Brian Powers is a freelance writer, bassist, legal writer and amateur home remodeler originally from Clearwater, Florida. He lives in Lexington with his wife and at least four children, and his favorite band is Def Leppard, for which he refuses to apologize.
In some ways, “LOA 3”, the latest EP by Lexington rockers Letters of Acceptance, feels like a departure. Unlike the songs on prior releases “LOA 1” and “LOA 2,” which each had a consistent feel throughout, “LOA 3” shifts gears willy-nilly, jumping tonally from track to track. It gives the impression of late-era Beatles, when the band knew what it had earned musically and started to spend that coin with experimentation.
The surprising note, however, is that “LOA 3” is not the result of a shift in a new direction musically, but a planned final act in a trilogy of EPs that both caps off an era and starts down a new path. The first three songs on the release are the final songs recorded as part of the same process which produced the first two EPs – recordings cut at home by the core duo of singers/songwriters/band founders John Norris and Clint Newman.
L-R: John Norris (guitar/vocals); Scott Whiddon (bass); Clint Newman (guitar/vocals); Tim Welch (drums) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst
“John and I have been friends for a long time but spent a lot of time nowhere near each other geographically and periodically losing touch,” said Newman. “So the first batch of recordings, which was us holed up in an attic or basement, was like time we spent getting to know each other again. I loved spending that time with him, just working on our little project like it’s a secret.”
That process, recording a full project as a twosome (chronicled back near the end of the last decade here), produced nearly three EPs worth of music, culminating in “LOA 3.” Now, here’s where all the heavy-handed metaphors about endings and beginnings find their purchase: the kernel of change on “LOA 3” is the fourth track on the EP, “150 Ways to Play Solitaire,” in which Letters of Acceptance members drummer Tim Welch and bassist Scott Whiddon get in on the action.
In other words, after nearly three EPs as a duo, now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational rock’n’roll band. Also, the…sorta goofiness, since “150 Ways…” seems to be rooted in how much fun one band can have recording a tune (and, hey, the Kinks made a career out of this).
“It is a decade-plus-old song that Clint and I made a home recording of long ago, then we re-recorded it with Scott and Tim in a recording studio with Otto Helmuth. So it is the first recording to introduce the full band, yet is also our oldest (and perhaps silliest) song,” said Norris.
The song would be an outlier on any other album, but it fits here on an EP where every song is an outlier, and the musical jumps could give one whiplash. The third track is “Zip Up Your Pockets,” which starts as something of a bleak meditation and then builds to an epic finale, right before “150 Ways to Play Solitaire” cuts in with a Beatles-esque goofy zeal, complete with an intro whistle solo.
“It’s really fun to be in a band that can put such a silly song next to something far more somber like ‘Zip Up’. I think that’s part of what we want to do – have freedom to go in lots of different directions, nor worry about some kind of sound or concept….” said Norris.
“Part of the reason we settled on our band name was because from the beginning of this project, we decided that we weren’t going to lay an overall concept on the sound and instead just trust that whatever comes naturally to us will be good,” said Newman. “Try and work quickly, though not necessarily in a rush.Accept (!) whatever comes up and run with it.”
Scott Whiddon (bass); Tim Welch (drums)- Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst
Those instincts serve the band well, and the evident enjoyment had by all on the final track portends what may be an even more fully realized musical vision. To date, there have really been two versions of Letters of Acceptance – Newman and Norris recording alone, and the full band playing the tunes live in a flurry of shows from houses to festivals.Now, with “LOA 3”, these entities have merged into a single recording band.
“I think that we’ve grown to trust each other more and to listen to each other as players and writers,” said Whiddon, of the evolution of the group. “What hasn’t really changed – maybe deepened or grown? – is that we like each other’s company.We get each other’s jokes.And we can kinda predict each other a bit more now, and that’s great.”
LOA with engineer/producer Otto Helmuth (center) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst
This new unit brings about new possibilities but, for now, the recording process retains the same ethos: keep plugging away without looking back.
“I think some bands write songs and “workshop” them by playing them live a lot before recording, so that they really understand what the song can do. That makes sense,” said Newman. “But the other approach that bands often take, and that we’re taking, is to write the songs, work them up just enough so we can record basic tracks, and try to capture the magic that happens when a song is still really fresh.After playing something live a lot, it can get a bit stale quickly, and that’s what you don’t want when you’re recording.”
“I think we just want to keep recording while the material is coming and keep trying to capture it while it’s fresh,” said Norris. “Then maybe in the summer we’ll start figuring out how to shape it all together.”
Contributing writer Brian Powers is a freelance writer, bassist, legal writer and amateur home remodeler originally from Clearwater, Florida. He lives in Lexington with his wife and at least four children, and his favorite band is Def Leppard, for which he refuses to apologize.
For the second year in a row now, a motley group of local musicians is heading to the dark side of the moon for a good cause. On Friday, December 14th, at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center Black Box Theatre, an assortment of local musical luminaries will play two sets – one from Pink Floyd, covering their seminal years and another paying tribute to Big Star, an incredibly influential and acclaimed group that never quite seemed to mate that influence to commercial success. All of these efforts are to support Lexington Habitat for Humanity, a cause near to organizer Dr. Scott Whiddon’s heart (more on that here).
Keyboardist Kevin Holm-Hudson, member of The Twiggenburys and a second-year alumnus of this event, finds an added benefit in the charitable aspect of the gig:
“Music is something we do together. It’s a communal, bonding experience, so making music to benefit the community really adds to my enjoyment.”
“Art in general, and music, in particular, are great communication tools,” adds Guitarist Jim Gleason of the Johnson Brothers and another second-year alumnus. “In this case, the show is a way to get the word out about Habitat through a different channel than something typical like an ad or brochure. If that helps point a light on the good work they do, I’m excited to help.”
The doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 14th, with the music starting at 8:30. Tickets are available here, and an event page for more information is available here.
“It was dark and she was playing dead. Not sure of how to get out of this. Her shallow grave. Her lover’s grasp.”
Last October, author Bridgett Eve Howard began writing short vignettes of horror – one a day – her own spin on the new tradition of Inktober. This year, she published these works alongside some genuinely creepy art by illustrator Flannery Grace Vaught in the book 31: An October Collection.
Like all the best horror, these stories tap into deeper fears and vulnerabilities. It isn’t just the monster that is frightening, but also the human condition.
Bridgett Eve Howard
For the protagonists of many of the various stories in this collection, the horror began long before the narrative; these are survivors of loss, of illness, and myriad other traumas. In one story, the end of a romantic relationship coincides with the literal stopping of the world. In another, a survivor of mental illness fights a toxic version of herself in a self-destructive manner. Yet another sees suicidal thoughts become a physical monster, chasing a young woman her entire life, only to overcome her the moment she’s happy and feels she’s finally free of him for good.
“I like when the trauma comes throughout,” said Howard. “I really feel like that’s a real reflection of life. Most of the time you don’t just wake up like this.
The writing is, at times, a bit rough and in need of polish, but that adds to the charm and authenticity of a document that was built out of complete short stories written in quick fashion.
“I’m more of a storyteller than an author,” said Howard. “I do think the tradition of storytelling is more ‘we’re gonna focus on what the person is saying,’ instead of how well they said it.”
This is a small, personal affair, not a product of a literature machine, but of a determined individual putting her own vulnerabilities on display. That is to say, there is more blood on the pages than in just the scary tales. The stories and the protagonists are more than thin creations from an active imagination; these stories are informed by Howard’s own trauma, laid bare on the paper.
“I lost my mother to cancer at 15. It was a very quick process. She was diagnosed on October 29, 2009. She didn’t tell me until November 1st, because she knew Halloween was my favorite holiday,” said Howard. “She was dead the day before Thanksgiving that year – November 25th – so it was three weeks since she had been diagnosed that she passed away.”
The devasting experience took a toll on her psyche.
“It was awful. Her skin turned black. She turned into something very difficult to see. It really ended up playing on repeat in my life for a long time.”
Writing a horror anthology turned out to be a form of coping with demons.
“Almost every single story is a reflection of trauma, of grief, loss, mental illness. Delving into that was the most therapeutic thing I think I’ve done for it,” said Howard. “I felt like I was in a good enough place to finally reflect on a lot of things in my life.”
The Rabbit | Drawn by Flannery Grace Vaught
In one striking example, a story about a decomposing rabbit in the road takes real-life inspiration from the moment she remembers seeing her mother pick up a dead turtle in the road outside her restaurant.
“She picked it up thinking it was fine, and all these maggots poured out of it,” said Howard.
The elegant and macabre rabbit illustration with that story, as with all the illustrations in the book and cover, is the work of artist Flannery Grace Vaught, a friend of Howard’s from their time at Transylvania University who was tasked with bringing the stories to life.
“This is the first time I feel like I’ve gotten to go in this direction,” said Vaught, praising the free rein given to her to create suitably creepy images in the medium of her choosing. She used ink and gesso and a photocopier to create the images, drawing and then copying the layers of the image to degrade them.
“It gives them that gritty, faux lo-fi quality. I like that grit – that layer of dust and dirt that gives a story beyond the story it’s illustrating.”
She wants her work to get inside the mind of the viewer, bringing an added element of darkness to everything she does.
This is not Vaught’s first go-round with horror, however.
“Most of the stuff I do has some darkness in it,” said Vaught. Much of her work involves agrarian life, which is fraught. On a farm, Vaught said, “You encounter life and death all the time.”
There’s a deeper, layered horror in the stories of 31: An October Collection – one that will ring all too familiar for unfortunately too many: many of the protagonists in these stories experience some form of past or present trauma, violence or horror that is specific to women.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t get to watch scary movies,” said Howard. “My mother constantly watched Lifetime in front of me, which was honestly more traumatizing than watching It, or The Shining, or something, because it was always women in danger. And my mother was also somebody who experienced a lot of violence in her life.”
He is always with me in window | Drawn by Flannery Grace Vaught
A first-time female hitchhiker in danger reflects on how her brother was able to effortlessly make his way cross-country. A teenage girl plays possum while her abusive lover buries her, believing her to be dead.A woman faces down a possibly supernatural stalker. Many of the monsters in this book are scary not because they’re superhuman or supernatural, but because they are the monsters women face every day of their lives.
“That’s always been reflective of me – I’m a woman, I have to be on edge because I’m a woman,” said Howard. “There’s an experience in being not-male that is just vulnerable and unfortunately opens you to more fears. You feel the need to protect yourself more. You feel the need to be on that edge.”
That edge finds its way into the characterization in the stories, a great many of which are told from a first-person perspective.
“I like to have that connection,” Howard said of her protagonists. “I try to make every character its own character, but ultimately it’s just me with different wigs on.”
She hopes that others can relate to the stories she has written.
“But I also decided that if they didn’t…if it wasn’t good, if nobody enjoyed it, then it still served its purpose for me,” said Howard. “Luckily, that’s not been the case.”
It’s not a bad thing when an interview with an indie rock four-piece devolves into a discussion of favorite Replacements albums. It also gets more interesting when talk settles around not a seminal work, but a later and, according to some, lesser work. The fact that this narrative derailment ends with mutual agreement on the merits of said album showcases how Letters of Acceptance, a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of local musical life, works as a band; they exist as a loose collective of musicians spread out across more than a couple cities and some impressively harried work schedules who come together in what seems to be a nearly perfect fit on random occasions. It’s the amiable convergence on mutual agreement that operates to their advantage, whether in playing music together or in conversation about The ‘Mats albums.
There’s also more than a hint of serendipity, as the members all find themselves in a relatively same geographic location for the first time. John Harlan Norris and Clinton Harlin Newman (who either really missed an opportunity to name the group “Harlan and Harlin” – or were too wise to do so), the driving force behind the group, knew each other in Kentucky but both wound up in New York for a brief period of overlap. Collaboration grew out of that and spanned years and miles before they finally found themselves both in the same state again, and an intermittent collaboration blossomed into a full project.
“I think we had this idea that we wanted to keep it loose and try and have a little bit of spontaneity,” said Norris. “In some ways, for practical purposes, because that’s all time would allow for.”
The time constraints came not just because of busy schedules but because of the necessity for favorable weather for comfortable recording sessions in Newman’s uninsulated attic in Louisville.
“We could only record during winter, because the attic gets literally a hundred degrees in the summer,” said Newman.
The looseness gives the music a lived-in, organic feel, but not a sense of sloppiness. That loose approach doesn’t bleed over into the production value, however, despite the guerilla recording effort.
“I try to imagine it like we’re doing this twenty years ago and we’re using a little four-track cassette tape recorder to record a whole album,” said Newman. “I still think like that. That’s the most fun thing to do.”
L-R: Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch, Clinton Harlin Newman, John Harlan Norris
After writing and recording together for some time, the duo began taking their music out in public, giving it the local version of a road test before eventually enlisting bassist Scott Whiddon and drummer Tim Welch in mid-2018. Whiddon, a staple of the Lexington music scene the last several years, had been in a band that crossed paths and joined bills with another project of Norris while Whiddon was a grad student at LSU. He helped recruit Welch.
“They hooked me in immediately, when I heard it. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get in on this.’ Then, ‘My wife’s going to kill me,’” said Welch.
Only after Welch was brought in as drummer, completing the foursome, did he realize his own proximity to the fated group:
“John and I live like five houses away and didn’t even know each other,” said Welch.
The relatively short distance between bandmates now belies a larger distance in the mix, namely, Norris’s seven-hour weekly commute to teach in Jonesboro, Arkansas, at Arkansas State University, where he is Associate Professor of Art.
The artistry is evident in the composition – the lyrics often convey textures as much as themes, evoking actual poetry rather than a series of built-out rhymes. There is an undercurrent of bemused alienation throughout, disassociation viewed through a winking lens, even if it isn’t a conscious effort at a throughline.
“It’s just what comes out,” said Newman.
Lines fit because they work, not because they serve some heavy-handed theme:
“I’m interested in narratives that aren’t straightforward,” said Norris, but there is a bit of soul-searching emptiness that the songwriters attribute to being back in Kentucky.
“I think there are some lyrical things in an oblique way that do address that,” said Norris.
“The idea of coming back to a place and having it be different from what you anticipated,” said Newman. “We’re still trying to figure out where we are.”
Norris and Lewis work up the songs together, but it’s not a stretch to see echoes of Norris’svisual art in the lyrics from the duo.
“I’m here, but I’m ill-defined,” a line from “Cons and Pros,” the leading track on their new EP, could describe any number of Norris’s works, portraits where the human subject has been replaced instead with objects that reconstruct the outline of a human figure or build a silhouette that obscures identity. If this description is getting away from me or the point isn’t quite getting across, know that this is all meant to be a breathless compliment on the artistic complement.
Art as motivation is what drives back the forces of chaos that would render a less-organized band asunder.
“Everyone in this band has a job and a house and responsibilities. When we see each other, it’s really happy. We have to plan ahead, and that’s okay,” said Whiddon. “It’s going to be fun.”
“If it’s a thing you want to do, you just figure out a way to do it,” said Norris.
Letters of Acceptance will be debuting their full-band lineup and releasing their EP at The Green Lantern on Friday, August 31st at 10 p.m. with Robby Cosenza and Otto. Tickets are $5.
It’s a cold night in early December, but the Green Lantern is packed. The trio of musicians assembles on stage, and the weight of expectation hangs heavy. For the uninitiated to the Johnny Conqueroo universe, this is the moment when blistering rock’n’roll might be expected. This is the band you’ve heard about for years. This is the band you’re supposed to accept as the Next. Big. Thing. So it’s just a tad confusing when the downbeat produces…slow and heavy 12-bar blues?
Okay, so you adjust your expectation – after all, they aren’t making some rote recital of a familiar form – they’re really digging into it, extracting every last ounce of grit.It’s now a blues band you’re witnessing. And before the cymbals die out from the first tune, gritty guitar kicks in and the blistering rock’n’roll of their new single “Brick” begins, rejiggering those blues chops with meaty layers of deep bass and rock solid drums. Singer/guitarist Grant Curless stalks the stage like a man possessed, clinging to his guitar almost like a weapon to ward off the crowd, while Shawn Reynolds on bass and Wils Quinn on drums to lay in the pocket and anchor the action. Welcome to the real deal.
Johnny Conqueroo is not here to play to your expectations. Starting off with a heavy blues number in a rock show? Unheard of. Finding a home in the blues when much of the modern musical catalog seems to have abandoned it? Bold. Coming off as slightly reserved, intensely polite and complete pros during an interview? Isn’t this supposed to be a bunch of young punks?
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the members of Johnny Conqueroo are, in fact, well-worn veterans in the Lexington music scene and beyond because they started as a band relatively young (side note: so did Radiohead). It’s their complete professionalism that allowed Quinn to quickly suppress a strained grimace when asked a somewhat condescending question about whether the band’s relative youth provided them with a sliding scale of expectations.
“There’s a lot of bands that will kind of ride on that – ‘Look, we’re amazing and we’re kids.’ And that becomes their identity,” said Quinn, “and then all of a sudden they’re not kids, and it’s just, ‘Oh, they’re just a band.’ It definitely helped early on, because people were like, ‘Yeah, they’re in high school and they play the blues – isn’t that funny?’”
“It feels almost kind of gimmicky,” said Reynolds.
“It was a glaring fact,” said Quinn.
If the band (rightly) chafes under the mention of their youth during their band’s rise, it’s because it’s at this point where a hacky writer should discuss how the transition from “high schooler band” to “adult band” has had a marked difference on their music and given them a more mature sound as they have shed their teenage band persona. But that would be stupid.
Has their songwriting progressed? Absolutely, just like any band with years of experience. Is their sound more focused and tighter? Listening through from their 2015 EP to 2016’s “Washed Up” and on to their newly-released EP, “Haint Blue,” the answer is indeed “yes.” It’s the central tenet that there is a mandated maturation process to which the band has been exposed that breaks down – Johnny Conqueroo didn’t age into their musical craft – they’ve been at the top of their game since the beginning, and they’ve been doing this a long time.
“I started going to Nashville maybe fourth or fifth grade – started going down there a whole lot,” said Curless. “Started listening to the bands in the honky-tonks, which were cover bands, but would cover old country songs and old rockabilly songs.”
Curless’s interest in music formed there, shifting from old country like Hank Williams to rockabilly, and then…
“Slowly, that morphed into the blues,” said Curless.
Although the band has moved a bit away from its roots as a blues three-piece, it’s the genre that still informs their music to a high degree.
“I can’t really help it, to some extent,” said Curless. “You like what you like.”
“Listening to the blues – you kind of start to get an appreciation for the storytelling aspect,” said Quinn. “You can get an appreciation for that without going through anything other than just listening to those stories. They’re just fun stories, and if it’s good blues, it’s always told with conviction, too. It seems like it’s told by someone who really needs to tell it.”
It also helps the group mine fodder for their material from stories around them.
“We have a whole multitude of weird friends and weird people and weird stories you hear in Lexington,” said Curless.
“You’ll start to pick up these inspirations from people you meet and friends and characters for weird ideas to jump off of,” said Quinn.
In addition to mining the local landscape for stories, the band has a reverence for the music that came before, sniffing out pieces and parts to add to their repertoire.
“Any time we hear a record or a 45 that just has an element to it that we really like, we try and incorporate that same element into a song or in the band in general,” said Curless. “The groove of funk music…”
“Like those little drum breaks from sixties garage band songs,” Quinn said. “Actively listening to that stuff and seeing what you could pull from it. The internet is basically the secret.”
On “Haint Blue,” their third release in four years, Johnny Conqueroo throws the throwback dance party they’ve been building to since their first EP in 2015. Jangly guitars, slapback vocal reverb and a trademark drum sound by knob-twirling local mastermind Duane Lundy all add to a potent mix of equal parts modern blues and Dick Dale. The title track takes these fundamentals sans vocals and turns them on their head in a raucous musical exorcism over a repeated riff that demonstrates the power in this power trio.
That power overtakes Curless on stage, turning him from a soft-spoken and circumspect individual in an interview into a howling banshee, ready to take no prisoners. His bandmates referred to Curless’s enormous stage charisma and excellent guitar face as a possession, relaying a story of one memorable gig where Curless was so overtaken with the energy of the show that he smashed his guitar at the climax of the song and ran off stage.
Curless shrugs off any idea that there’s some demon to exorcise. There’s no deep trauma underlying the complete transformation, no need to prove something to the world. It’s just a natural extension of Curless, guitar in hand, absorbing every electron of light in the spotlight night after night.
“It just feels right up on stage.”
Johnny Conqueroo’s third release, “Haint Blue,” is out now on label The Fir Trade.
The opening notes of “Without Applause,” the first track off the forthcoming Horse Feathers album “Appreciation,” belie the NPR-blessed “Beardy Pacific Northwest Folk-Pop” status the band has achieved in recent years. It’s an up-tempo throwback that feels more at home in the mid-seventies singer-songwriter era than in the catch-all frame of “indie folk.” The ascending melodic lines in a major key, the hint of conga drums, some tasteful soul piano and a big finish complete with choir vocals defy a genre lately stagnating from a distinct lack of these added elements. All this goes to say that Astoria, Oregon-based Horse Feathers isn’t your standard indie folk band. Hell, Horse Feathers isn’t your standard band, period.
Horse Feathers isn’t so much an ongoing group as much as it seems to be a shifting collective of musicians wrapped around the singular songwriting prowess of Justin Ringle. There have been multiple iterations of the outfit in the 14 years since its founding, and the only constant has been Ringle. It’s this unconventional assembly of lineups that refreshes Horse Feathers, providing longevity and a creative wellspring.
“The blessing and the curse of this project and being able to sustain a 14-year project,” says Ringle, “is the fact that I’ve had multiple incarnations of the band.”
Justin Ringle (Horse Feathers) – at home, Astoria, OR | Photo by John Clark
“On one hand, that’s been the Achilles heel – to keep personnel around. But, the positive of that – working with different people and collaborators – has kept the project alive in a different way and kept it interesting for me.”
The current form of the band includes longtime collaborator Nathan Crockett, as well as two new faces rounding out the rhythm section. Of course, these faces may be new to Horse Feathers, but anyone paying attention to Lexington’s burgeoning music scene over the past several years would be able to pick J. Tom Hnatow and Robby Cosenza out of any lineup.
“Upon a stop by the studio, while I was in another session,” recalled Lundy, “Justin and I hit it off pretty quickly and found a kinship in texture and depth of field, and how it could potentially serve as an interesting backdrop to Justin’s very intelligent and nuanced songwriting, arrangement, and productions.”
It might sound like a stretch for an Oregon band to record in Kentucky, but Ringle describes it more as a moment of serendipity. He has ties through his partner to Louisville, and he crossed paths with Hnatow and Cosenza on the road on several occasions. When it came time to round out the band for the next album, they came on board and provided the last tie to Shangri-La, where both have been major repertory players in Lundy’s operation.
Duane Lundy | Photo by Brian Powers
Lundy said Horse Feathers presented him with an opportunity to work in a very focused and liberating way. “Justin and the band allowed me a great deal of freedom to engineer, and mix in a way that felt fresh, but an outgrowth of what I had been working towards over the last couple of years.Working on such detailed material was in particularly refreshing with Tom and Robby on the session.We were all being challenged to stretch out in some different directions, and it served as a very healthy thing for my own process.”
Solidifying a band with members based nearly 2500 miles apart might seem a daunting task, and it often is.
“It’s us vs. geography in a way,” says Ringle.
Hnatow shrugs it off, however, noting, “I’ve never been in a band that’s all been in the same city.” His time spent in These United States and Vandaveer, both multi-state outfits, gives context to his devil-may-care attitude.
Cosenza sees the distance as even a positive, forcing the group to focus.
“The benefit is we don’t see each other the same way. We do a lot of work in a succinct amount of time.”
Time seems to be the one thing Horse Feathers has plenty of. After 14 years at it, Ringle considers himself a lifer, although he’s fatalistic about what that means. Where others would speak of a life of music-making in only positive terms, Ringle sees in it a certain quiet inevitability.
“You kind of reach a point where – [after] you get into a decade or longer time period – where you don’t know how to leave it,” Ringle said. “I don’t think I’m able to do that. After it becomes your identity, you can’t get away.”
He’s been at it long enough to be able to eschew the standard-issue aspirations of rock superstardom and an endless supply of cash for broader goals of personal enrichment.
“I just want to have different experiences,” says Ringle. “For some, it’s about vertical ascent. For me, it’s all about expanding horizontally into new facets. All I’m looking for are angles.”
Cosenza augments this with his own goal: “I just want Bob Dylan to open for us at Madison Square Garden.”
“Music is our drug of choice, I guess you could say,” said Jill Hamlin, one half, the other being Reed Fields, of the duo A Little Bit More.
As vices go, there are less expensive ones than music, but to Hamlin and Reed, it’s the one that exists as a lifelong pursuit, as necessary as oxygen.
“It’s kind of just like breathing. If we didn’t have music, I don’t think we’d be able to survive,” said Hamlin.
By day, both Hamlin and Fields work with youth. Hamlin, who has a Master’s in Social Anthropology Ethnomusicality from Queen’s Unversity Belfast in Northern Ireland, is a program director for Sunrise Children’s Services, while Fields applies his Master’s in Teaching at Bath County High School. By night, the pair set out to spin heartrending ballads and straight barroom rockers in joints stretching from the iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville to New England.
What comes through on “Silhouettes,” their debut album, is a back-to-basics approach. The duo seeks to showcase in their influences, ranging from rock to gospel, but they aren’t necessarily interested in deconstructing the country genre in the same vein as fellow eastern Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. They brand their music as Americana, but it often exists more as a strain of purer country, the kind not heard ever since a more modern, pop sound has taken root in the mainstream. Shades of Emmylou Harris shine through, and the compressed finger-picked acoustic on the opening of “I Don’t Lie to You” might be at home on any of Steve Earle’s seminal albums. Both are cited influences on A Little Bit More’s work, but nothing feels forced.
In fact, authenticity is part of what makes A Little Bit More so familiar and lived-in. When there’s a bit of Eastern Kentucky accent shining through in the lyrics, it’s genuine expression rather than affectation. Hamlin and Fields sing how they talk – they aren’t exaggerating it for effect, and they aren’t toning it down to satisfy contrived mainstream appeal (for more on the complications surrounding an Eastern Kentucky accent, head here:https://under-main.com/proper-english-yall/). That sense of place anchors the music, and the lyrics reflect their Owingsville, Kentucky, setting, plumbing both the dark and light sides for depth.
“Music is about celebrating,” said Hamlin. “It’s about bringing to light good things and bad things.”
Reed Fields | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography
Jill Hamlin | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography
Both the good and the bad abound in the text of A Little Bit More’s music. Hamlin’s plaintive vocals on “Where I Am” are a quiet reflection on the ravages of addiction, speaking to her belief that this scourge has become something almost as devastating as cancer in its expanding reach.
“Everyone knows someone who has been touched by it,” said Hamlin, a condition that seems to her to have only reached this prominence in recent years. “Where is the hope?”
Fields teases an upcoming tune, “Crooked Town,” which looks at small-town corruption that he hints may be less than fiction.
Counteracting the somber notes of these songs are “Beer Bottle” and “Get Up Crowd,” which bring the duo back to a more celebratory mode that makes you want to scoot a boot across the dance floor, complete with just the right amount of twangy guitar.
To record their debut, the duo brought their full band contingent to studio Station West Nashville to work with engineer Kyle Manner (Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson). The experience was surreal for the pair.
“He (Kyle) treated us like we were somebody,” said Hamlin. “We’re used to being a ‘garage band.’”
After a month of preparation and four solid 11- and 12-hour days of recording, the result was “Silhouettes,” a 13-track album of original music, released in March of 2017. That hard work returned an unexpected benefit in the form of a win for “Album of the Year” at the Lexington Music Awards in early 2018. The duo hopes this award will be a boon locally, where they have been building a steady following, which sometimes manifests itself in interesting ways.
“We were playing a writer’s night at Bobby’s Idle Hour [in Nashville] – which is the last actual writer’s night place that they have on Music Row,” said Fields. The place was crowded when Hamlin and Fields made their way in, asking some seated patrons if it would be okay to sit at their table. Fields sat down and began messing with his guitar to get ready to play.
“They tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You don’t recognize us?’,” said Fields. “Four of our fans from Lexington had driven all the way there to watch us play six songs.”
“At 10:45 at night!” interjected Hamlin.
“On a weeknight!” Fields laughed. “So we love the music scene in Lexington.”
A Little Bit More’s fandom has taken on an even more unusual form: a line dance captured in a series of YouTube videos, with one garnering almost 40,000 views. Fields found this out almost by accident when he started searching for the title of his songs and saw a result that seemed to be a match.
“I clicked on it, and there’s these people in China dancing to it,” said Fields.
An Irish choreographer created the dance to the strains of “Save Me Tonight,” and she has been teaching it (and filming it) with groups around the world. That level of audience buy-in spurs Fields and Hamlin onward.
“The final defining moment is when you play a song and you see people reacting,” said Fields, recounting an early moment in the duo’s tenure when an original song moved some audience members to tears.
“That, to me, is the ultimate for music – you can create something that people could relate to that strongly.”
That moment for Hamlin came during a set of covers when audience members started requesting their original tunes.
“It was a humbling experience,” she said.
For A Little Bit More, those experiences are happening more as the hard work begins to pay off. They continue to hone their craft, working their way through the ropes in famous songwriter locales in Nashville, while somewhere on the other side of the world, a new group of line dancers learns the steps to a song from a humble duo from Owingsville, Kentucky.
“I have this nasty habit, which is to convince my friends in various bands who are immensely talented to give me a couple evenings of their time, their company and their great conversation, and let’s put on a thing.”
Sitting at a small table outside the library at Transylvania University on what feels like the first real day of fall, Professor Scott Whiddon is in his conversational zone, a somewhat contradictory combination of an easygoing nature layered over an almost manic drive. That usually surfaces when he gets to talk about his favorite subjects, music and community, and in this instance, he gets to discuss both together.
Scott Whiddon | Photo by Ann Sydney Taylor Photography
Whiddon is the organizing force behind a unique convergence of the two which will culminate on October 28th with the “Zombie Prom” at The Burl. There, he will take to the stage with other local musicians – Dr. Kevin Holm-Hudson, Dr. Jim Gleason, Mark Richardson, Thomas Hatton, Larry Nelson, Megan McCauley and La’Shelle Allen –to recreate the seminal Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.
“There’s something about getting people together who love music, who are damn good at it, and watching them give to something that’s bigger than they are, be it the music itself, or the amazing work that Habitat does,” says Whiddon.
The upcoming Pink Floyd show is at least the fourth dive by various Whiddon-led assemblies of Lexington musicians into the catalog of a specific band, following forays into Cheap Trick, the Velvet Underground, and New Orleans funk staple The Meters, forming a series of shows benefiting Habitat for Humanity.
“I realized there were some really good opportunities to do some really creative things for a non-profit that I love,” says Whiddon. “The bench [of musicians] in this town is so freakin’ deep, in terms of talent. And also, unlike many musicians in the world, people in this town are really responsible, they’re good with calendars, they’re good at planning ahead.”
The intent wasn’t, however, to turn to the idea into a series.
“I started thinking it would be one, then I thought it would be six months,” says Whiddon. “The fuel for this is the amazing exuberance and talent and generosity of the musicians I get to work with, the community partners who throw in to help…People along the way saying, ‘Let me help you with this part, let me make a small donation to cover this’ – you’d be shocked.”
Along the way, the series has picked up community partners in Smiley Pete Publishing and Bleed Blue Tattoos, in addition to venues such as The Burl. What sets these shows apart from other benefits is that they cover the expenses of the musicians in addition to providing contributions to a charity. In this way, they’re more sustainable for the people involved, but there’s an added personal bonus to playing these events.
“You hang out with your buddies,” says Whiddon. “You get the joy that you had learning other peoples’ songs when you were fifteen or sixteen and starting to learn how to play your instrument. It’s been fun getting to play the music of bands that made me want to play music with people that I admire.”
That enthusiasm for working up the music that formed one’s musical upbringing is shared by Gleason, who will be performing both Dark Side of the Moon with Whiddon and a set of songs by the Allman Brotherswith his main group, the Johnson Brothers.
“What makes the Johnson Brothers so good at these ‘documentary’ kinds of shows is the depth and range of the players,” says Gleason. “We’re very careful to get all the elements (notes, sounds, arrangements) right. In that sense, the Dark Side of the Moon band is similarly adept. The homework is done before coming in. What’s different is building the chemistry of the individual players, who were all new to me. But that’s always fun, and really enriching for me as a player.”
Gleason admits to less than a complete knowledge of the back catalog of Pink Floyd, but he jumped at the chance to help recreate the classic album.
“It’s always great to climb inside a new body of music and learn the parts from iconic players. Can’t help but to make you a better musician,” says Gleason.
The heart of this series of benefits drums a personal beat for Whiddon. His father, Ennis Whiddon, worked with Habitat for Humanity for over a decade before passing away two years ago. Putting on these events is a way to honor the memory of a man who spent his life building – first structures, then souls.
“He was the kind of guy who got really excited about engineering schematics and dirt,” says Whiddon.
As the son of a sharecropper, Ennis Whiddon knew poverty firsthand. He went into construction, then later in life, the ministry. Habitat for Humanity was his way of bringing the things he cared about together. He also cared deeply about music, instilling a love of playing in his son.
“He loved to put on big ole’ barbecues and have bluegrass bands come and raise money for Habitat builds,” says Whiddon. “I think Habitat kept Dad alive for a couple years. He loved the sense of community, he loved the sense of fellowship. The best way to honor the memory was to serve an organization that served him.”
To do that, Whiddon had to draw upon his strengths…while overlooking a glaring weakness.
“I knew I didn’t have Dad’s construction gene. I’m completely inept at that,” says Whiddon. “But I did get a little bit of his logistics planning, community building, active listening, networking…and I love playing rock music.”
This unconventional approach to giving back sits just fine with Habitat for Humanity, according to Communications & Major Gifts Officer at Lexington Habitat for Humanity, Trish Roberts Hatler.
“We love community partnerships,” says Hatler. “It gives us the great opportunity to share our mission.”
It is not uncommon for those in the community to find other ways to support Habitat for Humanity without lifting a hammer, she notes.
“We have a lady who brings lunch to builds,” Hatler offers as an example of others can give. “Time, money, whatever…it has to work for the person as well as the organization.”
She also appreciates the creative effort going to benefit her organization.
“The more interesting and inventive, the more successful it usually will be,” she says. She’s looking forward to attending the event at The Burl, but will not divulge the costumes that she and Lexington Habitat for Humanity CEO Rachel Childress will be wearing.
As for Whiddon, for him the Zombie Prom will serve as a fitting capstone – for now – to a cascade of benefit shows, especially in light of what sounds like a crushing musical workload of finishing a solo album, working the next half of an album with his usual band Palisades, putting out a film score, and starting up a new musical project to bow in December. This is all in addition to his regular gig as a professor and Director of Transy’s Writing Center. With all of this on his plate, he’s reluctant to say if he’s ready to put together another benefit, but he won’t discount the idea out of hand.
“I have some ideas in the works,” Whiddon says, arching an eyebrow, “and I’m always up for an adventure.”
The Zombie Prom to benefit Habitat for Humanity takes place on Saturday, October 28th at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at http://www.ticketfly.com.
Habitat for Humanity is the largest construction company in the world, active in over 70 countries, and has provided better housing to over a million families since 1976. Lexington Habitat for Humanity has served over 500 families locally and celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 2016. For more information on Lexington Habitat for Humanity, visit http://www.lexhabitat.org.
(Full disclosure: the author, along with half of Lexington, is a longtime friend and recidivist bandmate of Dr. Whiddon, and during this interview, the author agreed to drive Dr. Whiddon to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland, Ohio, in exchange for gas money, a free ticket, and probably a long conversation about how Cheap Trick and Mötley Crüe are underrated.)
True affection and passion are too often relegated to the land of the romantic, but it also manifests in simpler ways – if you know where to look.
Consider, for instance, three men – Eli Uttal-Veroff, Brandon Scott Coleman, and Marlin McKay – standing around a couple of bins of jazz on vinyl in the corner of Wild Fig bookstore in a manner more akin to ten-year-olds poring over a vintage comic book collection. The three marvel over the selection, pulling items willy-nilly and talking in excited tones about the finds. Coleman recites lists of the players and their pedigrees, while McKay can’t believe the number of albums he hasn’t even seen yet.
Here they are, three adults with respectable musical careers of their own, unable to contain their joy at a couple possible new additions to what must be staggering record collections.
l to r: Grundy, McKay, Uttal-Veroff, Coleman
This potent blend of respect and adoration borders on worship, and it’s exactly that mix of enthusiasm and affection for the genre that they now hope to impart to the Lexington community through the Origins Jazz Series, a new, year-round series of jazz concerts in local venues.
“When people say, ‘I don’t like jazz,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I haven’t heard the right kind of jazz,’” says Uttal-Veroff, providing a sort of unofficial thesis for the series, which aims to provide local access to multiple forms of jazz as it expands.
Uttal-Veroff credits local Lexington community leaders and current co-collaborators Richard Young (CivicLex), Donald Mason (Lyric Theatre), and Shawn Gannon (Soulful Space) for the spark that led to the series. (UnderMain is also a sponsor.) If those names sound familiar, they should – so many moving parts in Lexington revolve around those folks. They have planted the seed, and Uttal-Veroff, along with Co-Organizer Chester Grundy, members Coleman, McKay and others, have taken it and run with it.
Coleman frames the problem simply: “Growing up as a musician in Kentucky, in Pikeville, it was really hard to find jazz.”
Indeed, much of the conversation centers on the irony that there is arguably no more American form of music that exists, yet access to jazz in America seems increasingly limited.
“It’s a truly American art form. It’s several different styles of music that could only intersect here,” says Uttal-Veroff. The discussion then turns to the overwhelming reception each has received when performing out of the country. Coleman notes the royalties he receives from Spotify are strictly from foreign listeners who can’t get enough.
“The irony is that the music is revered and respected worldwide,” says Grundy. “Everywhere except here, you know, the place of its origins.”
The Origins Jazz Series kicks off at Tee Dee’s Blues Club on October 7th at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Noah Preminger & Brandon Coleman Trio.
Preminger, 30, was the winner of Downbeat Magazine’s critics poll for “Rising Star on Tenor Saxophone,” and has been described as “ecstatic” and “incantory” by the New York Times.
Jazz as an art form is hard to come by locally, the Origins organizers note, especially for younger musicians finding their way in the genre. In America, the music has failed to command the stature it, by rights, should lay claim to, and most jazz performances still take place in bars or clubs where entrance is forbidden to anyone not of legal drinking age. This prevents younger players from seeing the genre come alive before them, and it could stifle the development of jazz in generations coming up.
The Origins Jazz Series solves this problem by creating shows in all-ages venues, accessible to anyone with a love for the music.
“You can’t grow musicality in a vacuum,” says Coleman. “Bringing these national-level artists and letting them see that and having those up close and personal experiences with them is going to be super, super valuable.”
“Part of the excitement and kind of the nobility of doing something like this is connecting Americans with their own cultural traditions,” says Grundy.
The time for such a venture is now, according to all assembled.
“We have the venues, we have the musicians,” says Uttal-Veroff. “Now we need to bring these things together.”
Exposure to national, regional and local artists is not the only impetus for the series. It’s the notion that there’s an element of live performance that can’t be replicated in a recording. It’s not enough just to listen to the albums – the music has to be experienced directly.
“There are so many things that are aesthetically pleasing about going out to see a live performance,” said McKay, who takes a moment to reflect that so much of benefit of live music comes from seeing the musicians live in the moment, as opposed to the canned and overly-perfected nature of recordings. “The beauty comes in the imperfection, and not really kind of adhering to any preconceived notions about what it should be.”
Uttal-Veroff points out that every single performance is a personal experience that is unique that particular audience, something that no one else in the world will get to experience. McKay agrees:
“To see the passion, the intellect, and all the training and everything come to fruition in one moment that everybody can see…it’s kind of like being on the other side of a famous magic trick and seeing how it all gets put together and still being amazed.”
Enthusiasm for the craft is one thing, but where the Origin Jazz Series earns extra credibility points is in both its partnership with the Xavier University Jazz Series and the person of Chester Grundy, who will be co-organizer of the series.
Grundy created and successfully ran the Spotlight Jazz Series at UK for over three decades. It was the longest-running on-campus jazz series on any college campus in the United States. The series brought to Lexington such luminaries as Sarah Vaughan, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie and more. When Grundy speaks on the “power of the shared cultural experience,” he brings decades of firsthand witness to bear.
“I truly believe there are elements of this music…there are things that can be evoked that can contribute to community-building,” said Grundy. “It’s wonderful to think that the music is in good hands.”
Tickets for the series’ inaugural October 7th performance of the Noah Preminger & Brandon Coleman Trio at Tee Dee’s are $15. $2 from every ticket sold will be donated to combat the opioid epidemic.
“We are a town that likes to say we love our music and we love our musicians, and we support everybody,” says Robbie Morgan, founder of the newly-launched Lexington Musicians’ Emergency Fund. The “but” is implied in her statement, although the implication is clear. “We kind of leave this one entity (independent musicians) off to the side…if you’re a musician, you’re kind of on your own.”
This shot across the bow of the Lexington cultural scene is more than talk, however, and Morgan now heads a small group of dedicated individuals ready to walk the walk, or, more precisely, flash the cash.
Enter the Lexington Musicians’ Emergency Fund (LMEF), a privately-funded organization designed to pick up the slack for working musicians in need of emergency assistance.
Morgan alludes to recent events involving musicians that struck a little too close to home, triggering a sense of urgency to begin building a safety net.
“That was too many people in town…that are close to suicide, or heroin addiction, or homelessness, or all of the above, and it was just like, ‘this is all just too close’.”
J. Tom Hnatow | Photo credit: Vivian Wang
J. Tom Hnatow, who has been a professional musician for the past decade, is an advisor to LMEF.
“When I lived in D.C., I was lucky enough to have a really helpful support network of people who could help me,” says Hnatow. “I’ve been helped out multiple times. And that culture doesn’t really exist in Lexington yet.”
Morgan set about creating this culture through a fund to serve as a backstop for musicians in need. She began by borrowing ideas from organizations in music cities such as Nashville, Austin, New York and even Louisville.
The Grammy Foundation served as the best model for the Lexington version, which may provide assistance for rent, utilities, food, medical bills, co-pays, deductibles and even tax or legal assistance (although criminal charges and payments on back taxes are not eligible).
Musicians in need apply by contacting the LMEF at firstname.lastname@example.org. The application process begins with eligibility qualification, as eligible applicants must (a) have earned seventy-five percent or more of total income during the last five consecutive years from music, (b) have three published/credited works of music, and (c) reside in Fayette or surrounding counties. A volunteer will then reach out the applicant, and requests for funds are put to a small panel of rotating advisors, which reviews the application anonymously to eliminate bias. The panel then makes a recommendation of whether to provide the funds and in what percentage.
The process sounds fairly conservative, at least in terms of disbursement of funds, and that’s before the last stipulation of the funds kicks in: the first 50 percent of the funds approved will be distributed immediately directly to whatever account needs to be settled, etc., but release of the remaining 50 percent of funds may require some legwork and homework on the part of the musician to increase her or his professional profile.
“The caveat to get that last fifty percent is that we’re going to start moving you to do the thing that you need to do in order to get professionalized,” says Morgan, who is quick to stress that these are not major strings attached to the funds. “These are smaller, little steps that start to get you going.”
“The point is not to give out handouts,” says Hnatow. “It’s really for someone who says, ‘I can’t pay rent.’ Once you take that person and you get them beyond that point, you then ask, ‘Okay, do you have insurance on your instruments?’ It’s aiding them to move beyond the spot where they are.”
The idea is to increase the career prospects of the individual as a musician incrementally, hopefully leading to better opportunities and less reliance on community support like the LMEF in the future. This is the secondary goal of the LMEF, to turn out a class of professional musicians who can, in turn, begin to reinforce the local infrastructure.
“We might wind up having to tweak some of the parameters,” says Morgan. “It might be that we don’t have enough musicians who make seventy-five percent of their income [from music], and we might have to go to fifty percent.”
Robbie Morgan with The Binders | Photo by Zach Selby
The bar is set high initially to make sure the fund is not overburdened from the outset, but the question of long-term sustainability hangs in the air as well. LMEF is a privately-funded organization that relies on donations. It isn’t a standard tax-deductible non-profit, like a 501(c)(3) or similar organizations. If sustainability is a concern, it’s not one that shakes Morgan too heavily for the time being, although she is fully cognizant of what LMEF will need long-term.
“Obviously, with no revenue streams at this point other than donations, it’s going to be a little tricky,” Morgan says. “Eventually, once we start moving people into a proactive landscape, we’re going to use the Creative Capital model.”
Under this model, musicians that move on to greater success would then pay a very small percentage of earnings back into the fund for a period of time. Both Morgan and Hnatow talk about the LMEF in terms of being the first piece of a larger puzzle, with an infrastructure slowly building to make the original function of the LMEF obsolete.
“The goal with something like this is to put yourself out of business,” says Hnatow. “The goal is to become more proactive than reactive.”
In addition to the funds, applicants and volunteers with LMEF can join a private Facebook group that exists to provide a communications network for musicians in need of assistance or even just advice.
Morgan and Hnatow point to another hoped-for benefit of the LMEF, which is to start coaxing local musicians out of the fabric of Lexington anonymity.
“Part of it will be interesting to discover people who do live here who we may not necessarily have heard of, who are making a living in the arts,” says Hnatow.
“We’re going to discover that there are more musicians in this town than the ones we see at the Green Lantern, because we’re going to find out that there are country musicians, people who write films, people who score theater stuff,” says Morgan. “And you know the exciting thing is this might provide a way for us to see hip-hop artists, Christian musicians, whatever it is…that our community is really big and we’re overwhelmed with requests because we find all these people that we didn’t know existed.”
“If Lexington is going to continue to grow culturally, then we’re going to need things like this,” says Hnatow.“It’ll never be Nashville, it’ll never be New York, it’ll never be one of those cities, but if you can provide people with something they can’t get somewhere else, that sort of ups its game a lot. If we can be supportive of people who are making a living as musicians, we can grow.”
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At first blush, it looks like a regular house, albeit a large and imposing one, but nothing externally gives the casual observer any indication of what takes place inside. The cinder blocks under the porch bear the dark stains of benign neglect. A small parking area might as well be a standard driveway for multiple occupants. There is no sign to denote the home of Shangri-La Productions, the local recording studio where a man by the name of Duane Lundy plies his trade.
Photo by Brian Powers
This is probably for the better. Lundy is not the sort of man to call attention to himself, despite a career that has seen an extraordinary ascending trajectory from home recording hobbyist to respected producer and collaborator, locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally. That career may reach a new milestone on September 15th, when a new album by former Beatle Ringo Starr will hit the shelves (both digitally and analog…ly). On that album are two collaborations between Starr and local/national act Vandaveer, with Duane Lundy credited as the producer for both. Is this his moment?
Sitting half off a small set of steps behind the house on a sunny July day, Lundy is attired in black Converse All-Stars, black jeans, a black shirt with round Lennon sunglasses folded into the collar, and his trademark black fedora, a portrait of unflappable cool in the unyielding heat. The sense one gets is not that he’s trying to stand out so much as that he’s just outside his natural habitat.Once he retreats into the sparsely lit confines of his home cum studio, his uniform makes more sense against the backdrop of a space designed to summon creative energies.
Photo By Brian Powers
Shangri-La Productions is not your average studio. The studio itself is a creative reimaging of the first floor of a large Victorian house. Where bespoke studios have a master control room and carefully divided spaces for enhanced sound isolation, Shangri-La favors a connected set of open rooms for collaboration, with all controls as the focus of what might have once been a magnificent sitting room with a fire place. The only “studio” decoration staples are the large oriental rugs adorning the hardwood floors, but everywhere hang bolts of various patterns of shimmering cloth and strings of white lights, giving an aura of comfort, and at times resembling a carnival. Vintage keyboards, amps, drums and guitars line the walls and halls. The atmosphere is immensely inviting to musicians, and that is by design.
“The pieces of work that I grew up on and studied a lot on were Zeppelin albums and U2 albums and Bob Dylan albums,” Lundy says. “Most of those albums were done in alternative spaces, you know, like [The] Joshua Tree, or Zeppelin albums in particular, Exile on Main Street… so I really found a lot of romanticism with the idea of being able to create a unique space that people felt comfortable in that was lived in, and also that it was a little bit sort of out of the template.”
If his studio aesthetic took cues from his favorite albums, his work process gained inspiration closer to home: Lundy’s former life as a tennis coach. That’s where he met Emily Hagihara, currently of Lexington staple Ancient Warfare, and formerly of Chico Fellini, a standout of the Lexington scene in which Lundy played guitar. At the time, however, she was a high school student taking tennis lessons where Lundy worked, and she believes that his experiences as a coach informs the way he approaches recording.
“He’s very much a coach, in a way,” Hagihara says. “He makes you feel welcome, and he encourages you to explore, but also makes you focus.”
Emily Hagihara | Photo by Cassie Lopez
“I know that I’ve gone into the studio several times and second-guessed a thing, and he just sort of makes you concentrate on doing that thing until it either works or it doesn’t. He’s just very pragmatic.”
Hagihara is part of Lundy’s increasing repertoire of consistent collaborators for mutual benefit. Her long musical history with Lundy has led to a harmonious working relationship over the past ten years or so.
“He likes, as well as I do, things that are a little rough around the edges, but I think we also like the juxtaposition or the marriage of those things that are rough but also beautiful, and figuring out how to make those two things work together,” Hagihara says.
The Lexington artist and songwriter Patrick McNeese, whose band has recorded several projects at Shangri La and is now in the process of another, credits Lundy for influencing the direction of the music scene in Lexington. “Writing a song, in many ways, is simply an invitation for other artists to contribute to the creation of a fully developed and engaging work of art. Duane is foremost another artist, one who understands this intricate and highly personal process and he has been able to develop the skills and temperament to achieve a consistently good outcomes in his studio. This is his unparalleled contribution to Lexington’s music and recording landscape.”
Patrick McNeese | Photo by Rebecca Powell
Lundy’s journey to his current role as Lexington’s music shaman took a circuitous route, with him getting a much later start than most music lifers.
“I was twenty-two and had never played an instrument before, and had always loved music,” Lundy says. “So, in starting late, I was pretty certain that being in a band or playing with other musicians that were my age was not going to be a possibility. So at the same time I got my first guitar, I also got a four-track [recorder].”
Learning to play music alongside absorbing the fundamentals of recording allowed Lundy to gain an understanding of music from the perspective of writing and production, rather than just as a musician.
“I ended up learning really quick, which I think had a lot to do with just sort of my obsession with music,” Lundy says, “So I ended up being in bands within the first, I’d say, six months that I was starting to play.”
For Lundy, learning to be a musician was great…
“But I really loved recording,” Lundy says.
Photo by Brian Powers
Later, after a business venture with his ex-wife ended, Lundy was at a crossroads, a not uncommon place for musicians to find themselves (see Johnson, Robert, or Clapton, Eric). It was then that his burgeoning hobby began to take shape as a career.
“A really good friend of mine who had actually taught me how to play guitar had moved from Lexington to Miami to become a music supervisor at an ad agency. So he would send me work, and that really was a pretty big crossfade* moment in my development from being sort of a local or regional recordist to doing stuff that was going to reach a more critical ear,” Lundy says.
From there, Lundy’s career as a recording engineer, mixer and producer took off, handling commercial work for various media platforms, work that saw him travel to studios nationally and internationally, honing his skills.
“There were moments where I contemplated moving to an industry market –be it Nashville, or Los Angeles…New York. Wherever…the work is a bit more plentiful.”
In the end, Lexington remained home, largely due to family considerations: his son, 17, and his daughter, 15, who both reside in the area.
Here’s the part where it would be easy to now try to paint Lundy as a martyr, an outsized talent duty-bound to lead a life less fitting than his skills deserve, but it’s all but impossible to nail him to that particular cross.He doesn’t disseminate an air of self-pity or remorse for the path that he could have taken if only he could shake these little town blues; he can state matter-of-factly that Lexington is not entirely ideal as an industry town, but there’s never a sense of bitterness or confinement.
“I love Lexington,” Lundy says, and there’s not a single note of hesitation. “It has certainly created a set of challenges for me geographically, because, you know, there’s really no infrastructure of industry – music industry – here.”
He could be a fixture in an industry-driven town, but Lundy credits the disconnect from the larger industry as a motivation for his success; he is less susceptible to trends and stagnation than if he were tapped directly in to the industry undercurrent.
“Not being in an industry town, being in a place like this, I really don’t know what the latest way that guys in Nashville are miking their drum kits,” Lundy says. ”But I like it. I think naivety is immensely important in keeping your creative flow interesting and productive.”
Lexington, however, is slowly accumulating industry credibility, if not music infrastructure, and it’s due in large part to Lundy and Shangri-La, as J. Tom Hnatow, a recording engineer, producer and musician at Shangri-La and member of Vandaveer, points out.
J. Tom Hnatow | Photo: Lithophyte
“It’s put Lexington on the map,” Hnatow says. “There’s been a level of recognition nationally and internationally. This city has been able to punch above its weight.”
Hnatow speaks from experience on that point, having been lured from more urban centers to Lexington by Lundy with the promise of work at Shangri La.
“As a professional musician, I would have not seen myself moving to Lexington if not for Duane.”
As proof of Lundy’s expanding influence, Hnatow points to figures such as Justin Craig, who came up as a session player with Lundy and has since worked on Broadway as Music Director for “Hedwig and the Angry Itch,” among other high-profile projects.
“In Lexington, the number of people here working as a session musician is unusual for a city this size.”
After watching others ascend to new heights with a little help from his guidance, the spotlight may soon be focused more brightly on Lundy himself. Production credit for two cuts on a Ringo Starr album surely should bring attention to Lundy and his work, yet he downplays the suggestion that this a watershed moment for him, noting that he’s worked with legacy artists** such as Cheap Trick and others in the past. When pressed, he’ll admit to a degree of validation in the work, but he isn’t looking for the trappings of musical fame. Instead, Lundy frames his circumspect take on musical stardom with characteristic pragmatism.
“I love music to a degree that I wanted to continue to do it professionally, and I saw this as a means to continue to do it,” Lundy says. “And it just so happened I fell in love with doing it.”
“I really like what I do, and I like to think that I’ll spend the rest of my life doing it.And that people will enjoy the time that we’ve had to work together and the people who get to listen to it, whoever that is, will enjoy what we did. No more, no less.”
‘If I reach a point to where it’s not fun anymore, then I won’t do it. Because there’s other things that you can do and make less sacrifice for.”
Duane Lundy doesn’t need to be a rock star. He’s not jealous of the ascendency of those with whom he has collaborated. He’s content as the black-clad figure at the controls in his own personal Shangri-La, radiating calm in the center of Lexington’s growing musical storm.
*For those unaccustomed to the recording lexicon, a crossfade is a transition between sound clips, where one clip fades out as another fades in.
The first conversation I ever had with my neighbor was about trees. Two specific trees, in fact – giant American Sycamore trees in my front yard, one on each side of the walk leading up to the front door.
I had just bought the house, compounding the mistake of an increasingly disastrous marriage with a mortgage and an address in a city I had no desire to live in.
“They’re dying, you know,” he told me. “Probably already dead. You should just have them removed.”
It was mid-March, and they were still weeks and maybe even a couple months away from regaining their canopy, so it was hard to tell if what he reported was true.
“Besides,” he said, “they’re trash trees. All they do is drop these gigantic leaves all over the place in the fall, and these weird little brushy things in the spring, and then it’s just branches all over the place the rest of the time. They get in everyone’s yards and this place is a complete mess.”
Being polite and trying to gain neighborly friends, I didn’t point out that he was arguing in the alternative – if they were dead, then the leaves and such shouldn’t be a problem, right? Besides, what I don’t think I told him that day was that the trees were the one thing I truly enjoyed about the house. I was ready to settle into my strange marriage in a strange town, but at least I had these two big, beautiful trees in the front yard.
Sometimes I sent myself a mental postcard to be reminded of the platonic ideal of the life I had hoped to form, and the front of that postcard was a charming little house with two big, shady trees in the front yard.
At least, they looked big and shady in the pictures on the realtor’s website.
When summer came around, however, something was off. Neither tree grew a particularly full canopy, and the tree closest to my neighbor looked ghastly, like some sort of skeletal hand reaching toward the sky with occasional patches of green flesh hanging off it, the tips of the fingers spindly, gray and bare. I pondered this tree a lot from the front window of my bedroom, which at the time was officially known as “the guest room.” That was what we called it in front of my parents and other company, but it had been my room since moving in.
Over time, it became clear that things were not as they should be. Both trees took on a patchy look year after year, and both were in the obvious throes of some unknown struggle.
My neighbor did his best to work on me about the trees, but in my stubborn defensiveness, I insisted that they were probably just having issues and could get better at any moment. The fallacy of this was apparent to everyone who cast an eye on my front yard, but I couldn’t yet admit that my perfect picture of two strong, shady, established trees in my front yard was already likely beyond hope. Other growing problems demanded my attention anyway, and so I feigned optimism.
My neighbor was right about one thing, though – these trees shed more leaves, bark, brushy things and branches than any other trees in all of Creation.
Even my parents started dropping less-than-subtle hints, as I relayed to them my neighbor’s latest attempts at inveighing against my hardline stance on the trees.
“Hey, I agree with him,” came the response from my dad. “They just drop crap all over the place. These things are the messiest trees I’ve ever seen, but they aren’t even getting all their leaves in. You’re fighting a losing battle.”
I expected my mom to be more sympathetic, but maybe she had spent too much time cleaning up after messes I had made. A messy, dying tree wasn’t worth it.
In the year leading up to my divorce, the sicker of the two trees and the one closest to my neighbor finally relented, failing even to produce the one branch with four leaves it had the year prior. It stayed there in the yard like a decaying corpse, dropping brittle branches with even the slightest whiff of a breeze. Concerned for what would happen to the integrity of my roof if larger branches started breaking off, I realized that it was time to acknowledge the reality I had been pretending against.
Soon after I filed for divorce, I hired a local tree company to remove the dead sycamore. My parents lent me money for both operations, sweetly stifling any knowing smiles or other signs that my professions to pay them the money back had little, if any, merit. At the time, I was already working a night job of pizza delivery to keep my household alive, so the addition of child support on top of an unreasonable subprime mortgage on an underwater house was enough to nearly break me financially. I came home on the appointed day and in the three minutes between arriving from my day job and throwing on my pizza delivery uniform for my night job, I marveled at the vast empty space where the tree had been and what a difference it had made in the appearance of the yard.
Even with the tree gone, a battle still lay ahead in the ensuing years. The dead tree was gone and the stump was ground down, but the resulting mulch left a scar on the front yard that made it nearly impossible to keep grass growing. I tried seed the first year. I alternated to sod the next. The third year, I used a shovel to slice off a good area around where the tree had been, scraped the area clean and then put down a solid layer of topsoil before planting more sod. Grass at least finally got a foothold there, and even though it still isn’t completely covered yet, that massive scar has gotten a bit smaller every year.
The oddest part, however, is what has taken place on the other side of the main walk.
The other sycamore did recover, gaining strength and a full canopy as the other tree slowly withered and died. My neighbor continued with his attempts to convince me it was still susceptible to disease and would likely die out again and I should just go ahead and remove it and maybe he’d be willing to pay for it and to let him know and maybe there were other trees in my yard that – hint, hint – should be removed and that maple probably won’t survive much longer after it broke in half and it’s a shame about that peach tree but all it ever did was drop leaves and attract squirrels anyway, etc.
Those talks got a little more scarce over time, and I think he finally wrote me off as a lost cause. The final word I gave him was that the next owner of the house would be free to do whatever she or he wished, but as long as I was there, so too would be all of my trees.
Recently, as my family worked in the yard with me to get the house ready for sale, the subject of the remaining platanus occidentalis came up in relation to the amount of leaves being removed from all areas of the yard.
“This is ridiculous,” my mom groaned, hauling another wheelbarrow-full of dead leaves back to the compost heap behind my shed. “These leaves are EVERYWHERE. I’ll tell you what – I’ll never forgive you if you have another house with trees like these.”
Watching her there with my fiancée, raking leaves out of the front beds into piles and complaining about my tree, maybe I got little defensive. After all, I felt I was the one person who still loved that remaining American sycamore, a native tree so susceptible to disease that landscapers now use a heartier cousin instead, and it was my job to make others love it, too.
Later, having to haul a solid ten more wheelbarrows of those leaves myself, I got a better understanding of the continuing consequences on my loving and helpful family of the mess of the tree I insisted upon keeping, and I had to grudgingly admit that maybe I owed them a little more gratitude and a little less stubborn insistence that what I want at any given moment is the right thing.
Still, I love that tree. In the eleven years since we met, we’ve both grown a bit thicker around the trunk, and we’ve both managed to hang on to our canopy. My mental postcard of happiness matches the image with one big sycamore in the front of the house, and I give it the occasional pat of appreciation, although I’ve stopped short of giving it a full-on hug.
In recent years, there’s grown a tall and beautiful volunteer spruce in its shade, and I’ve also added a dogwood, a flowering cherry and assorted other volunteer stragglers to my yard to the point that in ten years there won’t be patch that isn’t shaded. I won’t still be in the house to appreciate it then – I’ll have this house on the market any day now, and I’m looking forward to where my life is headed with it behind me.
I’ll miss that sycamore tremendously, however. We’ve been through a lot together, but we’re both still here. We made it.