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’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.
“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.)
The inaugural celebration of PeteFest on the Jones family nature preserve in Louisville was at once a celebration and a time for sad reflection. Pete Jones, for whom the Festival is named, took his own life last December.
On the day I interviewed Youngeun Koepke it had been exactly nine months to the day when she heard the terrible news of her good friend.
“Pete was seeking help, but we just didn’t know the severity of his depression.”
Nestled in the 90 acre Nature Preserve owned by Pete’s family, PeteFest began on Friday the 8th of September as folks started filing into the Jones’ fields and setting up their tents for the weekend.One field was designated for RV’s and tents, with brilliant solar lights erected throughout the fields by the engineering family and their friends.A wooded path lit by LED flashlights smartly zip-tied to trees led campers to the venue, a beautiful shiny party nestled in the trees.
Lights were strung everywhere, so when the sun began to set the woods were festively aglow.Bubbles and glow necklaces were bandied about by happy children, sharing the joy on the wind as the bubbles and the lights and the music mingled to put folks in a great mood.
But, of course, there was sadness.
Pete is gone, and the festival would never have existed, but for suicide.Koepke noted, “Last night as we were all celebrating, we all said ‘Pete would LOVE this…He is so proud of us, and he is with us. He is here.”
And that is the point of PeteFest.To not forget; to not brush depression, anxiety, and suicide under the carpet, but to bring it all out into the open, to talk about it and to listen to those suffering from it.
“Stomp the Stigma” is the PeteFest motto, because “we need to start talking about this.” The event’s mascot is an elephant, representing the University of Alabama white elephant of Pete’s alma mater, as well as the obvious “elephant in the room” symbolism.
The statistics are that someone takes their life every twelve seconds. “I lost a dear high school friend when I was 21,” Koepke shared, “But it has shaped me; when I heard the news about Pete I knew I had to do something.We are losing an entire generation of people. The ones suffering the most tend to be the ones who are the most loving, and giving. In his last message, Pete said he wants to help mankind. We are getting the message out there for him.”
That message was loud and clear at PeteFest.All the bands performing had been invited by members of the Pete Foundation, and many of the bands gave toasts and had touching things to say about Pete, his family, and PeteFest itself.Glasses were raised throughout the weekend to toast Pete, his parents Jeff and Molly Jones, and his siblings Jeff, Jack, Matt, and Michelle. Counseling and understanding were offered throughout the festival, and the entire Sunday lineup featured local young musicians from the area who chose to sing and speak out to “Stomp the Stigma”.
The Pete Foundation is focused on reaching youth, so they can save adults like Pete.The organizers want people to be educated to understand the signs of severe depression and anxiety which can so easily lead to suicide. Pete had gained weight before his last days, and had been sleeping more and more; the signals too often become clear in hindsight.The Pete Foundation wants them recognized before they end in tragedy. The answer to that is education.They have already partnered with the University of Louisville where they held a “pre-Fest for Pete Fest” to address anxiety, depression, and suicide on the college level.
Next, they hope to work with local school systems to address youth and perhaps prevent the next loss.
Friday night held a great lineup, and the music carried the crowd into the wee hours. Those who wanted rest simply had to foray back across the illuminated path through the woods to the campsite, where the music was within listening distance, but not overwhelming.
Saturday dawned as a beautiful day, the nine-month anniversary of when Pete Jones took his own life. His family and friends gathered together to begin day two of PeteFest.Morning yoga was offered on the smaller stage, and counseling for anyone who felt the need to share or discuss their own anxiety, depression or suicidal tendencies.PeteFest volunteers in logo t-shirts sporting elephants dotted the festival grounds as the crowd slowly filled the space yet again.
The first band to take the stage that lovely day was The Local Honeys, consisting of Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs.
The Local Honeys | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Local Honeys are quickly gathering a following in the Eastern Kentucky area and beyond.The first two female graduates of Morehead’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, Stokely and Hobbs boast a wealth of instrumental knowledge.Starting with Linda on fiddle and Montana on banjo, they both switched to guitar at some point, changing instruments between songs, and playing each with impressive adeptness.They also invited Appalatin’s Jose Oreta to join in on stand-up bass.
The Local Honeys with Jose Oreta | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Honeys adhere to the old-time music style, writing many of their own songs to add to the canon of traditional Appalachian music.Linda’s “Cigarette Trees” is a scathing song lambasting coal companies for devastating the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.
Those hills and the surrounding cities of Lexington, Louisville, and Huntington, WVA are their stomping grounds, but The Local Honeys are bringing the traditional music of Appalachia to the masses as well.There is a strong call for their music, they say, and they joke that of all the graduated accountants, teachers or other graduates with more “academic” degrees they know, they are the only ones they’re aware of who are using their degree (“A bachelor’s in Bluegrass,” they quipped), working full-time in the field of their education.
“We don’t have to compromise for anything, it’s very rewarding to make a living in a time when art is not valued,” Stokley said. “We’ve been given a platform, especially in Kentucky, to play music. People are accepting and curious about their heritage…we’re playing the home music of Kentucky but we’re taking it to audiences far and wide.”
But PeteFest isn’t just about the music.It was never just about the music. Linda shared her own personal struggle. “My father committed suicide when I was 8 years old… I have started to understand more and more what it is like to live with people with mental illness.It has definitely affected my art, and Montana’s as well.”
Their first CD includes a song she wrote about her father, “Keep my name, live and let be.”
Scott Whiddon | Photo by Derek Feldman
Their perfect placement in the line up of PeteFest was an excellent start to the day.They were the first of many bands to play that day, followed by Lexington’s Scott Whiddon on the next stage, and later the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers held the crowd’s attention as they danced to more bluegrass and festive songs, and all raised a glass to toast Pete and his family.
Blind Corn Liquor Pickers | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Curio Key Club finished out the big Saturday night lineup, a supergroup of Louisville musicians who performed Paul Simon’s Graceland in full.
There are many festivals we are blessed with the opportunity to attend in Kentucky.They all have purpose and meaning in their own unique ways. But PeteFest was different. The purpose and the meaning were woven throughout the entire festival, from the intelligently designed lighting by the Jones family of engineers, to the handmade benches and tables that were constructed on the property for the festival itself.The gate boasted a handmade marquee of the bands, painted chalkboards and twine that gave a personal feeling; a feeling of the love and care that clearly went into creating a beautiful, safe, inviting space for anyone to express or learn about the struggles in this world from anxiety, depression, and suicide.Bubbles were handed out to kids to blow at their leisure, hammocks strung between trees and under lights as folks settled in for the day. The beautiful VIP tent was open for the musicians and the press, looking like an Arabian palace with blowing plants and low, comfortable chairs for hard-working photographers to sit in the shade and rest from wrestling with their heavy equipment.
The Jones family and the Pete Foundation worked very hard to create PeteFest.They labored over the smallest details, as one would at a memorial.Every aspect was a reflection of their love for Pete, and their desperate mission to prevent others from having to suffer that loss in their lives.
Pete’s last message before he took his own life was that he wanted to help “advance mankind.”That is the legacy that the Jones family and the Pete Foundation for Depression Prevention hopes to achieve in his memory.
The first PeteFest guaranteed they are already off to a wonderful start.