For Kevin Abernathy, a small-town boy growing up in Madisonville, Kogi might as well as come from Mars.
Abernathy already was a talented guitar player, and while he would eventually move back to East Tennessee to settle in Knoxville, where he lives today, the thought of growing old in Monroe County was too depressing for his restless teenage spirit to bear. When the new guy, Kogi, showed up, Abernathy decided to cash in his ticket out of town, he told me this week.
“We just became friends, and when he told me he was from California, I was like, ‘There’s where I want to move! I want to go out there after high school and play in a rock band!’” Abernathy said. “He knew a killer drummer and bass player, and when he moved away and then came back, we caught a bus out there in late ’82, right after high school, and we just started a band.
“We didn’t know what to do or how to do anything; we didn’t have a manager or a mentor, and things started falling apart. It just didn’t work out the way I thought it would, and I was living in a car or staying on people’s couches, but it was a learning experience. Instead of going to college, I moved to California to be in a rock band.”
Abernathy, one of the stalwart songwriters and guitarists in the Knoxville scene, is documenting that time period in a new cycle of songs titled “The Whammy Bar Diaries,” which he’ll celebrate Friday night with a show at Barley’s Knoxville. Although he’s made some fine rock records since coming back home, “The Whammy Bar Diaries” is a throwback to a time when fame seemed just over the next steep hill of San Francisco, where he landed after a long bus ride and promptly threw in with a group of players who christened themselves “One.”
“I didn’t think it was the greatest name, but we had a little bit of success,” he said with a chuckle. “We had a lot of fun and played around San Francisco a lot — the backyard party circuit and shows at AMVETS buildings, which they’d let you rent for next to nothing. We even opened for Night Ranger not long after I moved out there, and we did that for three or four years until everybody started getting jobs and things started falling apart. I thought about moving to L.A., but instead, I moved back home, and the rest is history.”
After a brief sojourn to Nashville, where he dipped his toes in the Americana scene, he hooked up with the Shapeshifters, a Nashville band that would land opening spots for Southern Culture on the Skids, Billy Joe Shaver, Webb Wilder and Junior Brown. After moving back to East Tennessee, he recorded a folk-heavy demo album in early 2007, following it up later that year with “Rock and Roll Fiasco.” “Beautiful Thing,” “Scrap Metal Blues,” “Some Stories,” “Ain’t Learned Yet” and “Family Hour” all followed, and while he’s become an auxiliary player around town who currently lends his talent to Mic Harrison and The High Score, he couldn’t get those halcyon days out of his head.
“In the early 2000s, I thought I would write a memoir about that time, so I filled up legal pad after legal pad, wrote my ass off for a year, then threw it away,” he said. “I started again and filled a bunch more pages and flash drives, and then I just put it in a drawer. But recently, I started talking to Uwe (Lueth, the drummer for One who moved to East Tennessee as well), and I got the idea of doing some kind of musical, where we’d tell the story on stage in song with a narrative, and I envisioned him and I doing it.
“We wrote out a little script, and that kind of crumbled, too; nothing ever became of it, and we never even got together to play. Eventually, I just started writing a rock opera, if you will, and taking a lot of the old songs we wrote in the ’80s and rewriting the lyrics, or writing new songs with titles to a lot of the instrumentals we did. And after reuniting on the stage for the Tom Petty tribute at Waynestock VIII (in 2018), he got fired up. We started working on these songs and kept writing song after song about those days, and we had a lot of fun.”
Friday night, Lueth and Abernathy will get back on stage one more time, with Manning Jenkins on bass and guest vocalist Derek Senter on a few songs; Abernathy’s three daughters — Eliza, Lucy and Roxie, who once played in a sister outfit called The Pinklets — will provide backing vocals. Nostalgia has always been a theme that rises to the surface in Abernathy’s best songs, and one from “The Whammy Bar Diaries” was inspired by the fictional account of one of his girls going through his old California memorabilia and finding inspiration.
“They would ask me sometimes about California, and I started imagining one of them finding all these pictures and flyers and cassette tapes and maybe saying, ‘This is what I wanna do,’” he said. “So I wrote a song called ‘California,’ but the refrain is, ‘Did I tell you about California, there’s nothing special about California.’
“But the past is important. It’s history, and it’s an important part of my life. Plus, it’s a distraction from the political climate and current events, which I tend to write about, and now’s a good time to go back in the past and do this ’80s thing I want to do, so I just did it.”