Barry Billings

Rock, R&B, Christian Guitar sound track to Jeremy's Egg

Lived in Sheffield, AL

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

Jason Isbell still remembers the advice Barry Billings gave him nearly 15 years ago when he was a kid hoping to break into the Shoals music scene.

Billings was a member of the popular local band, Iguana Party, that had a regular gig at Jorge Casteel's La Fonda Mexicana in Florence.

"Jason kind of made this his home," Billings said. "When he first came in, he didn't even have his driver's license. I remember the look on his face. He was all business."

As a young guitarist eager to show off his skills, Isbell was guilty of playing over the other musicians in the band rather than showing off when it was his turn to solo.

Not wanting to discourage the young player, Billings diplomatically explained the proper protocol for participation in a band and eventually became Isbell's guitar mentor.

"The first thing I learned from playing with Barry is that it's very important to stay out of everybody else's way," said Isbell, who has seen success first as a guitarist with the Drive-By Truckers and most recently with his band, The 400 Unit. "After hanging around with Barry, if someone is singing, you let them sing. If someone else is playing, let them play. You have to come to the point and figure those things out or you'll never be able to play in a band."

Billings said Isbell used to come to LaFonda with his friend and keyboard player, Chris Tompkins, who is now a Grammy-winning songwriter based in Nashville.

"That was the only place we could go and play when we were that age," Isbell said. "Every place else was a bar. It was the only place we could get up and sit in with the bands. Barry was the only one willing to let kids get up and do that."

Billings, an unassuming guitarist with credentials that include The Shooters - the popular country band that included Walt Aldridge, Gary Baker, Mike Dillon and Chalmers Davis - The Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and Marie Osmond's touring band, believes it's important to help young musicians learn their craft.

"This keeps me going, too," Billings said. "It keeps me young, being around these people."

Guitarist Kelvin Holly said he recalls when Isbell and Tompkins would come and watch as he performed.

"We've been around this area for so long a lot of people have come in and sat in with us," Holly said.

Kirk Russell is another young artist who has taken advantage of the elder statesmen of the Shoals.

Unlike some young musicians, Russell had the advantage of being the son of longtime Shoals songwriter and blues guitarist Max Russell.

Picking up a guitar at a young age, he said, was something that was inevitably going to happen.

"It was instinct," he said. "Nobody was pushing me to do it. I grew up around it. Everybody I knew was a musician."

He credits his dad for his desire to learn guitar at a young age.

The younger Russell also took advantage of the opportunities to sit in with players such as Billings and Holly.

"Definitely some of the best jams I've had were with Kelvin Holly," Russell said. "I would jam with Barry at LaFonda and Kelvin at Union Station."

Holly, a guitarist with the Shoals rhythm and blues band, The Decoys, The Amazing Rhythm Aces and rock legend Little Richard's touring band, still remembers those days.

"Kirk would get up and play when he was a kid," Holly said. "If you want to learn something, it's good to hang out with the guys who are doing it."

Legendary Shoals guitarist Travis Wammack has his own way of introducing young people to music.

"I average giving four or five guitars a year to kids to get them into music to get their minds off all the bad stuff out there," Wammack said. "There's one young lady out there, she's doing real good. I gave her a little guitar about four years ago."

Carley Lacks met Wammack through her dad.

"My whole family has always played," Lacks said. "My dad used to play for me when I was little."

Since her family was friends with Wammack, Lacks would frequently get to hear him play when she was young.

It led her to decide to learn guitar herself.

"Travis gave me my first electric guitar," Lacks said. "It was shaped like a shark. It's the only one I've seen anywhere. About a year later, he gave me a red Carlo Robelli."

Lacks, a senior at Deshler High School, had her senior photograph taken with the red guitar. She said Wammack has been a positive influence.

"I've always enjoyed being around him and hearing him play," she said. "Travis has been a big help."

Billings said he thinks it's important for experienced musicians to help up-and-coming artists as much as they can.

In addition to Isbell and Tompkins, Billings has helped other young Shoals musicians, including bassist Shonna Tucker, of the Drive-By Truckers, guitarist Matt Oliver, of Barrelmouth, guitarist Jay Burgess and drummer Jon Davis, of Sons of Roswell, guitarist Gary Nichols and singer Amanda Brewer.

"To me, it's what music is all about," Billings said. "For a lot of people, it's a monetary thing or it's an ego thing."

Playing with hungry young guitarists also kept Billings from getting rusty.

"When I'd get done playing (with Isbell), I'd have to go home and practice."

Though he's making his mark on the music scene outside the Shoals and has been touring nearly nonstop for almost three years, Isbell still has time to play with his mentor.

"I do it for my own personal enjoyment," Isbell said. "I really have a good time playing with those guys.

"On top of all that, (Billings) is a really underrated player, a great singer and great songwriter."

Rather than be in the spotlight with The 400 Unit, Isbell can sit in with Iguana Party and simply play guitar.

"I don't have a lot of responsibility," he said.

"I like standing in the corner and playing guitar. It's a lot of fun for me."

Shenandoah guitarist Jim Seales, who is also a guitar teacher, said it's essential for experienced musicians to pass on their knowledge to younger emerging artists.

Seales said the band has helped several young artists, including Billy Ryan, a Shenandoah fan who became friends with the band and began opening shows and performing songs during Shenandoah's sets.

"Now he's got some interest from RCA," Seales said.

A friend of the band discovered Joe Nichols working in an auto repair shop in Oklahoma and suggested the band listen to some of his music. Since then, Nichols has been writing with Shenandoah drummer Mike McGuire.

McGuire also used his connections to help aspiring country singer Ashton Shepherd from Coffeeville meet the right people in Nashville.

Her debut single, "Takin' Off This Pain," reached number 20 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart in 2008.

"We're using the Shenandoah platform to get them a chance to do what we get to do," Seales said. "If you've had any success at all - it doesn't have to be worldwide, even local - you need to pass that on. That's how we got here, somebody opened the door. Somebody opened the door for Barry, somebody opened the door for Jason. I think it's an artistic obligation to afford somebody the same luxury we had."

Russ Corey/TimesDaily




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