I am delighted to have Les Kerr as my guest today on Southern Creatives. He’s the first featured person of 2013, and I think he sets a wonderful tone for a year full of dynamic, creative people!
So, on with the feature …
Les Kerr, musician, writer
How would you describe your musical style.
It’s a mix of styles I refer to as “Hillbilly Blues Caribbean Rock & Roll.” I was influenced by a wide variety of music growing up in Mississippi, first in Jackson and then Pascagoula on the Gulf Coast. From radio, I heard rock music of the sixties and my grandfather was a huge country and bluegrass music fan and made sure I heard some of that, too. My mom loved big band music and she taught me to have respect for classical music, as well. When we moved to Pascagoula, the radio stations from New Orleans introduced me to the great rhythm and blues played there and that really made an impression on me. I mix them all together and have a lot of fun writing, performing and recording.
How did you get started in music?
At age 13, I got interested in learning to play guitar. I had a cheap guitar and a book called, “A Tune A Day,” to get me started. A lot of other people in Pascagoula High School also played and we encouraged each other and swapped what we were learning. I was a huge Elvis Presley fan and started a little band called “Les Kerr and The Blue Suede Band.” We played high school pep rallies and parties. It was the 1970s and while our friends were playing songs by Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and other contemporary groups, we stood out because our bread and butter was music of the 1950s by people like Chuck Berry and Elvis. It was great fun. At that time, there was a resurgence of interest in the 1950s and American Graffiti was a hit movie and Happy Days was a very successful new TV series. What we did fit right in to that nostalgia. And Elvis was still alive and creating hit records like Burning Love and Steamroller Blues so we played those, too.
In college, I joined a bluegrass band and it was during that time that I also began to write songs. Back then, Kris Kristofferson, Jim Croce, John Denver and others influenced me. Also, I’ve always admired the classic songs of Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagie Carmichael and others of the Tin Pan Alley era.
You were in radio for many years. How did that influence you as a musician?
I have a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi and for seven years after graduation from Ole Miss, I was a full-time news director at radio stations in Mississippi and Alabama. As a newsman, I interviewed a lot of people about everything under the sun. Most of the songs I write involve descriptions of people and places. The years I spent covering news stories and interviewing people might be one of the reasons I use so many descriptions in my songs.
During the entire time I was in news, I also performed on weekends whenever I could.
Probably one of the most important things I learned from radio was how to keep an audio program going. All announcers fear “dead air” and to this day, as a stage performer, I do my best to keep my shows moving.
Tell us about your involvement with Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe.
When I moved to Nashville in 1987, the Bluebird had an open mic night on Mondays which still goes on today. I started playing the Monday open mic night and then began playing the more prestigious Sunday Night Songwriter series. Gradually, I started hosting early weekday shows and began doing the 9:00p.m. headline slots in 1991. In the mid-1990s, I began substitute hosting the Sunday night shows which I still do, on occasion.
In 1992, I approached the founder of the club, Amy Kurland, and asked her what she thought about my group doing a Mardi Gras show at the Bluebird. She liked the idea and we will be hosting our 22nd Mardi Gras Concert at the Bluebird Café on Fat Tuesday this year.
I play there periodically throughout the year and have hosted five annual “Original Blues” shows which feature songwriters who, like me, are influenced by the blues.
I’m very proud to be associated with the Bluebird Café in any way and the management through the years has been extremely good to me. It’s now owned by the Nashville Songwriters Association International and, as always, songwriters of all genres are encouraged to be creative and to get their songs “out there” to be heard.
In addition to music, you also write. What are the similarities between the writing life and the musical life?
I like to say that I write, period. Sometimes, I write songs and sometimes, I write words not connected to music. In both prose and songwriting, the story is the most important thing to me. In one instance, my music and a book project went hand-in-hand. With Jim Clark and Ken Beck, I co-authored The All-American Truck Stop Cookbook published by Thomas Nelson in 2002. We got recipes from truck stops all over the country and in between them, we included original features about truck stops, trucking and food that we wrote. During the time we wrote the book, I was traveling with my music a lot so I just made a point to eat at truck stops when I was on the road. I spent a day with a waitress who had been on the same job for over thirty years and she had some great stories to tell. Others I interviewed included truck drivers, overnight trucking radio announcers and the curator of the Route 66 Museum. And during that entire time, I was playing my music on schedule.
For me, the biggest similarity in the “writing life and the musical life,” as you put it would be that just like anyone else in business for themselves, you have to make sure the work keeps coming. Just as freelance writers scout opportunities with magazines, blogs or other publications, musicians and songwriters must constantly search the market for outlets. In my case, I have learned to search for opportunities to which I can really contribute both as a writer and performer.
I’m very fortunate to have two professions about which I am passionate and as long as I have that drive, I’ll keep doing both of them.Many, many thanks to Les for being my guest on Southern Creatives today! To find out more about Les or to connect with him online, you can find him here:
Main web site (w/links to Facebook & Twitter): www.leskerr.com
Blog: Les Kerr’s Liner Notes: http://leskerr.wordpress.com/