There are those musicians who find their calling at a young age. They get their first instrument as a present when they are eight years old. They spend their formative years jamming in garages, graduating to small clubs, and, with some diligence and divine intervention, they land a record deal and hit the big time.
Then there is the rather circuitous musical route taken by John Graves. Born on a farm in Flemingsburg, Ky., Graves, 36, has roots in Bluegrass. His grandfather, Lloyd "Gravy" Graves played the banjo professionally in between jobs as a sign painter for the Department of Transportation.
"We were a pretty musical family," he says. "So I grew up with a keen appreciation of music."
As a youngster, Graves moved with his family to Amelia, where he lived until he graduated high school. After graduation, he joined the army, and was stationed in Kingsville, Texas. There, he heard about open auditions for a drummer in a Country band called Ray Williams and the Country Cavaliers. On a lark, he enrolled himself in a percussion crash course and tried out.
"I had never played before," he says. "So I just spent a weekend practicing, practicing, practicing. I thought they would be able to tell I had no real experience."
As luck would have it, Graves got the gig. For his first performance as a Cavalier, John played in front of about 6,000 at a music festival.
"Most musicians get their first gig playing in front of maybe a dozen people," he says. "And here I am in front of huge throngs of people
After leaving the Army, Graves left the Cavaliers as well. He worked in several Rock bands, moving from town to town. However, his heart "was never really in the music." He made the move back to Cincinnati in the mid-'90s. He found work as a bike messenger, and also got back into music, learning to play the guitar.
Through a friend, he got a job as road manager for The Derailers. This served two purposes for John: It enabled him to network with like-minded musicians, and it taught him the business end of the music industry.
"Going on the road with The Derailers taught me a great deal, about dealing with promoters, and getting the word out about your band," he says. "And I got to meet some great people. We toured with Dwight Yoakam for a while, and I met Buck Owens, who I respect as one of the great pioneers of Roots Country music."
He also saw some of the rough side of life on the road.
"The Derailers were some serious road junkies," he says, laughing. "They play about 250 dates a year on the road. We didn't always get hotel rooms, so we would stay in promoters' houses sometimes. On more than one occasion, we would take one look and tell the guy, 'Thanks, but we need to hit the road.' "
After returning home from his time with The Derailers, Graves decided he was ready to head up his own Country band. His group, The Brand, enjoyed some success locally, playing at Pepsi Jammin' on Main, local clubs and several other events. He could see, however, the band was not taking the direction he wanted.
"The guys and I had differing opinions on what type of music we wanted to play," John says. "I wanted to play more traditional Country music, and they wanted to play a more contemporary style. It was tough, but I decided to break up the band and start over again."
His new band, Johnny Midnight and the Resident Country Heroes, has the type of players he wants. They include Rick Hayes on bass, Bobby Sharp on drums and Bradley Meiderding on lead guitar.
He met Hayes, one of the owners of Hayes Brothers Music in Covington, through a friend. He describes Meiderding, who is only 20 years old, as "a musical prodigy." Sharp, who also leads the Bobby Sharp Jazz Trio, met John at a performance at Awakenings Cafe.
"John had a real passion and a real vision for the group," Sharp, who has previous Country experience in the band Durango, says. "He has very clear-cut ideas for what he wants with every song, and we just work from there."
The band played together at this year's Taste of Cincinnati and have plans to release an EP by September, with an album to be recorded at the Hayes studio and released by next year.
Graves admits that the Roots Country and Bluegrass scene in Cincinnati is limited, but he's optimistic about its future.
"We have some great jams over at Hayes Brothers," he says. "People come from hundreds of miles away. But there is not that much of a local following. There are so many people in this city with roots down in Appalachia, where this type of music was born. We realize that Cincinnati has a strong Rock scene, and we don't want to knock any of them, but we think there is room for a different genre of music to succeed."
Though Graves is less than enamored with the Nashville establishment, he plays the Country & Western game, frequently going there for weekends to attempt to network with the powers that rule Music City.
"It is a business," he says. "They're are a lot like young professionals at Procter and Gamble. Instead of selling soap, they sell music. You have to learn how to get their attention and get them to hear you and get you on a label, and that is what I am working on."
Graves aspires to get his band signed to a record label, yet still be allowed to adhere to traditional Country music. He also hopes to meet Ray Price, a founding father of Country music and one of his idols.
"Ray laid the foundation for everyone out there in the Country music business today," he says. "And I would love to meet him before he passes on." ©