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Please be aware that this article was written one month before I discovered the Emerald Coast!

Chuck Lawson: Walking The Talk

by Kim Mason, The Amplfier  Volume 5 Issue 8 August 1999

"Music is not what I do, it’s what I am." concluded Chuck Lawson on his Artists Statement submitted to the Kentucky Arts Council. His recent acceptance for their FY2000 Performing Artists Directory is a great honor for the Chuck Lawson Trio. The directory is "designed to promote and to showcase a selection of Kentucky’s finest contemporary and traditional performing artist who are available for touring." In addition to a 10 page application which must be meticulously filled out, performers must be approved by a "panel of out of state individuals knowledgeable in contemporary and traditional performing arts that make the selection based on excellence and individuality of artists’ current work, and successful performing and touring history." It is not an honor shared by many, only 27 musicians were included last year in the directory which also covers theatre and dance performers. But the honor is more than just a notch on Lawson’s guitar, it means international exposure, a foot in the door to many prestigious gigs and a promotional kick from Frankfort. For example, series like Mammoth Cave’s Karstlands Music Series exclusively hire artists in the directory and school’s and other venues can more easily attain state and federal grant funds when they are showcasing these artists. This is of particular importance to Lawson who markets himself in some very unique ways while promoting music education par excellence in the process.

What began as a passing comment by Kelly Harding, long time friend, sound engineer, webmaster and promoter for Lawson, has evolved into an awe inspiring experience for thousands of elementary and high school students. Lawson, a former band teacher and graduate of Western Kentucky University, had already begun a program of clinics available to school music classes. In his interactive workshops he performs his original music as well as discussing the process of songwriting, recording and stage performance. A more performance oriented version was targeted for full school assemblies as well. While discussing these demonstrations over the phone, Harding remarked "too bad you can’t involve the school bands", and then there was light.

Today Chuck Lawson has created a fourth version - the Combined Trio Concerts with Band or Choir. According to his brochure "[It is] For those schools that wish to provide an experience beyond the standard curriculum, this unique and completely interactive program will have your students exploring music and performance as never before...Through a series of "workshop" rehearsals, Chuck and the Trio will help our students prepare and perform a full production, professional concert." One performance was described by Deborah Kuehn, Concert Chairperson for Bowling Green High Band Boosters "the lights came on, the fog rolled across the stage, and our sons and daughters began playing, it just took one’s breath away."

The production orchestrated to the most minute detail by Lawson, begins 6 weeks in advance of the concert when he provides the band director with music. Utilizing the schools resources Lawson aids in the formation of committees who arrange everything from T Shirt printing to chair placement. During the weeks of rehearsal Lawson conducts workshops a minimum of three times to ensure that the band is progressing correctly and point them to the next stage. The day before the production he joins his professional musicians with the band and all the parts are synchronized. Concert day includes a shorter dress rehearsal, mainly for the purposes of sound and lighting checks and to acquaint the students with the sensations and distractions of playing surrounded by stage fog and bright lights. They learn first hand every aspect of concert production - and then they live the dream. The concept has been described by Rev. Jim Simmons of Memorial Baptists Church in Murray KY as "close to genius". And certainly, the coordination of so many people also takes high level organizational and business skills.

Chuck Lawson credits his success with using business as the cornerstone of his music career. Born in Louisville, he began singing for his church congregation at the age of three and pickin’ with his mom and her family on the front porch. He enjoyed the added opportunities for performance resulting from his parents mixed marriage (She’s a Baptist and he’s a Catholic). He joined the school band in fourth grade and also acted in many musicals for the theatre department to hone his vocal skills as his band involvement prevented him from joining the Choir. Later, he studied voice, composition and arranging at Western Kentucky University becoming the last student to graduate under the all inclusive program before it was divided into instrumental and vocal majors. Lawson earned a Bachelor of Music degree as well as a teaching certificate. While there he studied with noted artists such as David Livingston , Howard Carpenter and Ruth Morris. After graduation, he taught band at Franklin Simpson High and became the Choir Director for the First Methodist Church there. He fell in love with the town and decided to make it his home. After directing several bands and a bit of insurance work, in 1989 Chuck Lawson decided to make his own music his full time job. Lawson was determined that even if he did not make it big he would be happy to make a living at it and he’s been doing it ever since.

He left the still popular band Southern Express for which he was singing and playing keyboard as well as some trumpet and flute, to pursue a solo career. At that time the nine piece band had a complete horn line added and arranged by Lawson. Dwight Henderson, still the leader of Southern Express is among the artists Lawson admires as a songwriter and performer and he continues to perform Henderson’s "She Knows How To Rock and Roll". From the first the Chuck Lawson Band was marketed like any other business commodity. He set aside an office in his house and kept careful records of all their performances, business contacts, fanbase and even mileage. Promotional materials such as business cards, letterhead, photographs, and brochures were created. Lawson feels that even when you’re counting paperclips to save money these things are of the utmost importance because they create the impression that sets you apart from hundreds of other bands in the area. Amy Biggs of Gallery On The Square and the Franklin Favorite shot his promotional picture which is pictured here as well as on the cover. Lawson also commonly sends thank you notes to venues and concert promoters that he works with. The Internet has been a very useful tool. His web address is http://www.chucklawson.com and his email list of fans totals nearly 3,000. Though currently investigating the marketing potential of mp3 technology, Lawson considers his website as primarily billboard type advertising that serves as a reinforcer to keep his name out there. In today’s market a website also serves to legitimize "the talk", and his email newsletters keep his fanbase cohesive, according to Chuck.

For his business name he chose ACE Music. ACE had been the nickname bestowed upon him by his father. As his logo he chose the middle C symbol. Fittingly, when placed on the top of the a staff it signifies an A note, in the middle a C note and at the bottom an E note. He also simultaneously created the record label Quantum. In 1994 he was Associate Producer for his first album of all original material entitled Other Side of Paradise. The album, which is sold out, holds special meaning for Lawson today as his father who died shortly after it’s release did the photography work for the cover. The back depicts Chuck standing in front of the cabinet manufacturing company he worked for in Louisville while the front is an image of a slave wall in Lexington. One side of it is black and white while the other, where his guitar is found under a tree is in color.

In 1997 Chuck Lawson produced his second album on cassette. The recording which spotlights some of his high school band performances is entitled Chuck Lawson Live In Concert. A few of this release are still available. In 1998 he produced his third album Make Believe You Love Me and premiered it at the Gallery On The Square in Franklin to a crowd of fans and local celebrities with WBKO’s Amy Bingham serving as MC. Chuck Lawson has also produced 7 other albums which were recordings of performances with high school bands.

One of Lawson’s hallmarks is the unique venues he plays. Having performed in everything from a creek bed to a bookstore, Lawson is always searching out new stages to strut his stuff "all I need is for people to hear me" he says. One of his early business decisions was not to devalue his worth as a performer therefore his band has a price which it must get and will not perform without a contract. There are some exceptions in which everything is negotiable, that Lawson calls exposure gigs. Barnes and Noble is one such gig and one that has paid off. Audience members at bookstores and festivals are much more diverse than the bar crowd.

Besides his regular Barnes and Noble performances here and in Louisville resulting in new fans and private party bookings, he met Heidi Kirch at one of the bookstore shows. Kirch schedules the Karstlands Music Series. Through her work at Mammoth Cave she also is well acquainted with the art networks and organizations at the state and federal levels including the Kentucky Arts Council. She was so impressed with the Chuck Lawson Trio that she not only booked them for the concert series in her charge, but joined the ranks of his promoters, becoming his Artist Presenter. Kirch now creates his press releases and electronic newsletters and is in the midst of assuming elements of booking. It was she who first initiated the application for the Year2000 Directory. Other dedicated right hands of Lawson include Teresa Donelson who collects all the addresses and Vicki Belcher who helps out with merchandise sales and setup. All of Lawson’s associates step in and help with a variety of tasks as need arises. Some like Bill Overton have been supporters from the very beginning.

As the variety of venues showcasing Chuck Lawson grew, he developed different versions of his band. The Chuck Lawson Band which was comprised of Drew Cook on Bass, Todd Coop on Lead Guitar, Aaron Ulrich on drums, Triscilla Harding with back up vocals and Andrew Donelson on keyboards played nightclub shows and larger festival type concerts. For smaller venues he developed the Chuck Lawson Trio comprised of himself, Harding and Donelson.

Triscilla Harding, wife of sound engineer Kelly Harding, had been a long time supporter and personal friend before joining the band. She also made outfits for the members and assisted with makeup as well as stage management issues for the school concerts. After losing his backup vocalist, Lawson noticed Triscilla singing along one day at rehearsal. She knew all the words so they decided to give her a shot and loved the result. Andrew Donelson also sang many harmonies. An Occupational Therapist, Donelson plays Sax, Percussion, and piano. The Trio arose from conducting separate rehearsals for harmonies and instrumental segments of Lawson compositions. Its first show was for the grand opening of Bobby’s Uptown BP in Franklin. Lawson recalls "we played outside on a flatbed - and it was magic". As the Trio began gaining exposure, booking for it increased more rapidly for them than for the full band and today though the band is more on a sabbatical than defunct, the Trio covers bookings of all size and as Lawson puts it prepared to handle "any delivery vehicle".

And they do. Bookings in the next two months include: August 7th at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, in Lexington, August 14th at Dance Club Deluxe, August 21 at Mammoth Cave National Park Amphitheater, August 28th at Bartholomew’s in Madisonville, September 3rd at Barnes and Noble in Louisville and September 10th for Kentucky On Stage at the Kentucky Center for the Arts and in October at the International Festival in Bowling Green. Lawson has also been frequenting the Parakeet Cafe both at night with the Trio and during dinner as a soloist.

According to the bio in their promotional materials the Chuck Lawson Trio is "a highly adaptable and versatile acoustic ensemble of guitar, keyboards, hand percussion and strong vocal harmonies... The Trio is capable of adapting their presentation to fit your event’s particular musical requirements..." The Trio generally presents a 4-hour show containing about 25% original material. Cover songs they regularly perform include Pop, Rock, Country, and Blues hits from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Lawson feels that some songs, like those of the Eagles or Jimmy Buffet should be performed as people remember them. However on others he creates a completely new arrangement of the material, making it his song like his version of Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell or Tom Petty’s tunes. He uses the covers to set up originals, such as playing Margarittaville before his own Coconut Moon or the Eagles in prelude to his ballad All I Need.

Lawson also adds a bit of theatrical flair to his performances. Though not elaborate costumes, the Trio’s outfits are coordinated and there are some minor costume changes, such as donning a parrot shirt for Margaritaville or dark glasses and a fedora of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. He also tries to connect and work the audience verbally with a banter between the Trio members and listeners. "I make everyone part of it because they are the most important element." He developed this attention to stage presence early on from his experiences in marching bands and also from other artists who’s performances he admires such as Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond and Huey Lewis. He considers his style to be folk rock, as in music of the people, with some of his strongest influences being the Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Ray Charles, Styx, Kansas, Don Williams and Neil Diamond.

The Lawson style has obviously gotten attention because in addition to the increasing number of concerts the Trio is being booked for, they have been featured by area TV (WPSD, Channel 6, Paducah; WQTV Quad-cities, Murray; WBKO-Channel 13, Bowling Green), radio (WRUS, WGGC 95 FM, WBLG Gator107 FM, WKYU 88.9 FM, WFKN, WHHT 103 FM, WHBN, WNBS, WOVO 105.3FM), and print (Paducah Sun Times, Murray Ledger & Times, Tribune-Courier, The Harrodsburg Herald, The Meeting Place, The News Democrat & Leader, The Daily News, The Franklin Favorite, The Amplifier) media.

Lawson continues an active interest in the theatre when he has the time. Last year he played the lead in the Franklin-Simpson County Arts Council’s production of The Music Man. He was also recently in 1776. A man of diverse talent, he also has future plans to compose classical compositions and conduct. Through his formal education he not only learned how to play a wide variety of instruments (though he admits "I don’t play the Tuba very well"), but is quite comfortable with various vocal presentations. From Cantering and Choir in his youth, evolved a love of Opera. He can sing Grand Opera as has done so on a tour of Europe. He has performed the Mozart Requiem with the Hungarian Philharmonic and sang works of great composers such as Gabrielli, Hayden and Brookner in the great Cathedrals where they were composed such as St Marc and Notredame.

Chuck Lawson also exercises his creativity in more homespun expressions such as through carpentry and woodworking. Lawson’s talents are also present in the visual arts and he originally enrolled in college as a commercial artist. He and his wife Mia and their 3-year-old daughter, Natalie, live in a 100-year-old home in Franklin. He has redone and restored the house from roof to flooring by himself. His kitchen is one of his most proud accomplishments. In it he created the hardwood floor with wood from the mountains of Virginia where his mother was raised as well as the cabinets. A dining room table and china cabinet are also among his creations. He also loves the outdoors and in addition to landscaping his yard (which he refers to is outdoor sculpting) he also enjoys hunting and fishing for relaxation.

Chuck Lawson is also preparing for the release of his 4th original album in 2000. The recording will contain several of his emotional ballads such as Wasn’t It Better Then (which received a standing ovation in a bar!) as well as Caribbean-style fun music like his song Coconut Moon. Make Believe You Love Me is in it’s second printing now and available at his shows or by contacting Chuck Lawson at P.O.Box 1092 Franklin, KY 42135, (270) 598-0474 or chucklawson@iname.com. He expects his new release to enjoy an even greater success. School concerts are being scheduled for the upcoming year and Lawson expects them to become more frequent due to the overwhelmingly good response and his inclusion in the art directory. As Heidi Kirch echoed his underlying sentiment in her latest press release when she proclaimed, "Chuck thanks each and every one of the Believers for their support and enthusiasm for his music. It’s no longer just "Make Believe." We’re going to let Chuck rest on his laurels for one, and only one, week." As Chuck says, "I have been able to sustain this business, career and creative energy through sheer persistence, determination, and commitment. That, I believe, is the most important and magic of ingredients to success. One must have the gift, passion, technical skill, support and opportunity to even stand a chance." Many musicians can talk the talk but it is rare that an artist can survive on art alone. It only happens when they apply Lawson’s motto and "walk the talk".

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