NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published April 17, 2013
"On The Fringe"
(SPOILER ALERT: The answer to the inevitable question of "Why?" is: "Because I chose to remain in my beloved home state".)
I have always been on the fringe of breaking through to the Big Time. I've brushed elbows with some famous names. I've had a taste of what it COULD be like. But of course in the beginning it wasn't like that at all.
During the summer of 1964, fresh out of high school, while relaxing at home on the lake, I heard of a party which was to be held at the Henderson Pavilion. When I arrived I recognized some of my childhood friends in the band. Their drummer had leaned too far into the beer supply and had quite a buzz going, and during a break the guys offered me an opportunity to sit in for a few songs. I had NEVER played a "trap kit" before in my life. But it was okay with the drummer, and several other friends dared me to do it, so I did. I played the rest of the night with the band. It was exhilarating!
During my freshman year at Arkansas State College (Now ASU) in 1965, I bought a drum set and began playing with some college pals. We called ourselves the Four Speeds. We had exactly three gigs. The first one was at a dirt-floored bar called the C&R Club in Trumann, Arkansas. The only reason it was memorable was that there was a stabbing that night. That was my welcome into the wonderful world of the music business. Our second gig was one we promoted ourselves at a Jonesboro motel in their empty restaurant room. We had about a dozen college friends show up. The last gig we played was a Jaycees talent show in West Memphis, which we won.
By that June I was the permanent drummer for "The Vipers", the band I had sat in with during the previous summer. We rehearsed in the basement of the guitar player's parent's house, and worked up the current hit songs of the day. We were just kids, and had no aspirations of becoming rock and rook heroes. At least not at first. We played anywhere we could during the summer and in the winter we held dances after home football games at the National Guard Armory and the Legion Hut. We were a really good band for the times. We rehearsed hard and kept working up new cover songs, and within a couple of years we were locally famous. We even played as the "house band" for a talent show at the local movie theater and when we took breaks the little kids would storm down front and we'd sign autographs on their popcorn boxes.
My mom had some connections and in June of 1967 we landed a summer job playing at the Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri. The Lodge was one of mid-America's most famous resorts, a huge 400-room multimillion dollar operation, run like a Vegas strip hotel with headliners like Frank Sinatra, Jr., Guy Lombardo and his band, and other big names. We worked seven days a week, doing afternoon shows by the pool or down at their marina, and in addition we did evening performances, opening for the major acts of the night. Our manager, Harold Koplar, was the owner of the resort (as well as the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis) and he had great expectations of us. He wanted to turn us into "the next big thing" but his grandiose ideas for our image did not sit well with us. Nevertheless, we followed his directions because we figured he knew more about the business than we did. He renamed us "The Harlequin Vipers", sent us to be coifed in St. Louis under the tutelage of the makeup artist for the St. Louis Metropolitan Opera, had us fitted for our stage costumes (we called them the "zoot suits"), and began the working of our career in St. Louis while we worked on our stage show back at the Lodge. Mr. Koplar was lining us up with our own television show (he also owned KPLR-TV) and had contracted with famous St. Louis DJ Johnny Rabbitt to arrange for some high profile concert shows, but it was not meant to be. We hated our new image and resisted to the last with our handlers. We began to drink… a lot. We started acting just like the stars they wanted us to be, but in our own manner, like trashing our dressing rooms and in general intimidating all the hotel employees with our antics. By the end of the summer we were unmanageable, and so we came home with our tails between our legs. We attempted to stay together and even played a few gigs, but the magic was gone.
On May 10th, 1967 my world changed forever. I discovered my father's body lying in the front seat of his Lincoln Continental, sitting in the garage. He made it home from a night on the town, but never even made it out of his car. The money machine had finally run out of juice. I never returned to college, and so one afternoon in the mail came my draft notice. After a VERY close call, the military decided they didn't want me and stamped my classification as 4-F because of injuries I had received when I was 16 and drove our jeep off a cliff at home. I felt I was a burden on my mother with no job, no band, and seemingly no future, and after much prodding from her I enrolled in a broadcasting school. My first day on the air at KOTN in Pine Bluff was January 1st, 1968. For the next year I moved around the state. I didn't play much drums at all during that time, but continued to build my career as a radio announcer. By the spring of 1969 I found myself living in Ft. Smith. As luck would have it, I almost immediately found a group that was breaking up because their drummer was leaving. We all shared the same love for certain styles of music and got along famously from the very beginning. We called ourselves "Rock Bottom" and began playing around town at private parties, school dances & proms, and college mixers. By early 1971 we were firmly entrenched into the social scene in Ft. Smith. Our first high-profile gig was a benefit for the March of Dimes, held at the Ft. Smith Municipal Auditorium, a 900-seat venue with an excellent stage and lighting grid, which was packed with kids. Parts of the event, including some of our performance was televised on local KFSM-TV. Through my DJ job I had befriended a local writer for the Entertainment section of the Southwest Times Record. He liked the band and began to include regular blurbs in his "Worlds of Music" column about our upcoming gigs. When we scheduled a recording session February 20 he did a complete interview with the band about the upcoming session.
It was at this session that I "accidently" discovered my future profession. The studio we booked was located in Russellville. It was a small 4-track operation. The session went okay, but I wasn't satisfied with the sound quality and felt I could do a better job myself. Later that year I was befriended by Mickey Moody, an audio engineer that worked at Ben Jack's Recording Studio. He invited me out one night to a session and from the first moment I walked through the door I knew this was something I wanted to do. It was the first time I'd been in a professional studio since my mom paid for a recording session in Florida during my senior year in high school. I had always remembered the "big mike's" hanging on tall stands and the exotic looking recording mixer and giant tape recorders.
My life got busy. I was working my DJ job at KWHN/KMAG radio stations, playing in the band regularly, and apprenticing as a second engineer at Ben Jack's. I was SO busy that I was neglecting my wife and baby girl. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I expanded my career even further by becoming a concert promoter. I began booking major groups like Black Oak, Trapeze, Mitch Ryder, Bloodrock, Sugarloaf, The Grass Roots, The Ides Of March, The Box Tops, and others. For many of these concerts I managed to get Rock Bottom billed as the opening act. This was GREAT for the band, as we got a lot of experience playing in front of a couple thousand people on a big stage with big sound and lighting. I was getting a taste of the Big Time. There were many perks, like getting to hang backstage with the headliners and having our own dressing room. Again… I was right on the fringe. Right at the peak of all this activity was when my first marriage dissolved. My wife took my baby daughter and moved back to Little Rock to be near her mother. Looking back, I don't blame her.
It wasn't long after that when other things started falling apart as well. Rock Bottom had also hit… well….. rock bottom. Bad luck continued to plague me when two recent concert promotions went south resulting in a loss of investment money which eventually led to my retreat from the concert business. Times were changing and concert promoting was costing more money for investors. Concert riders were becoming more and more demanding. Services like PA and lighting rental costs were increasing drastically. For a small market like Ft. Smith, booking major acts was becoming less profitable for them. It was just too expensive for me to speculate on, so I bowed out.
Fortunately, I fell into another band called "Whizz". The unique thing about this band was that 3 out of the 5 of us were local DJ's, so whenever we played anywhere we could get the word out with a minimum of expense for promotion. We even got to open for Styx right after their big hit "Lady" hit the Top 100. It was very exciting to play in front of an over-packed house, even after the blasting cap Styx used for an effect blew half the ceiling down on top of the crowd gathered into the Logan movie theater in Paris, Arkansas. I was glad I wasn't the promoter.
Meanwhile, to keep from being chronically depressed I threw myself into the band, the radio station, and the studio. In 1975, during a recording session for Freddy Fender, the studio drummer failed to make it in from Dallas and as I was the only drummer nearby I got the nod from Mickey and producer Huey Meaux. Although Freddy wasn't even in the studio at the time (he was in Houston where he would lay down his vocal tracks at Huey's Sugar Hill Studio), there I was on the studio drum kit. Dave Hungate (of "Toto" fame) was on bass, Bruce Ewuen on grand piano, and Bill Hamm (Sonny & Cher TV Show) on guitar. We did three or four tracks that night. Without vocals I had no idea what the song titles were or what the melodies were. It would be months before I was told that I was the drummer on Freddy's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights". The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Single Chart on August 9th, 1975. It was my very first involvement with a Gold Record.
Always on the fringe………..
When Whizz was booked to play at a fraternity party at the Hilton Inn in Tulsa in 1975, my life once again took a nose dive. A security guard mishandling his pistol accidently shot me in the hand and hip. As I had my hand in my pants pocket at the time, he got me twice with the same bullet. By the time I got out of the hospital 8 weeks later I had been replaced at my radio job and the band had all but broken up. I took a midnight shift job at KISR while contemplating my situation. I had a job offer to move to Houston and work at Sugar Hill Studios, but it just didn't feel right and I didn't really care for living in Texas. Instead, I made the decision to return to my home town and regroup. My girlfriend (future wife #2) and I packed up all our belonging into a U-Haul trailer, drove back to Mountain Home, and moved into the family home with my mom. Since the local radio station had no openings my radio career came to a screeching halt. I wasn't experienced in any other types of jobs and one day I decided to just start up my own small recording operation here. It wasn't a particularly well-thought-out move, considering the locale. But in the process of building the studio I met some wonderful musicians and we decided to start up a band.
The band was called "Goldrush". The guitarist was my "business partner" (such as it was) and we all chipped in on rental, utilities, and upkeep. In return, we had a place to rehearse and record. The band actually fared much better than the studio. At least we landed a few gigs here and there. The studio was lucky to get 2 jobs a month. But this DID give us a lot of time to practice and write. I actually started writing songs back in Ft. Smith, but they were very simple… especially the lyrics. But by 1977 I had a lot of writing and arranging experience under my belt. Plus, the hours of training at Ben Jacks allowed me to watch other songwriters in action. Added to the years I had now spent in radio, I was getting a lot of good experience in music making and record production. My recent experiences in concert promotion taught me some hard lessons as well, but at least I knew how the concert promotion game went. I had reached the point where I was a musical jack of all trades, and all I needed now was a killer band with a killer album.
Goldrush could have been that band. The players in Goldrush were all accomplished musicians in their own right. I met the team of Tony & Mary on bass and keyboards first. They had recently quit the road after playing together for more than a decade. My studio partner Mark was - and still is - a unique guitar player. His knowledge of music, arrangements and chord progressions is unparallelled in this region of the country.
Each person brought their own experience and style to the table. The quartet also became the house band in the studio. We backed up every songwriter that wanted to record a demo and we even played on many records that were cut in the day. We spent a year writing our own material, and based on the strength of our self made demo reel we attracted an investor that paid for a professional recording session in Springfild. Missouri. We spent one week and about $13,000 on our album, but because of delays and snags we didn't have enough time or money left to properly mix the album and so had to use our hastily put together demo mix to send to record labels. We had properly recorded the music but the mixes were so weak that no one showed any interest in going to that next step. Eventually, time wore the band down. We had primed ourselves for the Big Time, but when it didn't happen we eventually imploded.
Once again…. . . . . . On the fringe……
After Goldrush broke up I was so bitter that I wasn't even interested in another band for a long while. When it DID happen, I joined a band with absolutely NO ambitions for stardom. They were a cover band called "Mover" that played the Holiday Inn circuit. My studio work dwindled to nothing. The part-time job working at the local Radio Shack ran out. I was broke and desperate for any kind of income so I thankfully took the position and we hit the road in Illinois, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Playing in a trio was so liberating as there was so much room for improvisation. After a year we expanded the format a bit by adding another pal who played drums and guitar. This opened up a new area for me as I could swap off on guitar occasionally. I did a fair amount of recording the band live in clubs, but we not once went into the studio and recorded. It just wasn't something we cared for, which was okay for me at the time. But after a while, the newness of the concept had worn off and I tired of living in motels.
In 1982 things started picking up for the studio. I was doing pre-production for Swiss Metal Rockers "Krokus", and I began producing a Ft. Smith group called "Paperkid". I eventually was signed on as their manager. I really believed in the band and their music. It was fresh and they were all good players and good people. It about broke my heart when the band broke up because we could not get the attention of the record industry. I simply did not have the financial resources to go to the coast and live indefinitely while trying to get them a record deal. I DID manage to spend four months setting up appointments by phone with record label A&R contacts in Los Angeles. In February of 1993, I flew to California and spent one week with my friend Wayne, the drummer/guitarist in "Mover". Out of 15 "solid" contacts - who promised to meet with me upon my arrival - I only had ONE person make it good. She was with Polydor Records. She took me to lunch and graceously explained to me that without representation, NO record label would ever take an appointment with me. When I asked her what "representation" was, she said someone with years of experience in music, some type of industry professional, a personal manager, or a music business attorney. I told her I was all but the attorney. She just smiled. After my return from California, the band began to wane. We all knew there were no guarantees and we hoped against hope that perhaps we still might be discovered even though we lived in the middle of nowhere. Even with fifty strong songs recorded and the press of the entire state of Arkansas behind us, the band just bubbled under the surface…. Always just on the very edge of the fringe.
The studio's reputation was solid by the mid-80', thanks largely to the shot in the arm I got from working on two gold record albums by Krokus. I had many Arkansas songwriters and bands coming through the studio. They ALL had something special to offer with their original music. I worked with Randy Keck and "Whiplash Gumbo" on almost a dozen album releases over 20 years. I produced and played drums on the "Hamilton/Lambert" project. In the country field, I worked on many sessions with Jess McEntire. It was all original music, and very refreshing, but no one ever got to hear any of it.
I even released my own solo album "New Tricks From An Old Dog". Over the years in the 80's and 90's I had done some of my own songs here and there, intending on some future album release, and it finally all came together in 1999. As proud as I was (and still am) with that album, I knew in my heart that no one would ever get to hear it or have an opportunity to buy it because of where I live. Of course that never stopped me from having 1,000 CD's made, and I still sell them one at a time.. . . . Sold LIVE.... direct from The Fringe....
If you are a true player-writer-artist-composer-musician, you just can't quit when you're up against the wall. It's in your blood. I've seen several friends I have respected in music that "got smart" and quit the business when they had endured enough frustration and hardship. I don't blame them at all. But it just isn't "in" me to quit. Sometimes I swear I wish it was, but I can't seem to shake music off like some kind of covering of dirt. I can't even say the good times have out-weighed the bad. It just is what it is.
In 2008 I had a unique opportunity to produce a jazz album. Mark Rex, a former band mate of mine came to me with a handful of unfinished tracks he had recorded himself on a digital workstation in an ancient Airstream trailer which he had parked in the deep woods of a small community right across the lake from my studio. Most of them were 6-8 tracks recorded to a click track. I felt there was something extraordinary in those basic tracks and set about to flesh them out with some help from a handful of great players that I knew. First, Mark and I added appropriate guitar and drum tracks. Then, Ron Miler came in and put his tender touch on keyboards. Jerry Bone spent a couple of days adding the bottom on a variety of basses. Then a mutual friend of Ron and I, Thomas Roady, happened through the area and spent a couple of days visiting and adding percussion to the mix. Shortly thereafter Gary Gazaway lent his ample talents on trombone and trumpet to the project. Finally, I called David Renko of the Cate Brothers and asked if he might come visit and finish plugging the holes with his sax. The end result was spectacular. Although it took almost two years to fully complete the project, the album sounds like an incredible band had all come in to the studio and played it all live in one take.
I named the band "OMC", which originally stood for "Ozark Music Coalition" because all of the players hail from the Ozarks. However, after checking the ages of the personnel roster Ron Miller quipped that it SHOULD stand for "Old Men's Club". Everyone that has heard this album has made a comment that it sounds as good as any other "chill jazz" album out there today. I have sent out letters of introduction to any jazz label out there that accepts unsponsored solicitation, but so far I have had no response, other than "Thanks, but it's not what we're looking for right now" (and how would they know since they never even heard it yet). All this has done is reinforce my notion that it's not about the music, but it's ALL about "the connection". I read where people say the Internet has leveled the playing field but I would disagree entirely. I don't see that the business has really been changed all that much. It's still about location and who you know.
Mark has moved out to New Mexico. Jerry still lives nearby but is struggling with earning a living in music. Technology has all but put my studio out of business. Every techno-nerd with a laptop calls themselves a recording engineer. Cheap digital technology has enabled anyone with a desire to enter into the recording business, whether they have the experience or not. As a matter of fact, experience doesn't even seem to be important anymore. Everything can be "fixed in the mix". It is no longer about a group of players assembled together and performing an arrangement correctly, to be recorded with the utmost care and professionalism by a qualified engineer. These days, almost everyone is on the fringe……….
Because of the frustration, rejection, and sheer boredom of not having anything to do, Ron Miller and I threw ourselves into recording after the OMC project - just for the sake of going through the motions, to keep us from going insane. We weren't really "writing" songs. I just set up the gear and hit RECORD as we jammed for an hour or so. While listening to playbacks, Ron would grab a bass and lay down some tasty chops to some of our better ideas. After he left I would sit down and choose the very best segments of those hour-long jams, and then put the pieces all together into some kind of verse/chorus/bridge arrangement and then write lyrics to the result. At first it was more like an experiment, to see what I could make of it all. Then he would return in a day or two and I'd say, "Listen to this!" After fifteen seconds he would look up, puzzled, and ask where it came from. Or he might recognize a sliver of a piece and his eyes would light up. And rather than try to make it all perfect, I chose instead to leave the imperfections and direct our overdubs to turn those warts into parts of the arrangement. It gave the songs a certain type of spontaneous style, while at the same time we retained the original energy of the piece instead of beating the horse to death. Unless it was just bad, I kept all of my first take vocals and they wound up being the keeper tracks.
We continued with this experiment, and with each new track, our horizons expanded exponentially. Eventually Ron started offering lyric suggestions. And once he started singing melodies to me I began to insist that HE take the lead vocals on a particular part of the song. Our voices seem to blend very well, and in some cases friends could not tell us apart. The resulting album, which has taken us over a year to record, is called "It Is What It Is". The songs all have a specific tale to tell, and yet together it sounds like a concept album. From out of the air one day the name of the band flashed in my brain: "Waveform LLC". We stare at waveforms all day during the recording and mixing process, so it seemed natural. As for the LLC, that is a prime example of our sense of humor, to play to the industry and integrate their own acronyms into the mix.
Everyone that has heard this new music has had positive thing to say about it. Our musician friends seem to feel it is a refreshing new approach to reviving what we all refer to as "real" music…. Lyrics than mean something… arrangements that are new yet have a vintage feel to some of it…..in short, it is an attempt to return some sanity into the craft of writing, performing, and recording music. There is no auto-tune, no sequencing software, no "perfect takes" or comping of vocals.
I honestly do not expect the record industry to climb all over this. In the first place, we're "over-the-hill nobodies". We certainly are NOT in the demographic window of success in the industry. Although our songs don't sound dated, they hearken back to the time when music, lyrics, and melodies actually meant something. Some of the songs are clever enough to be interesting to many segments of the public, but without the clout of terrestrial radio broadcasting I can't see how the masses would get the chance to actually hear any of these songs. We'd need to sell 50,000 units or more to get the attention of the industry or press. I have a lot of Facebook friends, but not THAT MANY!
I KNOW there is a certain number of music lovers in our demographic segment that would buy this album (and many others we have in the back room) if they only knew about it. But how do I reach that segment? (Actually I did have a bizarre idea occur to me: buy an ad in AARP magazine).
So… once again……. The fate of this music hinges on "The Fringe", and based on past experiences, the fringe is not an enviable place to be. Still, we continue to write and record because we don't really have a choice. It's what we do.
It Is What It Is.
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