Bluegrass Musician All Suited Up

Kody Norris grew up during the 90s in the mountains of East Tennessee. And while he did not grow up in a musical family directly, he recalls a couple of great-uncles who owned instruments, including his Uncle Jack, who would let the young Kody drag his banjo around the house and, “make a racket with it,” as Kody recalled. His fond memories of riding around in Uncle Jack’s Chevy El Camino with the music of the Stanley Brothers playing on the 8-track inspired the young boy. So much so that Kody said, “I purchased that car from him in my teens and my dad and I restored it. I still own Uncle Jack’s El Camino to this day.”

When he was a little older, Kody’s dad would take him to the regional bluegrass festivals around the area. “The Ralph Stanley Festival was real close, and one called Slagel’s Pasture bluegrass festival in Elizabethan, Tennessee was another big one at the time,” Kody said.

He was exposed to a lot of really good music early. “Our little local radio station in my town on Sunday mornings would play records of old traditional artists, like the Chestnut Grove Quartet from Abingdon, Virginia; just the purest form of old time singing you could get. I was exposed to that, you know, at a very, very young age. Some people that we attended church with had a little local bluegrass gospel group. A lady in the group played the mandolin, and I remember being just fascinated with that instrument. Along about that time, my parents bought me a mandolin and I began fiddling around with it. It really came on fast too. I really figured it out in a hurry. And from there I learned to play the guitar and banjo a little bit too,” Kody said.

Money Makes A Difference
It really began to click for Kody as an early teenager though. “When I figured out I could make a little money with it, boy! Naturally, at 12, 13 years old, when you can go out and make 20dollars playing yourself to death for four or five hours, you think you really hit the big time.”

Kody got to see Bill Monroe several times. Ralph Stanley often, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse; all the early fathers of bluegrass were still performing when he was young. A friend of Kody’s who worked for Food City Grocery Store had some connections at the Grand Ole Opry and he would take him there when he was 12 years old. “I’d get to go backstage and meet a lot of people,” Kody said. “That was very exciting for me. The idea came to me one day that I might want to pursue this as something more than for fun, but I never really planned to do it for a living. I had always wanted to go into the Air Force when I was really little, or some form of military service. But when I was 17, an opportunity came along to do some fill in dates with Ralph Stanley.”

Connections Count
“I got to meet a lot of people through that,” he said. Once that was over, I thought, ‘if I’m ever going to try to make a living with this, now would be the time, because I had met so many folks playing with Ralph.’ So we started the band. I’ll tell you though, those first few years were really, really tough. It was really tough to get it right and get people to take a chance on you. First off, being a kid, but secondly, being new. You’ve absolutely got to find work, but you’ve got those two things working against you, keeping folks from taking you seriously. But we stuck it out. And I was very fortunate that I had made a lot of good friends in the in the music business who were willing to take the chance with me. And it eventually began to click. The first major bluegrass festival that I played was at Amelia, Virginia. John Hutchenson was very instrumental in helping me get the ball rolling,” Kody said.

Promises To Keep
I had made myself a vow and promised my parents that if I couldn’t make a go of it by the time I was 25 I’d hang it on the nail and go do something else. However, by that time, I was making a living with it, and it was paying the bills.”

Kody and friend Tom Isaacs created and old time duo act that eventually grew into the fulltime band called, Kody Norris, Tom Isaacs and The Watauga Mountain Boys. They toured in a big, blue Cadillac Deville with a bass tied on the top. A chance meeting with Campbell Mercer, executive producer of the Cumberland Highlander’s Show on the RFDTV network, led to several appearances, which turned into a nine-year stint playing guitar on the show. Tom Isaacs eventually chose a different path though, and the band became Kody Norris and the Watauga Mountain Boys – which grew into The Kody Norris Show – with Kody writing songs, and singing lead.

It’s About The Show
One of the signature pieces of Kody’s performance that sets them apart from many of the other acts on the road today is not just the showman environment he and band try to create, but also the outfits he and the band wear while on stage. And usually not just one – but often several outfit changes throughout an evening performance.

“I actually didn’t derive that from bluegrass music at all,” he said. “As a kid growing up I collected LPs – I still do. I’ve got probably 30 some hundred LPs – I would listen to those often, and I especially liked live albums; don’t care who they were by. I’m talking everybody from B.B. King, to CCR, to Porter Wagner; everybody. The energy that all those first generation musicians produced in their field, no matter what genre’, was amazing. They were there to entertain people. It was more than just playing and singing.”

“A really good friend of mine (Joe Isaac) took me to a performance at Eastern Kentucky University several years ago to see B.B. King. Up to this point, I was still playing traditional bluegrass. I was about 20 years old at the time. What I was playing was right down the line, Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin kind of music. I’d put a Sunday suit on, get up there and play music, and move on to the next show.”

Following The King
“I will never forget the amount of energy that B. B. King put into entertaining that crowd. These 80 year old men did four sets that night. And after every set they would leave the stage and come back down in a different colored tuxedo. They completely captivated the audience. Being at the university, there was everybody there from the siblings of the college students to their grandparents. They had every age bracket you can imagine. Now, knowing that the average bluegrass music fan was retirement age, I was already seeing it as a potential problem at that time, and I’m thinking about all of this while I’m sitting there watching this show. And that’s when the light came on. If I could create something within a bluegrass genre’ where I’ve got my own niche, I could really make a different kind of show. I want to make fans out of the six year old kids, early 20s, mama and daddy, the early 40s crowd, grandma and grandpa, folks in their 60s, even great grandpa. I want to cover the whole ball of wax,” Kody said.

13 Suits And Counting
When I asked Kody about his signature suit collection, I recollected a story about remembering all the cool flashy suits Porter Wagner used to wear. He quickly said, “You’re probably one of a million people who couldn’t recall five songs Porter ever sang, but you remember him wearing those suits. People tuned in every week to the Porter Wagner TV show just to see his suits,” he quipped.

“So I found a tailor in California and had my first suit made. I’ll never forget the first day that I walked out on the stage with it on. I’ll never forget it. Every musician who was there that day literally laughed me out of the place. But I’ll tell you this, when I walked out on the stage the light came on for every fan sitting in that crowd. I only had three CDs out at the time; one t-shirt, and maybe a cap at my table. The line that I had at my merchandise table that day was like Black Friday at Wal-Mart. At that moment, I knew I had something. I didn’t know if it would ever work again, but I knew it worked that day.”

Yet it has been working ever since. Kody now has 13 suits he wears in rotation, and three new ones on the way. And the band is booked constantly. And, they just signed their first ever record deal, with Rebel Records, with a new CD expected out later this year.