NMG Musicians Spotlight - Don Kelly
©2006 By Bronson Herrmuth
For years, starting in 1981, I would come into Nashville with my band from Iowa, The Ozone Ramblers. We'd ask everyone we saw who was playing around town so we could check them out on our nights off. They'd say, "You have to see the Don Kelly Band", more times than not. Top of the line, a great band leader and singer and musician, entertainer. I'll bet if you took a look at the names of the musicians that have been in his band, most of them when they first got to Nashville, it would blow you away. Don recognized their talent and gave them the spotlight by hiring them to play in his band. Big stars, national acts, would come see Don play, to find musicians to be in their bands. Don has never missed a beat, he just finds another and they're always special. One of the Best bandleaders on the globe and a really nice guy, meet Don Kelly.
Bronson: Your hometown and the year you came to Nashville?
Don Kelly: Okay, I'm from Wichita Falls, Texas, which is north Texas up by the Oklahoma border, and I moved here to play bass and front Joe Stamply's band in 1976.
Bronson: How long have you been performing professionally and what was your first gig?
Don Kelly: I was 15 years old and it was at Airmen's club at Shepard Air Force base in Wichita Falls.
Bronson: So it was Joe Stamply that brought you to Nashville and gave you your first shot?
Don Kelly: Yeah and I didn't know any of the local people, ya know, and then I left Joe Stamply in 1979, and started to work down on Broadway. Afternoons, I did a single down there. I was gonna move back to Texas but I just kept falling into one job after another, went through a divorce like everybody else, and I played down on Broadway at the old Merchant Hotel.
Bronson: Name some of the musicians that have been members of the Don Kelly Band and who's with you now.
Don Kelly: Oh man (laughs), that'll take a while. Well the first band was me and Brent Mason, a piano player named David Byrd, and a wonderful drummer named Paul Cook, and me on Bass, 4 of us. That was my first band and probably my best. Then I moved to a bigger club and decided I didn't want to play bass anymore, it was easier to front the band playing guitar. So I hired a bass player named Jimmy Carter, who's a top session player here in town and I ended up having Drew Sexton, a wonderful piano player. Brent left, I had Zid Hudson from Barbara Mandrell's band on guitar, incredible guitar player. Zid left I had Troy Lancaster, good player. Danny Parks, another big session player. Red Volkhart, who's my favorite Telecaster player of all of 'em. A young guitar player from Indiana named Gary Don Smith, incredible musician. Gary left, then Walter Garland, then Johnny Hyland. Right now, one of my favorite guitar players, a kid from Alabama named Guthrie Trapp. He's incredible. My life long drummer, he's been playing with me for about 20 years, and one of the best singin' drummers ever to come to this town, Artie Linenkof, from Pennsylvania, and I have Johnny Cash's great slap bass player, Mr. David Rowe. He's been in the band off and on for about 4 or 5 years. A honky tonk 4 piece band, and I've been down at Robert's now for about nine years.
Bronson: You forgot about Clinton?
Don Kelly: Oh Clinton yeah. Clinton was in there for about 3 years when Red was there. So I had Red Volkhart on one side of the stage and Clinton Gregory on the other.
Bronson: That was a hot band.
Don Kelly: Oh yeah.
Bronson: You know we used to come see you. That was where I first saw you was at the Stage Coach in 1984.
Don Kelly: It wasn't the kind of band that I enjoy, because we had to do so much of the cover tunes in the 80's, which I hated that music. I just didn't like it at all, but I still got to do some ol' Texas kind of music that I grew up on so it was good that way, and having Red and Clinton, you know.
Bronson: What do you feel are the most important traits to being a successful band leader?
Don Kelly: Well the only thing that I can say that I've done is when I first started this band, of course everybody has that ego you know, they don't really want to let people shine. Well I got over that real quick when I figured out that the more you let these guys play, the more money you're gonna make, the better the bands going to be. So I just hired musicians that I thought really did something for me playing wise, and hey listen, let 'em play. You know, it's not that half a turn around in each song, I let 'em play and that's the same thing with our 4 piece band now. I just let these guys go at it and the people love that. When you got that caliber of musicians, you have to let 'em play. I want 'em to stand up there and play and make me some money and they do. Their just wonderful. You know the thing at Robert's, the main part of your money is the tips and the CD's, and these guys are incredible musicians, so they just step up and play there heart's out and people see that. You know thats the only thing I can say, and the fact that every time I turn around there's another young guitar wizard wanting to go to work. And you know I've just been so lucky having them kind of players.
Bronson: List the top 3 things that you consider when you do hire a new member for your band.
Don Kelly: Well the first thing he has to be better than me, he has to have a good attitude, and he has to do what I ask him to do, that's it.
Bronson: So when did you work with Moe Bandy?
Don Kelly: When Moe and Joe Stamply did the duets, oh we did 17, 20, different shows with both bands, both busses. And then we did Austin City Limits, we used parts of Moe's band and parts of Joe's band. Then when we did the Grand Ol' Opry, I sang Moe's parts of all the duets and several shows where I got to play with Moe and Joe at the same time and vice versa. It was a good experience when they were hot with the duets.
Bronson: Talk about where you are working now.
Don Kelly: I'm at the best honky tonk in town, according to the Scene Magazine in their reader's polls. It's Roberts Western World on lower Broadway, and it's run by Jessie Lee Jones who's also a great singer and musician. He has a band called Brazil Billy that work after we get off. Wonderful country music. It's the only place to me on the street that you don't hear Sweet Home Alabama 5 times.
Bronson: What is the name of your new album and how can someone get one?
Don Kelly: It's a little live CD we did, live mode, it's done in the studio with everybody in the same room, playing at the same time, old school. It's called Best of Don Kelly Band, and you'll just have to come to Robert's to get one.
Bronson: What would be your advice to a musician new town, in regards to establishing themselves in Nashville?
Don Kelly: Well I'll tell you the secret to that is being able to get a day time job, to stay here until you find something. Youčre not going to come to this town and right away make a livin' playin'. I mean in less you're lucky, like Guthrie just fell into my job. I needed a guitar player at the time and Joe Sun turned me on to Guthrie, and I let him come in and play with us one night and he's been with me 4 years now.
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