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Pat Harvey - Madisonville's Organic, Free-Range Artist

MADISONVILLE, KY (10/1/13) – The word that comes to mind when I think of Madisonville artist Pat Harvey is “organic.” The guy, and everything he creates, just seems to come about naturally, even when there’s struggle involved. I don’t really know how else to explain it. And I don’t mean “organic” in the sense of environment-friendly or naturally-grown either, though I guess Pat and his creations could fit into those categories, too. What I really mean is that Pat, his interactions with friends and family, his artwork, and his approach to music seems purely genuine and intrinsic to who he is. He’s real, and he’s arrived where he is today by remaining true to himself through the good times and the bad.

But Pat hasn’t merely survived life untainted; the grasp he has on his internal passions and the affinity he holds for creativity has allowed him to flourish as a person. From nearly 20 years of playing music and his longtime love of bluegrass, to his relatively recent entrance into the art world and the ensuing festival hops he’s been a part of as a vendor, Pat’s reactions to the world around him have resulted in an ongoing stream of positivity and colorful artwork that stand in stark contrast to an oftentimes drab, pessimistic world around us.

Yet, that’s not what he would say. In his own humble words, he says, “For me, it’s kind of like yoga; I feel better when I’m creating and when I’m not I don’t feel balanced. It’s just something that I have to do. It can be painting or playing guitar—I’ve just got to do something or I’m not as happy as I could be. I’ve got to do it whether someone looks at it or not.”

And his modest words ring true when you spend time with Pat, when you visit his home, when you talk about art and music, when you share a few drinks and laughs, and you have a minute to really see what he’s up to “behind the scenes.” 

What you can expect when you pay Pat a few visits…
When you first walk into his open, forest-lined backyard, you may notice a brightly-colored, yet partially rusted and wheel-less, caged-in Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be hovering about three feet off the ground in the far corner of his property. Pat—who dons a respectable beard and long hair, as well as the occasional faded pair of overalls over a Ramones t-shirt—explains that the VW is the lynchpin of his latest masterpiece: a coup for his chickens Darnell, Cabbage, Tiny, and Alize’. The seat-less vehicle is their nightly roost. Next, Pat may take you on a tour of his studio and garage while he points out automotive projects in-progress, jars of fermented hill-gold, old music equipment, and unique pieces of art that have never really seen the light of day. He says they’re part of his “personal stash.” Then, you might meet Pat’s family—his wife Amy and his daughters Lillian and Mandolyn—all of whom seem to be just as “organic” in their own rights. And once they’ve welcomed you inside their inviting home, you’ll notice several stringed instruments propped up in the corner of their living room, as well as several instrument cases and pieces of textile material adorned with Pat’s vibrant designs and his pseudo pop-art takes on iconic musician portraits. At this point, you may start to feel comfortable and relaxed, and while you have to go, they ask you to stay. It’s hard to leave and that’s when you know you’ll be back someday. 
One of the best parts of these experiences, though, is that Pat‘s candid. He’s straightforward and down-to-earth. He’ll tell you like it is from his point-of-view. There will be no high-brows here, but that’s also the beauty of it all. 

Who is Pat Harvey and what is his artwork all about? He’ll tell you right now. But don’t be shocked when it gets real. 

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Were you born here in Madisonville? 
No. I was born in Evansville [Indiana]. 

I didn’t know that. 
Yeah, I lived in Evansville until ’98, which was when [Amy and I] moved to Diamond [Kentucky]. My grandfather owned some property out there and we just wanted to get out of the city, so we moved. After we moved, we had our kids [Lillian and Mandolyn]. I started my business when we were down there, too. We decided to move to Madisonville because most of the work I was doing was here. 

How old were you when you moved from Evansville? 
Golly, man. [laughs] Let’s see - I was born in ’74 and I’m 38 now, and that would have been 14 years ago, so you do the math. [laughs] I guess it was around my mid to late-20s. I was old enough to drink. I know that because I moved to a dry county and I was like, “What the heck?” [laughs]  

What county is Diamond in? 
Webster County. 
You said you started a business there. What business are you talking about? 
My lawn care business [Harvey Lawncare]. I didn’t start that when I first moved down there, though. I worked at a couple different places before that. I ended up working for a guy who had a lawn care business and I thought, “Man, I can do this,” so that’s what I did. 

What was your childhood like? Were your parents pretty cool people?
Yeah. My dad was a cop actually. 

I would not have guessed that. [laughs]
Yeah, you’ve met my dad before, haven’t you? 

Yeah, he was here the other night. 
Well, he’s not a cop anymore, but he sure as hell used to be. 

What’s your dad’s name? 
Tom. Actually, his name is Realous. That’s his real name. That’s my middle name. It’s a family name. 

What does that name mean? 
It means I’m the realest, man. [everyone laughs]

We’re going to have to fit that into the title somehow. “Pat Harvey – The Realous Man You Ever Met.’ [everyone laughs] So, what was your mom like? 
She was cool, you know? Man, I wasn’t even prepared for questions about my childhood, though. Really, it was just normal stuff. My parents stayed together. They weren’t divorced or anything. I had a lot of teenage angst, so I probably would have wished they were divorced to be cooler or something. That’s something I probably would have thought back then. [laughs] But yeah, I had a pretty normal upbringing over in Evansville.

So, how did you and Amy meet? 
I met her at Chuck E. Cheese’s. [laughs] Seriously. I was Chuck E. Cheese. That was my job. I was the character and Amy was doing prep work. That was a really fun job. 

Really? I was thinking that would be a terrible job. 
No, not at all. It was freakin’ awesome. Chuck E. Cheese’s dressing room is right next to the beer tap, so... [laughs] The manager was really cool, too. Plus, you’d put the outfit on and it was like you were unstoppable. I mean, what is anyone going to do to you? You’re Chuck E. Cheese. [laughs] You could flirt with all the cute girls and smack the guys in the head. The guys might get a little angry, but what are they going to do? You can just laugh and say, “I’m Chuck E. Cheese.” [laughs]

So, basically, you had boundless freedom as Chuck E. Cheese? 
Definitely. Amy and I go back to Chuck E. Cheese’s sometimes and it’s really romantic. We’ve even got our own little table and everything. [laughs] Some of the same people work there, too. 
At what point did you really get into music? 
I always liked music, but I guess I was in my 20s when I really got into playing music. A friend of mine gave me a harmonica when I was about 19 and I messed around with that for a while. Then, the same guy gave me a guitar. I’ve been struggling with it ever since. His name was Jeremy Cates. He’s passed away since then. As a matter of fact, the paints I used for the bullfrog piece I have in my living room – the “horny toad” – have crushed flowers from his funeral mixed in them. That’s the first painting I ever hid a bird in. 

Yeah, the birds are like your signature now. I still can’t find all the birds you hid in the John Lennon case. You said there were five, but I can only find three. 
You’ll just have to keep looking, man. No one except Amy and our kids knew about the “bird thing” for a long time. I didn’t tell anybody about them. They were almost always in my paintings, though. Then I started telling people who had bought my paintings about the birds, because they own them. Now, I’m not so secretive about it. I think it’s pretty neat. They’re in every single one of my paintings, but you have to find them. 

Is there a purpose or story behind the birds? They look like a little like crows. 
The reason I put them in there is based around Jeremy – the guy I mentioned earlier who gave me the guitar. He was a painter too, and he always hid scarecrows in his paintings. I always thought that was really cool. 

So, with music, was there something specific that made you want to get into playing?
I just have this thing inside of me that makes me want to play. I’m sure you have it too; you play, so there’s a desire there and you’ve got to do something about it. I’ve never been really good at playing music, but I really enjoy doing it. I have a lot of fun playing. I actually played with a reggae band in Evansville back in the day. They were pretty good. I was the rhythm guitar player. The guy that was the leader of the band was a Jamaican drummer and a professor at the University of Evansville, which was right down the road from where I lived at the time. I’ve always been into bluegrass music, and reggae is actually very similar as far as the off-rhythm guitar parts go. One of the guys in the band found out I was into bluegrass music and asked me to jam with them sometime. At the time, I couldn’t stand reggae music; it made me seasick listening to those bass lines. But once I started playing with those guys more often, I really developed a strong sense of appreciation for reggae. The guy that led the band was on top of it, too. He had all these code words for changes in the songs and he was a drummer. He was like Phil Collins. It was funny in a way, though, because he was the only black guy in the band. The rest of us were white kids, but we sounded like—and were—a real, legitimate reggae band. We got to play a lot of different shows, too.

What was the name of the band? 
Riddem Culture. 

How long did you play with them? 
A year or two, I think. Then Paul, the leader of the band, ending up moving. He went to a different college to teach. We all separated after that. It was a lot of fun, though. That was one of my first real experiences as far as playing with people and having to learn all these different parts. 
You’ve been a fan of bluegrass for a long time. What’s the story behind that attraction? 
I remember being into bluegrass when I so young that people would ask me where my parents or grandparents were at when I’d go to bluegrass music festivals. [laughs] It’s funny, because none of them were ever into bluegrass music, but I was. I had an old Volkswagen van when we lived in Evansville and we’d drive down to Kentucky to Beaver Dam or Rough River where they have the Governor’s Cup Fiddle Championship, or we’d go to these folk competitions in Petersburg [Indiana]. The folk competitions are really cool, because it’s not just fiddles—it’s banjos, guitars, upright bass, harmonicas, and pretty much any acoustic instrument. I was really into, man. It hit me when I was young, listening to all those cats like Bill Monroe, that I really dug it. I always listened to stuff like Jimi Hendrix, and I thought that bluegrass music was just for old people, but I realized that the old players just didn’t have amplifiers and all that stuff. If you listen to that old Bill Monroe stuff or anything that the Osborne Brothers did—or any of those cats from the very beginning—they get after it. It’s just a different deal. It was a totally different era at that point. But once I understood that, I gained a lot of respect and appreciation for what they were doing. Once I realized that, I was hooked. I’ve loved it since a very young age. They used to do a jam thing in Evansville that was based around bluegrass music, and we would go—but, of course, we would be the youngest people there every time. They loved seeing young people like us there, though. We stuck out like sore thumbs. Things have changed a lot since then, too. 

Yeah, it really has. Now, Americana, folk, bluegrass, and roots-style music has become one of the strongest genres for the younger generation here in the US. 
Definitely. It’s totally changed since we first got into it back then. 

Would you say that’s still your favorite genre of music? 
I will always love bluegrass. I think I’d just say that acoustic music is my thing. If you go to a bluegrass festival and you watch some people standing around their tailgate with a banjo, a fiddle, a mandolin, an upright bass, a dobro, and whatever else, and they don’t have amplifiers whatsoever and are straight getting it, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find something better than that. That’s just badass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best. I love it. I love it because it is what it is; you can take it anywhere and you don’t have to have a bunch of stuff like microphones, PA systems, digital effects, or auto-tune. You just go for it. It’s very organic. 

It’s interesting to think about how old a lot of the instruments used in bluegrass really are. Some of them have existed in some form for centuries. 
Bluegrass music just has a drive to it that I’ve always been attracted to. When I was a kid, I was really into punk rock and metal music—or anything that was loud, heavy, and energetic for that matter—but, honestly, I think bluegrass is a really similar thing. It was just a different generation that started playing it. Once you can get your head around that, it changes everything. You start hearing these guys like the Osborne Brothers, who had a drummer and an electric lap steel player, and you realize that they’re really tearing it up. It’s just badass. Anything Jimmy Martin did is badass, too. He’s one of my favorites. 

Another cool aspect is the comradery. A lot of the times that I’ve seen a bluegrass type of show or concert, all these different people from different bands will jam together onstage just for fun. The whole scene seems pretty tight. 
That was one of the coolest things about Romp Fest [in Owensboro] this year. There were a lot of great guys there playing. David Grisman was there and he’s one of my favorites. When I think of mandolin players, I hear David Grisman’s sound. The way he plays mandolin is amazing. Part of the reason Mandolyn’s name is Mandolyn is because I think the mandolin is one of the most beautiful sounding instruments in the world. In the right hands, man, you just can’t beat a good mandolin player. David Grisman is definitely in the top three best players in the world. One of my latest paintings was of David Grisman and I got to personally hand it to him at Romp, which was really cool. 
When did you first get into artwork and painting? 
I got into painting about three years ago, but I’ve always kind of had a leaning towards art on some level. I never painted, though. What got me into painting was my decision to start working with these guitar cases. I thought I would make a fortune from painting on them, which I would parlay into a hotel chain or some crap. [laughs] At the time I came up with the idea for painting guitar cases, I was just doing spray paint and stencil work. The “Jolly Randy” logo I have—the skull and crossed banjos—was a spray paint stencil actually. I made a lot of little things like that. Then, one day, I was messing around, and I thought, “Man, I bet I would have a lot more control if I tried using a brush.” So, I did, and it changed everything. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t tried it sooner after I started. It really did change everything. 

Was there anything in particular that pushed you to take a step into that new, relatively unknown territory? Was there a muse, so to speak? 
Well, I got all these cases from [late Backstreet Music store owner and talented local musician] Randy Herrick. I was just starting in on these guitar cases right before Randy passed away [in 2011] actually, and I had been doing a lot things with [Plowin’ Todd Cowan and] the Sodbusters at the time, which Randy was a part of. I was having a lot of fun. Then, my mom passed away and Randy died right after that. It was about 19 days after my mom passed. So, I didn’t have that outlet anymore. We all stopped playing. I had to do something. All this crap was coming down at once, it was winter time, and I was stuck in the house. So, I sat down in the basement for three months and just painted. My friend Jeremy, who I mentioned earlier, passed away unexpectedly right around that time, too. He passed away in January. He was only 36. October is when Randy passed away. They were two of the closest friends I ever had, so losing them, as well as my mom, all at the same time, was really hard. Plus, like I said, I didn’t have an outlet to play music anymore, so I had to do something. I just painted. 

Yeah, every time I saw the Sodbusters, you guys seemed really close. 
Yeah, we were definitely tight. We did a lot of stuff together and played a lot together. We went a lot further playing together than I could have ever imagined, too. It was always great. We were like brothers. 

And it was you, Randy…
It was me, Randy, Pat [Ballard], and Todd [Cowan]. Brian Hawkins came in a little later, too, but he was definitely right there with us. He played harmonica and washboard. All those guys are really great. 

So, during that time, did it just feel like all this creativity you had brewing inside was about to explode? 
Pretty much. I was working on these cases and everything, and it just went from there. Some of the first cases I wound up painting were for two kids who lived across the street from Randy. Their mom had bought the cases from Randy at Backstreet Music before he passed, and I knew where they were. They were in the shop. She said she still wanted to have them done, so I got them and painted them for her. 

Were those the very first cases you painted? 
No, the “Jolly Randy” was the first case I ever painted and the second one was of Johnny Cash. Then, I did the Bob Dylan case. It was at that point that I realized I might be onto something really cool. So, I got some canvases, and I painted all the people I really wanted to put on a case – Bob Marley, Cash, Zappa, Dylan, and all the people I really love. That’s really how all of it started. Now, though, I paint simply because I love it. I love to paint. I enjoy the crap out of it. There’s no negativity or sadness to it at all. It gets us into festivals, too, so I’m riding this thing as far as I can. The painting has taken me so much further than music as far as getting out there and meeting people. 

It’s funny, because the case that really got me noticed was an old mandolin case that Todd Cowan gave me. I painted Bill Monroe on it – of course – and I took it to the SPBGMA [Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association] festival down in Tennessee, walked around with it all day, and nobody wanted to buy it. Then, at the very end of the day, Danny Clark, who was the marketing director for the International Bluegrass Music Museum [in Owensboro, KY] ended up buying it. He said, “I’ll buy this piece from you, but you have to promise that you’ll come to Romp and sell these.” So, I was like, “Of course I will.” Then, when I was at Romp with my new cases, I got to meet this guy named Ed Ward, who founded the Milwaukee Irish Fest. It’s the largest Irish cultural gathering in North America actually. There were 146,000 people there last year. Well, Ed invited us to come up there and he gave me my own tent right up by the bluegrass stage. It was freakin’ awesome. We had a blast. It was the first year they had bluegrass music at the festival actually. They drove us in and out every day and put us in a nice hotel. It really was amazing. 

Did you end up selling a lot of art there? 
Yeah, I did really well actually. I made some decent money and met a lot of really cool people in the process. 

In my humble opinion, your paintings are really phenomenal, man. I really dig the bright colors you use for figures and instruments. When I see one of your pieces, I know it’s yours immediately. As far as I understand, though, you’ve never actually had any formal education or professional training when it comes to art. Is that correct?
Yep. I’ve never really had any education or training. My uncle is a high school art teacher – he actually taught me when I was in high school – and my sister is a poet. I think it just kind of runs in the family, man. But no, I’ve never had any training to speak of. That doesn’t really surprise me all that much either. I mean, sometimes I step back and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that just came out of me,” but it comes naturally I guess. 

You told me before that you’ve come a long way with brushes and techniques through trial and error. Could you talk about that a little bit?  
I never knew much about brushes, and I still don’t. I still look at basic painting books and think, “Wow, that is awesome. I can’t believe I didn’t know that already.” [laughs

So, what’s your process when approach a new painting?
It always starts so minute. That’s what’s cool about it to me; I’m focusing on these little pieces of what will eventually be the whole. It starts coming together and then I kind of have to focus back in on the little things. It’s always about the tiny parts until the very end. Then I can step back and look at it as one thing. All the little pieces make this huge thing at the end and I love it. It does take me a long time to do it, though. It’s just the way I do it. It probably takes way longer than it would for most. But, you know, I just do my thing, and when I get it right, it’s right. I think a lot of my problem is that I just don’t know proper techniques. I think we’ve talked about this, too, but I tried to paint strings on an instrument with a little tiny detail brush that you couldn’t paint much more than a quarter-of-an-inch at a time with one time. If I had just used the right kind of brush, I could’ve painted one straight line for each string and it would have taken me ten seconds. It took me about four hours, though, and it never looked right, so I just got rid of the strings. [laughs] That one ended up being called “No Strings Attached.” [laughs] I tried at least. 

What’s the most frustrating part of finishing a painting? Are there points where you’re throwing stuff at the walls?
Yeah, there are times like that. Painting is very relaxing, but it can also be super frustrating at times. The worst thing is when there’s a deadline or you’re trying to get something done for someone quickly – like that stupid [John] Lennon case, man. [laughs] That was the hardest thing that I’ve ever painted by far. Seriously. 
Really? Well, it looks great, man. I’m honored to own it. I’m not trying to be a suck-up or anything, but it really is amazing. 
Oh, I hated that case. It drove me crazy. I painted on that one for a month straight. I know I put at least 60 hours of work in on that one—at least. I worked on it every single day when I came home and it changed so many times. Really, if there hadn’t been somewhat of a deadline on it, I would probably still be painting on it, and it wouldn’t be what it is now. But, at the same time, if I never had deadlines, I’d probably never get anything done, and I look at that case now and I think, “Ok, that looks pretty cool.” But while I was doing it, I always felt like it was missing something and couldn’t figure out what it was. I would try something different, but I felt like I couldn’t ever find it. I really struggled with that one. In truth, I always struggle when I’m making something for someone else. When I do it for myself, it’s easier. A lot of the times, I’ll have pieces sitting around that I’m not sure I’ve finished yet, and I’ll hang them up and look at them for a while. I won’t be sure what I want to do with it yet. I might decide to change or add something after I’ve looked at it for a while. If I decide it’s a go as it is, I’ll put a bird in it if it doesn’t already have one, I’ll sign it, and I’ll put clear coat on it. Once the clear coat goes on, there’s nothing else I can do. It’s done at that point. 

It’s funny how that works. If you’re creating something for someone else’s enjoyment or pleasure, it’s so much more stressful. The final product is usually fulfilling, but the process leading up to it can be really hard. When we interview a person or group, and we know them personally or we really respect what they’re doing, there’s a lot more pressure there. You want the person or group you’re writing about to think it’s amazing. It’s a lot different than sitting at home and writing a story for yourself. 
You’re exactly right. I worried and I stressed, because I really wanted that Lennon case to be the best thing I’d ever done. Really, though, I always want everything I do to be “the best thing that I’ve ever done,” you know? If I’m doing stuff that I don’t think is the best, I might as well quit. I want everything to be better. I mean, you can see how my work has evolved over time. I consider the stuff I do now to be pretty simple, but, back when I started, the paintings I made were extremely simple. Everything is a learning process; I’ve learned something from every piece I’ve done. I paint in layers, which is cool, and it works well, but it can get muddy if you’re not careful. It starts getting funky. But it’s all good, because you can just put some white paint over the mistakes and start again. That’s another reason I love painting. If I make a mistake, I can fix it. I really don’t think you can mess a painting up so bad that you can’t fix it. You can just paint the whole thing white and start over completely if you do. 

You said the John Lennon case actually has a few paintings under what you see on the surface, too, right? 
Oh, it’s got several underneath. [laughs

I think that’s pretty cool. 
At some point in the future, if you ever have access to one of those machines that allows you to look through layers of a painting, you’ll see all kinds of stuff under there. [laughs] You know where it says, “All You Need is Love”? Well, before that, it said, “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace,” and it looked awesome. I thought it was perfect, but, when it was all done, the background color just wasn’t right. When the background is off, you pretty much have to start all over again, so I changed it. I wanted to make something John Lennon would think was pretty cool, you know? I wanted something he would appreciate if he was still alive. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever. 

Are well-known musicians and instruments natural subject matter to you? 
Yeah. That’s pretty much all I paint, because music was really my first creative output. It’s what I’ve done for so many years now. I’m almost 40 now and I started playing when I was 20, so it’s been half of my life. Then, recently, I picked up the paintbrush, and that just underlines the music. It’s just where my mind is at. I mean, almost everything I do has to do with music in some way. I can only think of a couple of pieces that aren’t directly related to music. That’s what I like; that’s where I’m at creatively. Plus, it works out really well in relation to the whole music festival scene. That’s a perfect fit for us, because we get to hang out and sell my stuff to people that appreciate it. I mean, most of the people who buy my art have a beer in their hand and a tattoo on their arm somewhere. They’re not like some high-brow cats in a fancy art gallery. So, I do really well at music festivals. I feel like those people get me. If you’re there to see a music festival, you’re going to get what I’m doing, you know? It works out well. My kids love it and so does Amy, so it’s perfect. 
You do a lot of work on something that resembles raw, un-stretched canvas, too. What led you to start using that kind of material for paintings?
Well, I was given a lot of it several years ago. It’s the brown fabric they use to make the Carhartt clothing out of. It’s perfect, too. You can get different effects with it. Some of my paintings are on a raw piece, but I’ve washed pieces before painting them and it frays the edges a little bit. 

That’s really cool, because Carhartt’s a big part of our local community, but people all over the world wear their clothes. 
Yeah, when we were in Wisconsin, people asked me what it was. I asked them if they knew what Carhartt was and they were all like, “Oh yeah, Carhartt is awesome! Carhartt’s the best!” [laughs] I was like, “Well, that’s what this is. You could wear this painting on your foot for three months and not get a hole in it. It’s badass. It’ll protect you from wolverines and everything else.” [laughs] I love painting on it. It’s really heavy, too. You look at this stretched canvas right here—it’s a joke. You could poke your finger right through it, but that Carhartt fabric is the real deal. 

Before I started painting on that fabric, I was painting on stretched canvas. That stuff is way too expensive, though. I started looking around and I realized that there is crap everywhere to paint on. So, I was painting on old pieces of wood, old metal, and anything else I could recycle in some way. In fact, I really don’t paint on stretched canvas anymore at all. I bought most of the canvas I have a while ago. It just seems ridiculous to me to pay 15 or 20 dollars per canvas. It was once I had started painting on wood and stuff like that that I got the Carhartt fabric. When I tried it, I loved it. I’ve had other artists ask me how I can paint on it, because it’s not stretched, and I guess most artists use an easel when they’re painting. I just lay out on the ground, though. I made a huge banner for these folks one time, and it was like eight by three foot, but I just laid it out on the ground. 

Are your paintings oil or acrylic? 
It’s all acrylic. Everything I do is acrylic. I want to mess with oil paints, but I just haven’t done it yet. I’ve only been painting for three years, so I’m really trying to focus in on the acrylics so I can learn how to use them better. 

With the cases and fabric, do you have to prep or prime them before painting? 
Yeah, I use Gesso. It’s basically just a type of primer. It’s awesome, though, because you can put Gesso on pretty much anything and acrylic paint will stick to it. If I didn’t use that on the cases, none of the paint would stick. I’ve tried it before. I use white Gesso, because when you try to paint on something dark it’s really hard to get the colors right. The white makes the colors pop much better. They make clear Gesso, too. At the end of the day, it just gives the paint something to bite into. I really don’t know what I’m doing, though. [laughs

Ultimately, do you have a goal you’d like to reach through painting? Or is it just something you’re having fun with?
I don’t’ really have a goal. I just want to go wherever I can with it. Like I said, I’ve been really surprised by how far I’ve gotten with it so far. It’s taken me a lot farther than I ever got through playing music. It’s fun and I enjoy it, but it would probably be a hassle if it was how I had to make my living. Although, at the same time, I would love to make a living doing it, because it would beat the crap out of what I’m doing now. [laughs] I just like it and I really enjoy it, man. I don’t care if anybody else likes it; I dig it. I would still do it whether anyone liked it or not. That’s not why I ultimately do it. I’ve got all kind of things I’ve made that are just lying around the house.
The name of your art page on Facebook is Bad Apple Paintwerks. Where did that name come from? 
Amy’s always throwing out names and, if it were up to her, she’d call it something like “Apple Blossom Something or Another.” [laughs] Well, I wanted to take that and make it something a little edgier, and that’s where Bad Apple came from. Basically, I was just wanted to find a way to put all my stuff in one spot where people could look at it online. The Facebook page didn’t cost anything, so that was great. It’s worked out pretty well so far, but you’ve got to put a link to my stuff in here. [laughs] I’m sitting just over 100 likes right now and that’s got to change. [laughs] Seriously! It hasn’t always been Bad Apple Paintwerks, though. Before that, it was Buffalo Pick, which was kind of an inside joke.

You definitely deserve more “likes” than that. We’ll put a link in here and try to get more people on your page for sure. 
Man, in all honesty, you’re the only person in all of Madisonville who’s bought one of my pieces. It’s hard to sell art here. It just feels like there’s something holding people back in Madisonville, but I’m not completely sure what it is. 

Well, that actually relates back to something I wanted to ask you about. Why should people appreciate the talent of local artists and musicians? 
That’s somewhat of a personal question. If you don’t appreciate art, then that’s your deal. You can’t make someone appreciate something like art against their will. And, really, art has no face value by itself; it’s not worth anything on its own. Art’s value comes from the personal connection someone might have to it. For me, it’s pretty easy to say why art is important. If you’re sitting around feeling bad because you’re stuck in one place—which can also apply to the creative part of your brain—art can serve as a vehicle to move forward in a sense. For me, it’s kind of like yoga; I feel better when I’m creating and when I’m not I don’t feel balanced. It’s just something that I have to do. It can be painting or playing guitar—I’ve just got to do something or I’m not as happy as I could be. I’ve got to do it whether someone looks at it or not. But I can’t tell somebody else why it’s important. 

Well, in closing, do you want to give any shout-outs? 
I want to thank Flavor Flav and Chuck D. [laughs] I also want to thank the Hopkins County Art League, because they’re trying to do their thing. I think it’s a good deal. Anybody in town that’s into any kind of art should probably check them out. In doing so, they might meet some great, new people. I met a ton of people through the Art League that have helped me out in other areas as well. There aren’t a whole lot of young people that are members, but I think that could change. If more young people were involved, I think it could bring something new to the table at the very least.  

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To check out Pat Harvey’s artwork, visit his official page, Bad Apple Paintwerks, by clicking here.

To learn more about the Hopkins County Art League (HCAL), click here

Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos by Jessi Smith

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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.


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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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Harper Guitars: One-of-a-Kind Music in the Making

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/13/13)—Good music, like artwork, transcends the boundaries of time. Be it Bach or the Beatles, there’s no denying the virtually indefinable sense of universality and timelessness that flows through a powerful song or performance. It’s, in a word, electric. And while the innate “magic” of a truly talented artist, as well as their approach and technique, may ultimately define the sounds they create, it’s easy to wonder if the enduring music we enjoy on a daily basis would have ever became a reality without the aid of a skilled craftsman’s vision: an instrument.

While modernity yields an exceedingly accessible music market flooded with affordable, yet oftentimes machine-made and outsourced instruments—many of which are actually well-made, high-end productions—the mystique of an instrument constructed and customized by the hands of a true artisan remains unmistakable. In fact, it’s the touch of man that has become a sought-after commodity in an instrument-making age full of exact replicas and “perfect” tolerances.

Need evidence? Simply take a look at the current value of many vintage guitars. Though today’s vintage guitar market has shared in the nation’s overall economic downturn, a well-preserved 1959 Gibson Les Paul may still fetch well over half-a-million dollars in an auction-type setting. Why, you ask? To sum it up generally, it was produced at the pinnacle of an era that valued close attention to details and fine, hands-on craftsmanship.

Fortunately, however, there are still craftsmen out there practicing an old-world approach to the process with striking results. One of these artisans is Jacob Harper of Harper (JIH) Guitars.

A native of western Kentucky and a current resident of Boonville, IN, Jacob Harper displays a proficiency for producing some of the most beautiful, playable, and uniquely custom guitars in the region and, as some would argue, possibly the country. From his remarkable, signature solid body and hollow body designs, to his rather unorthodox creations like the “Hellhound” double-neck guitar/bass, Jacob’s particularly functional pieces of creative art work are known for instigating a drop or two of drool from the mouths of regional musicians. What’s more, accomplished performers like west Kentucky bluesman and thumbpicker extraordinaire, Alonzo Pennington, as well as Uncle Kracker’s touring guitarist, Kevin McCreery, have turned to Harper Guitars for their custom instrument needs both in the past and present.

Yet, for all the praise and trial-and-error know-how Jacob has accrued since he first started building guitars in 2007, he remains a humble, down-to-earth musician, architect, and family man that simply enjoys his time spent in the workshop.

In looking at his early inspirations, though, it’s really not that much of a surprise that he’s such an unassuming, albeit talented, human being.

In addition to a love for playing and listening to a diversity of musical styles, Jacob’s family has always been involved with architecture or construction in some manner. In fact, his childhood home in Cadiz, KY—a log cabin style residence—was constructed entirely by the sweat of his father and uncles’ brows. Undoubtedly, it was this continuous exposure to design and architecture that would eventually lead Jacob down a fulfilling path of architectural education and employment that bleeds into his custom guitar work today. Viewing these facts from an outside perspective, it seems that Jacob was simply destined to effectively combine the two facets—music and architectural design—at some point.

But how did he learn the "ins and outs" of being a luthier? What’s the actual process of making a guitar like? What keeps him inspired to create such intensive works of functional art? And what does Jacob have in mind for Harper Guitars in the future?

To find out the answers to these questions and more, myself, as well as Sugg Street Post writer Jessica Dockrey and photographer Jessi Smith, recently paid a visit to Jacob inside his two-level workshop and studio space in Boonville. The results of the intriguing encounter are as follows.

Luke Short: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you and where are you originally from?

Jacob Harper: I’m 37, I believe. [laughs] I was born in Cadiz, KY. I was raised there and that’s where I grew up.

LS: What was your childhood like there? What were you into as a kid?

JH: We all grew up on, well, it wasn’t really farm, but it was a good-sized piece of land down by Lake Barkley. There wasn’t much to do other than to create your own fun. It was basically like you’d leave in the morning and wouldn’t come back until night. We’d just be out running around all day. It was a lot of fun.

LS: Is your family originally from this area?

JH: No. My grandmother is actually from India. She’s British. My granddad was from the states. He was in the Navy when he met my grandmother. Then they settled down outside of Christian County and they ended up moving to Rockcastle, which is near Eddyville, KY.

LS: Did you make it through school alright?

JH: I made it the whole way through Trigg County High School [in Cadiz, KY] and then I went to Murray State University for five years.

LS: What did you study at Murray?

JH: I studied Industrial Technology Design, which is focused on drafting, design, and architecture. My dad is a contractor, and when I was a kid, he was always building houses. I helped build them, became interested in that process, and I started drawing plans for him when I was 17. I just decided to do that in school and I’ve worked for architectural firms and civil engineers even since.

LS: What are some of the places you’ve worked for?

JH: Right out of school, I worked for a civil engineer based out of Benton, KY. From there, I went to work for Murray State in their Capital Construction Program. After that, I went to work for a place based out of Lexington, KY. We all worked in a satellite office in Paducah. I did that for probably five or six years. I moved there for that job. I met Andrea, my wife, during that time. She worked at Enterprise [Rent-A-Car]. Well, she ended up getting a promotion to the position of district manager in this area [Boonville, IN], so I said, “OK, you’re making more money than me, so I’m moving with you.” [laughs] We moved up here and she wasn’t happy with Enterprise, so she went to work for Alcon Pharmaceutical Sales. As for me, I work for Hafer Associates here in Boonville. They’re an architecture firm. I’m a project manager there.

LS: That sounds like a higher-level job.

JH: It can get pretty hectic trying to find personal time. It’s an eight-to-five job, but I often find myself working overtime. Plus, it’s pretty intense work, but I find time to be a dad and eat supper. I’m usually out here in the workshop most nights. I wake up extra early in the morning to come out here, too.

LS: At what point in your life did you get into music?

JH: I’ve always been into music. My mom’s a country singer and my grandmother was a piano player. She played in church for years. My dad has eight brothers and only two or three of them don’t play music. Some of them are professional studio musicians and others are weekend warriors, so I was always around that. They were always playing music, so it was just a part of my life even at a young age.

LS: Was there a point where you really started gravitating toward a certain genre and developed your own musical identity, so to speak?

JH: It’s kind of weird. I was always turned off by country music growing up, because my mom was a country singer. I guess I just thought it wasn’t “cool enough,” you know? It’s like you’re trained to be that way. On the flip side, the people who really started buying my guitars were country musicians. As I got older, I didn’t mind listening to country, and I actually appreciate pickers like [Brad] Paisley and [Ricky] Skaggs and all those other guys. But when I was younger and in high school, I dropped out of band because it wasn’t “cool.” I started playing in a rock band instead. We played heavy metal and rock, and it was a blast. I was probably way too young to be playing in bars, though. [laughs] That’s what I went more towards, as well as blues. The blues were what a lot of my uncles played.

Jessica Dockrey: What instrument did you play in band?

JH: I actually played saxophone.

LS: I played saxophone in band, too, but I was like you and quit because I didn’t think it was “cool enough” for me.

JH: There’s a low retention of saxophone players out there I guess. [laughs]

LS: I really kick myself sometimes now, though. If I could still play sax, I’d be doing Pink Floyd covers all day.

JH: [laughs] I still want to go get a sax every once in a while.

LS: I took piano lessons, too. I took them for about three years and then did the same thing—I quit because it wasn’t “cool”—and now I kick myself for that, too.

JH: As my son grows up, he will learn to play piano, because that’s the gateway to all other instruments. [laughs] I kick myself, too, because my grandmother had free lessons waiting for me if I wanted them, and she was an amazing piano player. I tried it out for maybe six months and just gave it up. That was so stupid of me. [laughs]

LS: So, at what point did you really get into playing guitar?

JH: I was probably 15-years-old and my dad had an acoustic, all my uncles played music, and I’d see and hear them playing all the time, so I wanted to do that too. So, I got my dad’s acoustic and I went through an entire guitar lesson book in about three days. It came pretty easy to me, but it hurt [my fingers]. You’ve learned guitar too, so you know what I’m talking about. I would play for six hours every day. I would just play, play, and play. That’s how I got into it.

LS: When did you say to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to build a guitar”?

JH: I was in Paducah in 2004 or so, and I just had an itch to build some furniture. I maxed out credit cards and bought a lot of tools during the process. I wasn’t married yet, so it was easy to do that. Building furniture was fun for a while. I had a friend there that I played music with at the time, and he was also a woodshop student from Murray State who was working for a guitar builder out of Mayfield [Kentucky]. I went over there with him and watched what he was doing one time, and the guitars the guy was making were amazing. I believe the guy’s name was Brad Smith. Afterwards, I said to myself, “I’ve got the tools to do that, and I’ve been playing for 20 years, so maybe I should try it out.” That’s how it all got started. It was kind of rough in the beginning, though. [laughs] I didn’t go to luthier school, so I had to make all my own mistakes. I’ve probably learned a lot more making those mistakes, though.

LS: On that subject, tell me a little bit about the first guitar you ever made, which, as I believe, was a Gibson Les Paul-style solid body.

JH: With basically any guitar, the math is the same, which is something that I should have paid more attention to when I first started. I should’ve looked at the details closer. That’s what I’ve learned: it’s all about the details and precision. You know, you measure things a hundred times and cut once. My first guitar was really rough; it felt like a baseball bat. [laughs] It was far too heavy.

LS: To you, what is the hardest or most frustrating part of building a guitar?

JH: Setting up the fretboard and getting the frets right is the hardest part, because there are so many things that you have to make just right all at once. A lot of companies have machines that they throw the guitar in and they bend the neck and shave things off, but I still do all of that by hand, and I’m sure other guitar builders still do it by hand, too. But that’s definitely the hardest part; that’s where you really have to slow down and take your time.

LS: Is that mainly because of the spacing between frets, fret height, fretboard radius, etcetera?

JH: I could start to tell you, but there are so many little critical dimensions to consider—the curve of the neck, the angle of the neck to the body, and on and on.

LS: What’s the story behind your workshop? When did you move to Boonville, IN and when did you get all your equipment set up?

JH: Well, we’ve been here six years now. When we moved up to Evansville, I had already been building guitars. I think that “number eight”—that hollow-body over there [points to a black guitar in the studio area]—was probably the last one done during the transition. We moved up to Evansville, I lived with my brother for a while, then we lived in an apartment, and I would travel back home to my dad’s place on the weekends and work in his barn. I had to relocate my entire shop from Paducah to my dad’s barn so I could keep on building. Then we moved up here [to Boonville, IN] and lived in an apartment for a little while, but it wasn’t long before we said, “This is ridiculous. We’ve lived in and owned a house before.” I hated living in an apartment. So we started looking for places, and I think this [the Harper’s current home] was the first place I went and looked at. I like it because of all the potential it had for housing a proper shop in the garage area. It’s a really old house. It was built in the 1800s and it has some issues. I love fixing stuff up, though, but it takes me away from building guitars.

LS: Is woodworking something that you’ve always had an interest in or was it something that just developed out of the blue?

JH: Well, my mom’s dad was a fine woodworker. He built furniture. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a machinist in the military, and he was kind of a “fix anything” type of handyman. Then, my dad’s brothers, as well as my dad, were all woodworkers, contractors, fine furniture builders, and finish carpenters. My dad and all his brothers actually built the log cabin we all grew up in. It was just always something I was around. With what I’m doing now, I already knew how to use the tools, so it was simply getting them.

LS: The tools are definitely expensive. So, tell me a little bit about the layout of the shop?

JH: To put it simply, it’s one part dirty and one part clean. You kind of have to keep the two parts separated. The downstairs portion is the woodshop. I do all the work I can in there up to the point of finishing, and then I bring it upstairs to actually apply the finish. I’m using all the space I can downstairs. I can’t buy anymore tools, because I don’t have room for them unless my wife decides to let me use the garage part. Maybe this interview will help with that. [laughs] As far as a layout goes, though, I’m always working on how things are set up. I’ve amassed so many tools, and they’re all specialty tools, so figuring out places for all of those where I can actually find them when I need them has been fun. I play music and I wanted a practice space, so I built this studio and an isolation booth up here on the second floor. Well, a paint booth was a necessity, so I eventually made the isolation booth my paint booth.

LS: I know there are a variety of tools used to create a guitar by hand, but what are some of the main tools that you use during the process and what is their function?

JH: Oh, that’s a hard one. [laughs] They’re all equally important. You know, there’s a lot of roughing out—because I get rough pieces of wood from sawmills, some of which still have bark on them believe it or not—and you’ve got all your heavy machinery like the table saw and the band saw that help to take the original piece from a rough form to a dimensional piece of lumber. Then, you go into all the carving stuff—hand carving tools, planes, and spokeshaves, all the way down to needle files and beyond. I mean, the whole finishing process is intense. I could seriously spend an entire day telling you all the things I’ve learned about finishing.

LS: You mentioned that you get some of your wood from local sawmills. Is that where you get all of your lumber?

JH: There’s a mill north of here. I get a lot of my ‘big stock’ stuff from there, like mahogany and maple. I usually find all my really highly figured stuff on eBay. I find it one piece at a time that way. I have to see detailed pictures of it before I buy it, though. I’ve paid $350 for a relatively smaller, highly figured piece of wood before.

LS: Did you acquire all your equipment at once or did you acquire it over time?

JH: It’s been a process of maxing out credit cards to get my bigger stuff in the beginning. Then I got married and we agreed that I needed to stop doing that. [laughs] But, at the very least, it’s set me up. I always argue that it’s an investment, which rarely works with her. [laughs] Since I started selling guitars, I haven’t made any profit. It all goes back into tools. At times, when I need something like a new jig or something like that, I’ll just make one myself instead of going out and buying one for $400 right off the bat. Then, I’ll buy a new one when I can, when I have the money. Right now, though, I’ve been able to cover most of my costs from selling guitars and we’re all happy.

LS: As far as smaller stuff goes, do you turn to places like Stewart-MacDonald?

JH: Yeah, Stewart-MacDonald is a big company for me right now. If I ever stepped up production, I’d really have to look at that, though. Stewart-MacDonald is great, but it’s a little expensive.

LS: What are the most common types of woods that you use? Also, what are some of the more exotic woods you’ve used?

JH: Maple and mahogany. Those are the most common. I’ve also used Korina, sapele, Honduran mahogany, African mahogany, highly figured maple, plain maple, rock maple, sugar maple, soft maple, purpleheart, ebonies, zebra woods, rosewood, and some others. I’m not big enough yet for them to bring the Lacey Act down on me, though. I’m not traveling to South America to get my lumber or anything if that’s what you’re getting at. [laughs]

LS: What happened with the Lacey Act and the Gibson Guitar Company is insane. It’s interesting that they were the only company to come under fire, because every other big guitar manufacturer—as far as I understand it at least—was using and importing the exact same woods.

JH: What kills me is that Gibson is probably a steward of forestry in those countries where the forests are pretty much raped on a daily basis. Gibson comes in and says, “No, we want to have wood to use in the future. Let us show you how to do this the right way.” Still, though, they came after them. I think it was all political. I guess everyone at Gibson was republican or something. [laughs]

LS: You mentioned that getting the frets correct is one of the hardest or most frustrating parts of building one of your guitars. What’s the easiest or most enjoyable thing about a build to you?

JH: I really enjoy the carving process, especially when I make hollow body and carved top guitars. I still do all of that by hand. I use the “old school” method where I’ll just lay out a kind of topography with the wood and sit there and work that down with a router. Then I’ll get a handplane and knock off all the edges, and I’ll handplane everything else down smooth. That part is tedious and your hands have blisters all over them at the end, but it pays off when you get some finish on it or see someone playing it on stage.

Jessica Dockrey: That makes me think of Alonzo Pennington’s guitar, “Goldie." That guitar is so beautiful. I love it.

JH: Yeah, that one came about when I had a little extra money and I was in between builds. When that happens, I just build my own guitar out-of-pocket. With the one Alonzo now has, I was actually sitting out here one night thinking to myself, “If I’m going to build a guitar, what am I going to do with it?” Well, I got to looking at my goldtop Gibson Les Paul in the studio, and I thought, “I’m going to see if I can beat Les Paul.” [laughs] Evidently, Alonzo thinks it does.

LS: I would have to agree with that, too. A handmade guitar that is well-build will beat a mass-produced instrument—like a Les Paul for example—the majority of the time.

JH: You know, there’s a really fine line that you have to cross. You can have a really, really expensive piece of trash. I definitely know what I’m doing, but I don’t always know everything about the wood I get from mills. I don’t know how much they’ve dried it and I don’t have the big, costly equipment you need to test a piece of wood’s moisture content. Keeping that in mind, I try to buy wood well in advance of a build so it can acclimate. If I worked with fiberglass or graphite, it might be easier, but that’s not what I want to do.

LS: A lot of people that aren’t that into the technical aspect of guitars don’t realize how much changes in temperature and humidity can severely alter, or even permanently damage, tonewoods. You really have to take care of a good instrument for it to retain its value and tone.

JH: When you tell a guitar store that you’re having problems with the neck or fretboard, they sometimes heat the neck until it pops off. If you leave a guitar in a car, it can do the same thing. It’s like putting your guitar in an oven basically.

LS: How many guitars have you made since you started building in 2007?

JH: I’m on my 35th guitar right now. I’ve built more and more each year. I’ve probably made four this year so far.

LS: How long does an “average” build typically take to complete?

JH: My standard solid body flattop guitars usually take around two months to make. If I get more weekends at home, it may take a week less. The killer part about guitars is that you get everything to the finishing stage, you put the finish on, and you have to wait. Then you put more finish on and you have to wait more.

LS: Is that just part of the drying process when you use nitrocellulose?

JH: Yeah. In about a week-and-a-half, I can have a guitar ready for finishes, but then it takes a month or a month-and-a-half for the finish to cure.

LS: Wow, I had no idea that it took that long.

JH: A lot of the bigger companies use different finishes. For example, PRS [Paul Reed Smith Guitars] use acrylic-based urethanes that dry super quick and become really stable. They look really good and they probably have their own mixture, but all the “gear heads” love the nitrocellulose finish. They say nitro is the best and that’s what I use. I think there are ovens and drying rooms that you can set up that make the process go faster, but I don’t really have room for that at the moment.

LS: I actually think it’s cool that you let it dry and cure naturally, so to speak. You’re not rushing it and it seems like a much more organic process in that sense. So, who are some of the guitarists you’ve worked with? I know Alonzo Pennington is a well-known customer, but who are some of the others?

JH: Yeah, Alonzo is definitely a more well-known customer. One of my buddies from college, Bryan Fox, has actually bought four from me. He’s buying his fifth from me right now. He collects guitars and I guess he believes in me. [laughs] The first guitar I made for him was inspired by Waylon Jennings’ famous black and white, leather-bound [Fender] Telecaster. He’s like, “I want that,” and I was like, “I don’t work with leather!” [laughs] He said he just wanted my take on it. So, I hand carved a rose and all the vines on top of a really nice piece of figured, black-dyed maple. It turned out great. He just shoots me new ideas and we go with it. After I finish up with the two I’m working on now, I’ll start in on his next one.

LS: Yeah, tell me about the two you're working on now—the paisley bass and the Gretsch-inspired white hollow body.

JH: Yeah, I’m building those for two other guys that have been good to me. They’re friends of Bryan [Fox] up in Louisville, KY. One is for Chip Adams, who is the director of the Louisville School of Rock. He’s a great guy. He said to make him a bass and it’s turning out well. The other guy, Kevin McCreery, who’s friends with both Chip and Bryan, used to play with Tantric. I guess I got with Kevin right as he was starting to work and tour with Uncle Kracker, which is what he’s doing now. He’s a touring guitarist. Bryan was like, “Get Kevin a guitar right now!” I was like, “Well, I’m finishing a guitar right now, so take it!” [laughs] I gave it to him and he ended up really liking it. After that, I got with him about making another one, because guys like him get endorsed by the bigger companies, like G&L and Gibson, and they send guitars for them play. There was a point where I didn’t see him playing my guitar all the time and I was like, “No. I can’t deal with this.” So, I stayed on him about building another one. He said that he had always liked Gretsch White Falcons, so I told him I’d do my take on it. I’m hoping they don’t have a patent on white paint and gold sparkle binding. [laughs] Other guys that play my guitars are Drew Lambert from Sam Hunter & The Two Tones and Ronnie Paul Kingery of the Glen Templeton Band. They were actually both in the Glen Templeton Band. Ronnie wanted a guitar and Drew saw the whole process, became interested in my stuff, and had me build a bass guitar. Drew’s was the five-string black and green bass I made. It turned out really well.

LS: That reminds of me of something I wanted to ask you. What’s been one of your favorite guitars to build so far?

JH: “Goldie” was my old standby. I played it out a lot. That’s really hard question, though. In truth, my favorite is always the last one I’m finishing.

LS: Is there anything that you get “third-party” help on during a build?

JH: Up until about two guitars back, I did every single detail myself. Now, though, I’ve got a good friend, Tony Dorris—who has his own amp company called Volition Amps—helping me out with installing and wiring the electronics. He makes his own effects pedals and amps. They’re all boutique. Tony’s kind of like a mad scientist, too. Of course, he’s a down-to-earth, awesome guy, but he has this mad scientist thing where when he talks to me I’m like, “I can tell you how I want this to sound, but I have no idea what you’re talking about right now.” [laughs] He’s done the wiring in the past three guitars. If it’s artwork outside that I do, he’s doing artwork on the inside. Now you can take off my [electronics] covers and it’s like human anatomy in there. Everything’s laid out perfect. Before, I’d just wire everything myself and it wasn’t perfect, to say the least. I got pretty good at soldering, and I can read a schematic just fine, but I didn’t know the real technical theory behind what I was hooking up. So, Tony is my go-to guy for all the electronics. It’s pretty cool too, because we bounce ideas off each other and come up with new wiring possibilities.

LS: So, is your son, Ian, who is two-years-old, rocking out on the guitar yet?

JH: If he could pick up a guitar, it would be smashed. [laughs] I call him Sid Vicious.

LS: Where did the idea come from for your signature “Harper scroll” cutaway on your guitars?

JH: There are actually two different things that are kind of like my signatures: the scroll on the bout of the body and the headstock scroll. The headstock scroll is kind of 3-D. On some of my earlier designs, I was drawing inspiration from the blueprint of an old F5 mandolin I had. I liked how they did the scroll and I tried to incorporate that scroll in those designs, but I actually made a mistake by cutting it at the wrong angle. That’s really how that came about and you can see how the design has changed over time in my guitars. Some of it comes from a need for simplicity too, especially when it comes to putting the binding on.

LS: I was actually thinking that applying the binding, especially when it comes to the "f-holes” on one of your hollow bodies, might have been another one of the most difficult or frustrating parts of a build too.

JH: Oh man, it really is sometimes. I think of it as the game of Operation where it buzzes when you touch the sides. That’s just how frustrating it can become. [laughs]

LS: With so many guitar companies making instruments on a mass-produced scale, what makes a handmade, custom guitar special now?

JH: You can really argue for both sides of the market. If I ever expanded and had to step up production, I would probably add a CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine to my equipment just to cut the rough outs, because you can lose a finger working with your hands. I’d rather have a machine doing that part for me. There’s something to say about people who mass produce guitars, too, because they have specific tolerances they work with. You can pick up one guitar and then another down the road and they’ll feel the same. There’s consistency there. When you do it by hand, you really have to take your time. You get a guitar, take all the critical dimensions from it, write it all down in a notebook, and you say, “That’s going to be my next guitar.” Then, you have to look back at it and figure out everything you did, and you’ll sit there with a micrometer and measure it all out. It’s a slower process, but you can feel a real difference in the end product. There are always going to be these little imperfections that remind you it was handmade. They’re not bad imperfections. With wood grain, the bigger companies will trash a body blank with a small imperfection because they can, whereas I’ll work that imperfection into the guitar as a focal point. It’s just a lot of work doing it by hand and getting all the tolerances the same. Now, you can pick up one of my guitars and say, “That’s a good feeling neck,” and you can pick up another one and it will feel the same. It’s taken me a while to get to that point.

LS: I think those little imperfections are things that people should still value about anything handmade. You know, making instruments by hand is how it all started, and you’re carrying that tradition into the modern world.

JH: For sure. There’s definitely something to say about the way I make them, too. You know, the guy who’s playing one of my guitars knows that it was made it a shop and knows all the specific components it was made with—the woods, the design, and all the electronics. I also send my customers pictures of the process so they can see exactly what’s happening and where I’m at with it, which is something I think is pretty cool. I’ll give them a CD of all the pictures I took, too; they go all the way from the chunk of wood I got at the mill to the finished product. I don’t really know if there’s an argument about which way is better—handmade or mass-produced—but it’s kind of like, “Why do you buy the Rolls-Royce instead of the Ford?” I’m not saying my guitars are a Rolls-Royce, but it’s the same concept.

LS: Specifically, what are some of the customization options that you offer? Is it pretty much wide open to the customer?

JH: I love that each guitar is different. People call and they’re like, “I have this idea and I hope I can make it happen.” And really, the sky is the limit, but I’m learning something new every time. I like to stay with my shape just to keep my name and signature out there. Fortunately, unique finishes are really a popular thing, so I don’t have to change the body shapes too much. With finishes, I’ll try anything pretty much. I’ve been successful with all of them so far. The last one that I did, a flat black eight string guitar, was difficult. That was the first time I’d done a flat finish on a guitar. It’s nothing like going to Lowe’s and picking out flat paint. It truly is a pain. On that guitar, I had it all completed, everything on it, and all the electronics had been tested, but all of a sudden the paint started cracking on the back. There were big red cracks. It was basically some kind of chemical reaction between the lacquer I used and the paint that caused it to happen. So I had to strip everything off. I had big chemical gloves on and got some heavy grit steel wool and just worked all of it off. I try to be as clean as I can with filters, but with satin finishes you get it all glassy, put it in the paint booth, spray it, and you hope that one little piece of dust doesn’t land on it. But it’s all whatever the customer wants. I can get different woods, electronics, tuners, bridges, and I can make the finishes happen.

LS: I know that you won’t build an exact clone of a well-know style of guitar. For people who ask you why you won’t make one, what do you say?

JH: I won’t, because it’s just a waste of time. You know, for the guy who decides to call Stewart-MacDonald, orders a Les Paul guitar kit, and puts it all together, that’s fine. But if you’re calling yourself a builder and you’re using a kit, you’re really not a guitar builder. There’s so much knowledge to gain when it comes to really building a guitar, from tools to wood to processes. I actually want to make a name for myself and the company. I want this company to last into the future, and I think having a signature shape on a quality guitar is the key. It’s what keeps me up at night. I’ll send a guitar out and I’ll just worry about it making to the customer safely, and I really hope the customer loves it. I’ve had guitars go out and the customer will call and say there’s something wrong. I’ll pay to have it sent back and I’ll fix whatever is wrong on my own dime. I don’t think I’ll ever turn a customer away after they've paid when something’s wrong or if there’s something they don’t like. Everyone is genuine about any issues they have, too, so I’m always going to make it right. I think that’s the only way to be.

LS: What you do really is an art form. There aren’t that many people that are true luthiers, but it’s a centuries-old craft. With that in mind, what keeps you inspired and moving forward?

JH: Getting custom build orders and having people call and say that they have a new idea is really what gets me inspired to do this. I could build a copy of one I’ve made before and be just as happy, though. I really enjoy doing it. If I did any more volume that what I do now, I could see certain parts of it becoming kind of monotonous, but I just really love doing all of it. You know, there’s the kid in school who has to explain what their dad does for a career and some say an accountant while others say a firefighter. Of course, the kids are going to think the firefighter is awesome.

LS: So, basically, you want to be the dad who builds rock n’ roll guitars. [laughs] That’s a pretty cool profession to pursue. Why do you think music and art forms like guitar building are still relevant and important for people to hold on to, to respect?

JH: It’s a release. It’s a universal way to communicate with people. Anybody could talk about music and art and find common ground. Or, at the very least, it can start a discussion. Plus, I think it makes the world a little bit smaller. It brings everything together. You can learn more about other cultures through music. It may sound lofty, but it’s true. As far as what I listen to, it really depends on my mood. I’ll listen to just about anything other than hardcore rap, but I’m a Beastie Boys fan from way back believe it or not.

LS: At the end of the day, why would you ultimately tell someone to check out Harper Guitars?

JH: You’re getting something boutique. A lot of people will argue that something boutique just costs more, but that’s not the issue. There are regular guys and girls out there making things with their hands and I think that’s worth the extra money to get that. You know, it’s like the “Walmart versus Ma & Pa stores” argument. Walmart makes it easier to get everything in one place, but when you spend a little extra time searching things out you can get something better usually. When people get my guitars, they know that every little piece of it has been looked over and all the details have been paid close attention to. Plus, I’m a musician. I’m not going to give someone something that I don’t enjoy playing. I put a lot of care and time into it because it’s something I really enjoy.

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Want to find more on Harper (JIH) Guitars, such as additional photos, how to order a custom creation, artist testimonials, and more? Visit the official Harper (JIH) Guitars website at this link: http://www.jihguitars.com/. You can also interact with Jacob Harper or peruse additional photos of his works by visiting the “JIH – Custom & Handmade Guitars” Facebook page.

To read a “Gear Guide” on Alonzo Pennington’s custom “Goldie” guitar, which was made by Harper (JIH) Guitars, click here. A full interview with Alonzo Pennington can be found here.

Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos by Jessi Smith

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  • Published in Music

Alonzo Pennington - The Musical Legacy Rolls On

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (2/18/13)—He’s known and respected as one of our region’s finest musicians, he’s internationally recognized for his thumbpicking prowess, he’s played alongside some of the world’s most notable musicians, and he’s performed at some of the country’s most recognized venues, including Nashville’s revered Grand Ole Opry. But, for Alonzo Pennington, playing music is much more than a superficial talent that garners him acclaim and financial success. For Alonzo, music resides deep within his DNA and it pours out through his fingers and vocal chords when he takes to the stage or studio. As a result, Alonzo’s outlook on music is truly unfettered, pure, and artistic.

So, what kind of music does Alonzo play? In truth, he’s all-terrain. From twang-laden country tunes and his work with full-on, multi-piece jazz ensembles, to his world-renowned thumbpicking and his powerful, rough-edged blend of blues—which seems to be where his real “home” lies—Alonzo’s love for music is apparent in the breadth of genres he enjoys. “Good music is good music regardless of the style,” he explains, and it’s this approach that has allowed Alonzo to freely incorporate a variety of elements and instruments into his original music over the years. Additionally, it’s allowed to him to be an entertainer in the most literal sense of the word. And, if this weren’t enough, he’s skilled on more than just the guitar and microphone; he also plays a mean fiddle, bass guitar, mandolin, drums, and more.

Yet, beyond the awards, the variety of awe-inspiring abilities he possesses, and all that he and his family have done to keep the local music scene and thumbpicking style alive, Alonzo is a humble, down-to-earth soul that simply enjoys playing music and creating new things.

But who is Alonzo? What is his outlook on music? And how did he get to the point he’s at today?

Fortunately, myself, photographer Jeff Harp, and writer Jessica Dockrey had the privilege of interviewing and photographing Alonzo a few weeks back. And not only did we find out the answers to the questions above, we also spoke about his newest, soon-to-be-released album, Roll On, his take on the region’s music scene, his family’s amazing history, and much, much more.

Luke Short: What’s your full name?

Alonzo Pennington: My full name is Edward Alonzo Pennington.

LS: Where did the name Alonzo come from?

Alonzo: I was named after my fourth great-grandfather, and he has quite the interesting story. He was supposedly the first white man legally hung in the entire state of Kentucky, and it was for murder. If you actually search my name online, it will bring up a lot of stuff about him. People sometimes get that confused until they see the date. Then it’s like, “Oh, well Alonzo’s not in trouble then” [laughs]. In the 1840’s, my great-grandfather was known to be a horse trader and a fiddle player. He was from Christian County, Kentucky, just northeast of Hopkinsville. Well, one day, he and a guy that he was neighbors with got into a disagreement. About a week later, they found his neighbor’s body in a cave. So, they go after my great-grandfather, but when they go to question him, they found that he had disappeared. He had decided that he wasn’t going to get a fair trial, and he’s saying the whole time, “I didn’t do this.” Well, about two years go by, and he’s moved to Texas and he’s tried to change his image. At the time, there was a 2,000 dollar bounty on my great-grandfather’s head. Then, this doctor heard about a guy playing fiddle down in Texas that matched my great-grandfather’s description, so he went down there to see, and, sure enough, it was my great-grandfather. They brought him all the way back from Texas up to the other side of Cadiz, KY in Canton on a flatboat. They gave him a “mock trial”; the judge turned his back to my great-grandfather when he went to speak. The punishment was to hang him. Of course, the whole time he’s still saying that he didn’t do it. So they go to hang him, but the first time they try, the rope breaks. It was supposed to be a sign by God that he was an innocent man. They weren’t supposed to rehang him, but they started putting another rope up. Well, while they were putting the new rope up, my great-grandfather sat down on his coffin and began to play his fiddle. He played a tune that’s now known as “The Pennington Farewell.” Then they hung him again. Two years later, a guy named Eli Cisney, who was dying of tuberculosis, came forward and confessed to the murder. So, my great-grandfather really was innocent. It’s interesting, because my granddad, before he passed away, still had the fiddle and what would have been his third great-grandfather’s Bible. My dad [world-renowned thumbpicker, Eddie Pennington] has all of that now. You know, my great-grandfather was known for being a musician, and when they arrested him in Texas, he was onstage playing fiddle in a square-dance band. They came and just took him right off the stage, and that was it.

LS: Why did they decide to name you after him?

Alonzo: My dad always said that if he had a son, he’d name him [after thumbpicking forefather] Merle Travis, but my mom didn’t exactly go for that [laughs]. So, I was named Edward Alonzo instead.

LS: Where is your family from originally?

Alonzo: My dad grew up in Nortonville, Kentucky and my mother was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. They met in Louisville, Kentucky while my dad was in mortuary college. I think that was about 1977. They got married in 1979 and moved to Princeton, Kentucky. My dad worked at Morgan’s Funeral Home until about 1993. Since then, he’s kind of done his own thing—just sharpening saw blades and traveling playing music.

LS: How did you first get into playing music?

Alonzo: I actually started out playing the fiddle. My granddad played the fiddle and I always wanted to be like my dad and granddad when I was little. So I started playing fiddle when I was five-years-old. I just kind of graduated to the guitar when I was about seven. The guitar was where I kind of fell love with the music side of everything. I enjoy playing the fiddle, but the guitar is what has really become home to me.

LS: Was your dad the one who really taught you how to play?

Alonzo: He always showed me different things, but he never really gave me a full-blown lesson or anything. If I wanted to learn something, I’d say, “Hey dad, what’s this?” and he’d show me. A lot of it came from just listening and being around a lot of other musicians. Of course, my dad always had me around a lot of great musicians when I was little, and I know that was a big asset for me. I can do some of the things I can do because I got to be around people like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed at a very young age.

LS: What was one of the first songs you learned to play?

Alonzo: On the fiddle, one of the first things I learned was “The Tennessee Waltz.” That was one of my granddad’s favorite tunes and he played it a lot. My grandmother used to tell the story of how, one day—after I’d only had my fiddle for a couple days—I just picked it up on my own and started playing “The Tennessee Waltz.” I was figuring it out without anybody showing me anything. The first song a lot of people learn is [the Carter Family’s] “Wildwood Flower” or something like that with a really simple melody, so I learned something like that on guitar. But, instead of learning a lot of single string picking type things on the guitar, I learned a lot of thumbpicking first, which is where you use your thumb to play the rhythm and your forefingers to play the melody.

LS: And that’s a style that Merle Travis and Chat Atkins were known for, right?

Alonzo: Yeah, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins were known for their use of that style, and it’s a style that’s from right here in Kentucky.

LS: Merle Travis was really one of the style’s inventors, too, wasn’t he?

Alonzo: Yeah, Merle Travis, Mose Rager, and the Everly Brothers’ father, Ike Everly. It’s a true western Kentucky style of music.

LS: Is it fair to say that were able to play guitar naturally?

Alonzo: Yeah, I’m pretty lucky. I haven’t had to work at it as hard at it as some people I know, because it does come natural to me, but there are a lot of other things that I have work a lot harder at. For instance, school wasn’t one of my favorite things to do [laughs], but I made it through.

LS: Growing up, who were some of your biggest influences?

Alonzo: The thumbpicking guitar stuff and all the guys involved with it, and even people that weren’t necessarily famous but were great guitar players—like Odell Martin and others like that—had a huge influence on me. But when I was about 12-years-old, there was a guy on my school bus that had a brother that played guitar, and he said, “Hey man, my brother showed me this song [by legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn] called, ‘Pride and Joy’.” Well, he wanted me to come over after school so he could let me listen to it, and he played the intro lick. When I heard it, I was like, “Man, I’ve got to learn how to play that,” and that was it for me. Then it was like, there’s Stevie Ray Vaughn, and BB King, and then there’s Jimi Hendrix, and it just opened up so much more to me. Being that I’d already learned a [thumbpicking] style that’s a lot more complicated—because there’s more intricacy and a lot more going on when you’re using your thumb and all three fingers—the blues came easier to me. A lot of the blues is about styling and technique. You know, anybody can play the note from here to here, but it’s how you get there that matters. A lot of it is about little things that you can’t even describe. It might even be about putting a little pressure on the guitar somewhere to make it produce a certain sound or something like that.

LS: Real blues music is more about the feeling of it and the emotion it evokes than anything else.

Alonzo: Yeah, it really is.

LS: At what point did you actually start writing your own music?

Alonzo: I think I was about 11 or 12-years-old when I wrote my first song, and it came after I had my first break-up with a girl [laughs]. I think I was in sixth or seventh grade, or something like that, and I wrote her this goofy little song. It said something like, “If you left me today, I don’t know what I’d do,” [laughs] and that’s the first song I remember writing. Ever since then, I’ve been on a writing spree. In total, I’ve got about 350 to 450 songs that I’ve written.

Jessica Dockrey: Do you remember all of them?

Alonzo: No, I don’t remember all of them. I can go out and play four hours of cover tunes and remember every word to them, and then I’ll play one of mine that I’ve had written for years and it’ll change every time. I’ll make something up on the spot or just totally forget.

LS: Was that first song you wrote to your ex-girlfriend a blues song?

Alonzo: It was probably a mushy country-type song. It was probably pretty awful [laughs].

LS: When did you first start going out and playing gigs?

Alonzo: I think I was 15-years-old and me and some kids from my hometown put together a little band. At the time, there was a place in Paducah called the Working Artist’s Café. It wasn’t really a bar, but it had a bar in it. Well, I’d been going down there with a friend and we went in there one day, and I took them a tape with recordings of our practices on it. They were like, “We’ll let you come in sometime,” and I think they ended up giving us 100 dollars for five of us to come in and play. So, we played that little gig and, of course, we were playing a lot of blues—mostly just cover songs—and when we finished, this guy from club next door came over and told us he had just opened up. He said, “I need somebody to come in and play next weekend. I really can’t find anybody. Would you all be interested?” Well, I told him that I wasn’t 21-years-old, but he said that as long as I wasn’t hanging out at the bar it would be alright. So, I’m 15-years-old at this point and I’m the youngest member of the band. Everyone else was getting ready to get out of high school or already out of high school. So, we go in, and the name of the place was The Point, and we were playing, but no women were there. It was kind of strange. Well, like I said, this place had just reopened, and we came to find out that this place had been a gay bar the week before. So that was my second gig ever [laughs]. LJ Granstaff, who plays with me now, was in that band with me and we still laugh about that sometimes.

LS: What was the name of that first band?

Alonzo: I think we called ourselves Let Me In or something like that.

Jessica Dockrey: Were you ever in band during high school or anything like that?

Alonzo: I was in band from sixth grade to the eighth grade. When it came time to start marching and stuff—when I was getting ready to be a freshman in high school—they started wanting us to compete in a lot of sight-reading competitions. Well, I just couldn’t read music, and I’d already spent three years in band faking my way through, not reading music at all, because I can play by ear. I would listen to a song once or twice and I would have my part down. I played tenor saxophone. Well, the band director found out I couldn’t read music, and he said, “I think you need to find something else to do,” so I joined the FFA [Future Farmers of America].

LS: From there, and after you’d played those first shows with your band, where did you go with music?

Alonzo: Those shows were kind of the first part of ‘my project’—me fronting a band or whatnot—but I had been playing and traveling with my dad since I was five or six-years-old. Me and my little sister, Rosebud, would play with him. She was only three-years-old playing fiddle, and we’d all go to things like Kiwanis Club and Lions Club meetings to play. We’d do Christmas parties and stuff. It was just mostly small shows, but that’s where we got started.

LS: So, you were kind of a seasoned musician by the time you were in your teens?

Alonzo: Yeah, I’d been playing out since I was big enough to play an instrument.

LS: You never had any stage fright or anything like that?

Alonzo: It was all pretty natural. I never really freaked out on stage or anything like that.

LS: Did you always play guitar when you got older and were in a band?

Alonzo: Yeah, when I’d play with my own group, it was always on guitar. Even now it’s mostly guitar. Every now and then, I’ll still play some fiddle, too, though.

LS: You toured with country star John Michael Montgomery for a while, too. Tell me a little bit about that.

Alonzo: Yeah, I worked for John Michael Montgomery for a while, so I got to see what it was like to travel with a superstar—someone who has 20 or so number one hits and lives on a bus with 10 or so other people—and take small pay for it.

LS: How did that relationship come about?

Alonzo: It all took place about two years ago. It was the day after Christmas and I got a call from a friend that said he’d ran into John Michael’s bus driver. They were actually friends up in Lexington, Kentucky, and he said, “Hey, I heard that John Michael’s crew is looking for someone to sing some backup vocals, play some guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, and to help with utilities. I wanted to know if you’d be interested. If you are, I’ll give them your name.” I was like, “Yeah, sure, give them name. Whatever.” Then, about 30 minutes later, I get a phone call asking me if I was Alonzo Pennington. I told them I was, and this voice says, “Hello, this is country music singer John Michael Montgomery.” That’s exactly how he said it, too [laughs]. So, we talked for a little bit and he hired me over the phone. He’d looked up some stuff of me playing on YouTube and things like that before he called I guess, just to see if I could really play. It was a neat experience. We got to do some cool things. I got to play the Grand Old Opry [in Nashville, TN], which has probably been one of the biggest highlights of my career. But, as for going and doing that kind of thing, it’s really not for me. And I think that was the main difference between me and some of the other people in the band. He’d just hired an all-new band and everyone was excited, because we’re going out on the road and making decent money—or at least it was supposed to be good money [laughs]. So, that was everybody’s goal: to play for somebody. With me, I guess I always just wanted to be that somebody, you know? For me, I’m not the kind of person who can go out and play the same thing the same way every single time. Doing that with John Michael was fine, and he had a great band; we sounded just like the record every time we played “I Swear” or “Grundy County Auction” or anything like that. I don’t know. I guess that just bored me really quickly. Part of it is that I’m not just a musician; I’m an artist. I like to create, and I like to write, and I like to do things differently, and I like to just let things freely form and happen sometimes. When we play our shows, and if it’s a big show, we might have a set list, but a lot of the times we don’t even do that. We usually just play to the crowd to see what everyone is into, but we never play our songs the same way twice. There are no solos that are the same every time, with the exception of a signature lick like the intro to “Pride and Joy.”

LS: That really seems to be what the spirit of playing blues is. Blues and bluesy rock and roll is more about improvisation and a spontaneous feeling than anything else.

Alonzo: Personally, it kills me when people play the same song the exact same way every time, because it’s like, “OK, you can do that. Now what else can you with it?”

LS: So, when did the Alonzo Pennington Band actually form?

Alonzo: I guess this will be the eleventh year that we’ve been together. We started out with myself, [drummer] Dean Hughes from Princeton, Kentucky, and [bassist] Bobby Harper from Cadiz, Kentucky. They are a little bit older—both in their 50’s—but they are well-seasoned musicians and they can really play. We were a blues trio.

LS: How did you all meet?

Alonzo: Well, with Dean being from Princeton, I’d known him for a while. I first met Bobby when me and dad were playing a show in Murray, Kentucky. Bobby was playing for someone else, and he and Dean had kind of already become friends. Well, me and Dean were talking about starting up a band, something just to experiment, and, ideally, we wanted to do some acoustic stuff, too. However, our ideas and what it turned into are completely different [laughs]. So, we did that as a trio for about five years, and then we picked up a young girl from Puryear, Tennessee named Angela Mosley. She was born blind, but she is a crazy good piano player. I mean, she is Ray Charles good. So, we all worked together for a while and, after so long, they kind of got tired of playing bars and clubs and gigs and all that. Now, I’m the only original member left from that time. Angela is a staff musician for the Kentucky Opry. She plays there every weekend now. Bobby and Dean kind of play when they want to these days, but every now and then we’ll plan something where we can all play together again. It’s usually a jazz gig or something like that, because they are all pretty much “jazzers,” whereas I’m more of the rough-edge, rock and blues kind of guy. Fortunately, Bobby has eight brothers, and they all play music. So I’ve been able to pick through them, and one of them, Brian Harper, is my drummer, and another is Sidney Harper, who plays bass. We’ve also got LJ Granstaff from Princeton who is playing guitar now. Like I mentioned earlier, he was also in the very first band I ever played with. He’s toured with a really big Christian group called Special D that’s really popular and he has a music store in Princeton, Kentucky called Granny’s Music. We’ve recently hired a young kid from here in Madisonville named Andy Torian. He’s originally from Cadiz, KY. He plays keyboards and sings really well. He’s great. So, over time, we’ve floated everything from a three-piece to a duo, and when we performed at Saturdays on the Square in Greenville, Kentucky last year, we brought in a full horn section and two keyboard players. That full, multi-piece band thing is fun, but it can be a little chaotic sometimes [laughs]. Whereas some people want to keep things controlled in that kind of situation, I think that a free, off-the-handle approach is where some of the magic of music comes from. Just letting it take its own natural course allows the music to almost create itself. When I’ve tried to control things and micromanage, everything always seems to fall apart and feel unnatural. So, to me, I work best when I’m unprepared, just letting it happen [laughs].

LS: You mix a lot of acoustic and electric guitar together in your music, and there’s definitely the sound of the blues and blues-rock in there, but there’s also some country feel. That being said, what style do you consider yourself?

Alonzo: I’m actually asked that a lot, but I’m not really sure how to categorize it. So, sometimes before booking a show, I’ll ask what the venue is looking for, be it country, rock, blues, or a little bit of all of it. Luckily, I play with people that can play all those styles well. We’ll do stuff from Eric Church all the way to stuff from Freddie King and BB King. We play a wide variety of things. For me, I just like music, and I like good feeling music, and I don’t really care what style it is. That’s probably why I’m not on the radio. I don’t have a country album and I don’t have a blues album—I’ve got all these styles together in one album. That might seem unorganized to some people, but I think good music is good music regardless of the style.

LS: Playing those different styles probably keeps you happy and inspired, too.

Alonzo: You know, I love bluegrass, but there’s only so much bluegrass you can take. I love blues, but after a long night, there’s only so much blues you can take. You have to have a little something else now and then. When I was about seven-years-old, my dad was playing fiddle for a square-dance band, and he was working for the funeral home, but he’d get to the point where he couldn’t go all the time. So, for my first job, I started playing fiddle for the square-dance band. Well, we started playing the American Legion over in Hopkinsville every Saturday night. With that, I really cut my teeth on playing for other people, learning a lot of songs, and just playing a lot of the old country songs by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and that kind of stuff. So, I have a real love for real country music, too. I just grew up around all of it. In going with dad to all these festivals, his style of music—thumbpicking—is brought into it, too. You know, the [Pennington] Folk Festival we have every year [in Princeton, Kentucky], and a folk festival in general, includes a lot of different kinds of music. With that, I’d get to be around all kinds of great blues singers and players, too, and the cool thing about these festivals is that, when it’s all said and done, everybody stays at the same hotels. So, there will be big jam sessions and people will be sitting around at these hotels just playing together. I got to see all this at a real young age, and I was lucky to be in the company of people that loved to play and were really, really good at it.

LS: Outside of the Pennington Folk Festival, were there other festivals that you got to attend that had similar vibes?

Alonzo: We modeled the Pennington Folk Festival after a lot of other festivals we’d played at and been to. You know, we’ve played a couple really big gigs, too. Dad played the Olympics in 1996 when they were in Atlanta, Georgia. We played the Smithsonian Institute’s 150th Anniversary festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1995. That was the first really big festival I had done. We’ve done several of the national folk festivals, too. Those festivals are really cool, because they’re free most of the time and they bring in a lot of performers that aren’t mainstream acts, but are extremely good at what they do. A lot of people enjoy talking about what they do and want to share their knowledge about it. It’s not just about playing their show and leaving, and I think being around those kinds of people has kind of helped to shape the direction I’m going in today—the way I approach it and the way I play.

LS: When did the Pennington Folk Festival actually start?

Alonzo: This year will be our sixteenth year.

LS: Was your dad the one who started the festival?

Alonzo: The city of Princeton and the Princeton Art Guild started it. They wanted a music festival and they thought that honoring my dad through that festival would be something good for the city. It has been. It’s brought in tourism and things like that. Since the start, it’s grown from three acts on the same night as Black Patch, to this year where we’re going to have legendary country singer, Gene Watson. Over the years, we’ve had Bobby Bare, and Nickel Creek, and Junior Brown—and we’re bringing in these big acts to a town of 3,500 people, but there’s always more than that standing there at the stage. So, it’s really neat and it continues to grow every year.

LS: I’m sure you all have a big hand in organizing the festival, but are there others that help out as well?

Alonzo: There are several people on the folk festival committee, so if I tried to say that me and dad did most of the work, that would be a total lie [laughs]. Really, the only thing that we’re involved in, other than our own performances on stage, is helping to pick some of the acts and getting in contact with them because we know a lot of people.

LS: In that capacity, I’m sure you all are able to bring attention to a lot of people and performers that might not have otherwise been selected for the festival, too.

Alonzo: It does help. You know, people might not have heard of someone like Wayne Henderson, who is an amazing Appalachian guitarist and guitar builder. This guy built guitars for Eric Clapton, and we’ve brought him out to the festival before. We’ve even had people there that we didn’t know were going to be there at times. Mary Ann Fisher, a “Raylette” who played with Ray Charles—she’s the one who threw the brick through Ray’s window in the movie [Ray]—was there singing with another band and they never even introduced her. We had Nickel Creek perform the year that they were just blowing up and turning out hits. We had a big turnout for that one. Of course, [Nickel Creek mandolinist and singer] Chris Thile and I went to Murray State University together, so we knew each other and had played several things together there on campus. Then, all the sudden, Nickel Creek was huge and we were like, “Hey, we’ve got them booked” [laughs]. They were getting something around 25 to 30 thousand dollars elsewhere to play, and we were paying them about 1,500 bucks.

LS: So, coming from this musical family and then going out and playing clubs, as well as other gigs, you were really getting your name out there. From there, you won several prestigious awards. Tell me a little about that.

Alonzo: Yeah. In 1998 or 1999, I won the National Tumbpicking contest and then the International Thumbpicking Contest. I’m still the only one who’s won both awards in the same year. Then, in 2011, I went back and won the International Contest again. I believe I’m also the only person who’s won the International Tumbpicking Contest twice.

LS: How are those contests set up and what’s that whole experience like?

Alonzo: You go in and some of the contest judges are behind a curtain so you can’t see them. They’ll have you play like three songs and there’ll be two rounds. If you make the cut from the first round, you’re off to the second round, and if you make it through that, you go on to finals. Most of the time, the finals have about five players. Then, you just go out and play another three songs. The last time I won the International Contest, I had two playoffs in the end, because me and the guy that I was competing against—a guy from Missouri—tied two different times. Well, we had to have two different playoffs, and, finally, I think I just wore him out [laughs]. Those are about the only times I get nervous—at contests like that. I like competition and I like being competitive, but I never really liked it with my music. Doing it for a living is competitive enough. I’m not so much of a clean and precise player as I am an entertainer, and that’s really where it kind of branches out for me. Some people are great players, but they’re not entertainers. With me, I’m kind of like, “I don’t have it worked out. I don’t have an arrangement. I’m just going to go out here and let it happen. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got, but I’m not going to force it. I’ll let it flow.”

Jessica Dockrey: Do you compete in the thumbpicking contests every year?

Alonzo: No. I hadn’t competed since I won that first year, but they were giving away a nice guitar in 2011 and I thought, “I think I’m going to try it out” [laughs]. Actually, if you win the contest, you can’t come back for another five years, and I didn’t really want to, but I finally decided to try it again and I’m glad I did.

LS: What were some of the prizes you won?

Alonzo: I’ve won cash, I’ve won handmade guitars, and I’ve won trophies. Of course, garnering recognition and winning some bragging rights are always good, too [laughs].

LS: What do you think has kept the thumbpicking style, as well as the history behind it, alive after all these years?

Alonzo: You know, the fingerstyle and thumbpicking guitar community is such a tightly knit group, and if it wasn’t, that style might not even be around. My dad and some other people really started trying to preserve that legacy back in the early 1980’s. It was dying out and people didn’t even know what it was—even people around here. To this day, there are still a lot of people around here, and even in Muhlenberg County where thumbpicking came from, that don’t even know what the style is or that it even exists. It’s really pretty crazy. So, my dad and his friends do what they can, and the former Judge-Executive of Muhlenberg County, Rodney Kirtley, helped to get a lot things going that recognize the style, too. Today, Muhlenberg is host to the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame and the Merle Travis Center as well. I was actually lucky enough to go to Washington, DC to play for the [US Senate] Appropriations Committee. I played for Senator Ted Stevens and the rest of the committee, and lobbied for the 4 million dollars it took to build the Hall of Fame. I think I was 19-years-old at the time [laughs] and they allocated the money right then and there. Other things came up, and we had some issues with our own state representatives—they were saying to use the money for other things—but, finally, they go it built and finalized about three years ago. It’s an amazing building. Acoustically speaking, you’re not going to find anywhere else around here like it. The whole building is built specifically to make guitar music sound good. It’s first-class all the way. My dad’s there in the Hall of Fame and I received an award from there. I won the 2011 Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame “Album of the Year” for my record, Thumbin’.

LS: I haven’t heard a lot from that album, but I understand that you played every instrument on the entire record. What instruments does that include?

Alonzo: I sing on it and there’s bass guitar, fiddle, drums, mandolin, and, of course, guitar. I’ve got a new album that’s not released yet, too. It’s totally finished, but I’m kind of waiting on funding to print it and all that stuff. It’s kind of the same way as Thumbin’, but it’s more blues-based.

LS: Are you talking about your new album, Roll On?

Alonzo: Yeah, it’s all me on this one, too.

LS: Since you play all the instruments, what’s the recording process like?

Alonzo: I’m better at guitar than I am at anything else, and it’s because I don’t spend as much time with other instruments. I think my most natural instrument—the one that I can just pick up and play naturally—is still the fiddle, though. I don’t play it very often, because I don’t enjoy it as much as I do playing the guitar. So, I haven’t worked at it and my technique probably isn’t what it should be. I remember being little and my dad had a little four-track recorder. I always thought that was really cool. He’d let me try to record a little bit every now and then. Then, when I was seven or eight-years-old, he bought me my own recorder. You could only record one track at a time, so I’d sit there and play and sing something, and then I’d give the recordings away as Christmas presents or something. So, that’s always something that I’ve always been into. I really enjoy digging into recording different things. Now, I’ve got a full studio and I record all my own stuff. It’s not a million-dollar studio or anything, but it has enough equipment to capture what I’m trying to do for other people.

LS: I did an interview with respected singer-songwriter Pat Ballard near the launch date of the Sugg Street Post and he mentioned that he had recorded some tracks with you. You’ve recorded several other people, too, haven’t you?

Alonzo: I’ve worked with several people, such as Pat Ballard and [local country and Americana artist] James Michael Harris, and I’ve recorded a couple of my dad’s albums, too. My fiancé, Rochalle Gray, and I are getting ready to open up a store in Princeton on Main Street. She’s an artist. She’s into crafts and she paints, too. The front of the store is going to display her arts and crafts—she makes candles and all kinds of other cool stuff like that—and the back part is going to be where my recording equipment will be set up. I’ll offer some music lessons and stuff there, too.

LS: So, is there a specific reason that you’re calling your new album Roll On?

Alonzo: It’s kind of like I want to keep on doing what I’m doing. Instead of saying, “We’re a country band,” and trying to appeal to just that crowd, I’m going to just keep on pushing what I’m doing. With the album, everything is original and "Roll On” is actually a track on the record. You know, with traveling all the time and just constantly going nonstop and playing everywhere, I feel like I’m just rolling on, you know? [laughs]

LS: Throughout your life, what have been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had with music?

Alonzo: I’ve done a lot and I’ve been really fortunate to be on stage with people like Willie Nelson and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Like I mentioned earlier, playing on the Grand Ole Opry was huge, too. Some of the things that are the most memorable from playing music are also the times that I’d sit around in the living room with my dad and granddad, and their friends, just playing together. I’ve played and sang something at all four of my grandparents’ funerals, too, and while those times were some of the hardest, I feel honored that I got to do that.

LS: A lot of musicians that we’ve interviewed have mentioned you as both an influence and someone they truly respect. For many, you are one of the only true musical staples in our region, and I think that’s definitely a fair statement. For you, having such an impact on the community at large, what are your thoughts on the local music scene?

Alonzo: I honestly didn’t really know I had any influence on the music scene [laughs]. But, personally, I dig it when people are being artistic and doing original stuff instead of trying to sound exactly like someone else. I like different things. For instance, my buddy Randy Stone’s band, GypsyLifter, which Chad Estes and Landon Miller are also a part of, is really great. I dig what they’re doing, and I like that they’re pushing original stuff. Pat Ballard is a great songwriter, too. It’s a shame that the music scene doesn’t really seem to be growing, though, because there’s not too many places for it to grow. The places where there is music around here—places like bars where people want to hear the same thing that’s on the jukebox—aren’t really into the other side of music. We just don’t have as many people that are into the artistic side of making music. Hopefully, we can grow that scene one day and there will be enough people who are like-minded, ones who are tired of hearing the same old thing, people that are ready for something new, something they can groove to, something that has some soul to it, or something that has a cool underlying meaning that you’ve got to figure out—just anything that’s better than the same old thing that’s out there. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t go out and play all original stuff. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to make a living. We play a lot of cover songs. I would say about 80 percent of what we play live are cover songs, and that’s only out of necessity. I couldn’t get work playing weddings and I couldn’t get work playing clubs if I did only original music. Ideally, though, I would prefer to play just a few select covers and I’d do them my way, and that’s really what we do when we perform covers anyway. We keep them close enough to the original versions that they’re still recognizable, of course, but we definitely put our own spin on them.

LS: Going back to your earlier days, when did you actually start singing?

Alonzo: I’ve always sang, and that’s never been my favorite part of it, because I’ve never really been a singer. I still don’t call myself a singer; I’m a guitar player.

LS: Is singing with your band now kind of out of necessity, too?

Alonzo: In a way. My dad’s theory was that people wouldn’t come to just hear instrumental music over and over. He said, “If you ever want to make a living, you’re going to have to start singing.” I’d heard him say that to several other people my age that were coming up and needed some advice. He’d just tell them to sing.

LS: Your dad is an entertainer through and through, too, so singing and talking is a huge part of his style and performance.

Alonzo: And for the people that might not play guitar, they can understand and relate to the vocals perhaps more than the intricacy of what he’s doing with his right or left hand. Most people are more easily entertained if what they’re hearing or seeing is something that’s easier to understand, you know?

LS: Beyond having more venues, do you think there are other things that could be done to improve the scene? Are there things that could help to reshape local people’s perspective on music in general?

Alonzo: I really don’t know. You know, just having the information put in front of people is a big thing, and that’s something that you guys are doing. I really appreciate you having me here, because that helps put me in front of people I might not have been in front of otherwise. People might see it and say, “Who’s this? Why are they writing about him?” Maybe they’ll like what I do and maybe they won’t, but at least the information is out there so that they can pick and choose what they want. I think if people really understand that there’s more than what comes out of mainstream radio, they might find more things that they like. It might not be country or folk or blues or anything like that, or they may decide they really do like the radio, but at least they have and are aware that they have choices. I think limited information has been part of the problem. Of course, over the last few years, the internet has really been able to help with that issue, because people can put themselves out there a little bit more. They can promote their music and they can say, “You’re not going to hear this on the radio, but hear it is anyway.” The Hudsons, who own the car lot in Madisonville, called me back in the fall and we did the “Rocking for Research” festival they held out there. I was fortunate enough to know some of the people there, so they asked me if I would kind of head the bill and put the thing together. So, I was able to bring my dad in, we had Pat Ballard, and we had [award-winning Madisonville blues guitarist] Boscoe France, too. That was all regional music, and things like that and people like the Hudsons are helping the scene. People like me and my dad—or Boscoe and others like him—are doing this for a living, and we’d like to play for free because we enjoy doing it and we enjoy sharing what we can do with other people, but we really can’t. It takes money to make the world go round, you know? I was really grateful to the Hudsons for hosting the show, and they actually want to do it again this spring. We haven’t put an exact date on it yet, but they’re letting me find unique local acts to bring in again. It’s because they want stuff like that; they want something different, something that’s artistic, and something that’s homegrown.

LS: Where can people find your music?

Alonzo: People can check me out and order my albums from my website [www.alonzopenningtonmusic.com], and you can hear my music on our Facebook page, ReverbNation, and on things like iTunes.

LS: Other than the release of your new album, do you have any big shows or events coming up?

Alonzo: We’ve got the Pennington Folk Festival coming up this summer in Princeton. That’s going to be held from May 31st to June 1st. Typically, the Friday night that kicks the festival off is kind of my night and the following Saturday is kind of dad’s night. When it first started, we had everything on one day, but we kind of asked ourselves, “What if we add in Friday night, too?” And then we could kind of build up to a whole weekend-long festival, so that’s what we did. They kind of let me take over the Friday night portion of the festival as far as the booking goes, and instead of having so much folk, bluegrass and country, it’s kind of the night we get to rock it out. It goes a little later that night and we usually bring in a younger crowd that night, too. I’m excited about this year, because we’re going to have Boscoe France, Gene Watson on Saturday, and we’re working on a lot of other people, too. Some of it we can’t put out there yet, too. It’s really a shame that we don’t have more venues like that festival. I don’t understand why it has to be one time a year. I’ve been really impressed with what Greenville, Kentucky has been doing with their downtown [Saturdays on the Square] events in the summer. I thought, if there’s a hundred people, it’ll be cool, but there was like 2,500 people. I was blown away. I had no idea [laughs]. I asked them if they did this once a year and they said they did it once a month. I think that’s great. Anything that’s entertainment costs money in this economy, but I think people are starting to invest in themselves. More people want their kids to learn how to play guitar versus playing a video game. Video games get old and you’re going to have to buy another one. A musical instrument is endless. You know, you could play on the thing for years, and while the instrument may wear out, what comes out of it and what you create with it doesn’t. It doesn’t go by the wayside with technology. It’s something you create and it’s something that builds inside yourself, so I think that’s why there are more people that want their kids to take music lessons, and art lessons, or anything like that. A dream of mine is to one day have some kind of art and music institute here in western Kentucky, and it would be great if it was something that gave underprivileged children the opportunity to come in and learn. In Muhlenberg County, I know that the school system over there have gotten grants to bring in guitars so that they can offer a thumbpicking guitar class to their students. There are more things like that happening, too, and I think the more that happens the more we can move away from technology alone. I mean, technology’s great, but it’s not everything. I know I’m saying this to an online magazine [laughs], but that’s just the way media works and that’s how you reach people these days. I just think that if people start or continue to invest in themselves we will move the economy. There’s so much frivolous spending on random stuff people go and buy. Invest that money in yourself; invest that money in your kids. Teach them things and let them learn to teach themselves things, and let’s see where that takes us.

LS: What kind of advice would you give to an up-and-coming musician or group?

Alonzo: It’s not easy. To someone who wants to play or perform for a living, I would say go to college [laughs]. Get a real job first and then try to do it for a living. But for someone who really loves music, you don’t have to give them too much advice, because they love it and that’s where it all starts. If you’ve got it in your heart and in your soul, it doesn’t leave. As long as you take care of that and keep playing, it will continue to grow. Surround yourself with like-minded people. There is so much closed-mindedness, especially in this area of our country. Sometimes we only believe what comes out of CNN or Fox News, you know, and that limits us so much.

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

To listen to some of Alonzo’s music right now, simply click on the ReverbNation music player attached below this article.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp

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American Exceptionalism—An Inside Look at Mayor David Jackson

 

MADISONVILLE, KY (2/7/13)—I met David Jackson before he was the mayor of Madisonville. It was a little over two years ago. At the time, and up until recently, I interacted with David as more of a “traditional” news reporter. However, in retrospect—and regardless of how silly it might sound to some reading this—I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to witness and recount several notable events in his life. In essence, I was recording a part of what will become our city’s history, as well as a prominent portion of a man’s life.

I wrote a “candidate profile” about David that focused on his political stances soon after he announced that he would be running against former mayor, Will Cox; I attended and covered several speeches that he gave while campaigning; I photographed and reported on his official swearing-in ceremony at Living Waters Church several months after he won the race; I analyzed his creation of several community-based subcommittees; I hounded him about changes to city policies and ordinances; I hassled him about funding and budget changes; I spoke with him about city events and community projects like Friday Night Live and 4th Fest; I attended City Hall committee meetings and heard him speak; I heard him advocate new economic developments and investments; I was there when he first announced the city’s plans to construct a Veterans Memorial; and I can’t count the times that people asked me what he had planned for the city. And that’s just scratching the surface, believe it or not. Yet, for all the time I spent recording David’s words, thoughts, and decisions, I never really got to know who he was and what his life had been like.

Of course, I knew some basics about his past and present situation, but most of what I learned was filtered through a certain personal distance between us—a direct result of my hunt for the proverbial “scoop,” no doubt. I can say this, though: David always came across like a happy, personable, and thankful person each I talked to him.

But I wanted to know why; I wanted to find out what made David tick. What made him who he is today? And then I wanted to share what I found with the community. Thankfully, I now have the freedom to do that as a writer, and that’s exactly what this piece is all about.

How did this all come about, you ask? Myself, fellow writer, Jessica Dockrey, and photographer, Jeff Harp, got the opportunity to sit down and talk with David in his office last week. While I was expecting to learn a lot about where he came from, his goals, and what his passions are during our interview, I never figured I would live to see a Madisonville Mayor—much less an accomplished accountant and longtime pastor—pull out a guitar, tune it up using an iPhone app, and jam an original song from behind his executive desk. And if that weren’t enough to make an impression, when we were just beginning to leave after an hour-or-so of talking, Dave proceeded to hand me his 60th anniversary, US-made Fender Stratocaster. He wanted to lend it to me. Was this a dream? Nope. I was just finally getting to know who David—the human being—was.

Beyond his love for music, family, and God, though, we also touched on some key city issues during the conversation. He spoke about the city’s relationship with China, his vision for the future of downtown Madisonville, his take on the former Hopkins County Library buildings, his Reagan-inspired approach to the community we live in, and much more—and it was all told through his own eyes.

So who is David? Though I don’t claim to know everything about the guy, the insightful interview we have transcribed below is well worth reading. Plus, I think it’s safe to say that each member of the Sugg Street Post left the interview thinking of David as a real friend.

Want to know a little about who Dave is? Read on. You might just be surprised.

Luke Short: Where are you and your family from originally? Do you know much about your family’s genealogy?

David Jackson: Honestly, I don’t really know much about my family’s history. My grandparents all passed away when I was young. My dad [Kenneth Jackson] was the youngest of 16 kids, so his parents were older, and they were deceased by the time I was born. My mom’s dad had passed away by that point, too. Then my grandmother passed away when I was about five or six-years-old. So, I grew up not really having grandparents, which is kind of interesting; it was a unique way to grow up. But when I married my wife [Leigh Ann Jackson], and both of her grandparents were alive, I got to experience what it was like to have grandparents. That has been a neat experience for me. My mom and dad, Kenneth and Esther Jackson, were originally from Connersville, Indiana. My dad passed away in 2009, but my mom still lives in Sebree, KY. That’s why I say Louisville like ‘Loo-ee-vile’ instead of ‘Loo-uh-vull.’ I say a lot of things differently, because my parents lived in Indiana for most of their lives, so they both spoke like Hoosiers. I actually noticed it again when I was at the annual [Madisonville-Hopkins County] Chamber of Commerce luncheon this year, and I was giving my speech and said ‘Loo-ee-ville.’ Everyone there kind of looked at me funny, so I said, ‘I mean Loo-uh-vull. It’s right beside Loo-ee-ville’ [laughs]. It was kind of funny, because growing up around people in Kentucky I sounded like a Hoosier, but when I’d visit my family in Indiana they’d call me a ‘Briar,’ and tell me that I sounded like a Kentuckian. The way I talked just never fit in; it was like I was in limbo [laughs].

LS: For those who don’t know anything about your background, could you give me a quick overview of your life and how it has led you to where you are today?

David: I was born in Henderson, KY at the Community Methodist Hospital, but I grew up in Sebree. I went to high school here in Madisonville at Life Christian Academy out on Princeton Pike. From there, I went to the University of Kentucky and graduated in three years with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I worked really hard while I was there. I wanted to get on with my life. Then, I ended up working for Ford Motor Credit right out of college. I would audit dealerships, and one of the dealerships I would audit was Parkway Ford here in Madisonville. At the time, a guy named Danny Renshaw owned the place and he hired me away from Ford. I worked for him for about eight years. Through that, I discovered that I really enjoyed accounting, and I got involved in that aspect of their dealerships. I would travel around to their different dealerships with the vice president of accounting. As a result, I decided to go get enough accounting credits at Murray State University to take the CPA [certified public accountant] exam. Well, I passed the exam and became a CPA. Once I became certified in 1998, I went into public accounting and I’ve been involved with that ever since then. It’s been a very good career for me. Today, I have my own firm. I’ve had my own firm since 2004, and it’s nice. I love the relationship I have with my clients. I feel like it keeps me rooted, or grounded, in both the livelihood of individuals and the business community. Sometimes, I think people get into government and get into this vacuum, and they think, ‘It’s just another tax; it’s not that much,’ but, until you’re out there dealing with people—particularly with their taxes and financial situations—you really don’t see how taxes can affect families. Keeping that in mind, myself, and everyone I work with, have tried to do anything we can to make government more efficient. That’s kind of a quick overview of my life.

LS: Tell me a little bit about your children, Chloe and Jordan, and the story behind how you came together as a family.

David: Leigh Ann and I adopted two children from Guatemala: Jordan, who is 17-years-old, and Chloe, who is 11-years-old. We were able to get both of them when they were eight-months-old, and it was an experience in itself just being in Guatemala. When we adopted Jordan, we were told that we’d be there for ten days, but we got down there and the paperwork wasn’t in order—and the wheels of the government grind really slowly in Central America—so we ended up being there for 30 days. We lived in a Marriott [Hotel] for thirty days, which was fun in its own way, but it was also expensive. Leigh Ann is a diabetic, and she actually got very ill while we were there, so she had to fly home and go directly into the hospital. So, here I was, dealing with my first baby all alone; I’m the only one. I’m ‘Mister Mom’ down in Guatemala for about a week. I actually got a PhD in changing diapers during that period of time [laughs]. It was amazing. We made some really good friends while we were there, I spoke at a few churches down there, and we got to meet the family members of some coffee exporters who have since sent their kids up here to live with us for three or four months at a time so they can learn English. Being that they are successful exporters, their family is very wealthy, and the kids’ dad had been to London through their business to learn English. Well, like I said, he sent his children to Kentucky to learn English. So, when I was talking with him, I explained that those are two totally different languages. Now they know all about pie and biscuits and gravy down in Guatemala [laughs].

Jessica Dockrey: How did you come to the decision that adoption was the way you wanted to go?

David: We really kind of worked it backwards. Most of the time you start with an adoption agency, they work with a country, and they eventually locate a child. Well, the pastor my wife’s family knew in Muhlenberg County, told her family about a missionary in Guatemala who had found out about a young woman who was about to have a baby and planned on giving it up. From there, we found an adoption agency and told them that we had everything set up and kind of laid out, so they worked it from there. It was really kind of neat how it all came together. Today, we still stay in touch with Jordan’s foster family. They are a really wonderful, working-class Christian family down there. They are awesome people. As a matter of fact, they just had a grandson and I got to see photos of him on Facebook yesterday. So it’s really a pretty neat scenario; we kind of have this whole group of people that we’ve created a deep relationship with. They’ve really become a piece of the fabric of our life in a short period of time.

LS: Was there a similar story with your daughter, Chloe?

David: No, getting Chloe took five days [laughs]. We were in and out. It was really great. We actually spent a couple extra days there just because we wanted to visit with everyone. All her paperwork was in order, and that was a result of what we’d learned before—get your paperwork together before you go to Central America. So it was all laid out really well and the adoption agency did a great job. We didn’t get stuck like we did before, which is kind of a scary situation to be in. With Jordan, they told us that we could go back to the US and come back to get him later, but we decided to tough it out. We had already laid our hands on him, so we weren’t going to let go. It was well worth it; it was a great life experience.

LS: Was there anything about Guatemala that really stood out to you?

David: If I could have brought home a plane-load of kids home, I would have. Just seeing the poverty there was striking. You would see children that were eight or nine-years-old on the streets shining shoes for a living. A lot of them didn’t have rags, and their little hands would be jet black from putting polish on them. It was really sad in that sense, but Guatemala is a beautiful country. We’ve gone back to maintain our relationships with our friends, so we’ve been able to see several different parts of the country. Lake Atitlan is an amazing place. It’s a lake that was formed by volcanoes that are situated all around it, some of which are still active. It was almost prehistoric just seeing the mist over the lake and smoke rising out of the volcanoes in the morning time. Interestingly, while Jordan and I were stuck in the hotel the first time we were there, the current Miss Universe came through and we got to meet her, so that was an interesting experience [laughs]. Like I said, it’s all been very life-changing, and I’m so proud of our kids. I thank God for them every day.

LS: What are some of the things Jordan and Chloe like to do?

David: Jordan likes video games, of course. Chloe never has gravitated toward those too much, though. Jordan just started working at the Sonic [Drive-In restaurant] on North Main Street now. I’m really proud of him. He works a couple days a week there. Chloe is one of those girls that love to dress up, but she loves to be out, playing in the dirt, too.

LS: What were some of the things you were into as a kid?

David: I was into a lot. Our family wasn’t very wealthy, so we had to work hard for everything we had. I sold a lot of stuff; I was just into selling things as a kid. I sold newspapers, seeds, greeting cards—just anything I could do to make a little extra money. I also liked to enter contests where you’d have to write a speech or some kind of paper. So, I did that, and I was actually pretty successful. I actually won a trip to Washington, DC when I was a sophomore in high school for writing a paper. It worked out pretty well, but it was always a matter of being creative. If you wanted something, you had to work for it, and you might have to come up with a creative way of making it happen. I think that was good. Most of the time, we want our kids to have it better than the way we had it, but, at the same time, some of those experiences make you stronger and more adaptable to situations that you’ll run into during life.

LS: I know you play a little bit of guitar from time to time, too. Did that start when you were young?

David: I actually started playing guitar when I was 12-years-old. My mom and dad bought a guitar for me, and that’s been a part of my life ever since. I’ve written some songs—nothing that was ever published anywhere—but I keep a guitar here in my office [at City Hall]. I’ve had people come in and play, too. [Local country performer] Ray Ligon came in and brought his guitar one time, and I’ve had a couple others come by with guitars so that we could have had a little jam session. I wrote a song that I sang and me and my wife’s wedding. I’ve worked on this other song forever, which I’ll play for you here in a second. It’s called, “God Bless the Children.” I’ve never written a second verse, though. [Dave walks to a bookshelf in his office, grabs a colorful Esteban brand guitar from a soft case, and begins to tune it behind his desk using a smartphone app. He mentions that he also has a collectible, US-made Fender Stratocaster in the office as well] Playing guitar is something I wanted to get into on my own. We lived out in the country in Sebree, so I would take my guitar outside and play for hours, just writing songs. It really became a part of my life, and I still play at my church, Living Waters, where I’m a pastor. I’ve been there for about 13 years now. Ok, this is the song here [Dave begins to play and sing his heartfelt song, “God Bless the Children,” much to our delight. Applause ensues].

LS: Wow, you’re a great singer and player. You’ve actually played at a couple city-sponsored events, too, haven’t you?

David: I played at [Madisonville’s monthly summer festival] Friday Night Live. They couldn’t find anybody else, and I love to do it, so I was happy to help out. I usually perform Christian rock or praise and worship music with a few friends. But again, I love to play and it’s a big part of my life. I usually play a Takamine, which is a little more of a higher-quality, studio-type guitar. Garth Brooks always played Takamines, so that’s part of the reason I got it. I guess it’s as old as Living Waters now. I got it when we opened up and it’s been a great guitar.

LS: Is the Takamine the oldest guitar you have?

David: No, I actually still own my very first guitar. It’s an Epiphone. You just don’t get rid of these things; they’re you’re friends. I’ll lend them out sometimes, and sometimes they come back and sometimes they don’t. I have a Fender acoustic that was like that. I lent it out to my second cousin’s son, and he actually plays now; lending him the guitar actually got him involved. I’ve tried to get my kids involved, but they just haven’t taken to the guitar yet.

LS: When you were 12, was there something specific that made you want to play?

David: We went to church here in Madisonville at Life Temple on Park Avenue, and it was a church that was really involved in music. There was a southern gospel group from Madisonville called The Happy Goodman Family, and they were a nationally touring gospel music band. Mixing that with the church’s involvement with music, I just naturally gravitated toward it—toward playing guitar and music in general. Playing guitar is just a great outlet. Every once in a while, I’ll drag people in here and say, “Let’s sing! Let’s jam!” It really breaks down a lot of barriers, too.

LS: Have you always sang and played simultaneously?

David: I’ve always done both. I don’t do either one very well, but I’ve always really enjoyed it.

LS: Who taught you how to play?

David: A guy that played guitar at our church taught me how to play. He would write out the chords to a song, and as soon as I learned that song, he would give me another song. The way he did it was really good; he figured out how to motivate me. He didn’t just give me a whole bunch of songs and say, “Here, work on these.” He said, “Here’s a song. If you come back and play this for me, I’ll give you another one.” That’s really how I learned.

LS: What kind of music is your favorite? Who do you listen to the most?

David: I kind of have an eclectic taste in music; I like all kinds. If I had to pick out the kind of music I like the most, I’d say jazz. My absolute favorite jazz performer is Diana Krall, hands down. She’s a Canadian artist, and she and Tony Bennett did a “Two For the Road” tour a few years ago that was great. She’s awesome; she’s a piano player. She’s just amazing, and she has an amazing voice. She’s married to Elvis Costello—you may know him. If you ever get a chance to go see her or listen to her music, you’ll see why she’s so great. Then, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra are my other favorites, so that’s the kind of jazz I like. I like some of the newer artists, too, like Michael Bublé. I listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music as well.

LS: Other than playing music and writing for contests, was there anything else you liked as a kid? Any sports?

David: When I was in elementary school, I played basketball. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I did [laughs, pointing out his height]. I was number “3” on the team, and the “3” would go down into my shorts—it was back when we tucked our jerseys in—so I looked like I was a backwards “C” [laughs]. It was like that was my number. I was one of those guys that got put in the game when were like 50 points ahead and there was a minute left in the game. They were like, “Get in there, Dave. This is your moment!” I was the only kid that gained weight during little league [laughs]. I’d sit there and eat at the concession stand; I basically had a frequent flyer card with the concession stand, so they loved me. I supported little league in that way [laughs]. Needless to say, I never was a great athlete.

LS: Is there anything athletic that you do today?

David: I went through a period of time where I’d swim a mile every day down at the YMCA, and I loved the folks there. I also ride bikes a lot. I have a road bike. I ride it and train on it quite a bit. It’s one of the only exercises that I’ve been able to stay with, because I can do it indoors and at odd hours. I do have a mountain bike, but I’ve never tried going off-road too much. I’d like to try sometime. They say the trails out at Grapevine Lake are pretty awesome. The Pennyrile Area Cyclists group was instrumental in fixing the lake trails up, and I do ride with them. They’re a great group. I used to run a little, but now, at 46, I jog. There’s more I’d like to do, too.

LS: Tell me about how you met your wife, Leigh Ann?

David: We met at church. I was away at the University of Kentucky—it was my freshman year—and my dad of all people calls, and he says, “There’s this brown-eyed girl that just started coming to church. You’ve got to come and meet her.” So, of course, I came home that weekend and met her [laughs], and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve been together now for 26 years. It’s been, and still is, a good marriage. She’s my partner in everything I do. She works with me at the [David W. Jackson] CPA firm and I feel like she does a great job as the First Lady of Madisonville. She helps at the church, too; she’s very involved in the ministry. She’s truly been my partner in everything that we’ve done through life.

LS: At what point did you decide to go into politics? And why?

David: I’ve always been kind of interested in doing something like this and it probably goes back to writing speeches as a child. Some of them were at the level of policy and things like that. Then, the trip I mentioned earlier—the trip to Washington, DC that I won when I was in high school and wrote a paper for the Henderson Union Rural Electric Cooperative—probably had something to do with it. They had a contest where you had to write an essay entitled, “Our Power is Our People.” It was kind of neat for me, because I had written a lot of patriotic pieces before, so it was kind of a synthesis of a lot of things. I won the trip and the first thing we did was meet the governor and lieutenant governor. We actually went and ate lunch at the lieutenant governor’s house. We got to meet our state senators and our state representatives. For a kid in high school, that was a pretty big deal. Then, I got selected out of that group to go and represent Kentucky in Washington, DC. The trip was just full of great experiences. One of the coolest experiences was when we got to tour the White House. While we were there, these guys came in and said, “Hey we’ve got a really special, but unplanned, treat for you. If you will gather on the South Lawn of the White House, the president will be landing in just a few minutes in his helicopter and he’ll great you as he’s going by.” It was President [Ronald] Reagan. It was really neat, because we watched as the helicopter came into view and everything. The secret service said, “From the moment the helicopter comes into view until the moment he’s inside the White House, don’t be silly; don’t make any sudden movements.” As the helicopter came in, and the wind was beating the secret service men’s’ jackets, you could see an Uzi [firearm] under each of their arms. Needless to say, everyone stood really still; we didn’t even breathe I don’t think [laughs]. That was great, and I actually got to meet some of the president’s cabinet. It was just a different era back then in DC. They basically turned us loose in the senate office and the congressional office buildings, and we got autographs and other things like that. I just happened to run into [US Secretary of Transportation] Drew Lewis and some other members of President Reagan’s cabinet, and I just stood there and visited with them. They talked with us. That really piqued my interest. You know, these guys ran the country, but they were willing to talk to a high school student from Kentucky that wrote an essay. That kind of got me going, and I’ve always loved President Reagan. He’s obviously my political hero. I kind of idolize him and I’ve studied a lot about his life.

LS: What are some of the reasons that you like President Reagan, and how do you relate his political philosophies to Madisonville?

David: The thing that I like the most about President Reagan was that he always talked about America as “the shining city on a hill,” which falls under the term of “American Exceptionalism.” As a country, we’d gone through a pretty tough recession at the end of the ‘70s—and he came in during 1980—and we’d gone through the Iran “hostage crisis,” so a lot of people thought that America was past its prime at that point in time. But President Reagan came in and said, “We’re still the shining city on the hill that the rest of the world looks to. We have to provide leadership,” and there’s kind of a correlation with that and Madisonville. Madisonville is an exceptional community. Even the slogan says, “We’re the Best Town on Earth.” We don’t say we’re an “average town,” we say we’re the “best town on Earth.” That shows that same concept of exceptionalism, and I really believe that’s propelled Madisonville forward—not just since I’ve been Mayor, but through all the preceding administrations. We think we can be the best, so we strive toward that. That’s the way I look at Madisonville and what we can be. Amazingly, since I’ve had the opportunity to be the Mayor, we’ve had a lot of regional cities that we’ve reached out to and helped. We had the Mayor of Paducah [Gayle Kaler] and their city commissioners visit Madisonville a week ago to look at our iRecycle program to see how they could get that started in Paducah. We got to present information on the iRecycle program and Madisonville’s GoMadisonville [customer service project] at one of Governor Steve Beshear’s “local issues” conferences last year. So, here’s Madisonville, this relatively small town of about 19,000 people—we’re about the 20th largest city in the state of Kentucky—showing innovation and leading the way on some issues. I think if you consider your community or your country as being exceptional, then you do things to try and realize that dream. I think that has really helped Madisonville. What you guys are doing [with the SuggStreetPost.com] is exceptional, too. To have a news project that kind of goes against the grain is great. Most news is bad news; most news is based around sensationalism; most news organizations try to sell papers by running people down; most news organizations try to sell you costly advertising; but what you guys are doing with the Sugg Street Post is uplifting. That’s pretty neat, and, like I said, it’s exceptional. That’s how I want to view the world. I want to do everything I can to continue that legacy of being the “Best Town on Earth” in Madisonville, of being exceptional.

LS: That relates back to a question I was going to ask you actually. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind as the Mayor?

David: The thing I’m absolutely the proudest of that I’ve gotten to be a part of as Mayor is the Veterans Memorial [on North Center Street]. When I came into office, I felt like that was something I wanted to accomplish. As you know, we have a very patriotic community, and the community has shown their support for it by donating about 200,000 dollars. Actually, when you throw in the “in-kind” donations, we’ve raised in excess of that amount. It looks great and it’s a point of pride. I was coming into the office on Thanksgiving Day to pick something up and, as I was driving by the memorial, I noticed an elderly gentleman with a walker, and walking right beside him was either a grandson or a great-grandson. I didn’t have a camera with me, but I wish I had. I just thought, “That is why we built this thing,” to transfer that understanding from one generation to another that freedom isn’t free, that the freedoms we enjoy are possible because someone, somewhere, paid the price—or are paying the price—for them, and that we really owe our veterans a huge debt of gratitude. That’s something I’m really happy to have been a part of, and I hope that it is, in some way, a legacy for our administration. Also, some of the day-to-day things we do, such as GoMadisonville.com, help in reaching out to our citizens as customers instead of just taxpayers. We are trying to show that we recognize our obligation to them, and that we are accountable.

LS: Though this is your first of possibly two terms, do you have any plans in mind for your post-Mayor years?

David: No, not at this point in time. I’m planning on running again at the end of this term and I’m having a great time. I love being involved. Even when it’s difficult, through tough decisions and hard times, simply getting to be a part of those tough decisions is a great honor and opportunity. I’m pretty happy. We cut the budget when I first came in by working closely with the Madisonville City Council, which is a great group of people. I love all of them. We were able to cut the city’s budget by about 4 million dollars that first year; we cut about 700,000 dollars out of the general fund. Now, two years later, we’ve paid down 4 million dollars in debt and, as a result, we were able to purchase a lot of new equipment last year. We got some heavy equipment, like the new trucks with snow plows and some other stuff like that, and we just wrote checks for it. We didn’t, and still don’t, have to go out and borrow money for purchases like that. The City of Madisonville is in really, really good condition financially. We have about 80 days of cash on-hand in the general fund, as well as a few million dollars in other funds. So, we really are in good shape. And, again, that shows that exceptionalism I was talking about. When a lot of cities are facing economic trials and difficulties, we are blessed to be where we are, and it’s because of the community we have. Everyone works hard and that supports the services of the city.

LS: I’m sure your background in accounting has figured into that scenario, too.

David: It has. It’s given me a certain comfort level with working on the budgeting process. I didn’t want to do a budget adjustment where you just add or take two percent from last year. We do what’s known as “zero base” budgeting where we have to go through and justify every single line. It takes a lot longer and it’s a lot more grueling, but the end product is good because sometimes you have to increase the lines in some parts of the budget, but, overall, you hope to continue in putting downward pressure to decrease the burden put on taxpayers. So far, we’ve been pretty fortunate to do that. Plus, we keep getting great job announcements for our community, which adds to those tax rolls in the right way—not by increasing taxes, but by increasing jobs and opportunity. With that, I think we will see even brighter days ahead. There are some other great things we’re working on, too.

LS: One of those things is our city’s ongoing relationship with business leaders in China. Tell me a little bit about your recent Sister Cities-based trip to Dongying and what may soon come of it.

David: Our trip to China was awesome. It was probably the most grueling seven days of my life [laughs], especially considering I’d never dealt with a 14-hour time difference and jetlag that was just unbelievable. But it was a great opportunity. Presenting Madisonville on a world stage was incredible. As a result of our ongoing relationship and our recent trip there, several business leaders from the Shendong Equipment Group, as well as representatives from several other manufacturers, are planning on coming to Madisonville toward the end of February or March with the mindset of, “How we can work together?” and “How can we create some manufacturing opportunities?” So there are some really good opportunities here, and I really anticipate that we’ll get something good out of the deal.

LS: What would you tell someone who is unsure of Madisonville dealing with a foreign country like China?

David: You know, people have asked me—and it’s a legitimate question—“Why would we deal with a communist country?” The bottom line of it is that the Chinese, as investors, have made the decision to manufacture in North America. That decision is based on the cost of transportation and the costs of increasing wages in Asia. They are starting to see those wages rise. So, now, the pendulum is swinging back, and it’s actually becoming better for them to manufacture products in North America. With that in mind, the question we have to ask as a community is, “Do we want those jobs here or do we want them to go to Clarksville, or Owensboro, or Henderson, or Hopkinsville, or somewhere like that?” And the way I look at it, is that these jobs—that will hopefully be created—are going to be governed by American labor laws. Plus, the businesses will have to offer competitive wages and benefits to compete in our job markets. That being said, I’d like to have those jobs here for our people. We have to diversify our economy. I love coal and I’m a supporter of the coal industry, but, unfortunately, coal doesn’t get the same support from Washington that we would like to see it get. So, if coal continues to have that pressure put upon it, we really need to diversify our economy. Now, at the same time, I’m all for opening up the export markets, which is part of what we’re doing with China, to keep the coal industry safe and healthy. At the same time, I’m hopeful that administrations realize that there are clean ways to burn coal that don’t harm the environment, and that we should take advantage of such a great natural resource. That’s kind of what we’re working toward. My prayer is that coal remains really strong, and if that happens—and we’ve also managed to add a larger manufacturing base into Madisonville’s economy—then we’re just going to be better off. On that topic, I’d like to diversify in the food market, too. I’d like for us to add more food manufacturing, because that kind of works as an “anti-recessionary” tool. If you go through a recession, food usually stays pretty strong. People are still going to eat even when they have to give up some of the other luxuries in life. I’d also like to see [the local development project] Mid-Town Commons completed. That’s another great opportunity for us. I’d like to see the area north of Mid-Town Commons become a light industrial zone. In fact, I’d love to see it become what’s known as a foreign trade zone; an area where we could attract businesses outside of the US. If we can create the environment for foreign investors and businesses to come in and operate economically, then we can create even more jobs here.

LS: Is there anything you’d like to see change in downtown Madisonville in the future?

David: My real hope for downtown Madisonville is that we can develop it into a restaurant, entertainment, and professional district. I think that’s the real hope for the future. With the potential advent of numerous second-floor living arrangements, I really think specialty shops could be supported in our city’s downtown environment. I’d also love to see the old City Hall building come down. It has several structural issues, so if we could replace it with a permanent stage, we could open up the downtown Madisonville area to more events. When we do Friday Night Live, we have to rent the stage and it takes another day just to get it all prepared. If we could get a permanent stage downtown, similar to what they have in Greenville, KY—Greenville is doing a great job with this by the way—we could tie in a lot of aspects of our city’s commerce with entertainment. I’d like to see us move in that direction. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

LS: What’s your take on the former Hopkins County Library buildings? Should they be saved or destroyed?

David: I’d love to see the former library buildings saved. The reason I’ve been banging the drum and holding public meetings is because I don’t want to see those buildings go to waste if we can prevent it. Of course, though, public safety is my over-arching concern. Fortunately, it’s looking like they can be saved. To hear our city’s building inspector come in and say that the buildings need to be condemned, and that we were probably going to have to bring them down, really made my blood run cold. I agree with the gentleman who came from the Kentucky Historic Trust to assess the buildings. Taking the buildings down would be like “Madisonville getting its front teeth knocked out.” That’s exactly what it would be like. Again though, our main concern is safety as a city. So, if we can get those buildings safe, where they don’t pose a hazard to people or other properties, I’m certainly hopeful that we could restore them and make them usable.

LS: Here’s a quick “favorites” line of questioning to close this out with. What’s your favorite food?

David: Let me see. I just like so much, but my favorite food to cook is biscuits and gravy. My favorite drink is sweat tea. I’m a sweet tea fan. You always know when you’re in the south, because you can get sweet tea. If you go somewhere else and ask for sweet tea, they might look at you kind of funny.

LS: Favorite movie?

David: Well, I don’t watch a lot of movies or TV. I do watch some documentaries. Going back to President Reagan, I’ll say that the two-part documentary, The American Experience: Ronald Reagan, is one of my favorites.

LS: Favorite book?

David: It would have to be the Bible. Being a longtime minister, and a pastor at Living Waters today, the relationship I have with God allows for a lot of great things to flow.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo by Jeff Harp

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  • Published in Music

Gettin' Freaky with Sideshow Romance

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (1/31/13)–As each member of Sideshow Romance has come to understand through years of both on-the-road and onstage experience, true musicians and staunch music lovers are a breed all their own. Yet, it’s this sense of being an artist, an outsider, or—as Sideshow Romance coins it—a “freak,” that they believe binds the music scene together, thereby making it more potent. And it’s really a pretty interesting idea; musicians can be weird together, and we can have a lot of fun doing it.

Staying true to this idea, Sideshow Romance has created a regional “Freak Army” by reaching out to fans with accessibly energetic, hard-edged riffs, a roaring rhythm section, and catchy, yet torridly unabashed lyrical content.

What’s more, their singular blend of original, hard-driving tracks has resulted in performances alongside an impressive lineup of popular, nationally recognized acts, including Puddle of Mudd, Theory Of A Deadman, Papa Roach, Saliva, Drowning Pool, Black Stone Cherry, and more. They’ve even been privileged enough to work with acclaimed producers Brett Hestla (Dark New Day, Creed, and Framing Hanley) to carve out their first single, 'Take Me Down,' and Brandon Wootten (Framing Hanley) to record their first nationally released single, 'Numb.’

Today, their “freaky” fan base is growing more and more each day, and they have plans to record their first, full-length album with well-known producer, Travis Wyrick, in the near future. However, to complete this goal, they are calling on their fans for support via a popular funding website—Kickstarter.com.

To find out more about their campaign, as well as what Sideshow Romance is all about, what their thoughts are on music’s place in society, what kind of plans they have for the future, and more, I was able to interview the personable band members from the road via email. The results are as follows.

Luke Short: What are the names and positions of everyone in the band? And where is everyone from?

Larry Deffendoll: I’m on vocals. I’m originally from Boonville, IN.

Brandon Osbourne: I’m the drummer. I’m from Evansville, IN.

Joe Hillenbrand: I play guitar. I’m from Evansville, IN.

David McCord: I also play guitar. I grew up, and still live, in New Harmony, IN.

Trent Riley: I play bass. I’m from Dawson Springs, KY.

LS: How long have you all been playing music as a group and as individuals? Basically, what’s everyone’s music background?

Larry: We’ve been Sideshow Romance since August of 2011. As for my musical background, I started playing music right out of high school. I started as a drummer, playing both in church bands and garage bands, and then I got into bands that traveled. I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. through music.

Brandon: Before joining Sideshow Romance, I toured the country while playing in bands such as Pop Tart Monkeys and Joan Red.

Joe: I've been jumping around the music scene here for 10 years playing different clubs, venues, festivals, national shows, basements, and backyards. I finally hooked up with these fellas through playing some local shows together.

Trent: I got to know most of these guys from sharing the stage with them through my former band, Sexstone.

David: I have known most of the members of Sideshow Romance for several years through mutual and separate gigs. I started off playing bass when I was 13, and switched to guitar a few years later out of necessity to fill an empty slot in the band I was in at the time.

LS: What ultimately led to the formation of Sideshow Romance?

Larry: Brandon and I were in a band together called Calling Corners. After the departure of other members, we picked up Joe, and we eventually evolved into Sideshow Romance. From there, we went through a few bass players, but Trent came along and now we are what you see.

LS: Where did the name Sideshow Romance originate and how does it fit with your music?

Larry: We were very focused on branding this time around. We really felt that it was important to create a brand that people could relate to and remember. So we started trying to come up with something for like three weeks; we were just throwing out name idea after name idea. We ended up with almost 100 ideas, which we narrowed down to 5, then two. And, finally, we went with what looked best on a t-shirt. I also think the “freak” aspect is the way that it fits into our music. Musicians and hardcore music fans in general are considered a very different breed. We choose to embrace that and follow our dreams. We have no desire to be “normal” or live what’s considered a normal life. With that, the “Freak Army” was formed.

LS: Since you all formed, how has the response you’ve gotten changed?

Larry: I think the response is much bigger now, because after everything we’ve been through, we’ve learned so much. And what we learned first and foremost, is that the things we felt were most important in the beginning—management, big booking agents, radio, etc.—were not really the most important after all. The fans are the most important. Even if, and when, you secure the agents, radio, and such, the fans are absolutely your lifeline. So we really made it our focus to connect with our fans both on and off the stage, and once we did that the fans gave it right back to us.

LS: What genre or style of music do you all consider yourself?

Larry: We’re straight forward rock; a melodic kick in the teeth, if you will.

LS: How many original songs do you all play? Do you play covers?

Larry: We currently have an original set of about 12 songs, and a cover set of about 70 songs.

LS: Tell me a little bit about the kick start campaign you’ve got going on?

Larry: We’re trying to get back in the studio with Grammy nominated producer Travis Wyrick, and right now, with little to no budget and a super expensive studio bill, we’re asking the fans to help out, to donate towards that effort. And with their help in making that happen, we will be able to give them lots of cool things in return. With just a few days left to go, fans can check out our kickstarter campaign at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sideshowromance/for-the-freak-army.

LS: When you guys approach writing a new song, what’s your process?

Larry: We don’t really have a set process. One of us usually comes in with an idea and we build off of that. If we start building and it’s not working, we move on and come back to the idea later so that we might hear it differently or put one of the more recent ideas with older ideas to make it a song.

LS: What kind of influences do you draw from?

Larry: As far as sound, we draw from the musical influences of each member. We’re all huge fans of bands like Sevendust and Dark New Day, so we draw from them. And then, as far as the lyrics go, I take ideas from past and present experience, or something I may be feeling at the moment.

LS: Overall, what’s the band’s goal with playing music?

Larry: We just want to be heard and have fun.

LS: How, and why, is music important to a community, or even to society at large?

Larry: Music opens doors that other people or things may not be able to. Everyone can connect with a song in some way, and I believe the release that music provides is very important. It’s like an escape from the real world. Music has always been important to society and culture, from early history to anyone's own life today. Think back to your high school days, for example. Regardless of fashion and general opinion, music always has always had a way of bringing people together.

LS: In what ways could the local music scene be improved upon? And what are the positives from your perspective?

David: I think one thing that sometimes lacks from the local music scene is a sense of community, but it isn't all bad. In fact, I think it's more good than bad. I guess you could fairly compare the music scene to society in general. It's easy for everyone to go their own way, but if anything serious happens, the whole community kind of pulls together for the bigger cause. I feel fortunate to be a part of it.


LS: Where can people find your music?

Larry: You can find us on iTunes, Amazon, CDbaby, Spotify, and basically anywhere that digital music is sold.

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

David: I have to thank my fiancé Kate and my daughter Karmyn for being so supportive and understanding. Then there's my mother for all of the encouragement over the years. And lastly, my brother Dan and my friend Ryan for the inspiration.

Trent: I want to give a huge shout-out to all our fans, for without them, we wouldn't be able to do this.

Larry: Hey Popeye’s Chicken owners, you need to sponsor Sideshow Romance!

To check out the latest updates from Sideshow Romance, including music and tour dates, visit the band’s official Facebook page by clicking here. You can also check out Sideshow Romance’s music by visiting their ReverbNation page or by clicking on the music player attached below this article.

Want to help in funding the creation of Sideshow Romance’s first full album? Check out their official kickstarter campaign page by clicking here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos provided by Sideshow Romance

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  • Published in Art

The Anchor Holds

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (12/27/12) –“Sailor” Jerry Swallow’s 53-year mark on the international world of tattooing, with especial regard to his work in the realm of American traditional style, is undeniable, timeless, and—quite literally—indelible.

Guided and taught by old-school tattooing legends like Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers, Cap Coleman, and childhood mentor Charlie Snow, as well as Japanese master Kazua Ogori (Hori Hide) via overseas correspondence, Swallow’s knowledge and understanding of classic tattoo design is enviably vast—a fact evidenced by his astounding, decades-long collection of work. And while he’s aware of his following and the impact he’s had on artists the world over, fame is his last concern. In fact, he remains humble about his craft and has done what he can to catalogue and honor those who have helped to shape America’s historic tattooing landscape.

But what does this legendary artist have to do with Hopkins County, KY?

An inspiration to many, and a true friend to most who meet him, the Nova Scotia native has spent the last two weeks in Madisonville, KY with close friend and nationally recognized tattoo artist, Jack Hinton, inking new tattoos and meeting new people.

A member of Mainstream Body Art on South Kentucky Avenue, Hinton carries the enduring flame of traditional American design into the modern age. And, in paying homage to one of his biggest influences, Hinton recently featured his work alongside some of the nation’s most recognized tattooers in a high-quality art publication, Homeward Bound at Last, which celebrates Jerry Swallow’s 50-year impact on the world of traditional American tattoo art.

With this in mind, it’s really no surprise that the renowned 67-year-old took the time to visit Hinton in Kentucky for the holiday season. What’s more, it seems that time spent in Kentucky has made a positive impression on the staple artist.

So who is Sailor Jerry Swallow and what is his fabled story? To find out the answer to these questions and more, Sugg Street Post contributor, Landon Miller, was able to talk with the venerated and personable artist within the confines of Mainstream Body Art’s smoky, art-filled VIP room. The result of their conversation is as follows.

Landon Miller: Alright Jerry, first things first. What brought you to Madisonville, KY?

Sailor Jerry Swallow: Eh, more than anything, just to hang out with Jack [Hinton] for a while.

LM: How did you get to know Jack?

SJS: I met him on the internet first, and then I met him in person in St. Louis while we were at a tattoo convention. He invited me to come down after the holidays to come hang out and do some tattooing, so I made an early trip instead.

LM: What do you think about Kentucky so far?

SJS: I like it. It reminds me of home.

LM: And your home is?

SJS: Nova Scotia

LM: You have been working in tattoo shops since the age of 12 or 13. Is that correct?

SJS: Yeah.

LM: At age 16, you started tattooing. What attracted you to the art at such a young age, and what has kept you going for 53 years?

SJS: I used to go to downtown Halifax, and my dad was a bus driver, so I would take a ride downtown with him after school, and one of the stops was in front of one of the old tattoo shops down there. I'd get out there and look at the flash in the window. It was different. There was just something different about the place. In those days, anything to do with tattooing was magical. So, I just used to go down there and hang around, and if the old man [Charlie Snow] was sitting out in front, he would get me to run errands for him. You know, get him a newspaper or something like that. He didn’t let me inside the shop for a long time. Then, one day, he just started letting me inside to sweep the floor, run errands, and stuff like that. After a while, he started getting old and was looking for someone to tattoo. He told me to come down and he'd teach me how to do it. I went down on the day he told me to go in and was tattooing the same day.

LM: For our readers who aren't familiar with your story, explain how you received the title “Sailor” Jerry Swallow?

SJS: They used to call me “sailor” when I was a kid because I used to wear little a sailor hat all the time, and it just stuck. Everybody tattooing back then had a nickname, so the old man [Charlie Snow] just called me the same name. He said “There's another Sailor Jerry, but f**k 'em.”

LM: Throughout your 53 year career as a tattooer, what is the one time in your career you would like to revisit, or what is your biggest accomplishment?

SJS: I think it would be changing the style of the tattoo design a little bit. Everybody, at one time, did almost the same thing. [Cap] Coleman, [Paul] Rogers, and Huck Spaulding, they were doing something different. I used to see everybody's tattoos where I was at. I was lucky, because I was young, and I gave Huck a call, and he was really f***ing good to me, and he said, “If you ever get down here [Albany, New York], just come down to the tattoo shop.” A week later, I was there. If you want to learn somebody's style, you’ve got to be with them. That was probably about the best time in my career—hanging around Huck and [Paul] Rogers.

LM: I also read that in 1971 you started communicating through post mail with Japanese master Kazua Ogori (Hori Hide). As I understand it, he tutored you in the form of Japanese art through these correspondences. Could you give me a little insight on that?

SJS: Yeah, I got a hold of him first. I wrote him a couple of letters and he wrote right back. For me, being interested in what he was doing, it was, well, it was different. I would ask him things and he would tell me right away. When I started drawing Japanese style art, I would send it over to him. It would be just like a teacher marking your grades. There would be red “X”s all over everything. That went on until about 1980 before he gave me one of the “Hori” names.

LM: So you finally received a title from him?

SJS: Yeah.

LM: Could you tell us what that title is?

SJS: Hori Ryu.

LM: And what does that name translate to?

SJS: That means “master tattoo artist dragon.” He titled me this name with a number behind it, which is pretty common for them to do, like number one, or number two. I can remember in some of his letters he would be like, “I'm going to show you how to do this, but you’ve got to promise me that this is the way you will always do it.” In fact, all these years later, we still write back and forth.

LM: Does he still tattoo?

SJS: Yeah. He's about 85-years-old now and he still does 'em.

LM: In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of traditional tattooing. It has received a lot of pop culture attention. Tell me your opinions on this, both good and bad.

SJS: Well, I think it's good. It's made me feel like less of a dinosaur in the business.

LM: More relevant, right?

SJS: Yeah. It's nice to see people taking an interest in it and doing it the right way. A lot of people that are doing it, though, it's really nice artwork, but it's just not done right.

LM: Are there any negatives that you have seen come out of the resurgence of traditional tattooing?

SJS: Well, you've got too many people doing it that shouldn't be doing it. That's pretty much it. In my opinion, anybody that doesn’t know a little bit of history about tattooing shouldn't even be in the business as far as I'm concerned. There's quite a few of them who don't even care, and they don’t even want to learn.

LM: Why do you think there has been such a big resurgence?

SJS: Jesus, you know, it's really hard to say. For so many years now, everything’s been “realistic” this, “realistic” that. Everybody you see has got it on them. Now, you see a game that’s 40-years-old coming back again, and how bold it is. It looks different. And, in my opinion, it [traditional style] looks better, and it stays. To me, you can't beat that old, simple, traditional style of tattooing. I can see what it is from 20 feet away.

LM: Who were some of your major influences during your formative years as a tattooer?

SJS: I've still got to say Huck Spaulding and Paul Rogers. Same goes back to that [Cap] Coleman style. They had it, and that's what I wanted to do. They showed me how to do it, and I stuck right to it. I tried to change into the realistic style a little bit in the late ‘80s, but I couldn't do it, so I just went back to what I always did.

LM: In the past few years, I guess you have seen people gain a whole new respect for what you do, because for a while there was all the Guy Aitchison stuff. Was there a lull in your career during the “hay day” of biomechanical style, bioorganic style, etcetera?

SJS: Yeah, that was a real downer for quite a few years.

LM: Could you name some of the up-and-coming traditional tattooers out now that you think have something to say?

SJS: I'm not saying this because Jack [Hinton] is here, but he's one of 'em. You've got Clifton Boggs in Canton Ohio, and he's a Kentucky boy, too. Actually, there's quite a few, but not a lot really stand out. Jack's got a really unique style on it. Clifton has a different style totally, but it's all the same kind of traditional stuff. It's really beautiful work. As far as I'm concerned, if there’s anyone who can do realistic and traditional, Jack does it. I've seen the stuff he does. It's amazing. I couldn’t do it; there’s just no way. I'm just stuck in that old stuff, and that's it.

LM: And it has served you well. Here are some random questions. Tell me some of the music you have been listening to lately.

SJS: I like the blues. That's pretty much all I really listen to. Old Mississippi delta blues, John Lee Hooker, and rock and roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I throw a little bit of that in once in a while. My kids were all brought up on that music and that’s all they listen to.

LM: By the way, how many kids do you have?

SJS: I have nine.

LM: Do they have a respect for tattooing?

SJS: They do. In fact, two of my boys can tattoo pretty good, but they don't want anything to do with it. One of them likes to do security stuff. The other one likes to cook.

LM: What is your favorite food?

SJS: I was brought up to eat anything, as long as it was dead. Whatever you put down, I can pretty much eat it. When I was growing up, I remember a bowl of peas would be our main meal, or porridge for dinner. Stuff like that. I was 12 or 13-years-old before I ate a piece of chicken. The first real milk I drank, I remember I was 13. Before that, everything was powdered milk, you know, powdered potatoes. We never had a lot of money, so whatever they put on the table, we ate it.

LM: Any art form demands a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Can you give any advice on sustaining longevity?

SJS: Well, you’ve got to keep drawing. You’ve got to be drawing all the time. That's what I've found. Everything you do, when you look at it, you’ve got to say to yourself, “The next one's going to be better.” You’ve got to keep that in mind, because if you do something that's perfect, then you kind of get a big head and you don't try anymore. Jack [Hinton] and Clifton [Boggs] are great people, but you’ve got to go talk to them. If they like you, they're going to tell you anything you ask them. That's the way to do it. All these guys that “know everything” really don't. I can sit down and watch Jack [Hinton] tattoo and walk away learning three or four new things, and I've been tattooing my whole f***ing life.

LM: So keep learning....

SJS: Keep learning, yeah.

LM: What would you tell a young person that doesn't tattoo, but wants to start?

SJS: Well, there are way too many people tattooing now. So don't do it. It ain't as easy as it looks, and it's the hardest life you will ever get into. It'll wear you down. Tattoo is a mean f***ing boss; it'll kick your ass one day, and then give you a hug the next. If you get somebody that's really dedicated, you know, they'll hang in. I went through some of the toughest times; you wouldn't even believe it. If it wasn’t for guys like me…You know, a lot of them guys are dead now, and they should get a lot of respect for keeping tattooing alive. It [tattooing] would have f***ing collapsed. When I first started, you couldn't make enough money to eat sometimes, but we kept going. By the way, I hope you don't mind me cursing on here. I don't even realize I'm swearing sometimes.

LM: F**k it, we'll keep going. Your work with watercolor is prolific, to say the least. If you had to give an estimate of how many watercolor pieces you’ve done, what would you say?

SJS: We were talking about that about two weeks ago. We came up with an estimate of at least 10,000.

LM: Wow!

SJS: The first 25 or 30 years in this business, I would change my flash in the shop every year. I would rip it all down and do it all over again. Not at once, but I would be doing four, five, or six sheets a day, and I’d pull down six. Then I’d put up six new ones. My walls always had like 300 sheets up. Then I would do sheets for other tattooers. I've done sheets for tattoo supply companies at a rate of 500 to 600 sheets a time.

LM: Did you ever see any money out of that?

SJS: No. I never took money from them because these guys were always good to me. I can't remember the last time I had to buy ink or anything. It just goes around.

LM: The bartering system, basically?

SJS: Yeah, but there's not a whole lot of that around anymore. It ain't like it used to be. I wouldn't take any money from Huck Spaulding. I worked for three months down there [Albany, NY] doing his catalog up for him. He was determined to give me money, but there was no way I was going to take it. He was just too good to me, you know? So his deal was like, “You can have anything on my property except my old lady,” but I never felt right about doing it. Same thing goes for asking for stuff, too.

LM: What does the term “flash” mean and from where did it originate?

SJS: A sheet of tattoo designs that you have on your wall where your customer can come in and pick one of them is flash. They were always so bright, and it makes the shop look—as they used to call it—flashy. So that's where the word came from.

LM: Do you think you will ever come back to Kentucky?

SJS: Yeah. I would like to come back again. I've been here before. I was here about 18-years ago visiting a buddy of mine in southern Illinois, and he's pretty close to Paducah. So we were down that way quite a bit. At that time, there weren’t a lot of shops down here, but I’ve drove around [Kentucky] and it looks so much like back home. You really feel comfortable here right away. The people are nice here, too.

LM: Well, from a tattoo enthusiast to a tattoo legend, I want to say it has been an honor to interview you.

SJS: I appreciate you talking to me. I've been all over the world. I can walk into a shop in Holland and be recognized—not that I'm looking for someone to bow down to me, because I find that embarrassing—but I've walked into shops that I’ve never been in and they knew me. The States are even better. Here, I can go into any shop and they know who I am. They treat me really nice, but in my own country, I can go into a shop there, stand around all day, and they act like they don't even want to say “Hi” to you. Back home, it's like, “Who gives a f**k?”

And while the biblical adage of Luke seems to fit quite well here - "No prophet is accepted in his own country" - Sailor Jerry Swallow's deeply rooted anchor holds firm, it endures, and it will continue to inspire traditional tattoo artists the world over for generations to come. Thank you, Jerry. 

Sugg Street Post
Written and edited by Luke Short
Interview by Landon Miller
Photos by Jeff Harp

 

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