Birthday 335

Reflecting on my birthday this year found me remembering my favorite of them all. In 1996, for my fortieth birthday, I was surprised by my wonderful wife, Gail, and friends with the gift of the cherry-red Gibson ES-335 electric guitar I play to this day. The surprise of the thing is a tribute to Gail’s ability to keep a secret and ensure that a lot of my friends would, too.

Imitating Elvis with my Epiphone 335, Pascagoula High School, 1973

Imitating Elvis with my Epiphone 335, Pascagoula High School, 1973

The first decent guitar I ever owned was an Epiphone knock-off of the Gibson ES-335. It, too, was cherry-red and had a vibrato tailpiece that caused me to be out of tune more than in. I played it in talent shows, at school pep rallies and wherever my high school group, Les Kerr and The Blue Suede Band, could corral anyone into listening to us. For our first paying show, we made twenty dollars. For the whole band, not per person. We immediately spent our initial professional earnings on chili-cheese dogs at Edd’s Drive In in our hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi (Edd’s is correctly spelled with two “d”s, incidentally).

During that period, I imitated Elvis Presley and the band focused on his music and that of other gutsy rockers, including Chuck Berry. Berry was famous for his guitar wizardry and wielded a “335.” During the 1970s he was experiencing a career comeback with hits that included Reelin’ and Rockin’, among others. While my friend Garry Downs took the lead parts as we belted out Johnny B. Goode, I still felt proud to play my imitation 335 and sing, “Go…Go…Go, Johnny Go!”

As time went on and I went to college, I traded my electric Epiphone for an acoustic guitar and got into the singer/songwriters who were popular then – Jim Croce, Mac Davis, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg and others. I was also the youngest member of a bluegrass band at Ole Miss, the only freshman in the group whose other members were graduate students. So my interest in playing electric guitar lay dormant for many years.

However, by the 1980s, I had begun to really listen to the blues, especially to B.B. King. He was not only “King of the Blues,” but “King of Guitars” to me. In his early career, the guitar most associated with him was, you guessed it, the Gibson ES-335. He later used the ES-355 and eventually designed the “Lucille” model, his pet name for all of his guitars and the one he still plays.

When Gail and I married in 1993, she noticed that every time I saw King or anyone else

The first CD I released featuring my "birthday 335"

The first CD I released featuring my “birthday 335″

playing a Gibson ES-335, I would say, “I would sure like to have one, cherry red, like my first little Epiphone.” As I was about to turn forty, she got the idea to surprise me with one. She enlisted many friends to contribute to the purchase of the guitar, swearing them all to secrecy so it would be a surprise to me. With the help of Tommy Goldsmith, journalist and guitarist extraordinaire, she searched high and low, eventually locating one within budget at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. She and Tommy purchased the guitar with money she had collected, hid it at the home of some friends, and then presented it to me at a party we had planned to celebrate my birthday.

Playing the ES 335 in Nashville, Tennessee, October, 2014

Playing the ES 335 in Nashville, Tennessee, October, 2014

I was overwhelmed that night and still remember the tender loving care shown by Gail and everyone involved who made my fortieth birthday so memorable. Until she died this year, we often laughed about how much better that was than a bunch of “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s Forty,” gag gifts she successfully prevented from coming into our home. I do not step on stage with that guitar without thinking of her and the nice friends who made that all happen, and will be forever grateful for this gift that continues to give. Thanks to everyone who helped in this dream of mine that is still coming true.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

Click photo to download Les Kerr's Live CD, As Is!

Click to download Les Kerr’s Live CD, As Is!

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Kristofferson IV

My Kristofferson concert tickets dating back to 1977

My Kristofferson concert tickets dating back to 1977

September 13, 2014, for the fourth time since 1977, I saw Kris Kristofferson in concert. Truly a man who needs no introduction, he walked on stage with his guitar over his shoulder, smiled at the thunderous applause reverberating through the Ryman Auditorium and began singing Shipwrecked in the Eighties. The song, from the 1986 album Repossessed, may not have been as familiar to the audience as Help Me Make it Through the Night, which he performed later, but Kristofferson doesn’t need to play the hits to be a hit on stage. With no band, this man and his guitar delivered the well-known and obscure products of his pen throughout the two set show.

He sang up all the songs

The number of songs Kristofferson was able to get in during the concert astounded me. But he sang each one all the way through, digging deep into his catalogue with songs from his first album up to present day material. I was especially happy to hear Duvalier’s Dream, To Beat the Devil and Casey’s Last Ride from his first album and Feeling Mortal, the title song of his 2013 release. He sang Me and Bobby McGee early in the first set, bringing down the house with the line, “Feeling good was good enough for me,” inserting “and Janis,” at just the right moment. For the Good Times, Sunday Morning Coming Down, and Jody and the Kid all brought great crowd response, but then so did everything else.

In light of recent personal events, I heard Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) in a way I never had before. It brought me to tears and reminded me that the meaning of a song you’ve heard one way for years can change as life unfolds.

From an 8-track in a driveway to the Ryman in ‘14

Kristofferson on vinyl

Kristofferson on vinyl

Kris Kristofferson was one of the reasons I started writing songs. My first memory of hearing his music is from my high school days in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Around our junior year, my friend Phil Howell said, “I have something you need to hear.” We sat in his Ford parked in his driveway and listened to Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee album on the eight-track player. I remember that we listened to every song and how impressed I was that Kristofferson had written them all and how deep they were. So before long, I was buying Kristofferson records and learning the songs, including The Pilgrim: Chapter 33, from his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil. It’s a gritty, flawlessly written chronicle of, “a poet and a picker and a problem when he’s stoned.” I look back now and wonder how I must have appeared, a clean cut, short-haired middle-class kid who had never been without anything, singing about someone so down on his luck. I couldn’t help but go back to that eight-track moment in my mind as I watched the seventy-eight year old balladeer weave his magic at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

The first three

During the time I was in college at the University of Mississippi, I spent many days and nights in Memphis. My grade point average reflected that, as my parents pointed out when they got my grade reports from Ole Miss. One such moment occurred during the 1977 summer semester when Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge appeared at the Mid-South Coliseum. Some friends of mine and I bought tickets and drove up to see the show. Kristofferson was still enjoying the success of the movie A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand, and his then-wife Rita Coolidge’s recent hit records included Higher and Higher and The Way You Do the Things You Do. She did the first set, he, with full band, did the second set and they did several songs together to close the show. That was my first time to see this songwriting inspiration and he did not disappoint.

By 2000, I had lived in Nashville thirteen years and was plying my trade as a singer/songwriter and bandleader. A benefit for the W.O. Smith School of Music was scheduled for the Ryman Auditorium featuring Willie Nelson. As part of the show, Kristofferson, Willie and another legendary songwriter, Billy Joe Shaver, did about thirty minutes together. It was a magic moment.

In 2006, my wife Gail and I went to see Kristofferson’s solo concert at the Ryman. As was the most recent performance, it was completely acoustic and mesmerizing. We bought the Hatch Show Print commemorating it and, just last year, had it framed along with two others as presents for ourselves on our twentieth anniversary. Those posters are still proudly displayed on the wall above the living room sofa.

I believe performers should perform as long as they feel like it and can draw a crowd. It was gratifying to see Kristofferson in such good form, gravelly voice a little “gravelly-er,” perhaps, but his spirit soared and he held the audience in the palm of his hand. It was obvious why he’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and why no matter how sad or serious the subject matter of his songs may be, we will remember him for the good times.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr

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Why I’m “just saying no”

First, let me say how happy and proud I am that so many organizations have honored the memory of my wife, Gail Kerr, since her death March 25. I have participated with enthusiasm in the ceremonies and events I believe she would also have been happy to support. She knew about two of them before she died: Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund and the “Not So” Sure Shot Rabbit Hunters Association charity fund-raising event.

With The Tennessean, she was about to launch the House the Homeless project for How’s Nashville this spring. She would have been so pleased at the results because the issue of homelessness in Nashville was something she took to heart. After coming face to face with so many homeless people when she volunteered to serve them lunches at Downtown Presbyterian Church for several years, she knew the need to fix the problem. Gail saw the success of How’s Nashville and realized they had found a way that works.

This year, Fate Thomas, Jr., resurrected the “Not So” Sure Shot Rabbit Hunters Association Dinner started by his colorful father as a charity event. He contacted Gail and me about honoring her. We were looking forward to attending. Some of the proceeds from the event were donated to Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund and I know she would have appreciated that.

The Tennessee General Assembly honored Gail Kerr with this resolution

The Tennessee General Assembly honored Gail Kerr with this resolution

Other recognitions involving Multiple Sclerosis events in which Gail was active (she was diagnosed with MS in 2000), the Human Relations Commission, Tennessee’s General Assembly and the Bluebird Café were embraced by our family.
I am very grateful that those organizations sought my approval for these honors.

There were seven major events honoring Gail between her death in March and mid-August. And, again, I am enthusiastic about these causes that she would have also supported. However, requests are still coming and I am now respectfully declining them, at least for the foreseeable future.

Here’s why:

Respect for our family’s emotions
Our family appreciates the accolades bestowed upon Gail since her death. However, with each one, we are reminded all too vividly that she is gone. Nashville and the world lost a heroic, powerful voice wrapped up in honesty, courage and humor. We lost a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and great aunt, as well as the love she shared with all of us on a very personal level. I have broken into tears a couple of times accepting awards on her behalf. I have also made it through accepting some of these honors without crying. However, I have begun to weep while walking down courthouse steps and other locations minutes after the ceremonies.

During this time, we also dealt with her birthday and what would have been our twenty-first wedding anniversary. It was not easy. While we are so proud of Gail’s legacy, we need an emotional break.

Integrity
It is my belief that the integrity of the impact she had will be diluted if too many organizations and individuals use her name for awards and honors. Gail was a very special person and knew when not to spread herself too thin regarding commitments. I intend to continue that philosophy regarding honors and awards that use her name.

Overkill
This relates to the integrity of her name, as well. I believe that if every organization or individual who has requested the use of Gail’s name for an award or honor went through with those events, people would begin to say, “Oh, it’s another ‘Gail Kerr’ award.” I would never want that to happen.

Exploitation
I appreciate the fact that certain individuals and entities realize that having Gail’s name attached to their cause or enterprise would help it. Sometimes, however, it’s obvious that’s the only reason for the request. My question is, then, “Where were you last year when she could have enjoyed this?” Gail’s memory deserves more than that.

Thanks for your understanding
Again, I appreciate all of the honors for Gail that I have approved and that she would have enjoyed. I am also grateful that other groups and individuals think enough of her name to want it to be associated with them. I am sure that as time passes, there will be some that are completely appropriate for the use of Gail’s name. I may welcome those opportunities. But for the time being, thanks for understanding that I may, “just say no,” to other requests.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr

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Nashville Blues

This guitar belonged to Nashville blues man Johnny Jones, who died in 2009

This guitar belonged to Nashville blues man Johnny Jones, who died in 2009

Johnny Jones’ red Gibson guitar stood on stage alone as a symbol of its late owner and others who cut their blues teeth in Nashville during the city’s R&B glory days. Jones was a fixture in the Music City blues scene during the 1960s and a mentor to many, including Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix migrated to Nashville after a stint in the army had him stationed at nearby Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Jones and Hendrix were part of the house band for Night Train, a blues TV show. The man later known for setting his guitar on fire at Woodstock actually played it, and played it well, when he lived in Nashville.

But to the concert itself, July 30, 2014: It is only fitting that the radio/concert/video series Music City Roots dedicated an extraordinary episode to blues and rhythm and blues. Produced in conjunction with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Night Train to Nashville exhibit and compilation albums, this blues celebration and reunion brought many of Nashville’s surviving blues legends together for a concert that won’t be forgotten by those on stage or in the audience.

The Music City Roots show included performances by Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues,” Marion James, The McCrary Sisters whose father, the Rev. Sam McCrary, founded the Fairfield Four, and the Fairfield Four, themselves.

The Legendary Fairfield Four

The Legendary Fairfield Four

Charles “Wigg” Walker, The Valentines and LeVert Allison performed during the show and joined the all-star finale, as well.

Marion James - Nashville's "Queen of the Blues"

Marion James – Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues”

The house band for the evening was the Jimmy Church Band, rocking as only they can as they played for all of the acts and showed the crowd why they have such a stellar reputation as performers in their own right. Also performing was legendary songwriter Mac Gayden, known for writing the standard Everlasting Love. Robert Knight, the artist with the original hit record of the song, was also on hand to perform it.

Clifford Curry - sang She Shot a Hole in My Soul

Clifford Curry – sang She Shot a Hole in My Soul

Among other Gayden/Chuck Neese-penned hits was She Shot a Hole in My Soul, performed flawlessly at the show by the man who made it a nationwide hit, Clifford Curry. (On a personal note, I have been part of several shows with Clifford and you will not find a more generous and humble performer.) At the Roots show, he told a story that started similarly to the tales by others who have pursued success in Nashville. But the ending of this one changed his life. Curry recalled periodic trips from his hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, to Nashville as a young man trying to get his foot in the door as a songwriter. As fate would have it, his voice got more attention than his songs and he stepped before a studio microphone and shot a hole through everybody’s soul.

Music City is the home of many “musics,” including the blues. Many people who don’t live in Nashville, and far too many who do, don’t know the impact of the blues traditions begun on Jefferson Street. The music that was taken to the world was created by musicians and songwriters just trying to make a living playing what they loved. The good news is that the blues is still alive in Tennessee’s capital city and legends and more recent artists perform it every week. To quote Lou Rawls, you can still “put some blues in your shoes and some soul in your bowl,” in Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville blues royalty on stage for the finale

Nashville blues royalty on stage for the finale

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Click here to preview, order or download Les’ new album, Les Kerr As Is.

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The perfect place for lonesome

Looking down a lonely street

Looking down on a lonely street

It was the first time I ever felt sadness while driving toward New Orleans. As I crossed the Pearl River into St. Tammany Parish, the realization that Gail was not with me settled into my mind and my heart. It was as heavy as the hot, moist, South Louisiana air. Like the heat and humidity, that prospect became more burdensome with each moment. There had been times when I was in New Orleans without her over the last twenty-four years but I always knew that we would be there together again. That’s not so anymore.

After I crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the city I love so much came into view, I wondered if I could stand being there without her. The reason I made the trip was to prove to myself that I could. New Orleans has been a part of my life since I can remember and I didn’t want to stop going there because Gail had died. The closer I got to the French Quarter, where I would perform on a radio show and then spend the night, the more doubtful I became.

About 2:00 p.m. I set my suitcase and guitar down on the hardwood floor of a second story apartment on St. Phillip Street. I couldn’t bear to unpack the bag or open the guitar case. The sun beamed through the tall windows across the parlor onto the old brick wall that had the personality only a French Quarter brick wall can have. “Gail would have loved this,” I thought. Tears began to flow and led to heavy sobbing. The same kind of vocal crying that, when I’m at home, causes me to try to reassure the dog that I’m not yelling at her.

The radio interview was scheduled for 6:15 p.m. in the WWOZ FM studio, just a few blocks away near the French Market. I looked forward to visiting with host Kathleen Lee on the air but dreaded the hours before and after. In my three long months of grief, professional obligations have lifted me from depressing depths and I was confident I could do the show with no problem. Playing for people makes me happy. But the anticipation of spending even one night without Gail in New Orleans prompted me to call a hotel in Hattiesburg to see if I would need a reservation if I chose to head toward Nashville when the interview was over. I didn’t reserve a room and decided to take my chances if my emotions caused me to leave.

With a couple of hours to ponder my situation and my life before the radio show, I left the unopened suitcase and locked guitar case to walk around the Quarter. I thought that might clear my head. By then, the sun was beating down as I made my way to Bourbon, Royal and Chartres Streets amid shuffling throngs of happy tourists. Lines I wrote in a song about New Orleans years ago rattled through my mind with new, unwelcome clarity. “You can’t escape this sticky heat no matter what you do. And I can’t escape the way I’m missing you.”

Comfort Music

Strolling the French Quarter served to make me sadder. Realizing that was no good, I remembered that whether I spent the night or not, I would perform on WWOZ. So I headed back to the apartment to tune my guitar, go over songs and think about what I might say on the air. When I opened the guitar case, the sight of my six-string friend brought comfort to me. Tuning it gave me purpose and soon I was concentrating on my voice and remembering lyrics. I went over a few songs I don’t play very often and a few I’ve been singing for years. The old standbys, my “comfort music,” did their job and began to lift my spirits, as they always do.

I finally opened my suitcase to get out my toothbrush and at that moment, I thought, “Well, that’s a good sign.” I washed my face, made it smile in the mirror, picked up the guitar and headed downstairs. As I walked toward the radio station, the feelings of foreboding those same streets had produced just an hour and a half before gave way to the pleasant anticipation I usually have before a show. By the time I got to the station, I remembered what I am about and why I wrote all those songs about New Orleans. Kathleen was the gracious host she consistently is and I smiled through the entire show, sincerely, even when she mentioned Gail.

Talking/playing on WWOZ

Talking/playing on WWOZ

One of the last times I was Kathleen’s in-studio guest, Gail was in our room at the Le Richelieu Hotel listening. I mentioned that on the air and as I left after the interview, I thought about how much Gail had always encouraged me. It dawned on me that she wouldn’t have wanted me to have a bad time in a city that had meant so much to both of us. Her absence still hangs about me as strongly as her presence did. But my attitude had been adjusted enough for me to decide to take the guitar back to the apartment, unpack the suitcase, and enjoy the rest of my time in the Quarter.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Visit www.leskerr.com

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She’s still making me laugh

A few weeks after Gail died I was roaming the house looking at pictures of the two of us. I saw a particular favorite on a bookshelf and picked up the frame. It was a surprise to see the characters hiding behind it obviously waiting for me to discover them. Gail had done it again.

The traveling rabbit that made Gail and me smile many times.

The traveling rabbit that made Gail and me smile many times.

There he was, a skinny and familiar flexible rubber rabbit dancing with our five-inch-tall Mr. Bill doll. The rabbit was holding a carrot in one hand and reaching out his other gloved paw to keep his balance with the cylindrical plastic man in red with the perpetual look of surprise. I laughed out loud. Then, I cried out loud while still smiling.

The rabbit has had a habit of turning up in unusual and amusing places ever since it appeared in a surprise Easter basket Gail gave me on a trip to New Orleans in 1992. Amazingly, Gail was able to pack the basket in a suitcase without my knowledge until Easter Sunday when she gave it to me in our room at the Ponchartrain Hotel. The bag had been checked and handled by airport luggage crews in Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans. Miraculously, the basket and the rabbit inside had made the trip unscathed and undetected by me until she unwrapped them that morning.

Over the next two decades at home in Nashville, I would find that rabbit hiding in my sock drawer or behind my alarm clock. We would laugh and say, “How did he get there? That rabbit sure can move around!”

A day or two later, Gail would find it clinging to her makeup mirror or in a pair of shoes she had picked out to wear on a given day. He would appear lurking in the silverware drawer, clinging to a doorknob, or looking over a lampshade as if he were waiting to climb out from the inside. We got more and more creative about where the rabbit would show up and which one of us would be the recipient of his next surprise appearance.

Finding the rabbit dancing with Mr. Bill made me laugh again.

Finding the rabbit dancing with Mr. Bill made me laugh again.

In the days after Gail’s death, that plastic bunny never occurred to me. I had been consumed with sadness and the labyrinth of insurance, benefits, and trying to go on with my life. Those things continue with me now, but unexpectedly finding that rabbit gave me a much needed laugh and a reminder to think of more cheerful times. It also gave me pause to remember that Gail was always looking out for my happiness and to believe that she is still making me smile.

Click here to view video of The Gail by Les Kerr.
Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

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Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund

Gail Kerr

Gail Kerr

NOTE: The deadline for contributing to Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund was June 30, 2014. The final amount raised for How’s Nashville was $50,000, far more than anticipated. Thanks for all of your compassion and support.

The outpouring of love and good wishes since the death of my lovely wife Gail has been astonishing and very comforting to me. Thank you all so much.

One of the frequent questions I receive is, “How can we honor her memory?” A great way is to support Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund, a project she proposed before her death and is now being implemented, thanks to The Tennessean, How’s Nashville and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. The biggest difference in her proposal versus the way it is now is the name. It is now named for her and she would have been so honored by that. Like many others, Gail recognized the homeless issue in Nashville and did her best to bring focus to it in her columns.

Not only did Gail write about it but, in her very “hands-on” way, she volunteered on projects that helped those who slept under no roof and had fallen on hard times. For several years, she served lunches prepared weekly at Downtown Presbyterian Church for the homeless and urban poor. She bought every issue of The Contributor, Nashville’s independent newspaper designed to help the homeless get off the street (and succeeds beautifully at that mission).

If you were one of Gail’s readers, I don’t have to tell you that she pulled no punches and did not advocate causes in which she did not believe with all her heart. Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund was her idea and she was looking forward to getting it going. So now, it’s underway.

How it works

Gail learned about an organization called How’s Nashville and wrote a column about it last year. Through How’s Nashville, people are getting off the streets and staying off the streets. The program’s success in keeping people in housing after moving in really impressed her. The following paragraph explains it:

How’s Nashville aligns itself with the national 100,000 Homes and is a collaborative community campaign to assist individuals and families who have experienced long-term homelessness and are among the most vulnerable population in the most vulnerable people in Davidson County. Currently more than 30 organizations representing the nonprofit, government, and business sectors work together to help individuals and families move from homelessness into permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible. We believe that a focus on the most vulnerable individuals and families in our community will save lives while we work together on streamlining our city’s housing placement process.

The How’s Nashville campaign focuses on:

* Implementing Housing First(moving people from the streets/shelters directly into permanent supportive housing)
* Collecting data (so we, as a community, understand the populations we are serving)
* Tracking our progress (evaluating outcomes to improve our approach)
* Improve our local system (streamlining our systems to benefit all populations)

Thank you

I would personally like to thank The Tennessean for continuing this project and re-naming it for Gail, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for implementing the financial parts of this fund, How’s Nashville for this wonderful program, and everyone already donated Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund.

Thanks.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

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