Interview: OTIS guitarist Steve Jewell talks about band's Kentucky roots
Courtesy of Purple Pyramid Records

If you happen to hear a loud rumbling as you’re driving through southern Kentucky, it’s probably not blasting going on at a coal mine or a moonshine still blowing up somewhere in the hills. More likely it’s a musical rumbling you’re hearing, created by the four-man rock band OTIS. Actually, you don’t need to be anywhere near the band’s native state to hear their music; the guys have a new album out called Eyes of the Sun and they’ve recently hit the road for tours of Europe and North America.

OTIS is singer and guitarist Boone Froggett, guitarist Steve Jewell, bass man John Seeley and drummer Andrew Gilpin, and their original music draws from the blues, classic rock, southern rock and more. We were able to chat by email with Jewell and he told us about some of the fun the band’s been having on the road, about making the new album, and about how the music of OTIS is influenced by the traditional sounds of Kentucky. Jewell’s commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.

AXS: OTIS recently completed a European tour and in one instance you had a couple of days off for travel between shows. Did you have a chance to do any sightseeing, indulge in local cuisine or check out local bands?

Steve Jewell: The European tour was an amazing experience for us! There were some local bands that opened up for us and we enjoyed hearing them and meeting them. Seeing the Cliffs of Dover along the English coastline was beautiful. We had our first fish & chips dinner on the ferry ride from England to France and it was great! The city of Amsterdam was absolutely beautiful. Driving on the Autobahn in Germany was a trip! There’s no speed limit! The Alps in Austria were absolutely breathtaking. That was the first time I’ve truly ever seen mountains, believe it or not. One of the things I loved most about all of the countries in Europe was how clean they are. I don’t think I saw any trash on the side of the road or in the streets. And I definitely miss the coffee, the best I’ve ever had. 

AXS: The band has cited acts like Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie as influences. Would you say that the music of OTIS is also steeped in the mélange of traditional music from your native Kentucky?

SJ: Absolutely! Traditional music of Kentucky runs through us. Our lead singer and guitarist Boone Froggett, his grandfather is an old time fiddler and State Champion in Kentucky. We all grew up learning and being influenced from our fathers and family members who play music and passed it down to us. Roots music is something we love and study a great deal of. You can hear the same raw emotions and soul in Bill Monroe’s voice as you can in Ray Charles; it’s just being performed in a different format. As a guitarist, I really love Merle Travis, who was from Muhlenberg County, KY. He pretty much invented the “Travis Picking” style of playing on the guitar. In this style of playing, you use your fingers to play the melody on the guitar and your thumb to play the bass notes. Chet Atkins made this style of playing popular. Because of discovering Travis Picking and learning a great deal of traditional country music and bluegrass over the years, I play mostly with my fingers instead of using a guitar pick. Kentucky is known for bluegrass, country and jug band styles of music, but we also have a heritage of blues music as well.

AXS: And the band has recorded some of this stuff?

SJ: We recorded a tribute album to a Kentucky blues man named John Brim who was from Hopkinsville, KY. We took 10 of his songs and wrote our own music arrangements to his lyrics. Brim wrote the song “Ice Cream Man” that was on Van Halen’s first album. Our mentor and friend Greg Martin of The Kentucky Headhunters presented the idea of doing this tribute album to us and we loved it. Tough Times: Tribute to John Brim also features our very good friend Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie on harmonica.

AXS: The latest OTIS album Eyes of the Sun was produced by Paul Nelson who has worked with Eric Clapton, Slash and Joe Walsh to name but a few. What were the main things you learned from being in the studio with him? 

SJ: Paul came in and was the executive producer on our new album. He has worked with some of the best in the industry; one of our personal favorites being the late great Johnny Winter. One of the most important things Paul helped us with was song forms. Song forms were not something we really thought about much, at least not the way Paul understands them. We obviously know you have to have a verse and chorus, etc. A lot of songs have intros, bridges and jam sections but Paul really challenged us to step out of the box and discover new kinds of song forms and it’s really helped us as a band with our songwriting.

AXS: Otis uses vintage gear to record and perform. Which piece or pieces of gear do you consider essential for getting your preferred sound?

SJ: My 1958 reissue Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul and my 1973 Super Lead Marshall head.  None of us use any pedals; we plug straight in to the amp. We have nothing against pedals, we understand the purpose they serve, but we’ve always been fans of and turned on more by old guitars plugged into old amplifiers. Boone and I both love recording in the studio with small old amplifiers like Fender, Gibson and Supro amps. 

AXS: The part of Kentucky that OTIS hails from has “dry” areas where liquor can’t be served, and the region is also notorious for bootleggers. Do you have any moonshine stories or stories about otherwise trying to circumvent restrictions on alcohol?

SJ: For years a lot of towns in Kentucky have been dry. But over the past five years, I’d say, a lot of towns have been going wet. A lot of us never thought we’d see the day, and residents have mixed feelings about the towns going wet. I don’t really have any moonshine stories. Of course, there was the never-ending struggle of being a kid in high school and, my friends and myself trying to put together enough money to buy a cheap case of beer or a cheap bottle of liquor, and trying to find someone 21 to buy it for us.

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