Michael Kinzie: The Complete Interview

Michael Kinzie: The Complete Interview

by Donna Davis

Q. How and when did you come by the nickname “13”?  

Kinzie: Turns out, the real story is not nearly as interesting as the rumored ones.  When I first joined Super Grit, they had a full calendar and I had to hit the ground running.  I slept on the couch at Stonewall’s trailer in Hood Swamp for a week while they worked me into the show.  As I lay sleeping on the couch in all my hippie glory, Stonewall asked his dad what nickname they should give me since everyone else in the band had one.  Arlon reportedly took one look at me and said, “W-w-w-w-w we’ll have to give him a number, he’s too ugly to give  a name”. They conjured up the number 13 and that is the real story, and it stuck like glue for the past 40 some odd years.  The other versions are figments of people’s imaginations.  Since I play a number of instruments, people theorized that 13 must have come from the number of instruments I play.  It was flattering and I did nothing to dispel that theory.  The other theory was rated XXX.  It theorized that the fiddle player for Super Grit was “hung like the palace curtains.”  Come to think of it,  I did nothing to dispel that theory either. 

Performing with Pitt Community College Orchestra

Q. I saw in an interview (I think on a Hood Swamp Symphony Ball recording) that your father made all the boys learn to play the fiddle. Can you elaborate? Did your father play? Did he teach you or send you to formal lessons? How many brothers played? Did you have sisters too? Were they required to learn an instrument?

Kinzie: When I was 5, my father (a missionary in India) started me on a little tenth size violin which he had bought at a bazaar in the Himalayas.  He played violin very well, but he played a lot of other stuff as well including the tuba.  His father played violin, but he played other stuff too. And, his father before him was a professional singer as was his wife.  My mother played mandolin and piano. Her mother played guitar, keyboards and harmonica.  There are professional musicians as far as the eye can see on both sides of my family.  I was the fourth of five kids in my family and we all started on that little tenth size violin.  My dad’s attitude was that he didn’t have time to teach us all the instruments he played so he picked the violin to teach all of us.  He encouraged us to branch out on our own to find the instruments we wanted to play. My oldest brother Bill stuck with violin and that became his profession. My brother John played trumpet, but he became a research chemist.  My brother Al chose clarinet, but he ultimately became a businessman and owned a NAPA parts store. My sister Mary just did not have the gift though I think she really tried on the trombone. I was introduced to the violin when I was 5 and it was just a fun thing to do, but when I got to be 7 I actually had to practice an hour a day.  I hated it.  When we came to the states, I was 7 or 8. We lived at the old Kinzie home place close to Salem, Virginia for a year; and then, we moved to Mathias, West Virginia where my Dad was pastor of the Church of the Brethren. To make ends meet, he also was the band director at Mathias High School.  The high school and the elementary school was all in one building.  If my dad needed an instrument played and he didn’t have anyone to play that instrument, he would pull me out of class at the elementary school to play the bass drum or cymbals or whatever.  When he lost his baritone horn player, I inherited the position. When Dad passed away, my Mother moved us to Bridgewater, Virginia.  Unfortunately, all the baritone horns were being played, but the band director said that he had an old Eb tuba and I could be in the band if I played that tuba.  The violin did not come natural to me, but the tuba did.  In no time, I was first chair in the band and remained so until I graduated. My Mother insisted that I keep playing violin and sent me to my dad’s old violin teacher when he was in college.  I went to the lessons to placate her, but at that point, my interest in playing violin was just about zero.  I was into playing the tuba.  I felt like I had finally found my instrument.  

Q. Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted to pursue music professionally?

Kinzie: I don’t remember any one moment that I decided that I wanted to make music for a living.  I got drawn into it gradually.  When I was 15 Bridgewater College would hire me to play violin in their annual production of the Messiah.  I also played drums for a 5 piece dance combo.  I had a paper route and I was the janitor at Turner Ashby High School not to mention I worked as a handyman at Thomas Restaurant and Home Bakery. Minimum wage was fifty cents an hour at the time.  The five dollars I made playing violin for a gig and the two dollars I made playing drums was pretty good money to me at the time.  

Q. How did it come about that you already knew how to play the fiddle by the time you were college age, but majored in Tuba?

Kinzie: I knew I wanted a college education and that my Mother was not going to be able to help me.  I made the decision to go into music sometime in my junior year in high school.  I started taking piano lessons in preparation; and, I started hitch hiking to Harrisonburg to play violin in the Madison College Orchestra which later morphed into James Madison University.  Between my junior and senior year at Turner Ashby, the Band Boosters Club sent me and the 1st Trumpet player to a three week band camp at East Carolina College.  They auditioned us to place us in one of four bands.  When I finished my audition, Herb Carter, Director of Bands at ECC asked me a blunt question.  “How are your grades?” I was somewhat taken aback but I answered, “I do well in school.”  Then he wanted to know what my SAT score was.  I told him.  He said, “If you will come to East Carolina and be a Tuba major, I’ll waive your out of state tuition, I’ll get you a tuba scholarship,  I’ll get you a self help job and I’ll help you get any loans you need.”  He was good to his word.  He took me under his wing.  Since I played violin already, it made no sense to put me in a beginning string class when I got to ECC.  They gave me an applied teacher as if I were a major in lieu of that class and put me in the orchestra as a violinist, not as a tuba player to my chagrin.  But, I was principle tuba in the Wind Ensemble which was Herb Carter’s baby.  At the end of my first year, Dean Beech approached me in the hall and said, “Kinzie, I got a business proposition for you.  If you will go to school an extra year and get a double major in Tuba and Violin, I’ll get you a violin scholarship as well.”  So at that point it could be argued that I made my living playing music.  When I was a junior at ECC, the Drama Dept. decided to have all their productions for the summer be musicals and they advertised far and wide for a pit orchestra.  I told Dr. Topper, “I want to audition for one of those positions.”  He said, “Mike, I want you to audition as well, but I want you to do it for the experience.  There is not a snow ball’s chance in hell that you will get one of those chairs.”  So I went to the audition with pretty low expectations.  I stood on the stage and faced an infinity of empty chairs into the darkness.  An unfamiliar voice sent up a piece of music and said, “Look this over and play it for us.” I did.  Then the sent up another and another.  Then they said, “Play something of your choice.”  Then I heard a voice that I did recognize.  It was Ed Loessene, the producer.  “Mike, I didn’t know you wanted this job.” I said, “Yes sir.”  He said, “I’ll send you a contract, sign it and send it back.”  I had arrived, that was my first full time professional gig.  I made $85 a week.  I was ecstatic and terrified at the same time.    

Q. How did the Hood Swamp Symphony Ball recording in 1979 at Wright Auditorium come about? I understand you arranged the music and may have been responsible for making it happen. Can you talk about that? What gave you the idea? What other symphonies did you play with? What sort of reception did you receive (from both sides…the symphony and your southern rock band members and fans)?

Kinzie: Sometimes it is hard to pin down the genesis of a particular work, but this one I remember.  After I came back from Vietnam there were two things I really wanted: not to live with 50 other guys and to have a 50 gallon aquarium.  I got an apartment down on 1st Street and I found a used aquarium to put in it.  I found them to be incredibly calming and I loved the serenity of watching the fish swim around as I played my favorite music on the stereo.  On this one particular evening, I was watching the fish swim around as I listened to Poco and enjoying my favorite herbal remedy when my mind began to contemplate the schizophrenic nature of my career at the time.  I was the only person I knew that had a foot in both classical and country music.  I considered what a hoot it would be to combine the two by arranging material for an orchestra to accompany the band. To my knowledge, it had never been done. I had been a student of Dr. Edmund “Bull” Durham in both theory and orchestral arrangement so I felt confident that I could make the scores happen.  Coincidentally, I had been drinking buddies with Bob Haus, the conductor of the ECU Symphony for a number of years.  On one of our after rehearsal beer parties at the Fiddlers Three, I floated the idea past him.  He seemed very receptive of the concept.  I was playing in Singletree at the time, but before I could bring it into fruition, Singletree broke up.  After I joined Super Grit, I felt like I had the band to pull it off.  

After many months of trials and tribulations, we were ready for the first rehearsal.  I went into this knowing that it had not been tried before.  Two groups like this do things differently and I was painfully aware of it. Sure enough, I was afraid after the first rehearsal that we were going to have to cancel the concert.  We couldn’t keep the band and the orchestra together.  The band took its beat off the drummer and the orchestra took its beat off the conductor.  I could see that it was important that the drummer and the conductor be in close proximity to each other.  When orchestras play, there is an ignaseconds delay from the baton to the actual response. With bands, the reaction is immediate to the drummer.  It occurred to me that if I put monitors around for the orchestra that it would help them hear what the band was doing.  For the second rehearsal I put monitors around the back and sides of the orchestra and it worked.  They were the glue that held the two groups together.  On the day of the concert the one thing that had not been taken care of was permission to turn on the cameras and the tape recorders.  Buzz and the production company had neglected to take care of that little technicality, so I found myself running back and forth trying to nail down an agreement.  Finally, I had an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. I signed the papers. The night of the concert finally arrived.  We were well received, but the last tune was an old bluegrass tune called “Sally Gooden.” It started with just the banjo, then the fiddle joined in and then the other instruments of the band one by one.  Finally, the orchestra joined in and took it to a spectacular climax.  The crowd went absolutely berserk.  The roar was deafening and seemed to last forever. We agreed to do it again the next year.  We wound up doing it with the North Carolina Symphony numerous times, the Alabama Symphony, the Richmond Symphony, the Greensboro Symphony, and a number of others. We sold out the Symphony’s venue in Raleigh at the time two nights in a row.  Ultimately, it led to me orchestrating two shows for Mike Cross which he performed all over the United States and for Mike Reid who wrote “Stranger in my House,” for Ronnie Milsap. At one point three musical entities were performing my scores.  I was making more money as an arranger than I was as a performer.  I had hoped to keep it up, but I ran out of clients.  One by one, the groups stopped performing and the business dried up. 

Super Grit Cowboy Band

Q. Clyde Mattocks said that you wrote a song about a fiddle player and the devil before Charlie Daniels came out with his. I understand you play both in performances. Can you talk about that? You wear a cape when you perform one of them? Paint us a picture.

Kinzie: “Love for Strife” was a tune that Woody Thurman, lead singer for Singletree, and I wrote.  I was fooling around with my fiddle while we were living out at Duprees Crossroad when the full moon rose over the horizon and it was a blood red.  The fiddle solo came in a burst of inspiration.  I called Woody and gave him some mental images I had about the Devil playing the fiddle and the legendary violinist Nicoli Paganini.  The next morning I got a call from Woody and he started with the rap at the beginning of the song.  At the next band rehearsal with the help of considerable chemical assistance we arranged the song.  It became a very important part of our repertoire and ultimately we started using pyrotechnics along with the song.  A side note: our road manager, Captain Larry Spence,  set up the pyrotronics.  He later formed his own production company and it does the production for the halftime show at the Super Bowl.  .  . . for the past 15 or more years.  Later on, Super Grit picked it up too. When Charlie Daniels came out with Devil went down to Georgia, I was inundated with calls telling me that Charlie Daniels had ripped off my song and that I should sue him because the songs were so much alike.  At the time, I did not realize that Charlie had seen us play Love for Strife when we were warming up the Marshall Tucker Band at Duke University.  But even so, I knew that I would win on the first court appearance, but that I would lose on the appeal.  So I never sued.  I’m sure Charlie suspected that I would. Years later, Super Grit went on tour briefly with Charlie Daniels.  I was playing an old Hippensteel piano and it was beat all to hell. Charlie Daniels got word of it and had the piano tech hired to tune their piano to fix every thing on my piano.  They charged it all to the promoter.  I wondered why he did such a thing.  Charlie Daniels didn’t know me from Adam.  Or so I thought.  Decades later I found out that he had, in fact, seen us play “Love for Strife.” I think he was just saying “Thank you” for the idea and “Thank you” for not suing.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  

Q. You told me you had ZZ Top and Charlie Daniels stories. Do tell.

Kinzie: I’ve already told my Charlie Daniels story. Now, for my ZZ top story.  When I was with Singletree we did a warmup for the ZZ Top band.  I think they had just released “La Grange.”  When we finished our show, ZZ Top came down to our dressing room with their bluegrass instruments.  We were long haired hippies and they were short haired Texas boys.  They were credible bluegrass pickers and very personable. We often wondered if their long hair and beards were influenced by us. 

Q. I know you played in Super Grit Cowboy Band and I know you’ve played with the PCC Symphony and currently with Victor Hudson. Are there any more collaborations you’d like to talk about?

With Singletree, standing on right

Kinzie: I played with Super Grit, I played five years in a band called  Singletree. We worked throughout the South mostly. I worked in a group called the Magic Pipers out of Raleigh for about ten years. I played saxophone mostly with them.  I worked with a female Irish singer for a number of years named Jennifer Licko. She fell in love and moved to Brazil with her husband.  And, I worked on and off with a Hank Williams Jr. Tribute band for a number of years.  Covid brought that to a halt.  

Of all of the thousands of shows I’ve done over the past 61 years there are three that stand out.  The first was a symphony performance I did with the Lawton, Oklahoma Symphony while I was in the Army.  A week after I finished my contract with the ECU Summer Theatre Orchestra, I was drafted into the Army.  For my training in artillery, I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  I knew I was going to Vietnam so I had to figure out a way to stay in the country for a couple of months.  I had found out that they let you go if you had less than 150 left in the Army.  I found out that the OCS school was full and would be for months. That was my ticket.  I told them I wanted to be an officer knowing that I would be held there until the school had an opening.  I also found out that Lawton had a symphony so I called the conductor. He already had a tuba player but he was desperate for violinists. I wound up being the Assistant Concertmaster while at the same time I was an MP gate guard.  Turns out, the Symphony was scheduled to play for Fort Sill’s Centennial Celebration. The Generals got wind of this and made sure that nothing got in the way of me rehearsing or playing at that concert.  I even got paid: 80 bucks for every rehearsal and 100 for every concert. On the concert we played a number of pretty classy pieces.  We did “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart.  It got a polite response. We did Debussy’s Midafternoon of a Faune. Again it got polite response.  We did several other tunes and, again, we got warm but polite response.  For the finale, we did Tchaikovski’s 1812 Overture and for only the second time in history, it was to be performed as it was scored, with live cannons.  We had a battery of 150 MM Howitzers right outside the door of the auditorium. They only let us rehearse it once with the cannons because it expended $2,500 worth of ammunition every time we did it. After every musical phrase there was a peal of canon fire. The finale was a cannon going off every beat until the end of the song.  When we finished, the auditorium was filled with gunpowder smoke and the reaction of the capacity crowd was absolutely tumultuous.  The din was deafening and sustained for what seemed like forever. I’m not sure all those old artillery men could hear the other pieces, but they could hear those cannons and it was music to their ears.  

The second was a concert we did in Fayetteville as a fill in for the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band. They had gotten so drunk that their road manager would not let them go onstage. I got a call at 5:00 that I had to be onstage at the Cumberland County Auditorium at 8:00. Somebody had to go find Woody who was fishing and then convince him to do the job.  But, we went onstage at exactly 8:00.  We were the first act, Bonnie Bramlett was the second, and REO Speedwagon became the headliner. We finished with “Love For Strife” and the crowd went bonkers. Cecil Corbett, who at the time was one of the top 5 promoters in the world, was at the side of the stage and shook all of our hands as we came off.  He promised that there would be more of those and he was good to his word. 

As for advice to young performers, I’m pretty discouraged by the shape of music right now. Historically, music has come in waves and ours was no exception.  We came along at just the right time, at just the right place, with just the right product.  What a ride. I wouldn’t exchange my career for anyone’s.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band told us once on their tour bus:  “Our career has been remarkably consistent: We were never so hot we burned out and we were never so cold we couldn’t work.” That’s kinda the way I feel. Us old musicians never die, we just play away.