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Fair-Weather Kings – Weathering Bowling Green’s Rolling Musical Seas

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (8/22/13)—Hearing it from the proverbial “horse’s mouth” makes it official: “energetic” ranks highest among the descriptors fans use to define the sound and feel of Bowling Green, KY’s beloved five-piece band, the Fair-Weather Kings. And it’s a fact that is duly justifiable. Comparison-wise, many say the quintet’s unique style is akin to the vibrant, nationally-acclaimed indie sounds of The Strokes and The Arctic Monkeys.

Yet, once you start trying to dial in their insightful works any further—to do their sound justice through words, so to speak—the process of classification becomes much deeper and, perhaps, more metaphysical. That being said, here’s my personal take: the Fair-Weather Kings strike hard on the head of modernity’s pop-rock stake, while remaining punctual, compositionally edgy, fun, and experimental in a not-too-abstract way. Their lyrical originality, atmospheric grooves, and consistently frantic, multi-layered live performances—which come courtesy of vocalist/guitarist Wesley Stone, guitarist Zach Barton, bassist Jason Williams, keyboard/synth player Craig Brown, and drummer Marcus Long— mix together well, producing a seemingly perfect storm amidst an electric and inspirational musical climate.

While the Fair-Weather Kings have yet to gain a large-scale, national following, they have received a wealth of veneration from all corners of our region and beyond. In fact, the respect the Fair-Weather Kings have deservedly garnered from their peers since forming just under two years ago is evidenced by the fact that they have remained afloat, relevant, and well-loved in the virtual sea of talent found in Bowling Green.

So how do the Fair-Weather Kings maintain their prowess in such a saturated musical market? What’s their origin story and creative process? And what is their ultimate goal with music? To find out the answers to these questions and much more, I recently got the chance to speak with FWK frontman and guitarist, Wesley Stone, who informed me that weathering west Kentucky’s blooming and inspirational entertainment scene isn’t always an easy task to master.

Who are the members of the Fair-Weather Kings, where is each member from, what are your ages, and what instrument(s) do each of you play?

I’m Wesley Stone and I’m on lead vocals and guitar. Zach Barton plays guitar, Jason Williams is our bassist, Craig Brown plays keys/synth, and Marcus Long is our drummer. Zach, Marcus and I grew up in Hopkins County, KY. Craig and Jason grew up in Bowling Green. We all currently live in Bowling Green. We are all in our late 20’s, with the exception of Marcus, who is in his early 30’s.

How and when did the band first form?

We first formed in October of 2011 with Zach and I just sort of jamming around on occasion and presenting songs to each other. After a bit, we tracked down a drummer and bass player to sort of feel out the whole band thing. After a couple months, we had worked out a few songs, but our drummer and bass player at the time weren’t really a good fit with the type of music we were writing, so that’s when Marcus joined, along with another friend of ours, Will Kronenberger, who played bass. Shortly after they joined, we picked up Rory Willis to play keys, who was Will’s roommate at the time and the owner and operator of Greyskull Recordings. We all wrote and worked on the songs that would end up on our debut, self-titled EP and played our first show in January of 2012.

Where did the name of the band originate and how does it fit with the music or “feel” of the band?

The name sort of became a formality at a certain point. We knew we had to call ourselves something, so we just started throwing out a bunch of ideas over the course of a week or so. Ultimately, “The Fair-Weather Kings” came about when we combined two of our favorite names that we had come up with. I can’t really remember what those were, though. Fair-Weather….something and something…Kings. There isn’t really any intended significance as far as the name representing our music or style. I’m sure I could dig up some philosophical meaning to it, but, really, it was just the first name that we all agreed upon that remotely sounded cool.

What influences do you all draw inspiration from both musically and in life?

We have a wide variety of musical influences—too many to even begin listing them—but we all draw from some variety of rock or pop music, and we all have our own favorite singer-songwriters. We also get inspiration from the many great bands we hang out with and play with around Bowling Green. Mainly, our songs are inspired by love, life, and the universe, and revolve around observations within each.

How has the band changed over time?

The biggest change that has occurred for us has been losing and gaining members. Will and Rory got busy with their jobs and other projects, and that is when Jason and Craig stepped in. They both came in with completely different styles than Will and Rory, which ultimately changed our sound. But it was for the better. Each previously written song has since evolved into something that is, in many ways, completely different from what you hear in our recordings, which were all done with Will and Rory. Again, this evolution has been for the better. The songs have gotten tighter and even experimental at times, which make them fun and different every time we play them live. You will very rarely hear the exact same version of a song from show to show.

How do you all define the sound of the Fair-Weather Kings?

That’s always a hard question to answer, and I usually just refer to what others have compared it to or said. The most common word used to describe our music is “energetic,” and we have been compared to The Strokes and The Artic Monkeys.

Like you just said, a good deal of the Fair-Weather Kings’ music is highly energetic and, at times, feverishly frantic, which comes across well during your live shows. By the same token, you all seem to be very tightly-knit as a multi-piece band. That being said, how do you approach the creative process? Do songs come together spontaneously or is it more of an intensive, day-by-day process?

The majority of our songs were songs that I had already written or were nearly complete ideas that I then presented to the entire band. From there, everyone just sort of filled in the gaps with each of us giving the others input and experimenting with various ways to approach them. However, we have also written several songs that blossomed out of a jam session during practice.

While the band’s sound is ultimately rooted in rock, you all also incorporate a variety of electronic, synthesized sounds in your music through guitar effects and keys/synthesized sounds. Do you think it’s important to remain open to different sonic avenues in the modern age for the sake of creativity?

We keep ourselves open to various sounds and even various styles for the sake of creativity. I think if we confined ourselves to a specific sound, or tried to write songs that adhere to a specific style or sound, it would hinder us creatively. We are constantly picking up things from other bands and each other, which steers each new song or idea in a slightly different direction.

You guys hail from one of the region’s most vibrant music scenes—Bowling Green, KY. How much of an effect has that environment had on the band’s approach and creative evolution?

It has its positives and negatives. On one hand, all the bands are learning, supporting, and challenging each other to become better. On the other hand, it’s a constant struggle to keep from getting lost in the mix of all these great bands and musicians in the area. Either way, we are proud to call Bowling Green home and love being associated with its rising music scene.

You all played at the inaugural Mad Flavor Arts & Music Festival in Madisonville this past June. Why did you all decide to play the festival and what was your overall take on the event?

It sounded like a fun time. Again, Zach, Marcus, and I grew up in the area and still have friends and family there, so it seemed like a great opportunity to not only play our music to some different faces, but to also visit with some familiar ones. We had a great time and got some great feedback on our set.

If I’m not mistaken, your self-titled EP and single, “Satellite Galaxies”, were both recorded at Greyskull Recordings in Bowling Green. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like recording there.

During those recording sessions, Rory Willis was still our keyboard player. We recorded all the tracks on the EP in a “live” fashion where everyone was being recorded at the same time, minus the vocals, so, really, it was just like a more structured and professional practice—except we played every song a dozen times. We did “tracking” for Satellite Galaxies, meaning we each recorded our parts individually. That process is slightly boring, but produces a much higher quality end product. It also allows for changes, and gave Rory the ability to piece together the best parts of each take.

Are you guys working on any new music at the moment?

Yes. We have two new songs that we have been playing live for a while that haven’t been recorded, and we are currently working through some ideas for at least three more. We are taking our time with the new material—screening it so to speak. The first album was composed of literally every song that was presented. This time around, we are being a bit pickier and are presenting lots of ideas that will be narrowed down to a few songs at a time.

From your perspective, why is it important for area citizens to get out and support local musicians and artists?

Because most of those local musicians and artists want to be national musicians and artists, and the road to that outcome is paved by every single person’s support.

Over the years, what’s been one of the band’s favorite shows and/or biggest accomplishments?

One of our best shows was a house-show at a place dubbed The Manor. It is right next to Greyskull—which is where we rehearsed at the time—in the basement of this old Civil War hospital that is now a private residence. There were a ton of people all giving us as much energy as we were giving them. Those are the best types of crowds. I’ll take a crowd of 20 people that are all getting into the music over 2,000 motionless bodies any day, and that’s when we put on the best show, too. It’s a give and take relationship when it comes to our performances, and we were getting and giving quite a bit at The Manor that night.

What is the end goal for the Fair-Weather Kings?

Ultimately, we want to reach as many people as possible with our music. So, short answer: major label support.

Where and how can people check you out and purchase your music?

We have a ReverbNation profile, as well as a Bandcamp profile. We don’t really charge for digital downloads, and both places have all of our recorded material for free. We have physical copies of our debut EP, which we have re-released with “Satellite Galaxies” for sale on our Bandcamp page. We have stickers and t-shirts for sale there as well. Of course, you can pick up any of those things at our shows, too.

In closing, feel free to give any shout-outs you want.

All of our fellow BG Sceners…
Canago, Buffalo Rodeo, Morning Teleportation, Schools, Chris Rutledge, Sleeper/Agent, Cage the Elephant, Opossum Holler, The Reneaus, The Beech Benders, Plastic Visions, The Black Shades, Lost River Cavemen, Fat Box, The Hungry Ears, Technology vs Horse, and others…

Also…
D93 WDNS, Revolution 91.7 WWHR, Spencer’s Coffee House, and Greyskull Recordings.


____________________________________________________________________

Want to hear the Fair-Weather Kings right now? Check out the ReverbNation player attached below this article. Want to support the band by downloading some Fair-Weather Kings tracks or purchasing some merchandise? Visit the official FWK BandCamp page by clicking here.

For more information on the Fair-Weather Kings, such as upcoming shows and updated news, visit their official Facebook page by clicking here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jessi Smith

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JT Oglesby – Long Live Kentucky Music

"credit" Jessi SmithHOPKINS 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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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]

"credit" Jessi Smith
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?

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jeff Harp
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?

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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.

"credit" Jessi Smith
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

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JIH Guitars

Harper Guitars produces high quality, handmade instruments with emphasis on customization.

It wasn't too long ago that I set off with good intentions, bought a blueprint of my favorite guitar and started to build. Building guitars opened up a whole new world, full of hurdles, frustrations but most importantly gratification! Although my first guitar wasn’t the prettiest, sound came from it and it was good! Then I was really hooked! I thought, maybe, with the help of my engineering and design knowledge, I could create something unique. Eight guitars and lots of hard earned money later I decided that I needed to stop making guitars for myself and produce works of art for other people. At this point I took what I had learned, things I liked about previous guitars and implemented them into a signature design. At this point the guitar production is still under 100 and I have sold a limited amount of guitars to wonderful musicians that I consider my friends. Alonzo Pennington (amazing guitarist and songwriter from Princeton, KY), Bryan Fox (Long time college friend, amazing guitarist, songwriter and proud owner of two Harper’s), Guy Holloway (Louisville, KY) and Kevin McCreery (guitarist from Louisville, KY previously of Big Rock Show, Tantric and currently on tour with Uncle Kracker).
 
 
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Gear Guide: Last Ride of a Legend

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (4/1/13)—It was born in Kalamazoo during the peak of the “golden age”; it’s survived countless state-hopping road trips and a fully involved house fire; it’s graced the hands of highly skilled artists known all over the world for their remarkable talents; it’s seen the Smithsonian and the Grand Ole Opry; it’s recently garnered the attention of area newspapers, the Hopkins County Genealogical and Historical Societies, and Western Kentucky University’s Folk Studies Department, just to name a few; and it stands as one of only several intact instruments that helped to bring a purely western Kentucky style of music to full fruition. But, odds are, it—a 1959 Gibson ES-225TD—would have been just another collectible guitar without the pivotal touch of its late owner, Mose Rager.

A native of Muhlenberg County, Mose Rager placed a vital stamp on the enduring style and sound of western Kentucky thumbpicking in the early to mid-20th Century. Putting this prowess in perspective, it was Rager that taught globally acclaimed country musician and Kentucky native, Merle Travis, how to thumbpick during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the style is coined by many as “Travis Picking” today, Travis never shied away from letting the public know that Mose was one of his most important early mentors.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While Rager never really gained any widespread “spotlight” notoriety for his fervent and innovative approach to the intricate, dual-toned thumb style, his rich musical legacy continues to inspire and directly influence many of the region’s most notable contemporary artists.

Among this group of Rager-inspired artists is Nortonville, KY resident, award-winning thumbpicker, and “all-terrain” musician, J.T. Oglesby (pictured above).

A longtime friend of the Rager family, Oglesby has spent years listening to and studying Rager’s storied, but relatively rare catalogue of music, the hand-me-down stories of his lengthy life, and the historic mystique that has come to envelope the region-specific style he helped to propagate.

In turn, Oglesby recently got the “dream-like” chance to take Mose’s well-seasoned 1959 Gibson ES-225TD electric guitar on what he says could easily be its “last ride” in Kentucky—a ride that is still underway as of this writing.

In addition to recording a slew of both traditional and modern tracks with the guitar thanks to the help of local musician, Patrick “Patson” Richardson, Oglesby has also been in talks with the Western Kentucky University Folks Studies Department regarding a documentary style piece focused on the instrument and recently played/showcased the instrument at a Paducah-based concert filmed by KET that is to be televised in May.

In honoring this momentous, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime occasion, while also drawing attention to the upcoming celebration of Rager’s life and music—Mose Rager Day—which will be held at the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close, the Sugg Street Post would like present our readers with a look at the life of Mose Rager and the influence he had on the thumbpicking style, some in-depth research conducted on his beloved 53-year-old Gibson, and the backstory that led Oglesby to the instrument.

* Mose Rager was born on April 2nd, 1911 in Drakesboro, KY (Muhlenberg County) and passed away in Greenville on May 14th, 1986 at the age of 75.

* Mose was a family man that primarily worked as a barber. Among other things, he was also employed by several coal mines throughout his life. Interestingly, he served out a short stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Paducah, KY.

* Described by many area musicians as the “father” of thumbpicking, Mose—by all historic accounts—taught legendary country musician and Muhlenberg County native, Merle Travis, how to play the innovative style for which he is now popularly known (“Travis Picking”). In paying homage to his roots, however, Travis never shied away from giving full credit to Mose for teaching him the style. Along with his lengthy, hit-making recording history and live performance prowess, Merle Travis also starred in several western movies and TV shows. In turn, his music was also featured on nationally released films and national syndications. For example, Travis performed alongside Frank Sinatra in one of his original songs, “Reenlistment Blues,” which would be used in the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.

Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

PHOTO: Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. 

* Inspired by the African-American-based and parlor-style guitar playing of his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones, as well as the increasing popularity of bluesy guitar “rags” prevalent during the early half of the 20th Century, regional native Kennedy Jones is credited with actually creating what came to be known as thumbpicking or “thumb style.” While Jones is noted as the originator of the style—and is also known for using a “Hawaiian” style steel guitar thumbpick for the very first time, which are still used today—his relatively nascent approach was taken to new, innovative heights by the likes of Mose, Ike Everly, and fellow “thumbpicking originator” Arnold Schultz. It was this group of artists that, as many accounts attest, truly produced what’s now known as Western Kentucky Thumbpicking.

* For several years, Mose spent time on the road as a professional touring musician and played alongside Grandpa Jones, Curly Fox, Texas Ruby, and other WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry stars of the day. However, after being involved in a bus crash, Mose immediately stopped touring. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The radio tag WSM, which was fashioned in 1925 by the station’s originators, The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM’s Barn Dance program and live music venue would eventually be renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927)

* Mose performed a striking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” at the Grand Ole Opry. The guitar he used that particular night was the Gibson ES-225TD seen in the attached photos.

* Throughout his life, records and firsthand accounts indicate that Mose rarely played the same guitar more than once or twice. As these same accounts evidence, he often borrowed and traded guitars with other local musicians. As mentioned in a previously-released post found on the Ohio Fingerstyle Guitar Club’s official website:

Like many struggling non-famous guitarists, it was told that if Mose ever got a guitar—he didn't have it for long. Sometimes he didn't even have one. Merle Travis joked on the album, Travis Atkins Traveling Show, that Mose “would sometimes borrow a guitar from one person, play it for a while, and then give it back and borrow a guitar from somebody else.”

However, both his Gibson ES-125 (now on display at the Merle Travis Center in Central City, KY; see photo below) and the ES-225TD were among some his most beloved instruments and remained with him throughout much of his life.

* While Mose played alongside a plethora of talented musicians during his life, including country music star, Chet Atkins, Central City sensations, The Everly Brothers, jazz master, Lenny Breau, country music star, Merle Travis (of course), and many others, Mose was apprehensive when it came to recording his works. In fact, many described Mose as being “studio shy.” Interestingly enough, one of his sessions, which may or may not still exist on record, was captured through a little bit of sly maneuvering on the part of fellow musicians and engineers. As the story goes, when he paid a visit to a recording studio in Central City, the recording “light” had to be unscrewed. The reason: as soon as the light would come on signaling that recording was underway, Mose would simply freeze up.

* Today, acclaimed area musician, entertainer, and the unequivocal “king” of the thumbpicking style, Eddie Pennington, as well as other acclaimed performers (Alonzo Pennington, J.T. Oglesby, Steve Rector, Paul Mosely, and more) give credit to Mose for inspiring their deep affinity for the west Kentucky style.

* The following excerpt taken from David K. Bradford’s, “The Unstrung History of the American Guitar: The Guitar and Early 19th Century American Music,” provides an insightful historical look at Mose’s influence and the thumbpicking style:

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, ‘Jonesy’ was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’” Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time ... I ever seen Arnold Shultz ... this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager. Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

The ES (Electric Spanish)-225 was introduced to the Gibson family of guitars in 1955 and was discontinued in the latter half of 1959. This model, like others, was manufactured at Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo, MI factory, which relocated to Nashville in 1984.

Throughout the model’s comparatively short-lived, four-year production run, two main variations were manufactured—the 225T (Thinline) and the 225TD (Thinline/Dual Pickups)—each of which had three finish options (tobacco sunburst, a lighter cherry-style sunburst, and the more expensive “natural” option, which was denoted with an “N” on the model number; ex. ES-225TDN).

While both models sported many of the same features, including a single Florentine-style cutaway, thinline-style hollow-body construction, a maple laminate top with “f” holes, a maple laminate back, mahogany sides, a one-piece mahogany neck, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot-style fretboard markers, 20 frets, a four-ply black/white celluloid pickguard, single-layer binding on both the neck and body, a 24 ¾” scale length, a set neck joint, nitrocellulose lacquer, and similar body dimensions, the original 225T utilized a single P-90 pickup that was situated (oddly enough) at an angle between the neck and bridge. In turn, the inaugural “T” model donned a single volume and single tone control. The 225TD, which was introduced in mid-1956, sported two more conventionally positioned P-90s—one at the neck and one at the bridge—as well as a three-way pickup selector switch (bridge, bridge/neck, and neck), two tone controls, and two volume controls.

Though both models originally used a longer, wrap-around style trapeze tailpiece—much like the first run of early ‘50s “goldtop” Gibson Les Paul models—the 1959 ES-225 models were fitted with both a rosewood bridge/base combo and a shorter non-wrap nickel tailpiece (as seen on the ‘50s and ‘60s era ES-125T, TD, and TDC models). Therefore, when using this seemingly insignificant cosmetic peculiarity as a dating tool, it would seem that Mose’s ES-225TD was produced in one of Gibson’s most desirable “Golden” years: 1959. Though the shorter tailpiece and wooden bridge/base could have been fitted to the guitar at a later date, it’s unlikely as the rest of the guitar is completely original. What’s more, Mose’s ES-225TD sports the darker brown sunburst finish, which is considered to be rarer than the redder, cherry-type sunburst.

While the ES-225TD is more or less considered a forerunner to Gibson’s later, ‘60s era model, the ES-125TD, many guitar aficionados point out that the 225’s neck joint was deeper set and, consequently, stronger than its psychedelic-age heir. Additionally, the ES-225 was manufactured with a block of wood (probably maple or mahogany) attached to the underside of the top below the bridge area, which helps to reduce feedback when the guitar’s signal is pushed hard through a “dimed” amp. Though the block does not extend through the length of the body as in the larger semi-hollow ES-335 model, the later ES-125T, TD, and TDCs are completely hollow inside. One other distinctive difference between the models is the neck profile. Like most of Gibson’s ‘50s era guitars, the ES-225’s neck shape, more commonly known as a “U” profile, is slightly larger and rounder than its later ‘60s era counterparts.

As with most semi-hollow and hollow-body style guitars, the tone Mose’s ES-225TD produces is somewhat warmer and more dynamic than that of the average solid-body guitar (i.e. Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster, SG, etc.). In the case of Mose’s vintage 225TD, this tonal characteristic is further enhanced by a combination of seasoned tonewoods and the thinner, “midrangey” signal produced from Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups. Taking into account the simultaneously two-sided sound of the thumbpicking style—both low rhythm and higher melody/lead lines—it’s no wonder that many thumb style practitioners oftentimes prefer a full sounding, big-bodied acoustic or a similar hollow/semi-hollow electric. The reason: the warmer tones of these dual pickup guitars accentuate the rhythm played by the thumb while still retaining enough snap to allow the melody/lead lines to cut through the mix.

Other electric hollow/semi-hollow guitars commonly used by well-known thumbpickers include Gibson’s Super-400, L-5, Byrdland, Super V, and various other ES models (such as the 335, 330, 175, and 125). As mentioned earlier, Mose’s fully hollow ES-125 was among his small group of favorites. Gretsch’s various Chet Atkins signature models, as well as similar hollow/semi-hollow productions like the White/Black Falcon, Country Club, the Eddie Cochran tribute model, the Anniversary line, and the Electromatic G5422 line, are also mainstays of the thumbpicking world. Though these particular instruments are among some of the most commonly used, thumbpicking—like any other genre of music—has been taken to a variety of differing guitar styles over time (both with and without success).

Though I’ve always loved the guitar—my parents have pictures of me in diapers holding guitars at family gatherings, around the house, and everywhere else—but Mose died before I seriously started playing.

I was first exposed to thumb style guitar playing when I was in my teens. I heard [Kennedy Jones’ “thumbpicker anthem” and Merle Travis’ hit single] “Cannonball Rag” on KET’s, Kentucky Afield. I liked it even though I was really into punk and metal at the time. I had no idea of what all was going on during that song. I thought it was two guitars playing with one doing lead and the other playing rhythm. A few months later, I ran into my cousin [award-winning thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington and saw him play both parts at the same time. I was blown away, man. I had no clue you could back yourself up with rhythm while playing lead. I had already wanted to learn classical-style guitar; the main reason was that I loved the idea of using my fingers to pick. It just seemed to me, at least at the time, that if I could pick out a melody, I could pick out five melodies if I used five picks—my fingers in this case. [laughs] Eddie started teaching me how to thumbpick not long after. I learned really quickly, but I was also playing 12-plus hours a day. I wore holes in all my jeans from resting the guitar on my leg; I had callouses on my forearms from resting them on the body of the guitar; and I wore all the finish off the neck of my guitar in a single year. Seriously, that is all I did, and it didn’t stop for years.

I had just turned 17-years-old and Eddie introduced me to all the thumbpickers. He took me around to the contests and get-togethers, too. It was at a contest that I met Mose Rager’s family. Mose’s wife, Mrs. Laverda, was a sweet and pleasant lady. I remember meeting her and his daughter, Marilyn, who goes by the nickname, “Frizz.” The nickname was given to her by Merle Travis as a kid because of her really curly blonde hair. Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, and I hit it off really well.

One day, I got a phone call from a mutual friend, Joanna Fox, who was living in Drakesboro, KY at the time. Many know her from her time as a teacher in Muhlenberg County. Basically, Joanna always used to call me out of the blue whenever she had something she knew I would like. She is related to [musician] John Prine, and when John was awarded his Kentucky Colonel certificate, she called and asked me to give it to him because she knew I was a fan. That’s just how she was. Joanna was a really nice and interesting person that always has something interesting going on. Well, one day, she called and asked me, “Would you want to play Mose’s guitar?” Within a few weeks of starting to learn from Eddie, he introduced me to recordings of Mose. I was immediately drawn to Mose’s music and personality on the recordings. So, when Joanna asked me if I wanted to play his guitar, I was beyond excited. I agreed to meet them at the fire station in Drakesboro and when I showed up, Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, Mose’s grandson, Anthony, and Joanna were there. They had two Gibson guitars and an amp with them. One was the guitar I am currently borrowing—the ES-225TD—and the other was a Gibson acoustic that was finished with an orange sunburst, but I’m not sure of the model. The amp was Mose’s personal amp, but, for some reason, I really don’t remember anything about it even though I ended up playing through it for several years. Well, that night was the start of a very long friendship that continues to this day.

Frizz showed me her home, which was right across the road from the fire station at the time, and gave me a standing invitation to visit at any time. I more than took her up on it. Every chance I got, I was there over the years. I would pick Mose’s guitars, look at family photos, have her tell me stories about him, and would listen to every recording she could dig up. It was not uncommon for me to show up around 6pm and stay until sun-up.

Around this time, I got to traveling as a musician quite a bit. [Slaughters, KY native and acclaimed musician] Chris Knight and I had standing gigs in Nashville and had started talking to labels, publishers, and the like. I would head to Nashville and stay as long as needed, then I would come home and run to Drakesboro to hang out with Frizz and learn more about Mose. I remember being in Seattle at one point and encountering my first recordings of Django Reinhardt. He is another “top hero” of mine now, but I had never heard of him at the time. I don’t even know if I stopped by the house when I returned from the airport after that. I headed straight to Drakesboro to play his recordings for Frizz. [laughs]

Frizz and her husband, Larry, had a house fire several years ago. They lost Mose’s amp and acoustic guitar in the fire, but they saved the electric—the ES-225TD—that I’m borrowing and recording with right now. Merle Travis used to draw cartoons for them when they were kids, too. Luckily, they managed to save the cartoons that Merle drew, but lost a ton of recordings of Mose. They no longer live in Drakesboro. Mrs. Laverda lived in Drakesboro until she passed away. Frizz and Larry bought Mose’s old house when he and Mrs. Laverda bought their new place right behind what is now known as “The Four Legends Fountain” in Drakesboro. The last house Mose lived in is still there, but his old house is gone.

I was with Mrs. Laverda the last time that Chet Atkins came to visit her. Chet’s health was failing and he died not too long after that. Chet spoke so highly of Mose, and he thanked Mrs. Laverda for always being hospitable and kind to the throngs of musicians, including himself, that would come to pay homage to Mose. I knew that day, as my friend drove off to take Chet back to Nashville, that it was going to be last time I saw him. You could just tell that his time was short, and he passed not long afterward. Mrs. Laverda made sure I was with her when Chet came that day. She was getting frail herself and I helped her stable herself so she could walk over and see him. It was all pretty emotional, because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era. In a way, that is how it is for me now. It is an honor to have the guitar of a personal hero, but, at the same time, I also know I am watching the end of an era once again.

Over the years, the Ragers have become a part of my family. I love them all, and they have shaped my life in ways they will never fully understand. It started out years ago, as a kid trying to discover all he could about his hero. Now, it is ending as a man that is trying his hardest to preserve the memory of a family that he has grown to love. It goes way deeper for me than just honoring a hero; I was fortunate to have the opportunity and recognized it. If I hadn’t recognized it, I would not have acted on it. If I hadn’t acted on it, my life would be totally different today. My past would be totally different. My attitude would be as if it belonged to another person. The whole family shaped my outlook, music, and various other aspects of my life.

Mose was an innovative, unique, and wonderful person. His influence on music and musicians goes far beyond the notes he hit on his guitar. 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me have many things in common: we both still love Mose’s music, we both still love to hear his stories on tape, and we both have a profound admiration for the man that gave this area its own singular style of playing, which has influenced the world. But, we also have differences. Among them is a better understanding of why Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and countless other musicians’ lives carried with them such an impact from Mose. It was his spirit in general. He was the wise man on the mountain that not only played music is such an amazing way that it blew your mind, but also had a deep insight into people, happiness, and life so much so that that it made you examine yourself and discover things you may not have ever noticed otherwise. There was something about Mose that made you want to be good. Not just musically good, but good as a person. He made you feel like he cared, because he did. The shoddy recording methods of the time period he lived in could not squash the inner spirit of this man. He was a happy soul, and that carried across through his music, stories, and that massive laugh of his that he was not shy about unleashing. I can hear his laugh in my mind clear as I can hear the melodies of his songs.

I came to borrow Mose’s guitar just as a whim actually. I thought it would be cool if I played it on the show we filmed for KET in Paducah on March 1st. When I asked Frizz, she told me that she had no problem with it, but she had given it to Cameron, who is her grandson, and that he would have to give his okay or else she wouldn't feel right. The next day, I messaged Cameron's dad and asked if he could ask Cameron about me borrowing it. The next day, Frizz called and told me to come pick it up.

I sent out a few emails letting a few people know that I had the guitar and then went and picked it up. One of the people I emailed was Dr.Erika Brady, who is the head of WKU's Folk Studies Department. I was already planning on recording some with the guitar while I had it, too. I had contacted Patrick “Patson” Richardson about doing a recording and documentary-style project with me as well. Patson has been filming video of me in the studio while I’m recording tracks so we would have both audio and video of the guitar. Erika contacted me a day or two later and said she had a student, Mike Rivera, that had just been asking her about the whole music history of Muhlenberg county. She asked if I wanted to have them get involved. I told her it would be an honor, and that is how the idea of doing a full-fledged documentary got off to a start. Erika and I have met and talked about plans, but we were both really sick the first go around, so the meeting was short and sweet. [laughs] There is both a short-term and long-term project that we are working on. The short-term project is "What can we get recorded and documented before I return the guitar?" The long-term idea is still to be discussed more in-depth.

To hear a rare recording of Mose Rager in the studio, click here. Additional recordings can be found by searching "Mose Rager" on YouTube. 

If you would like to participate in celebrating the life and longstanding legacy of Mose Rager, please visit the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close for Mose Rager Day.

To learn more about Mose Rager and the thumbpicking style, click the video player attached below this article. 

For additional “Gear Guide” articles, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos of J.T. Oglesby and Mose Rager’s ES-225TD/ES-125 by Jeff Harp
Historic photos provided courtesy of J.T. Oglesby

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  • Published in Music

Gear Guide: Last Ride of a Legend

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (4/1/13)—It was born in Kalamazoo during the peak of the “golden age”; it’s survived countless state-hopping road trips and a fully involved house fire; it’s graced the hands of highly skilled artists known all over the world for their remarkable talents; it’s seen the Smithsonian and the Grand Ole Opry; it’s recently garnered the attention of area newspapers, the Hopkins County Genealogical and Historical Societies, and Western Kentucky University’s Folk Studies Department, just to name a few; and it stands as one of only several intact instruments that helped to bring a purely western Kentucky style of music to full fruition. But, odds are, it—a 1959 Gibson ES-225TD—would have been just another collectible guitar without the pivotal touch of its late owner, Mose Rager.

A native of Muhlenberg County, Mose Rager placed a vital stamp on the enduring style and sound of western Kentucky thumbpicking in the early to mid-20th Century. Putting this prowess in perspective, it was Rager that taught globally acclaimed country musician and Kentucky native, Merle Travis, how to thumbpick during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the style is coined by many as “Travis Picking” today, Travis never shied away from letting the public know that Mose was one of his most important early mentors.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While Rager never really gained any widespread “spotlight” notoriety for his fervent and innovative approach to the intricate, dual-toned thumb style, his rich musical legacy continues to inspire and directly influence many of the region’s most notable contemporary artists.

Among this group of Rager-inspired artists is Nortonville, KY resident, award-winning thumbpicker, and “all-terrain” musician, J.T. Oglesby (pictured above).

A longtime friend of the Rager family, Oglesby has spent years listening to and studying Rager’s storied, but relatively rare catalogue of music, the hand-me-down stories of his lengthy life, and the historic mystique that has come to envelope the region-specific style he helped to propagate.

In turn, Oglesby recently got the “dream-like” chance to take Mose’s well-seasoned 1959 Gibson ES-225TD electric guitar on what he says could easily be its “last ride” in Kentucky—a ride that is still underway as of this writing.

In addition to recording a slew of both traditional and modern tracks with the guitar thanks to the help of local musician, Patrick “Patson” Richardson, Oglesby has also been in talks with the Western Kentucky University Folks Studies Department regarding a documentary style piece focused on the instrument and recently played/showcased the instrument at a Paducah-based concert filmed by KET that is to be televised in May.

In honoring this momentous, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime occasion, while also drawing attention to the upcoming celebration of Rager’s life and music—Mose Rager Day—which will be held at the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close, the Sugg Street Post would like present our readers with a look at the life of Mose Rager and the influence he had on the thumbpicking style, some in-depth research conducted on his beloved 53-year-old Gibson, and the backstory that led Oglesby to the instrument.

* Mose Rager was born on April 2nd, 1911 in Drakesboro, KY (Muhlenberg County) and passed away in Greenville on May 14th, 1986 at the age of 75.

* Mose was a family man that primarily worked as a barber. Among other things, he was also employed by several coal mines throughout his life. Interestingly, he served out a short stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Paducah, KY.

* Described by many area musicians as the “father” of thumbpicking, Mose—by all historic accounts—taught legendary country musician and Muhlenberg County native, Merle Travis, how to play the innovative style for which he is now popularly known (“Travis Picking”). In paying homage to his roots, however, Travis never shied away from giving full credit to Mose for teaching him the style. Along with his lengthy, hit-making recording history and live performance prowess, Merle Travis also starred in several western movies and TV shows. In turn, his music was also featured on nationally released films and national syndications. For example, Travis performed alongside Frank Sinatra in one of his original songs, “Reenlistment Blues,” which would be used in the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.

Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

PHOTO: Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. 

* Inspired by the African-American-based and parlor-style guitar playing of his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones, as well as the increasing popularity of bluesy guitar “rags” prevalent during the early half of the 20th Century, regional native Kennedy Jones is credited with actually creating what came to be known as thumbpicking or “thumb style.” While Jones is noted as the originator of the style—and is also known for using a “Hawaiian” style steel guitar thumbpick for the very first time, which are still used today—his relatively nascent approach was taken to new, innovative heights by the likes of Mose, Ike Everly, and fellow “thumbpicking originator” Arnold Schultz. It was this group of artists that, as many accounts attest, truly produced what’s now known as Western Kentucky Thumbpicking.

* For several years, Mose spent time on the road as a professional touring musician and played alongside Grandpa Jones, Curly Fox, Texas Ruby, and other WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry stars of the day. However, after being involved in a bus crash, Mose immediately stopped touring. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The radio tag WSM, which was fashioned in 1925 by the station’s originators, The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM’s Barn Dance program and live music venue would eventually be renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927)

* Mose performed a striking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” at the Grand Ole Opry. The guitar he used that particular night was the Gibson ES-225TD seen in the attached photos.

* Throughout his life, records and firsthand accounts indicate that Mose rarely played the same guitar more than once or twice. As these same accounts evidence, he often borrowed and traded guitars with other local musicians. As mentioned in a previously-released post found on the Ohio Fingerstyle Guitar Club’s official website:

Like many struggling non-famous guitarists, it was told that if Mose ever got a guitar—he didn't have it for long. Sometimes he didn't even have one. Merle Travis joked on the album, Travis Atkins Traveling Show, that Mose “would sometimes borrow a guitar from one person, play it for a while, and then give it back and borrow a guitar from somebody else.”

However, both his Gibson ES-125 (now on display at the Merle Travis Center in Central City, KY; see photo below) and the ES-225TD were among some his most beloved instruments and remained with him throughout much of his life.

* While Mose played alongside a plethora of talented musicians during his life, including country music star, Chet Atkins, Central City sensations, The Everly Brothers, jazz master, Lenny Breau, country music star, Merle Travis (of course), and many others, Mose was apprehensive when it came to recording his works. In fact, many described Mose as being “studio shy.” Interestingly enough, one of his sessions, which may or may not still exist on record, was captured through a little bit of sly maneuvering on the part of fellow musicians and engineers. As the story goes, when he paid a visit to a recording studio in Central City, the recording “light” had to be unscrewed. The reason: as soon as the light would come on signaling that recording was underway, Mose would simply freeze up.

* Today, acclaimed area musician, entertainer, and the unequivocal “king” of the thumbpicking style, Eddie Pennington, as well as other acclaimed performers (Alonzo Pennington, J.T. Oglesby, Steve Rector, Paul Mosely, and more) give credit to Mose for inspiring their deep affinity for the west Kentucky style.

* The following excerpt taken from David K. Bradford’s, “The Unstrung History of the American Guitar: The Guitar and Early 19th Century American Music,” provides an insightful historical look at Mose’s influence and the thumbpicking style:

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, ‘Jonesy’ was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’” Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time ... I ever seen Arnold Shultz ... this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager. Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

The ES (Electric Spanish)-225 was introduced to the Gibson family of guitars in 1955 and was discontinued in the latter half of 1959. This model, like others, was manufactured at Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo, MI factory, which relocated to Nashville in 1984.

Throughout the model’s comparatively short-lived, four-year production run, two main variations were manufactured—the 225T (Thinline) and the 225TD (Thinline/Dual Pickups)—each of which had three finish options (tobacco sunburst, a lighter cherry-style sunburst, and the more expensive “natural” option, which was denoted with an “N” on the model number; ex. ES-225TDN).

While both models sported many of the same features, including a single Florentine-style cutaway, thinline-style hollow-body construction, a maple laminate top with “f” holes, a maple laminate back, mahogany sides, a one-piece mahogany neck, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot-style fretboard markers, 20 frets, a four-ply black/white celluloid pickguard, single-layer binding on both the neck and body, a 24 ¾” scale length, a set neck joint, nitrocellulose lacquer, and similar body dimensions, the original 225T utilized a single P-90 pickup that was situated (oddly enough) at an angle between the neck and bridge. In turn, the inaugural “T” model donned a single volume and single tone control. The 225TD, which was introduced in mid-1956, sported two more conventionally positioned P-90s—one at the neck and one at the bridge—as well as a three-way pickup selector switch (bridge, bridge/neck, and neck), two tone controls, and two volume controls.

Though both models originally used a longer, wrap-around style trapeze tailpiece—much like the first run of early ‘50s “goldtop” Gibson Les Paul models—the 1959 ES-225 models were fitted with both a rosewood bridge/base combo and a shorter non-wrap nickel tailpiece (as seen on the ‘50s and ‘60s era ES-125T, TD, and TDC models). Therefore, when using this seemingly insignificant cosmetic peculiarity as a dating tool, it would seem that Mose’s ES-225TD was produced in one of Gibson’s most desirable “Golden” years: 1959. Though the shorter tailpiece and wooden bridge/base could have been fitted to the guitar at a later date, it’s unlikely as the rest of the guitar is completely original. What’s more, Mose’s ES-225TD sports the darker brown sunburst finish, which is considered to be rarer than the redder, cherry-type sunburst.

While the ES-225TD is more or less considered a forerunner to Gibson’s later, ‘60s era model, the ES-125TD, many guitar aficionados point out that the 225’s neck joint was deeper set and, consequently, stronger than its psychedelic-age heir. Additionally, the ES-225 was manufactured with a block of wood (probably maple or mahogany) attached to the underside of the top below the bridge area, which helps to reduce feedback when the guitar’s signal is pushed hard through a “dimed” amp. Though the block does not extend through the length of the body as in the larger semi-hollow ES-335 model, the later ES-125T, TD, and TDCs are completely hollow inside. One other distinctive difference between the models is the neck profile. Like most of Gibson’s ‘50s era guitars, the ES-225’s neck shape, more commonly known as a “U” profile, is slightly larger and rounder than its later ‘60s era counterparts.

As with most semi-hollow and hollow-body style guitars, the tone Mose’s ES-225TD produces is somewhat warmer and more dynamic than that of the average solid-body guitar (i.e. Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster, SG, etc.). In the case of Mose’s vintage 225TD, this tonal characteristic is further enhanced by a combination of seasoned tonewoods and the thinner, “midrangey” signal produced from Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups. Taking into account the simultaneously two-sided sound of the thumbpicking style—both low rhythm and higher melody/lead lines—it’s no wonder that many thumb style practitioners oftentimes prefer a full sounding, big-bodied acoustic or a similar hollow/semi-hollow electric. The reason: the warmer tones of these dual pickup guitars accentuate the rhythm played by the thumb while still retaining enough snap to allow the melody/lead lines to cut through the mix.

Other electric hollow/semi-hollow guitars commonly used by well-known thumbpickers include Gibson’s Super-400, L-5, Byrdland, Super V, and various other ES models (such as the 335, 330, 175, and 125). As mentioned earlier, Mose’s fully hollow ES-125 was among his small group of favorites. Gretsch’s various Chet Atkins signature models, as well as similar hollow/semi-hollow productions like the White/Black Falcon, Country Club, the Eddie Cochran tribute model, the Anniversary line, and the Electromatic G5422 line, are also mainstays of the thumbpicking world. Though these particular instruments are among some of the most commonly used, thumbpicking—like any other genre of music—has been taken to a variety of differing guitar styles over time (both with and without success).

Though I’ve always loved the guitar—my parents have pictures of me in diapers holding guitars at family gatherings, around the house, and everywhere else—but Mose died before I seriously started playing.

I was first exposed to thumb style guitar playing when I was in my teens. I heard [Kennedy Jones’ “thumbpicker anthem” and Merle Travis’ hit single] “Cannonball Rag” on KET’s, Kentucky Afield. I liked it even though I was really into punk and metal at the time. I had no idea of what all was going on during that song. I thought it was two guitars playing with one doing lead and the other playing rhythm. A few months later, I ran into my cousin [award-winning thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington and saw him play both parts at the same time. I was blown away, man. I had no clue you could back yourself up with rhythm while playing lead. I had already wanted to learn classical-style guitar; the main reason was that I loved the idea of using my fingers to pick. It just seemed to me, at least at the time, that if I could pick out a melody, I could pick out five melodies if I used five picks—my fingers in this case. [laughs] Eddie started teaching me how to thumbpick not long after. I learned really quickly, but I was also playing 12-plus hours a day. I wore holes in all my jeans from resting the guitar on my leg; I had callouses on my forearms from resting them on the body of the guitar; and I wore all the finish off the neck of my guitar in a single year. Seriously, that is all I did, and it didn’t stop for years.

I had just turned 17-years-old and Eddie introduced me to all the thumbpickers. He took me around to the contests and get-togethers, too. It was at a contest that I met Mose Rager’s family. Mose’s wife, Mrs. Laverda, was a sweet and pleasant lady. I remember meeting her and his daughter, Marilyn, who goes by the nickname, “Frizz.” The nickname was given to her by Merle Travis as a kid because of her really curly blonde hair. Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, and I hit it off really well.

One day, I got a phone call from a mutual friend, Joanna Fox, who was living in Drakesboro, KY at the time. Many know her from her time as a teacher in Muhlenberg County. Basically, Joanna always used to call me out of the blue whenever she had something she knew I would like. She is related to [musician] John Prine, and when John was awarded his Kentucky Colonel certificate, she called and asked me to give it to him because she knew I was a fan. That’s just how she was. Joanna was a really nice and interesting person that always has something interesting going on. Well, one day, she called and asked me, “Would you want to play Mose’s guitar?” Within a few weeks of starting to learn from Eddie, he introduced me to recordings of Mose. I was immediately drawn to Mose’s music and personality on the recordings. So, when Joanna asked me if I wanted to play his guitar, I was beyond excited. I agreed to meet them at the fire station in Drakesboro and when I showed up, Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, Mose’s grandson, Anthony, and Joanna were there. They had two Gibson guitars and an amp with them. One was the guitar I am currently borrowing—the ES-225TD—and the other was a Gibson acoustic that was finished with an orange sunburst, but I’m not sure of the model. The amp was Mose’s personal amp, but, for some reason, I really don’t remember anything about it even though I ended up playing through it for several years. Well, that night was the start of a very long friendship that continues to this day.

Frizz showed me her home, which was right across the road from the fire station at the time, and gave me a standing invitation to visit at any time. I more than took her up on it. Every chance I got, I was there over the years. I would pick Mose’s guitars, look at family photos, have her tell me stories about him, and would listen to every recording she could dig up. It was not uncommon for me to show up around 6pm and stay until sun-up.

Around this time, I got to traveling as a musician quite a bit. [Slaughters, KY native and acclaimed musician] Chris Knight and I had standing gigs in Nashville and had started talking to labels, publishers, and the like. I would head to Nashville and stay as long as needed, then I would come home and run to Drakesboro to hang out with Frizz and learn more about Mose. I remember being in Seattle at one point and encountering my first recordings of Django Reinhardt. He is another “top hero” of mine now, but I had never heard of him at the time. I don’t even know if I stopped by the house when I returned from the airport after that. I headed straight to Drakesboro to play his recordings for Frizz. [laughs]

Frizz and her husband, Larry, had a house fire several years ago. They lost Mose’s amp and acoustic guitar in the fire, but they saved the electric—the ES-225TD—that I’m borrowing and recording with right now. Merle Travis used to draw cartoons for them when they were kids, too. Luckily, they managed to save the cartoons that Merle drew, but lost a ton of recordings of Mose. They no longer live in Drakesboro. Mrs. Laverda lived in Drakesboro until she passed away. Frizz and Larry bought Mose’s old house when he and Mrs. Laverda bought their new place right behind what is now known as “The Four Legends Fountain” in Drakesboro. The last house Mose lived in is still there, but his old house is gone.

I was with Mrs. Laverda the last time that Chet Atkins came to visit her. Chet’s health was failing and he died not too long after that. Chet spoke so highly of Mose, and he thanked Mrs. Laverda for always being hospitable and kind to the throngs of musicians, including himself, that would come to pay homage to Mose. I knew that day, as my friend drove off to take Chet back to Nashville, that it was going to be last time I saw him. You could just tell that his time was short, and he passed not long afterward. Mrs. Laverda made sure I was with her when Chet came that day. She was getting frail herself and I helped her stable herself so she could walk over and see him. It was all pretty emotional, because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era. In a way, that is how it is for me now. It is an honor to have the guitar of a personal hero, but, at the same time, I also know I am watching the end of an era once again.

Over the years, the Ragers have become a part of my family. I love them all, and they have shaped my life in ways they will never fully understand. It started out years ago, as a kid trying to discover all he could about his hero. Now, it is ending as a man that is trying his hardest to preserve the memory of a family that he has grown to love. It goes way deeper for me than just honoring a hero; I was fortunate to have the opportunity and recognized it. If I hadn’t recognized it, I would not have acted on it. If I hadn’t acted on it, my life would be totally different today. My past would be totally different. My attitude would be as if it belonged to another person. The whole family shaped my outlook, music, and various other aspects of my life.

Mose was an innovative, unique, and wonderful person. His influence on music and musicians goes far beyond the notes he hit on his guitar. 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me have many things in common: we both still love Mose’s music, we both still love to hear his stories on tape, and we both have a profound admiration for the man that gave this area its own singular style of playing, which has influenced the world. But, we also have differences. Among them is a better understanding of why Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and countless other musicians’ lives carried with them such an impact from Mose. It was his spirit in general. He was the wise man on the mountain that not only played music is such an amazing way that it blew your mind, but also had a deep insight into people, happiness, and life so much so that that it made you examine yourself and discover things you may not have ever noticed otherwise. There was something about Mose that made you want to be good. Not just musically good, but good as a person. He made you feel like he cared, because he did. The shoddy recording methods of the time period he lived in could not squash the inner spirit of this man. He was a happy soul, and that carried across through his music, stories, and that massive laugh of his that he was not shy about unleashing. I can hear his laugh in my mind clear as I can hear the melodies of his songs.

I came to borrow Mose’s guitar just as a whim actually. I thought it would be cool if I played it on the show we filmed for KET in Paducah on March 1st. When I asked Frizz, she told me that she had no problem with it, but she had given it to Cameron, who is her grandson, and that he would have to give his okay or else she wouldn't feel right. The next day, I messaged Cameron's dad and asked if he could ask Cameron about me borrowing it. The next day, Frizz called and told me to come pick it up.

I sent out a few emails letting a few people know that I had the guitar and then went and picked it up. One of the people I emailed was Dr.Erika Brady, who is the head of WKU's Folk Studies Department. I was already planning on recording some with the guitar while I had it, too. I had contacted Patrick “Patson” Richardson about doing a recording and documentary-style project with me as well. Patson has been filming video of me in the studio while I’m recording tracks so we would have both audio and video of the guitar. Erika contacted me a day or two later and said she had a student, Mike Rivera, that had just been asking her about the whole music history of Muhlenberg county. She asked if I wanted to have them get involved. I told her it would be an honor, and that is how the idea of doing a full-fledged documentary got off to a start. Erika and I have met and talked about plans, but we were both really sick the first go around, so the meeting was short and sweet. [laughs] There is both a short-term and long-term project that we are working on. The short-term project is "What can we get recorded and documented before I return the guitar?" The long-term idea is still to be discussed more in-depth.

To hear a rare recording of Mose Rager in the studio, click here. Additional recordings can be found by searching "Mose Rager" on YouTube. 

If you would like to participate in celebrating the life and longstanding legacy of Mose Rager, please visit the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close for Mose Rager Day.

To learn more about Mose Rager and the thumbpicking style, click the video player attached below this article. 

For additional “Gear Guide” articles, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos of J.T. Oglesby and Mose Rager’s ES-225TD/ES-125 by Jeff Harp
Historic photos provided courtesy of J.T. Oglesby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp

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