Kurt Lee Wheeler is a local singer, songwriter, and musician living in Hickory Flat, Georgia. I first met Kurt at MadLife Stage & Studios in Woodstock, Georgia right before he was supposed to go into the recording studio to lay down tracks of his latest original song. I had been taking photos of another band earlier in the evening and wasn’t quite ready to go home. Because I had never stepped foot in a “real” recording studio, when Kurt invited me to sit in on his session, I jumped at the chance to see this “sneak peek” into the music business. However, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional experience I was about to have.
Kurt recorded the song “83, 53, 23” which is both a tribute and documentary of the trials and tragedies his recent generations have faced. As I sat with tears in my eyes and listened to Kurt’s voice come through the sound booth, it struck me that everyone’s families go through difficult chapters of life. Kurt’s family has drawn on their deep faith in God to help them weather the storms of life. Often, we forget that the generations before us faced tough problems in their lives and the way they chose to deal with those situations trickle down the family tree and affect our lives today. None of us get out of this life without facing some hard stuff.
Since meeting Kurt, he and I have become good friends. Maybe its because we are both “creative” types or maybe it’s because we are both educators that share a love of live music. Kurt works in a local alternative school and says that it is his “true calling.” Dr. Wheeler, as his students call him, enjoys working with the kids that are the most broken or at-risk. After serving fourteen years as a pastor, Kurt’s current daily ministry is pouring encouragement and support into the students in his classroom that most people have given up on. One song that has especially struck a chord with Kurt’s students and fans is his recent song called “The Pain & the Pills.” It candidly addresses the struggles that many in our community are facing…opioid addiction. Often, reactions during performances of this song have brought tears to the members of the audience as they relate to the struggle that they or a loved one is facing with the cycle of addiction.
I wondered how a songwriter even begins to write down these thoughts and feelings and form them into a song. I asked Kurt about the songwriting process he likened it to the birth of a child. Kurt says, “Sometimes it takes a while to get a song out of my head. I never know when an idea will strike. It can get frustrating and people don’t often see the process of songwriting…. I may throw the pencil across the room.” Kurt calls these random song ideas “snigglets” and before he forgets them, Kurt sings them into his phone. He doesn’t worry about critiquing what comes out….but later will go back to listen to weeks’ worth of ideas and see what sticks out. Many of the snigglets eventually become the birth of new songs for his repertoire. Creative people are often flooded with ideas and Kurt has discovered that if he purges the ideas out of his head as they come, it frees up mental space to receive more ideas.
Kurt celebrates other musicians and enjoys seeing other musicians do well. He has hosted the “Undiscovered Artists” series at MadLife Stage and Studios. During Kurt’s various gigs he often invites other musicians of all ages to join him on stage. One of the most special moments I witnessed was when Kurt invited a young man with Downs Syndrome to accompany him on several songs. The smile on this young man’s face warmed all our hearts on that cold, winter night. It was a moment I will not soon forget.
Kurt will be the first to admit that not all of his songs are finished pieces. Some songs change over time. In a world that wants everything and everyone to be perfect, Kurt has given himself permission to record raw, rough songs that may or may not be the final product. He has learned not to stifle the creative juices by waiting until his songs are “perfect.” I applaud Kurt’s effort to be real and unfiltered as he writes songs about the events that surround him.
Q&A with Kurt Lee Wheeler
Kurt sat down with me recently and answered a few questions about his musical career which began as a freshman in high school when he taught himself to play the guitar.
What was the first album that you added to your personal music library?
The first albums that I asked for were the Monkees records. My first record was a 45rpm Footstompin’ Music by Grand Funk Railroad. After I listened to it for a few months I traded it with Conway Wilkie (a classmate) for the “The Eagles” Witchy Woman. The first Album that I remember buying with my own money was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Live- One More from the Road.
What was your most recent addition to your personal music library?
The answer to what I added last is difficult cause I make Spotify lists all the time. But what I added to I-tunes was “When We” by Tank and “Promises” by Eric Clapton.”
On Spotify it was Til Tuesday “Voice Carry”. I am an Aimee Mann fan. And Glenn Campbell “Wichita Lineman.”
What was your first live music experience? Which venue and which artist(s)?
My first live music experience is hard to say. I grew up in a clogging group. My parents also clogged. Years ago there used to be a place near Cumming called Lanierland Country Music Park.
We opened for many famous country singers. Conway Twitty, Hank Jr. Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Mandrell, Jenny C. Riley, Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, and Mel Tillis. I grew up with church music too. My folks loved to sing. So I was bathed in music all my life. I got to meet Johnny Cash back stage at The Opry when my parents clogged there. Once, when I was on leave from the air force, I happened to meet James Brown at a gas station in Augusta, Georgia!! But my first rock concert was REO Speedwagon at the Omni or The Eagles “The Long Run” Tour. I can’t remember which came first.
If you could cover one album in your music library which would it be?
The album that I would like to re-record a selection of songs by the Monkees. But if I had to choose it would be the Monkees first album.
What artist do you wish more people had in their music library?
The artists I wish more people had in their library would be…. Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams and Tyler Childers.
What is your impression of the local music scene in Atlanta?
MadLife is a place for me where I get the chance to meet artists and encourage them and build up the music community. It may be known for having tributes and cover bands but at the heart of MadLife is the singer/songwriters that perform like the “Undiscovered Artists” series. There are a lot of places that do ‘open mics’ but a few that have the facilities and staff of MadLife. The Undiscovered Artist Series has matured since it started and has moved more toward an original singer/songwriter showcase, which I agree with. There are tons of places around Atlanta to go do open mics where it’s cover song central. They give emerging artists the opportunity to hone their craft and build a following. I prefer a place that fosters original music, even a cool remake here or there… non-looped, no drums, only acoustic instruments. Eddie Owens, of the Red Clay Music Theater Foundry, is the patriarch and lead ambassador of the Atlanta original music scene, even back to his former place Eddie’s Attic. Anybody who was anybody, or wanted to be somebody, wanted to play there and still wants to play for Eddie Owens. He now runs The Red Clay Music Theater and Foundry.
Can you tell me more about your current tour and how you came up with the name?
I’m currently on a tour I have titled “The Name on the Shirt” Tour. I grew up in the South where football was a part of the fabric of our lives. When the leaves began to fade and the sap drained from the tallest limbs, on Saturdays it was not uncommon to see men, women, girls, and boys wearing shirts with the name of their favorite player emblazoned on that shirt…a show of support. In the same way, I wear the name of the folks that grease the rails of society. In short, it’s my way of honoring those folks that work their rear-ends off to make society move along. Moms, dads, the plumber, truck drivers, garbage men, electricians, mechanics, waitresses, etc. The next solo gig I’ll be sporting a shirt that says ‘Mom.’ I watched my own mother cook, clean, pray, encourage, taxi, counsel, work, PTA, team mom, discipline and make do when there wasn’t much to work with. Heck! She even fixed my motorcycle with a butter knife! So, the “Name on the Shirt” tour is about honoring those folks that make life run easier for us all.
What is your favorite guitar to play and do you play any other instruments?
My favorite all time guitar is my 1965 Gibson country western. I bought it in college. I love playing loud electric with a band. It’s spiritual. My favorite electric is Saint Blues blues master iv. I bought it in 1984 at my first duty station in the Air Force, Seymour-Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Do you always play solo gigs or do you have a band?
I have played almost two years with a duo called “Kurt and Keenum.” David Keenum is my friend and music partner in our duo project. We seek to play songs that make folks want to sing along. David and I played approximately 90 gigs last year. We met as teachers at Hickory Flat Elementary and decided we would do this after I finished my doctorate. I also play a few times a year with my band named “The Lathemtown Poets Society.”
Does anyone else join you on stage on a regular basis?
Kim Shook plays the harmonica and she and I have been great friends for 25 years. She brings a cool vibe to the duo. She always gets the biggest applause. Kim and I met at church and she is also one of the most selfless people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.