When I sat down in my friend Kevin Wright's music room, surrounded by amps, guitars, posters advertising concerts he performed, and paintings of old bluesmen from the 1920s, I realized I was in trouble because I didn't prepare any questions. Kev, towering over me and looking like a character from Sons of Anarchy, offered the perfect antidote for anxiety: homemade apple pie flavored liquor. After a glass of Kev's homebrewed tonic, the conversation started rolling--much of it is reprinted here.
Kevin Wright is currently the lead guitarist, backup vocalist, and co-songwriter for The Righteous Hillbillies--a blues boiled, twangified Southern Rock band he calls "the best band I've been in. He shares songwriting credits with lead singer Brent James (who will be interviewed in this space in the coming months), and together they create body shaking and soul stirring music perfect for a party of rock 'n' roll revival.
Kev is a longtime veteran of the Chicago music scene, originally from New Lenox, he's played in many bands--power rock trios, biker bands, and many more--for nearly his entire life. He has also recorded several solo, acoustic albums and regularly performs in that style.
The Righteous Hillbillies have released one album, and are currently recording their second. They play shows throughout the Chicago-area, and recently opened for The Charlie Daniels Band, receiving three standing ovations. Kev and I discussed the Hillbillies, along with many, many other topics.
David Masciotra: So we're here to talk about your life as a musician....
Kev Wright: Yeah, and before we get started there's one thing I wanted to make sure we talk about. When I was growing up, it was the most exciting time to be interested in music and playing rock 'n' roll. I'm 55 years old, and I've been playing in bands since I was 15. At 15, in my neighborhood, there was a band on every block and a guitar in every garage. Young people came together in their driveways, and not only made music, but created a culture and community for everyone to be a part of. It was something that gave you your identity, and gave you a purpose.
DM: How did you get involved with it?
KW: Well, like a lot of people, I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and fell in love it. They pissed my parents off too, and that helped. When I watched the Beatles I thought, "I'd like to do that." But, it wasn't until I saw the Rolling Stones--they were tougher, brasher, bumping into each other and playing louder--that I said to myself, "I have to do that." We all wanted to be the Beatles and the Rolling Stones back then, and other bands were important too, but it all came under the single classification of rock 'n' roll. Everyone played rock 'n' roll and wanted to be part of that lifestyle. A lot of us started playing because we wanted to get girls, of course. But, eventually I discovered that I had such a passion for it, and maybe more importantly, I had passion for nothing else. From a young age, I really had no choice. I had to do this.
DM: The music was rock 'n' roll, but what was culture--the community like?
KW: We were all part of the hippie culture. Hippies catch a lot of criticism now, and while its true that we all dabbled in drugs and free love--some of us more than others--there was much more to it than that. Hippie culture was about people being satisfied with themselves, and trying to create lives in which people had the freedom of decision and some autonomy over their futures. But, most importantly, we all had a gentle camaraderie. I almost never saw a fight, and I don't remember ever seeing a fight at a concert. Kindness and gentleness were the most respected virtues in our lives, and since then our culture has gotten less kind and less gentle in all ways--personal interactions, politically--but that's a different conversation.
Within the music "industry"--if you want to use that word, there was a more meaningful relationship between artists, musicians, and the listeners. The relationship extended from the bands you admired and emulated from afar--the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc.--to the bands playing together in local scenes and down to the grassroots level in those garages.
DM: Is there anything close to that that exists now?
KW: No, I don't see it anywhere. Small, but meaningful changes give a lot away. When I was growing up people actually went to concerts primarily for the music. Now, in many places, people are focused on anything but the music, and the performance is just noise floating in the background. Technology facilitates an acceleration of this change--people can now just download one song that they like, and not take the time to listen to an entire album or learn to respect the artists that influenced their favorite artists.
The biggest cultural shift started at Altamont though. Once people realized they could fight and behave violently and still be part of rock 'n' roll, everything changed. The culture grew increasingly violent, and that gentle camaraderie that I mentioned earlier started to fade away. Music reflects this shift. Rock 'n' roll became more and more violent, breaking off into these subgenres--heavy metal, death metal, and so on and so forth. Hip hop became more violent.
Nothing is ever as pure as we imagine it, but when everyone opposed the hippie and rock 'n' roll culture, loyalties and principles were clearer. Business, politicians, religious people were all against us, and that helped, because we knew where we stood--we stood together. Once business realized they could co-opt it, and that it was easier and more beneficial to their interests to package and sell rebellion--rock 'n' roll, hippie culture, whatever the case may be--and incorporate it into consumer culture, everything started to fall apart.
DM: You're still at though. Let's talk about you. You've been playing bars most of your life. What is that like?
KW: When I first saw the movie, "Crazy Heart," which I loved, I almost turned it off after the first scene--after I saw him pull up to that bowling alley and take out his piss jug. I've been there many times, brother. That's been my life many times over. For a few minutes, it was just too painful to watch. I've had to pawn my gear when I was dead broke. I've played in bars for three people who don't give a shit. It gets hard and it gets humiliating. But, I feel like a prisoner to it. I'm like someone who's spent his entire life in prison, and then when he's released he can't adjust to civilian life. He doesn't know how to live outside of prison. I don't know how to live without music. Through all the pain, struggle, and bullshit, I'm constantly chasing and searching for a moment of beauty. Everything is worth it when I see people stomping their feet, dancing, and singing along to a song I wrote. Nothing feels better than that.
DM: It seems to be happening now more than ever with the Hillbillies.
KW: The Righteous Hillbillies is the best band I've been in in my entire life, and we're getting ready to take it to the next level with a new album and new shows. There's going to be a lot happening in the next few months. But, I just have to keep playing and writing songs--waiting for that bolt of inspiration--because it is what lifts me up. I live for those moments when I see it lifting other people up. We gotta be lifted up...we gotta be lifted up.
Kevin Wright seems to live according to two things and two things alone: kindness and rock 'n' roll. That may seem like an odd combination, but it is certainly something all of us need right now--now more than ever.