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Published: 2012/05/07
by Brian Robbins

George Kilby, Jr.: From Pinetop Perkins to Railroad Earth with a Smile and a Song

The late, great Pinetop Perkins (who passed away in March of 2011) was a major influence on Kilby – not just in music, but in terms of how to live. “Pinetop was cool without knowing he was cool,” says Kilby. “I aspire to be what he just was naturally. There was an honesty to both he as a person and his music … it was just unreal.”

Kilby and Perkins’ paths first crossed at the same place that he met Goessling and Carbone. We’ll let George tell the story.

“Oh, man – there’s this really cool roadhouse on the western border of New Jersey called the Stanhope House. It was back in the 80s … Andy and Timmy were in this great band called the Blue Sparks and they were the house band at the Stanhope House on Sunday nights.

“The first time I ever got a gig at the Stanhope House, it was because the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ bus broke down. I’d been begging for a gig there for a long time and all of a sudden they called me: ‘George, we’ve got the entire T-Birds crowd here and the band’s not gonna make it – maybe by midnight, if at all. Get your butt over here … you get here and we’ll pay you.’

“What a scene: we had to load in with a packed house … and we weren’t the Thunderbirds. Talk about trial by fire …” George laughs; apparently, he and his band passed the trial, as in the years to come, Kilby made many key connections at Stanhope House and Pinetop Perkins was one of them. The two were friends as well as collaborators on stage and in the studio. (One of the albums Kilby produced for Perkins was the W.C. Handy Award-winning Portrait Of A Delta Bluesman album in 1993.) In fact, it was a late 80s studio session with Perkins that led to Kilby’s friendship with Carbone and Goessling.

“Pinetop was playing with a band called the Legendary Blues Band, which was basically all of Muddy Waters’ sidemen,” says Kilby. (Perkins was a pianist with Waters for years.) “I’d just finished an album with Pinetop and needed a horn section. The Blue Sparks were so cool; they’d do some of that old jump blues – like that old Louis Jordan stuff. Now, get this: Andy hardly ever touched a string instrument, if you can believe it. His role 99% of the time was as a horn player … and Timmy was doing horn parts on his fiddle! No charts; they would make up the stuff right there on the bandstand – and it was magic.”

The recording session led to further collaborations that continue to this day in both studio and live settings. Goessling and Carbone both played on Let The Melody Live On, a 2009 release by Kilby and his band The Road Dogs. Besides the May 12 gig coming up, Kilby and his Railroad Earth friends expect to share some stage time at The Friendly Gathering in Windham, VT in mid-June.

Kilby has a surprise in store for the weekend of The Friendly Gathering. Combining a traditional approach to music-making while embracing today’s technology, he’ll be releasing the first digital single from his album due in September. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I love albums, but – maybe not tomorrow; maybe not the next day; maybe not next year; but soon – I feel albums are going to be a thing of the past. I feel it’s becoming more about the song … the output of the band by song.

“The songs are where it’s at,” he says. “And the digital age is keeping people honest. If somebody hears one of your songs, they can check out the rest before they buy them. Gone are the days when people could write one good song that played on the radio and ten crap songs to fill up the album.”

And the upcoming single? “Oh, you’re gonna love this,” says George; his excitement is infectious, even over the phone. “Okay, now imagine a bluegrass rhythm – with drums and electric guitar – and you’ve got this lick, okay? I rearranged it, but it’s from one of those songs that we grew up with.” And Kilby begins singing, “Dut-dut do-dut da dut-dut do dut dah …”

“Yeah! Only we all know it like …” and I do my best impression of Clapton’s signature lick from “Sunshine Of Your Love”.

“Yeah! You got it!” I’m imagining Kilby’s out of his seat on the other end of the phone. “Andy plays dobro on it and it’s really cool, man – you gotta hear it.” Within minutes, he’s shot an attachment to me with a rough mix of “Sunshine”. The song is a psychedelic porch stomp, with Goessling’s dobro putting a new spin on the riff created by Clapton’s Gibson SG – a new flavor of raunch. It is an absolute hoot. And when George tells you he wants to know what you think, he means it: for all the songs written and the gigs played and the miles flown, driven, and walked, he still lives to connect to people with his music … and make music with his friends.

“To me,” says George, “the Grateful Dead were the ultimate garage band. They were playing tunes that they thought were cool. Country stuff; old obscure folk tunes; their own songs … whatever. It happened to blow up into a giant phenomenon, but the Dead always retained the feeling of a bunch of buddies just getting together to play cool tunes. It was amazing that they could do that for millions of people for that many years. Whatever was right in the universe to allow that shit, man … I hope it happens again in some way.”

Talking with George Kilby, Jr., it seems that it is.

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