Fourteen months ago, a handy man named Scott Wynn was rehabbing a field house in rural Indiana. The phone rang as he was pulling up a toilet.
Timing, they say, is everything. It was Pete McNeal (current Mike Doughty/former Cake drummer) calling to say that he and Dave Wilder (Macy Gray/Liz Phair bassist) were interested in doing a record. The singer/songwriter set the toilet down and they began flushing out the future.
Wynn, you see, had done what many artists do: He posted his tunes on MySpace in hopes of achieving something more. And, as many do, he sent friend requests to artists he admired. McNeal received one of those requests and was quick to reciprocate admiration.
"When I first heard the music everything sort of pointed forward," McNeal says. "It immediately took me somewhere else. It took me out of my day for the time I was listening. Every element of the music had an authenticity and a purpose. The melody was so bold, the guitar riff was a funky anchor, the percussive element was a beautifully out-of-time clink sound. I was roped after about 30 seconds of the first song. I was e-mailing Scott with my heartfelt praise by the time I got to the second verse of the second song."
Praise for a man who spent his youth ripping corn and raising tobacco on an Indiana farm. Wynn was actually born here and has nine years under his belt as a Cincinnati kid.
Like many of our local natives, he has Appalachian roots in Kentucky. Unlike those natives, he spent much of his life helping the poorest of the poor around Barbourville, Ky., where his father grew up mining coal. It is in those hollers of Kentucky that humility was forever instilled in Wynn.
"A lot of people never had electricity in the time I've known them, no indoor plumbing," Wynn says.
"All my family is from Harlan County, Whitley County and Knox County, which are the poorest. Mississippi and Kentucky rank the lowest in the United States for education, and Knox County is sometimes, from year to year, at the bottom. This is where my family is from."
Education, indeed, ranks dim in the minds of the miners, including Wynn's father. It's socially acceptable in Appalachia to quit school at the eighth grade and work on the farm. That ritual migrated to Indiana where Wynn and his two sisters were human corn-picking, tobacco-stripping machines. When he talks of wearing mules, it's got nothing to do with shoes.
"College wasn't an option because, again, my dad wasn't exactly against me quitting school to be a farmhand," Wynn says. "That's the Appalachian mentality -- he was encouraged to quit school. He was a small thinker and didn't have the money to output (on) machinery."
Emancipation is a delicate notion, but that's essentially what happened when Wynn's father passed away. He was free -- free to make up his own mind and become who he wanted to be.
He immediately enrolled at Northern Kentucky University. Still residing in Indiana, he commuted to NKU with best friend Clint Walsh. Dueling song competitions ensued, as Walsh was a gifted songwriter and Wynn was playing in regional Rock bands. The dueling tragically ended when Walsh was killed in a head-on car crash.
"It shook the foundations of everything," Wynn remembers. "When (Walsh) died, it really opened up something in me that said, 'Get busy, life is for the living, be deliberate, be swift.' I felt mortal and like I had to start moving towards my dreams before my own end."
Losing his close friend retuned Wynn's tone on taking music seriously. Over the next few years, he focused intensely on writing and eventually posted the demos he wrote and recorded on MySpace.
Fourteen months ago his hope of achieving something more became reality. In addition to McNeal and Wilder, Andrew "Scrap" Livingston (Mike Doughty bassist) joined The Panderer's party in 2007 and put out their debut album, Songs that Bang, a limited CD sold exclusively on MySpace. McNeal put the disc in the mighty hands of Mike Doughty and, as the stars would have it, Doughty had just formed his own micro-label, Snack Bar.
Timing, they say, is everything.
Snack Bar signed The Panderers and, with the verve of co-producers McNeal and Wilder, Hotshot's Boy became its debut EP in March.
Hotshot's Boy pulls from Songs that Bang but ironically starts off with the last tune that Wynn jotted down just days before going to record the album. "Come On" is a quick ditty that is getting a lot of attention. There's an undeniable bang-clang about it. "Dig" is a simple song about digging for gold with Wilder's underlying bass twanging the tempo. Wynn says that "Montana" is a "finger-snappin', beatnik kind of a thing" that's rooted by McNeal's syncopated beats. Last, but truly not least, is Wynn's fluid simplicity all over "Mirrorball," a song that hits home to everyone -- particularly those who grew up around Cincinnati.
" 'Mirrorball' is actually about Beechmont Rollarena," Wynn says. "We used to meet our cousins there. The people that owned it played the organ, they were like husband/wife competition skaters and they had a mirror ball in the middle of the floor. Couples would skate and they would let the girls pick the guys so you had all the guys on one end of the building, the girls on the other. The girls got to do natural selection. I was younger or shorter and they pick the other guys.
('Mirrorball') is about being left at the wall -- at Beechmont Rollarena. It's universal. Anyone that has suffered that has suffered the rejection of natural selection."
Rejection isn't a burden that has weighed heavily on Wynn, perhaps due to his unique worldview. Despite this surreal unfolding of events, his humility remains in tact.
"I'm a really grateful person for any good that happens in light of coming from such humble beginnings," he says. "I spent half a life in an unenlightened state and now I'm in a hyper-enlightened state, touring the U.S. I really feel some form of destiny. Everyone around me believes that this is a total cosmic event."
Destiny rooted in Appalachia, destiny rooted in an enlightened world attitude. There you have it, the dirty secret of the gem.
THE PANDERERS open for Mike Doughty at the Southgate House on Tuesday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.