even describe. It might even be about putting a little pressure on the guitar somewhere to make it produce a certain sound or something like that.
LS: Real blues music is more about the feeling of it and the emotion it evokes than anything else.
Alonzo: Yeah, it really is.
LS: At what point did you actually start writing your own music?
Alonzo: I think I was about 11 or 12-years-old when I wrote my first song, and it came after I had my first break-up with a girl [laughs]. I think I was in sixth or seventh grade, or something like that, and I wrote her this goofy little song. It said something like, “If you left me today, I don’t know what I’d do,” [laughs] and that’s the first song I remember writing. Ever since then, I’ve been on a writing spree. In total, I’ve got about 350 to 450 songs that I’ve written.
Jessica Dockrey: Do you remember all of them?
Alonzo: No, I don’t remember all of them. I can go out and play four hours of cover tunes and remember every word to them, and then I’ll play one of mine that I’ve had written for years and it’ll change every time. I’ll make something up on the spot or just totally forget.
LS: Was that first song you wrote to your ex-girlfriend a blues song?
Alonzo: It was probably a mushy country-type song. It was probably pretty awful [laughs].
LS: When did you first start going out and playing gigs?
Alonzo: I think I was 15-years-old and me and some kids from my hometown put together a little band. At the time, there was a place in Paducah called the Working Artist’s Café. It wasn’t really a bar, but it had a bar in it. Well, I’d been going down there with a friend and we went in there one day, and I took them a tape with recordings of our practices on it. They were like, “We’ll let you come in sometime,” and I think they ended up giving us 100 dollars for five of us to come in and play. So, we played that little gig and, of course, we were playing a lot of blues—mostly just cover songs—and when we finished, this guy from club next door came over and told us he had just opened up. He said, “I need somebody to come in and play next weekend. I really can’t find anybody. Would you all be interested?” Well, I told him that I wasn’t 21-years-old, but he said that as long as I wasn’t hanging out at the bar it would be alright. So, I’m 15-years-old at this point and I’m the youngest member of the band. Everyone else was getting ready to get out of high school or already out of high school. So, we go in, and the name of the place was The Point, and we were playing, but no women were there. It was kind of strange. Well, like I said, this place had just reopened, and we came to find out that this place had been a gay bar the week before. So that was my second gig ever [laughs]. LJ Granstaff, who plays with me now, was in that band with me and we still laugh about that sometimes.
LS: What was the name of that first band?
Alonzo: I think we called ourselves Let Me In or something like that.
Jessica Dockrey: Were you ever in band during high school or anything like that?
Alonzo: I was in band from sixth grade to the eighth grade. When it came time to start marching and stuff—when I was getting ready to be a freshman in high school—they started wanting us to compete in a lot of sight-reading competitions. Well, I just couldn’t read music, and I’d already spent three years in band faking my way through, not reading music at all, because I can play by ear. I would listen to a song once or twice and I would have my part down. I played tenor saxophone. Well, the band director found out I couldn’t read music, and he said, “I think you need to find something else to do,” so I joined the FFA [Future Farmers of America].
LS: From there, and after you’d played those first shows with your band, where did you go with music?
Alonzo: Those shows were kind of the first part of ‘my project’—me fronting a band or whatnot—but I had been playing and traveling with my dad since I was five or six-years-old. Me and my little sister, Rosebud, would play with him. She was only three-years-old playing fiddle, and we’d all go to things like Kiwanis Club and Lions Club meetings to play. We’d do Christmas parties and stuff. It was just mostly small shows, but that’s where we got started.
LS: So, you were kind of a seasoned musician by the time you were in your teens?
Alonzo: Yeah, I’d been playing out since I was big enough to play an instrument.
LS: You never had any stage fright or anything like that?
Alonzo: It was all pretty natural. I never really freaked out on stage or anything like that.
LS: Did you always play guitar when you got older and were in a band?
Alonzo: Yeah, when I’d play with my own group, it was always on guitar. Even now it’s mostly guitar. Every now and then, I’ll still play some fiddle, too, though.
LS: You toured with country star John Michael Montgomery for a while, too. Tell me a little bit about that.
Alonzo: Yeah, I worked for John Michael Montgomery for a while, so I got to see what it was like to travel with a superstar—someone who has 20 or so number one hits and lives on a bus with 10 or so other people—and take small pay for it.
LS: How did that relationship come about?
Alonzo: It all took place about two years ago. It was the day after Christmas and I got a call from a friend that said he’d ran into John Michael’s bus driver. They were actually friends up in Lexington, Kentucky, and he said, “Hey, I heard that John Michael’s crew is looking for someone to sing some backup vocals, play some guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, and to help with utilities. I wanted to know if you’d be interested. If you are, I’ll give them your name.” I was like, “Yeah, sure, give them name. Whatever.” Then, about 30 minutes later, I get a phone call asking me if I was Alonzo Pennington. I told them I was, and this voice says, “Hello, this is country music singer John Michael Montgomery.” That’s exactly how he said it, too [laughs]. So, we talked for a little bit and he hired me over the phone. He’d looked up some stuff of me playing on YouTube and things like that before he called I guess, just to see if I could really play. It was a neat experience. We got to do some cool things. I got to play the Grand Old Opry [in Nashville, TN], which has probably been one of the biggest highlights of my career. But, as for going and doing that kind of thing, it’s really not for me. And I think that was the main difference between me and some of the other people in the band. He’d just hired an all-new band and everyone was excited, because we’re going out on the road and making decent money—or at least it was supposed to be good money [laughs]. So, that was everybody’s goal: to play for somebody. With me, I guess I always just wanted to be that somebody, you know? For me, I’m not the kind of person who can go out and play the same thing the same way every single time. Doing that with John Michael was fine, and he had a great band; we sounded just like the record every time we played “I Swear” or “Grundy County Auction” or anything like that. I don’t know. I guess that just bored me really quickly. Part of it is that I’m not just a musician; I’m an artist. I like to create, and I like to write, and I like to do things differently, and I like to just let things freely form and happen sometimes. When we play our shows, and if it’s a big show, we might have a set list, but a lot of the times we don’t even do that. We usually just play to the crowd to see what everyone is into, but we never play our songs the same way twice. There are no solos that are the same every time, with the exception of a signature lick like the intro to “Pride and Joy.”
LS: That really seems to be what the spirit of playing blues is. Blues and bluesy rock and roll is more about improvisation and a spontaneous feeling than anything else.
Alonzo: Personally, it kills me when people play the same song the exact same way every time, because it’s like, “OK, you can do that. Now what else can you with it?”
LS: So, when did the Alonzo Pennington Band actually form?
Alonzo: I guess this will be the eleventh year that we’ve been together. We started out with myself, [drummer] Dean Hughes from Princeton, Kentucky, and [bassist] Bobby Harper from Cadiz, Kentucky. They are a little bit older—both in their 50’s—but they are well-seasoned musicians and they can really play. We were a blues trio.
LS: How did you all meet?
Alonzo: Well, with Dean being from Princeton, I’d known him for a while. I first met Bobby when me and dad were playing a show in Murray, Kentucky. Bobby was playing for someone else, and he and Dean had kind of already become friends. Well, me and Dean were talking about starting up a band, something just to experiment, and, ideally, we wanted to do some acoustic stuff, too. However, our ideas and what it turned into are completely different [laughs]. So, we did that as a trio for about five years, and then we picked up a young girl from Puryear, Tennessee named Angela Mosley. She was born blind, but she is a crazy good piano player. I mean, she is Ray Charles good. So, we all worked together for a while and, after so long, they kind of got tired of playing bars and clubs and gigs and all that. Now, I’m the only original member left from that time. Angela is a staff musician for the Kentucky Opry. She plays there every weekend now. Bobby and Dean kind of play when they want to these days, but every now and then we’ll plan something where we can all play together again. It’s usually a jazz gig or something like that, because they are all pretty much “jazzers,” whereas I’m more of the rough-edge, rock and blues kind of guy. Fortunately, Bobby has eight brothers, and they all play music. So I’ve been able to pick through them, and one of them, Brian Harper, is my drummer, and another is Sidney Harper, who plays bass. We’ve also got LJ Granstaff from Princeton who is playing guitar now. Like I mentioned earlier, he was also in the very first band I ever played with. He’s toured with a really big Christian group called Special D that’s really popular and he has a music store in Princeton, Kentucky called Granny’s Music. We’ve recently hired a young kid from here in Madisonville named Andy Torian. He’s originally from Cadiz, KY. He plays keyboards and sings really well. He’s great. So, over time, we’ve floated everything from a three-piece to a duo, and when we performed at Saturdays on the Square in Greenville, Kentucky last year, we brought in a full horn section and two keyboard players. That full, multi-piece band thing is fun, but it can be a little chaotic sometimes [laughs]. Whereas some people want to keep things controlled in that kind of situation, I think that a free, off-the-handle approach is where some of the magic of music comes from. Just letting it take its own natural course allows the music to almost create itself. When I’ve tried to control things and micromanage, everything always seems to fall apart and feel unnatural. So, to me, I work best when I’m unprepared, just letting it happen [laughs].
LS: You mix a lot of acoustic and electric guitar together in your music, and there’s definitely the sound of the blues and blues-rock in there, but there’s also some country feel. That being said, what style do you consider yourself?
Alonzo: I’m actually asked that a lot, but I’m not really sure how to categorize it. So, sometimes before booking a show, I’ll ask what the venue is looking for, be it country, rock, blues, or a little bit of all of it. Luckily, I play with people that can play all those styles well. We’ll do stuff from Eric Church all the way to stuff from Freddie King and BB King. We play a wide variety of things. For me, I just like music, and I like good feeling music, and I don’t really care what style it is. That’s probably why I’m not on the radio. I don’t have a country album and I don’t have a blues album—I’ve got all these styles together in one album. That might seem unorganized to some people, but I think good music is good music regardless of the style.
LS: Playing those different styles probably keeps you happy and inspired, too.
Alonzo: You know, I love bluegrass, but there’s only so much bluegrass you can take. I love blues, but after a long night, there’s only so much blues you can take. You have to have a little something else now and then. When I was about seven-years-old, my dad was playing fiddle for a square-dance band, and he was working for the funeral home, but he’d get to the point where he couldn’t go all the time. So, for my first job, I started playing fiddle for the square-dance band. Well, we started playing the American Legion over in Hopkinsville every Saturday night. With that, I really cut my teeth on playing for other people, learning a lot of songs, and just playing a lot of the old country songs by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and that kind of stuff. So, I have a real love for real country music, too. I just grew up around all of it. In going with dad to all these festivals, his style of music—thumbpicking—is brought into it, too. You know, the [Pennington] Folk Festival we have every year [in Princeton, Kentucky], and a folk festival in general, includes a lot of different kinds of music. With that, I’d get to be around all kinds of great blues singers and players, too, and the cool thing about these festivals is that, when it’s all said and done, everybody stays at the same hotels. So, there will be big jam sessions and people will be sitting around at these hotels just playing together. I got to see all this at a real young age, and I was lucky to be in the company of people that loved to play and were really, really good at it.
LS: Outside of the Pennington Folk Festival, were there other festivals that you got to attend that had similar vibes?
Alonzo: We modeled the Pennington Folk Festival after a lot of other festivals we’d played at and been to. You know, we’ve played a couple really big gigs, too. Dad played the Olympics in 1996 when they were in Atlanta, Georgia. We played the Smithsonian Institute’s 150th Anniversary festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1995. That was the first really big festival I had done. We’ve done several of the national folk festivals, too. Those festivals are really cool, because they’re free most of the time and they bring in a lot of performers that aren’t mainstream acts, but are extremely good at what they do. A lot of people enjoy talking about what they do and want to share their knowledge about it. It’s not just about playing their show and leaving, and I think being around those kinds of people has kind of helped to shape the direction I’m going in today—the way I approach it and the way I play.
LS: When did the Pennington Folk Festival actually start?
Alonzo: This year will be our sixteenth year.
LS: Was your dad the one who started the festival?
Alonzo: The city of Princeton and the Princeton Art Guild started it. They wanted a music festival and they thought that honoring my dad through that festival would be something good for the city. It has been. It’s brought in tourism and things like that. Since the start, it’s grown from three acts on the same night as Black Patch, to this year where we’re going to have legendary country singer, Gene Watson. Over the years, we’ve had Bobby Bare, and Nickel Creek, and Junior Brown—and we’re bringing in these big acts to a town of 3,500 people, but there’s always more than that standing there at the stage. So, it’s really neat and it continues to grow every year.
LS: I’m sure you all have a big hand in organizing the festival, but are there others that help out as well?
Alonzo: There are several people on the folk festival committee, so if I tried to say that me and dad did most of the work, that would be a total lie [laughs]. Really, the only thing that we’re involved in, other than our own performances on stage, is helping to pick some of the acts and getting in contact with them because we know a lot of people.
LS: In that capacity, I’m sure you all are able to bring attention to a lot of people and performers that might not have otherwise been selected for the festival, too.
Alonzo: It does help. You know, people might not have heard of someone like Wayne Henderson, who is an amazing Appalachian guitarist and guitar builder. This guy built guitars for Eric Clapton, and we’ve brought him out to the festival before. We’ve even had people there that we didn’t know were going to be there at times. Mary Ann Fisher, a “Raylette” who played with Ray Charles—she’s the one who threw the brick through Ray’s window in the movie [Ray]—was there singing with another band and they never even introduced her. We had Nickel Creek perform the year that they were just blowing up and turning out hits. We had a big turnout for that one. Of course, [Nickel Creek mandolinist and singer] Chris Thile and I went to Murray State University together, so we knew each other and had played several things together there on campus. Then, all the sudden, Nickel Creek was huge and we were like, “Hey, we’ve got them booked” [laughs]. They were getting something around 25 to 30 thousand dollars elsewhere to play, and we were paying them about 1,500 bucks.
LS: So, coming from this musical family and then going out and playing clubs, as well as other gigs, you were really getting your name out there. From there, you won several prestigious awards. Tell me a little about that.
Alonzo: Yeah. In 1998 or 1999, I won the National Tumbpicking contest and then the International Thumbpicking Contest. I’m still the only one who’s won both awards in the same year. Then, in 2011, I went back and won the International Contest again. I believe I’m also the only person who’s won the International Tumbpicking Contest twice.
LS: How are those contests set up and what’s that whole experience like?
Alonzo: You go in and some of the contest judges are behind a curtain so you can’t see them. They’ll have you play like three songs and there’ll be two rounds. If you make the cut from the first round, you’re off to the second round, and if you make it through that, you go on to finals. Most of the time, the finals have about five players. Then, you just go out and play another three songs. The last time I won the International Contest, I had two playoffs in the end, because me and the guy that I was competing against—a guy from Missouri—tied two different times. Well, we had to have two different playoffs, and, finally, I think I just wore him out [laughs]. Those are about the only times I get nervous—at contests like that. I like competition and I like being competitive, but I never really liked it with my music. Doing it for a living is competitive enough. I’m not so much of a clean and precise player as I am an entertainer, and that’s really where it kind of branches out for me. Some people are great players, but they’re not entertainers. With me, I’m kind of like, “I don’t have it worked out. I don’t have an arrangement. I’m just going to go out here and let it happen. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got, but I’m not going to force it. I’ll let it flow.”
Jessica Dockrey: Do you compete in the thumbpicking contests every year?
Alonzo: No. I hadn’t competed since I won that first year, but they were giving away a nice guitar in 2011 and I thought, “I think I’m going to try it out” [laughs]. Actually, if you win the contest, you can’t come back for another five years, and I didn’t really want to, but I finally decided to try it again and I’m glad I did.
LS: What were some of the prizes you won?
Alonzo: I’ve won cash, I’ve won handmade guitars, and I’ve won trophies. Of course, garnering recognition and winning some bragging rights are always good, too [laughs].
LS: What do you think has kept the thumbpicking style, as well as the history behind it, alive after all these years?
Alonzo: You know, the fingerstyle and thumbpicking guitar community is such a tightly knit group, and if it wasn’t, that style might not even be around. My dad and some other people really started trying to preserve that legacy back in the early 1980’s. It was dying out and people didn’t even know what it was—even people around here. To this day, there are still a lot of people around here, and even in Muhlenberg County where thumbpicking came from, that don’t even know what the style is or that it even exists. It’s really pretty crazy. So, my dad and his friends do what they can, and the former Judge-Executive of Muhlenberg County, Rodney Kirtley, helped to get a lot things going that recognize the style, too. Today, Muhlenberg is host to the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame and the Merle Travis Center as well. I was actually lucky enough to go to Washington, DC to play for the [US Senate] Appropriations Committee. I played for Senator Ted Stevens and the rest of the committee, and lobbied for the 4 million dollars it took to build the Hall of Fame. I think I was 19-years-old at the time [laughs] and they allocated the money right then and there. Other things came up, and we had some issues with our own state representatives—they were saying to use the money for other things—but, finally, they go it built and finalized about three years ago. It’s an amazing building. Acoustically speaking, you’re not going to find anywhere else around here like it. The whole building is built specifically to make guitar music sound good. It’s first-class all the way. My dad’s there in the Hall of Fame and I received an award from there. I won the 2011 Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame “Album of the Year” for my record, Thumbin’.
LS: I haven’t heard a lot from that album, but I understand that you played every instrument on the entire record. What instruments does that include?
Alonzo: I sing on it and there’s bass guitar, fiddle, drums, mandolin, and, of course, guitar. I’ve got a new album that’s not released yet, too. It’s totally finished, but I’m kind of waiting on funding to print it and all that stuff. It’s kind of the same way as Thumbin’, but it’s more blues-based.
LS: Are you talking about your new album, Roll On?
Alonzo: Yeah, it’s all me on this one, too.
LS: Since you play all the instruments, what’s the recording process like?
Alonzo: I’m better at guitar than I am at anything else, and it’s because I don’t spend as much time with other instruments. I think my most natural instrument—the one that I can just pick up and play naturally—is still the fiddle, though. I don’t play it very often, because I don’t enjoy it as much as I do playing the guitar. So, I haven’t worked at it and my technique probably isn’t what it should be. I remember being little and my dad had a little four-track recorder. I always thought that was really cool. He’d let me try to record a little bit every now and then. Then, when I was seven or eight-years-old, he bought me my own recorder. You could only record one track at a time, so I’d sit there and play and sing something, and then I’d give the recordings away as Christmas presents or something. So, that’s always something that I’ve always been into. I really enjoy digging into recording different things. Now, I’ve got a full studio and I record all my own stuff. It’s not a million-dollar studio or anything, but it has enough equipment to capture what I’m trying to do for other people.
LS: I did an interview with respected singer-songwriter Pat Ballard near the launch date of the Sugg Street Post and he mentioned that he had recorded some tracks with you. You’ve recorded several other people, too, haven’t you?
Alonzo: I’ve worked with several people, such as Pat Ballard and [local country and Americana artist] James Michael Harris, and I’ve recorded a couple of my dad’s albums, too. My fiancé, Rochalle Gray, and I are getting ready to open up a store in Princeton on Main Street. She’s an artist. She’s into crafts and she paints, too. The front of the store is going to display her arts and crafts—she makes candles and all kinds of other cool stuff like that—and the back part is going to be where my recording equipment will be set up. I’ll offer some music lessons and stuff there, too.
LS: So, is there a specific reason that you’re calling your new album Roll On?
Alonzo: It’s kind of like I want to keep on doing what I’m doing. Instead of saying, “We’re a country band,” and trying to appeal to just that crowd, I’m going to just keep on pushing what I’m doing. With the album, everything is original and "Roll On” is actually a track on the record. You know, with traveling all the time and just constantly going nonstop and playing everywhere, I feel like I’m just rolling on, you know? [laughs]
LS: Throughout your life, what have been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had with music?
Alonzo: I’ve done a lot and I’ve been really fortunate to be on stage with people like Willie Nelson and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Like I mentioned earlier, playing on the Grand Ole Opry was huge, too. Some of the things that are the most memorable from playing music are also the times that I’d sit around in the living room with my dad and granddad, and their friends, just playing together. I’ve played and sang something at all four of my grandparents’ funerals, too, and while those times were some of the hardest, I feel honored that I got to do that.
LS: A lot of musicians that we’ve interviewed have mentioned you as both an influence and someone they truly respect. For many, you are one of the only true musical staples in our region, and I think that’s definitely a fair statement. For you, having such an impact on the community at large, what are your thoughts on the local music scene?
Alonzo: I honestly didn’t really know I had any influence on the music scene [laughs]. But, personally, I dig it when people are being artistic and doing original stuff instead of trying to sound exactly like someone else. I like different things. For instance, my buddy Randy Stone’s band, GypsyLifter, which Chad Estes and Landon Miller are also a part of, is really great. I dig what they’re doing, and I like that they’re pushing original stuff. Pat Ballard is a great songwriter, too. It’s a shame that the music scene doesn’t really seem to be growing, though, because there’s not too many places for it to grow. The places where there is music around here—places like bars where people want to hear the same thing that’s on the jukebox—aren’t really into the other side of music. We just don’t have as many people that are into the artistic side of making music. Hopefully, we can grow that scene one day and there will be enough people who are like-minded, ones who are tired of hearing the same old thing, people that are ready for something new, something they can groove to, something that has some soul to it, or something that has a cool underlying meaning that you’ve got to figure out—just anything that’s better than the same old thing that’s out there. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t go out and play all original stuff. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to make a living. We play a lot of cover songs. I would say about 80 percent of what we play live are cover songs, and that’s only out of necessity. I couldn’t get work playing weddings and I couldn’t get work playing clubs if I did only original music. Ideally, though, I would prefer to play just a few select covers and I’d do them my way, and that’s really what we do when we perform covers anyway. We keep them close enough to the original versions that they’re still recognizable, of course, but we definitely put our own spin on them.
LS: Going back to your earlier days, when did you actually start singing?
Alonzo: I’ve always sang, and that’s never been my favorite part of it, because I’ve never really been a singer. I still don’t call myself a singer; I’m a guitar player.
LS: Is singing with your band now kind of out of necessity, too?
Alonzo: In a way. My dad’s theory was that people wouldn’t come to just hear instrumental music over and over. He said, “If you ever want to make a living, you’re going to have to start singing.” I’d heard him say that to several other people my age that were coming up and needed some advice. He’d just tell them to sing.
LS: Your dad is an entertainer through and through, too, so singing and talking is a huge part of his style and performance.
Alonzo: And for the people that might not play guitar, they can understand and relate to the vocals perhaps more than the intricacy of what he’s doing with his right or left hand. Most people are more easily entertained if what they’re hearing or seeing is something that’s easier to understand, you know?
LS: Beyond having more venues, do you think there are other things that could be done to improve the scene? Are there things that could help to reshape local people’s perspective on music in general?
Alonzo: I really don’t know. You know, just having the information put in front of people is a big thing, and that’s something that you guys are doing. I really appreciate you having me here, because that helps put me in front of people I might not have been in front of otherwise. People might see it and say, “Who’s this? Why are they writing about him?” Maybe they’ll like what I do and maybe they won’t, but at least the information is out there so that they can pick and choose what they want. I think if people really understand that there’s more than what comes out of mainstream radio, they might find more things that they like. It might not be country or folk or blues or anything like that, or they may decide they really do like the radio, but at least they have and are aware that they have choices. I think limited information has been part of the problem. Of course, over the last few years, the internet has really been able to help with that issue, because people can put themselves out there a little bit more. They can promote their music and they can say, “You’re not going to hear this on the radio, but hear it is anyway.” The Hudsons, who own the car lot in Madisonville, called me back in the fall and we did the “Rocking for Research” festival they held out there. I was fortunate enough to know some of the people there, so they asked me if I would kind of head the bill and put the thing together. So, I was able to bring my dad in, we had Pat Ballard, and we had [award-winning Madisonville blues guitarist] Boscoe France, too. That was all regional music, and things like that and people like the Hudsons are helping the scene. People like me and my dad—or Boscoe and others like him—are doing this for a living, and we’d like to play for free because we enjoy doing it and we enjoy sharing what we can do with other people, but we really can’t. It takes money to make the world go round, you know? I was really grateful to the Hudsons for hosting the show, and they actually want to do it again this spring. We haven’t put an exact date on it yet, but they’re letting me find unique local acts to bring in again. It’s because they want stuff like that; they want something different, something that’s artistic, and something that’s homegrown.
LS: Where can people find your music?
Alonzo: People can check me out and order my albums from my website [www.alonzopenningtonmusic.com], and you can hear my music on our Facebook page, ReverbNation, and on things like iTunes.
LS: Other than the release of your new album, do you have any big shows or events coming up?
Alonzo: We’ve got the Pennington Folk Festival coming up this summer in Princeton. That’s going to be held from May 31st to June 1st. Typically, the Friday night that kicks the festival off is kind of my night and the following Saturday is kind of dad’s night. When it first started, we had everything on one day, but we kind of asked ourselves, “What if we add in Friday night, too?” And then we could kind of build up to a whole weekend-long festival, so that’s what we did. They kind of let me take over the Friday night portion of the festival as far as the booking goes, and instead of having so much folk, bluegrass and country, it’s kind of the night we get to rock it out. It goes a little later that night and we usually bring in a younger crowd that night, too. I’m excited about this year, because we’re going to have Boscoe France, Gene Watson on Saturday, and we’re working on a lot of other people, too. Some of it we can’t put out there yet, too. It’s really a shame that we don’t have more venues like that festival. I don’t understand why it has to be one time a year. I’ve been really impressed with what Greenville, Kentucky has been doing with their downtown [Saturdays on the Square] events in the summer. I thought, if there’s a hundred people, it’ll be cool, but there was like 2,500 people. I was blown away. I had no idea [laughs]. I asked them if they did this once a year and they said they did it once a month. I think that’s great. Anything that’s entertainment costs money in this economy, but I think people are starting to invest in themselves. More people want their kids to learn how to play guitar versus playing a video game. Video games get old and you’re going to have to buy another one. A musical instrument is endless. You know, you could play on the thing for years, and while the instrument may wear out, what comes out of it and what you create with it doesn’t. It doesn’t go by the wayside with technology. It’s something you create and it’s something that builds inside yourself, so I think that’s why there are more people that want their kids to take music lessons, and art lessons, or anything like that. A dream of mine is to one day have some kind of art and music institute here in western Kentucky, and it would be great if it was something that gave underprivileged children the opportunity to come in and learn. In Muhlenberg County, I know that the school system over there have gotten grants to bring in guitars so that they can offer a thumbpicking guitar class to their students. There are more things like that happening, too, and I think the more that happens the more we can move away from technology alone. I mean, technology’s great, but it’s not everything. I know I’m saying this to an online magazine [laughs], but that’s just the way media works and that’s how you reach people these days. I just think that if people start or continue to invest in themselves we will move the economy. There’s so much frivolous spending on random stuff people go and buy. Invest that money in yourself; invest that money in your kids. Teach them things and let them learn to teach themselves things, and let’s see where that takes us.
LS: What kind of advice would you give to an up-and-coming musician or group?
Alonzo: It’s not easy. To someone who wants to play or perform for a living, I would say go to college [laughs]. Get a real job first and then try to do it for a living. But for someone who really loves music, you don’t have to give them too much advice, because they love it and that’s where it all starts. If you’ve got it in your heart and in your soul, it doesn’t leave. As long as you take care of that and keep playing, it will continue to grow. Surround yourself with like-minded people. There is so much closed-mindedness, especially in this area of our country. Sometimes we only believe what comes out of CNN or Fox News, you know, and that limits us so much.
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 the Alonzo Pennington Band on Facebook or via ReverbNation. More information on the Pennington Folk Festival can be found by clicking here.
To listen to 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