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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mike Liggett's Lesson: Never Get Too Upset About a Bad Chord

Mike and his grandfather. Courtesy Mike Liggett

Mike Liggett and I agreed to meet in the afternoon at the Pub for this interview. A couple of hours before, though, he was sitting in a video production studio being interviewed for an upcoming gig over the holiday weekend at Pompilio’s. Two interviews in one day. Whew! Well, a 45 second promo takes a few hours to make. He had no idea what to expect. Nothing. He had no idea what questions would be asked or even how the whole production thing worked. He sat in front of a green screen only later wondering what images would appear behind him. Dinosaurs? Puppy videos? Dancing donuts?

He says I had no idea of what I was doing.  I didn’t know what to expect. I asked the girl there if I should keep my [down] vest on or take it off. She said to leave it on. Just then the lights came on. Boom! Boom! Boom! And I begin to sweat. And I haven’t stopped.  So here he is sitting at the the bar at the Pub sweating through his second interview. He dabs at his forehead with some paper napkins. By the way, the video should appear this week.

Mike Liggett is good. Very good. He knows lots of songs. How many? Gosh, I don’t know. Probably around 300. He even sounds a bit like James Taylor. A compliment that he accepts. And he plays almost every night. And this is pretty much how he has always made his living except for the stints at Mashinot’s Music and a music distributor.  It’s not the easiest way to earn a living. As Mike says When most people want to go out to have fun I am going to work.  And Mike reminds me how weird it is to invite people to watch you work. But he is passionate, energetic, and genuinely loves what he does. And that comes through in his performance.

So where did it begin? Mike recalls I have been singing since I was 2 years old, first singing for my neighbors. My grandfather use to take me around to retirement homes and I would sing.  I had a bag of hats - Mike Liggett’s Hats. My grandfather took me to the Bellevue Vets and he would slide cheese crackers across the bar and I would sing for those guys. 

Mike and his grandfather at a performance. Courtesy  Mike Liggett

We moved to Louisville when I was 7 and I entered talent shows there and I did pretty well. I still did sports but I wasn’t all that good at it. But I still kept singing. I have been playing in bars since I was 17.  So it’s going on 22 years. I have been in bands and duos but I play solo now. He admits that It’s like a high wire act. I don’t get embarrassed much any more. I play small places. But sometimes when the song goes wrong it sometimes get better.

Mike did not formally study music. And like all good storytellers, Mike has a story for that. I only took one guitar lesson.  From Gary Devoto. In fact, I just talked to him about this the other day.  It was at St Catherine’s cafeteria, where I went to grade school, but it was in the broom closet. The mop’s hanging right behind me and we did the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd). So we worked on that for half an hour while he watched me - in the mop closet. And on the second lesson, I walked in [to the cafeteria] with my guitar, I see that door cracked open, and all the lights are off, I could smell that school Beef-a-roni. I turned around and walked right out. I called him when I got home and told him that I just couldn’t do it. So at that point I just got chord charts and sat down and learned songs. I am still the worst guitar player that I know.  He’s being modest. He's pretty good.

And talk about eclectic influences. Even though Mike sounds a lot like James Taylor, his influences and favorites run wide and deep - Don McLean, Paul McCartney, Les Miserables soundtrack, Boyz 2 Men, Metallica, The Beatles, and then back to Stevie Wonder.  It’s always something different.  Pretty eclectic.

How nervous were you when you first started? Not much. I get a little nervous on a big stage. I am not a big stage kind of guy. I like playing small places where I sit in the corner and play, not too loud because people are talking while eating dinner. I like that.

Some guys claimed that they learned to play guitar to meet girls. Well, there’s a certain truth to that but not as much as you would think. You know, I’m playing places where people are eating their chicken fingers so there’s no Rolling Stone vibe with people rushing the stage. I’m just in the corner. 

But at the same time, Mike engages with the audience. He talks to them. Sings to them. Tells them stories. He is an engaging storyteller who finds joy and humor in life. He told me this story that he also posted on social media. On my way to play music [one] evening I needed gas. When I pulled up to the pump I noticed a very elderly gentleman in the car next to me wearing a Marine Corp hat. It being Veterans Day I thought ‘I have to have something to give this man.’ I found a lemon lollipop I had just gotten from the bank. I knocked on his window. He rolled it down and I said, ‘Sir, I'm sorry I don't have anything better to give you but I just wanted to say thank you for your service.’ The man immediately starts to cry, and in a choked up voice he said, ‘You don't have to give me anything. Just saying thanks is enough.’ I gave him the lollipop and with tears in my eyes I patted his chest and simply said ‘Thanks.’ When I came back out from paying for my gas he pulled up next to me with the lollipop in his mouth, winked and said, ‘You have a great day’…But honestly I was just being goofy and saying thanks with that lollipop. I had no clue that a stupid lemon lollipop would change the way I look at things forever. And it truly did. 

The thing thing about people is that whenever a group of people come together, something interesting always happens. Every musician and entertainer has stories. Mike says, This was a while ago. I think it was the night before Thanksgiving.  I was playing this place when a guy I know came in and his ankle was completely bloody. He was just out of his mind. He had cut off his ankle monitor. I don’t even know if he cut it off. He might have pulled it off. Because his whole foot was completely drenched with blood. So, you know, police know when someone takes that off. Well, he lived like five houses down from this particular bar. I mean you could throw a tennis ball from the bar and hit his house. So the police went to the first bar and they found him there. Not that a bloody appendage would bother anyone in the place, right? Right? And he was proud of it, Mike laughs.
Mike at a gig. Courtesy Mike Liggett

When you play in a band, though, something goofy happens at every gig. I was playing with a band one night and this lady was having a good time.  I told one of the guys that she looked pretty wobbly. And she takes a head first dive right into the monitor. Now these were the old style monitors, heavy and with metal handles. She took a violent dive. She’s in pretty bad shape but we continued to play while her friends dragged her off. 

I was playing at Walt’s Hitching Post when these big guys, massive, walk in. This was my first time playing there.  All of a sudden I see a baby with them. I said, without thinking, into the PA, ‘I didn’t see you walk in with a baby. Like, did you guys steal that baby?’ One guy pulls up the baby carrier. Turn out it was Tyler Eifert and some of the Bengals. Nicest guys. But I didn’t find out until 20 minutes after they left. They were sitting right next to me! 

I play at Riverbend a lot in their RSVIP (for season ticket patrons) area or their Time-Warner stage. And I get to go to lots of the shows. But have you ever met any of the acts?  You know, I asked the people there one time. I said, ‘I’ve been playing here about 9 years. Do you think I could ever meet someone?’ ‘Sorry,’ was the answer. You know, I’d like to meet at least one [entertainer]. But he keeps on pickin’. Music has always been a thing, you know. It’s the only thing I‘ve known.

I was never meant to be the rock star kind of guy.  Playing with a bigger band was never my thing. But I like what I’m doing now. I’m more comfortable now then I’ve ever been because I like what I’m doing. I like to play the songs that I like. And people feel that. It’s such a freedom. 

But that doesn’t mean the days of a band are over. Mike is working on a new project. He has released a couple of CDs with his previous bands but he has something brewing.  It’s a band called Broad Time Bell. And I have all these original songs that I have worked on over the years. I’m working with guys I’ve known for 20 years and they are fantastic musicians. There’s no ego.   But projects like this take time so you’ll have to wait about six months or so to finally get your hands on it.

So what’s his dream job? You know I kind of always wanted to be a talk show host. You know, get people’s reactions. I could never be a stand up comedian. I have friends who do that and that’s hard. But I like talking to people, playing, and telling stories. But he shouldn’t wear a down vest on the set.

After 22 years Mike has some advice for singers and players starting out. If you really want to do it then you’re going to do it. It’s practice, practice, practice, and then more practice. And you have to not be embarrassed or get embarrassed easily. You have to learn a lot more songs than you think you do. It’s demanding.  When everybody else is doing something fun, you’re going to work. 

So what has Mike learned? First of all, you always tip the band. I always tip bartenders, waitresses, and waiters. That’s why if I see a guy with a bucket out doing whatever they always get my money. 

As long as you don’t offend the crowd, you always get an invite back. 

Stay humble. Because right when you think you know anything about what you're doing, you'll see a band or some solo guitar playing singer/songwriter somewhere that puts you right back in your place. There are amazing people playing music all over this area. Amazing! I'm really just honored to be in the mix.

I don’t take myself too seriously. If you take yourself too seriously, you’ll kill yourself. If you hit a bad chord and you get too upset about it, nobody really cares. Just let it wash over you like it washes over them.  On to the next song. You have to have fun with it because if you are having fun then they are having fun.  Never get too upset about a bad chord. 

And that is pretty good advice - learn your craft, accept mistakes, be respectful, and take care of the people who support you. That’s a great way to make a life and a living.
Mike and his guitar. Courtesy Mike Liggett

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this guy before....he has a very familiar face.