There is an old adage that goes, “Those who can’t do, teach.” As with a lot of old phrases, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that doesn’t stop people from using it.
The phrase loses even more of its power when applied to local singer/songwriter Kelly Thomas. A teacher by profession and musician by passion, Thomas is a performer and mentor. She does what she teaches and teaches what she does.
Thomas is a talker. Speaking with her about her first Kelly Thomas and the Fabulous Pickups disc, Fly, makes you wish for fresh batteries in the voice recorder. But the discussion isn’t just idle chatter; Thomas is someone who’s seen it all (or at least more than you have) and is more than willing to talk about it.
“This album is bookending a 10-year period that has been about lots of growth, lots of loss, lots of rebirth,” Thomas says.
Thomas’ decade-long journey is easy to hear in Fly. Themes of love, loss, recovery and moving on cycle through the album, drawing a long, winding path though Thomas’s life experiences. And these aren’t cherry-picked events, either. Thomas had little choice in her material; the lyrics often wrote themselves.
“This album insisted on being written now,” Thomas says.
With a voice recorder and notepad on her nightstand, Thomas’ words would wake her up and not let go until they were captured on tape or paper.
Bringing the album together took more than just Thomas’ lyrics. Fellow Pickups John Bedinghaus and Jeff Boling, several local musical heavy-hitters and local producing veteran Mike Montgomery all worked long and hard to make sure the musicianship of Fly was just as dynamic as Thomas’ words. The inspirations ranged from Honky Tonk and Country to Jazz and Blues.
Many songs have a Rolling Stones vibe, which makes the “Beast of Burden” cover all the more appropriate.
Fly is the Pickups’ first album, which might seem surprising, given how long the band has been together. But musicians are notorious for their side projects, and Thomas is no different. Between another band (The Tammy WhyNots), a dynamic duo with a local music mainstay (Kelly Thomas and Ryan Malott, of 500 Miles to Memphis) and an old-school Gospel group (The Hayseed Tabernacle Choir), in addition to loads of charity work through the Rivertown Music Club (which Thomas founded), finding time to write and record was an arduous task. The RMC was an especially complicated endeavor. The group handed out grants to up-and-coming bands, giving many of them their first big breaks. Thomas’ work with RMC helped cement her reputation as a teacher and mentor to local acts, a persona she continues to pursue, even after ending RMC.
RMC grew out of catharsis for Thomas, teaching others to help Thomas move on from a failed relationship and broken musical venture. “I created a life raft for myself,” Thomas says, when thinking about the early days of the group.
Now that RMC is officially no more, Thomas continues to share her knowledge with younger bands, a practice not always evident in local music scenes, where there is often a competitive spirit between groups. When you combine egos, struggles for shows, press and other factors, sometimes the brotherhood of musicians can be quite the dysfunctional family.
Thomas rails against this notion, saying, “If I know something, why wouldn’t I share it?”
Thomas’ long career as both an artist and mentor has helped her move past trappings many younger bands fall into.
“I’m not competitive about music,” she says. “The only competition is with myself.”
Thomas sees the successes of one band as the successes of all and should be celebrated as such.
“When other people win that I’ve supported, I win,” she says. “If somebody’s successful and I helped … then that’s me too.”
But Thomas would be the first to admit that she isn’t some all-knowing sage who understands every nuance of the music business. In between discussions of lyricism and the recording process, Thomas comments on social media, YouTube and how she could better utilize both. In many ways, the teacher is still learning herself. Like any good student, Thomas’ thirst for knowledge is what drives her toward her goals. For her, learning more from her peers is a deceptively simple affair.
“Doing my album, I found out lots of stuff about marketing it, getting it reviewed … by talking to other bands,” she says. “So, I just asked them.”
Perhaps that is Thomas’ greatest strength — her honesty and forwardness. If she wants to know something, she asks. If something needs said, whether it’s to an up-and-coming singer or in a song, she says it. If she knows something that others don’t, she shares it. Her passion and truth comes out in everything from casual conversations to her newest work.
In Fly, “There are two words that appear more than any other: fear and hope,” Thomas says. “And it’s in the whole album, literally, the whole album. That’s what the album is about; it’s a journey, it’s about getting through a rough time and just being really transparent.”
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