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Johnny Quaid said he never set out to be anything but honest with his music and his work.
On his grandparent’s farm near Shelbyville, where corn and soybeans grew, so did Johnny and his cousin Jim’s band, My Morning Jacket. Comprised of members from Pleasureville, Buckner, and Shelbyville, the band’s music reached international acclaim with its first albums recorded mostly on the family farm.
In July, My Morning Jacket and Quaid’s newest project, the Ravenna Colt, played at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, with an estimated attendance of more than 30,000 people.
But before success and fame, the open fields and rural landscape shaped Quaid’s musings and personality and later proved to keep him rooted in who he was and what he wanted out of life.
“I’ve always had this feeling there is a part of me that wants to be in the middle of things and a part that wants to be away from it,” Quaid said. “I think there is something to growing up on farmland in an area where it so peaceful and serene.”
Quaid’s grandfather, Bill Gallrein, moved his farming operations from Jefferson County in the 1970s to Shelby County. He had a 3-car garage with an apartment above it that his grandson would use as rehearsal and recording space. The Gallreins’ Cadillac parked below inspired the name of Above the Cadillac Studios noted on My Morning Jacket’s early albums.
“The only thing I know how to play is the radio,” Gallrein said. “I don’t know where John got his talent as a musician from. He has always been a hard worker on the farm and a fast learner at whatever he decides to do. My wife and I always enjoyed listening to them play music from our house. They were all really nice guys.”
Quaid went to elementary school in Simpsonville and attended West Middle for a brief period. His interest waned in many things as a child and a teenager. His parents enrolled him in a Suzuki method program for violin he thinks just to keep him busy. He discovered the guitar at 12, and he said the instrument spoke to him. Music became his therapy. After finishing high school at Trinity in Louisville, Quaid said he worked on his grandparents’ farm not knowing where to go next.
“I wasn’t a very good student. I went to UofL for a semester, but I didn’t want to be a music teacher,” Quaid said. “I love working with my hands, and I felt like I had to make some decisions at the time since music wasn’t paying the bills. I worked on the farm full time. My cousin Jim and I were both in between bands. At that stage of our lives, we both knew music wasn’t just a passing adolescent phase.”
A road trip and a demo tape
During a trip to Cincinnati to see Tina Turner in concert, Quaid’s cousin, Jim James, shared a demo tape of songs he had written, which would become their first album. Quaid invested in recording equipment and they set up shop in their Above the Cadillac Studio.
“I really cut my teeth with the equipment I bought and making it work,” Quaid said. “I knew there was something special about the material we were doing. I still love listening to Tennessee Fire and At Dawn. We recorded and made music in a very organic way without being in a stale studio environment.”
Quaid and James enjoyed collaborating and building their dream. For James, the farm helped them grow as musicians and a band.
“It was truly a gift and a blessing to have the Gallreins’ support,” James said. “I really believe we would have never made it off the ground if it weren’t for them giving us such a wonderful place to practice and record. I have so many good family memories of Shelbyville both of the natural beauty and making music.”
The band started aggressively mailing out their demos to independent and big- name labels. James started mailing demos in boxes with stuffed animals where their head stuck out of the top of the box just to get attention, Quaid said. Eventually Darla Records, a small operation picked them up. Quaid met James in Pewee Valley to get a copy of their first mastered album.
“We were so excited. We thought we had really hit it big time,” Quaid said. “Later a music editor in the Netherlands gave us a great review, and everything snowballed. People over there were contacting us and asking if we had management. We asked to come over and played some shows. We were just babies turned loose with our dream.
“We weren’t playing arenas or anything but venues packed with two or three hundred people in them. We finished by playing at a festival with eight thousand people. The exposure made us more well known and propelled our music in the states.”
From the release of Tennessee Fire in 1999 and It Still Moves in 2003, the songwriting progressed and became more refined. During the touring support of “It Still Moves,” things started to change.
“I felt that a part of me when I was touring was more distant. At a certain point, we were living in suitcases, and I felt caged,” Quaid said. “I went from wide open countryside to a van, a bus, a venue, and I always felt contained. You are married, chained to five other people and would have to decide where five other people would eat.
“I was pushing things, and it wasn’t healthy for my personality. It was a hard decision, but I needed to get off the road. I felt guilty that I would be letting my brothers down. Danny Cash who was in the band started feeling the same way.”
Quaid said he doesn’t regret his decision. He is proud of where My Morning Jacket has gone and meets continued success. Quaid and his cousin, as well as other members of the band, parted on good terms.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get into a better state of mind if I didn’t make the change,” Quaid said. “I needed to step away and not feel so claustrophobic. I wouldn’t change where I am now. I needed to be the captain of my own ship.”
On his own
Quaid traveled to California and continued carpentry work. He said he knew during this time he had to have a change of scenery and didn’t want to go back to the farm. He put his guitar away and didn’t know if he would pick it up again.
But he said the open space of the California landscape and the carpentry trade made him feel grounded again.
“I didn’t have the passion that was there before,” he said. “It was as if playing night after night became mechanical and not a personal thing anymore. It was if it had been sucked out of me.
“After a few months I picked it back up, and I started jamming again like I was twelve. I loved it. I felt grounded again, and my job allows to me be grounded with people. If I had ‘made it,’ I don’t know what I would write about without that connection. I started writing again.”
Quaid also had met his future wife and said he wanted to record his songs for his own project with his music. Coming back full circle, Quaid said wanted to move back to the region, and he and his wife relocated to Tennessee.
“I called everyone and told them I might be moving back,” Quaid said. “I asked everybody to be as much a part of this as they wanted. Cash came onboard. Phil Carlson and Daniel Moehler, musicians from Shelby County that hung around a group of people I knew, got involved for drums and guitar. I now was the songwriter and the conductor for the Ravenna Colt project.”
The Ravenna Colt Project
Quaid said it was fun connecting with old friends again. He said he had known Carlson when he was younger and his skill as a guitar player had grown. Mohler had known some of the same people, and they exchanged demos and phone numbers and began practicing and recording Ravenna Colt’s A Slight Spell. The band set up at former Wax Fang drummer Kevin Ratterman’s studio, now called La La Land.
Ratterman recorded My Morning Jacket’s latest album Circuitalwith rave reviews, and his cousin Jim James worked in a producer capacity. For Mohler, this was a great experience.
"We listened to and looked up to these guys growing up,” he said. “It was a real honor to finally work with them. We practiced at the Gallreins' at first for a few months here and there. We all got along and cracked bad jokes. It was a very laid back process."
Mohler’s family background includes a lot of music. His mother, Nancy Cheak, was the music teacher at East Middle. He and Phil Carlson learned how to play together from local musician Lewis Mathis.
“We didn’t feel pressed like we would in a professional studio,” Mohler said. “I didn’t really even know Kevin then, but that guy [Ratterman] is a gem and awesome to work with. He knows exactly what he's doing. If we needed something, he made it happen. He's a great engineer and has a fantastic ear for recording and composition. Of course drums and bass got tracked first, but John and Kevin were meticulous about layering and overdubs and produced a huge fantastic sound."
Ratterman’s approach to recording is part personality and part of his own philosophy.
“I want people to feel relaxed and enjoy the music they are making,” Ratterman said. “Afterwards they can realize they made a record.”
Ratterman recently moved his studio and custom designed it himself. He quit Wax Fang to work on recording music full-time.
“People don’t have a lot of money these days – especially bands,” Ratterman said. “I want the La La Land studio to be affordable and competitive. I loved making Johnny’s album. We were able to capture him in a very honest way, and I still listen to it.”
‘It’s about who you are’
Quaid continues to perform the Ravenna Colt’s A Slight Spellwhile still doing carpentry work now in Idaho. This autobiographical album shares with the listener Quaid’s departure from the band and listening to himself with the promise to follow his heart.
Textures of lap and pedal steel make for great emotional peaks in the music but never overdoing the rock elements of his compositions. To label this album an attempt at alternative country would be remiss, it’s just Quaid putting his feeling on a sonic canvas with whatever instruments he chooses to color them with.
“I love John’s music and his musical voice,” James said. “What an inspiration and help he was to me in the early days and always will be.”
Quaid said he can’t wait to start his next album and his next chapter. Most likely, he won’t venture far from his childhood home to do it.
“I am not setting out to do anything deliberate other than tell my story from my perspective,” Quaid said. “What I write I do it for the right reasons, and it helps me through my music to be honest. Early on, I was proud of where I was from.
“We enjoyed telling people we were from this unknown town of Shelbyville and not New York or Chicago. I hope some kid that is doing their own music or art realizes it’s not about if you live in a big city. It’s about who you are.”