Tara Key, born in Louisville and transplanted to New York City, is the guitarist and singer for the band Antietam. She is currently working on a book, Friends Call, Strangers Cordially Invited, the tale of her great-grand aunt Fannie Evans Uhl, a Gilded Age Louisville madam, and what happens when good girls go kind of bad.
This is not an elegy, it’s a love letter — to Wink O’Bannon, Louisville guitarslinger, ex-member of Eleventh Dream Day and of many great bands you should have heard, and to those of us who schemed something special in Louisville. Wink passed away in June, 2020. Some of us made a record to celebrate his memory, but more about that later.
Wink was a tough, gruff man with a marshmallow boy lurking inside. When I researched his lineage, I found he and his brother Michael were direct descendants of Jesse and Frank James. For me, that made his cartoon snarl even more perfect. He was a proficient, passionate player, wise advisor, and self-appointed keeper of the flame, as evidenced by a YouTube site, hammerofthedogs, with clips he made celebrating our scene and playlists schooling folks on the history of rock, blues, country, and jazz music. Above all, he thought it important to know where you came from, so as to tell you where to go.
Louisville came into being because of an obstacle: the Falls. The site of a big natural red light — the only interruption to smooth transit between Pittsburgh and the Gulf of Mexico.
Before a canal was constructed in 1833, flatboats were unloaded at the Falls, maneuvered around the shoals and rapids, and then reloaded to continue to Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans. The coming of the steamboat and later, the L&N Railroad turned Louisville into a boomtown, drawing river rats, draymen, travelers, immigrants looking to settle, and high stakes wheelers and dealers – both entrepreneurs and the players of ponies, cards, and dice. The saloons and the best of the brothels often featured piano players and guitarists for entertainment.
The first Louisville musician was a popular fiddler, Cato Watts, who played reels, jigs, and flings for the original 1778 settlers. He also was the first African-American resident, the first slave, and, in 1787, the first person executed, by hanging, for killing his master, “much to the sorrow of the young people who enjoyed his music at their dances,” as related in an 1893 telling of the tale.
Ben Harney, who was a Louisville newspaper publisher and a ragtime performer popular for a time in New York, wrote what is recognized as the first published ragtime song in 1895: “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, but You’ve Done Broke Down.”
Louisville-born Sarah Martin, a prominent blues singer who recorded with the likes of Fats Waller and King Oliver, discovered hometown guitarist Sylvester Weaver, who, in 1923, recorded the first blues guitar instrumental, “Guitar Rag.”
There was an incredible blues and jazz scene roughly from 1920-1960 centered around clubs on downtown’s Walnut Street. Ella Fitzgerald, Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington, Coleman Hawkins, and scores of other notables regularly performed — now gone without a trace, strafed due to misguided, destructive urban renewal projects.
Jug band music, though not necessarily born in Louisville, was of a distinct strain here, jazz-drenched with sax and brass due to the river’s beeline between Louisville and New Orleans. In 1931, record impresario Ralph Peer took over a storefront at 6th and Main to record a late-in-life, tubercular Jimmie Rodgers. Among other recordings Rodgers made that week for Victor was a collaboration with Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band on “My Good Girl’s Gone Blues.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Louisville Orchestra distinguished the city with its practice of commissioning original scores by some of the most adventurous composers of the time — Henry Cowell, Ned Rorem, Elliot Carter, Aaron Copeland — and recording the performances.
And the thing is: Wink knew ALL of this. And more. He knew we had pedigree and he was a walking encyclopedia of it.
TRANSCENDENCE VIA TRANSISTOR RADIO
Wink and I often talked about how this talisman shaped us, pre-teen, hiding under the covers; 50,000 watt clear-channel airwaves acting as a conduit to travel in the night, discovering somewhere other than here. The mundane seemed exotic: local news reports, ads and jingles beamed in on WOWO, WWL, KYW, and WSB. We were lucky enough to live in a town with two AM stations that broke hit singles to the rest of the nation and also added local and regional bands to their playlists: WAKY and WKLO. This could have led to the insane notion when we came of age that we were all one radio hit away from stardom. Unfortunately, radio was radically different by the time we were bold enough to be in bands.
When punk rock reached the shores of the Ohio, it was not as if we were backwoods creatures unaware. We were too young to have been hippies; this music represented something that was our own in a now-debased radio desert of white bread AM sonic salves and “Dust in the Wind” FM soporifics. We read Rock Scene. Some of us had been to Max’s and CBGBs. Many of us had passed through the church of Bowie so being outliers was second nature. Patti Smith hit like a tsunami and most of the people who would be in bands four-to-eight weeks later were at her show in April 1978.
Before metadata, there was freedom to make bands that sounded like no other. Our relative isolation was useful, and we took the fuel of our bucolic setting and the friction of our position in it to make fire.
The first punk band in Louisville formed in art school and I was a member: No Fun (Bruce Witsiepe RIP). But the I-Holes, the Babylon Dance Band (which I joined upon the implosion of No Fun a mere four months later), the Endtables, and the Blinders, Wink’s first band with his brother Michael (RIP), popped up within weeks in the summer of 1978. There was something on the tip of all of our tongues — No Fun just spoke first.
In Louisville, blues and heavy rock dominated the live music scene, and to be in one of those bands you had to have cred: white boy scale-knowledgeable cred. Being in a band was previously unimaginable for most of us in the first wave. Punk rock was our permission slip. We ass-backwardsed our way into playing our instruments. We were women, men, gay, straight, loners, roughhousers, and smart kids, all just a little bent somehow — all freaks together on a life raft.
In the beginning, our shows were in living rooms, barns, a women’s prison, a teen pregnancy school, a strip joint, a Potato Festival. The Babylon Dance Band were evangelists trying to play every neighborhood: to spread the good word of personal power through rock & roll passion, acceptance of the odd and different; trying to bust our community out of the doldrums and ennui of the late ‘70s. Most gigs were sociological encounters, not always friendly, and often more like collisions. Our combos were bulls in the china shop of a smug, numb local culture. We were messy, we were instigators and, still, we were all pretty earnest: we were proudly provincial.
We cherry-picked influences like magpies and shoved it all through a naive grinder. The OG Louisville sound may have been birthed by punk and cognizant of its canon, but when left to our own devices, we nodded to The Syndicate of Sound, Bowie, Sabbath, mountain murder ballads, Link Wray, the Stooges, the Monkees and Raiders, breaking glass, jackhammers, the Bluegrass spring air, Baudelaire. It was a glorious mishmash of things we admired and things we never, in a million years, thought we could be.
If Wink had presented a certain kind of attitude, he could have had that straight band cred. He had the chops and the vocabulary from the get-go. But his sensibility was different – and that ability to see me, fledgling chord and lead sprayer coming from Mick Ronson via Neil Young; to see Steve, later Chili, Rigot (RIP), singer of the Endtables — a large and beautiful being of somewhat indeterminate gender — as a formidable front person; to see Tim Harris, my mate and bandmate of 43 years, as a badass rocker instead of the professor he was on track to become; to see Ricky Feather of Bodeco as the combo of Hank Williams and the missing Rolling Stone he was — that ability set Wink apart from players armed only with know-how and no generosity of vision. He knew the rules and broke them deliciously.
We all attended each other’s gigs. We eventually made clubhouses out of benevolent bars or those who saw a chance to make money on a craze. But of course, things run their course. We wore each other out.
The Dance Band pushed outward, playing Lexington, Nashville, and Athens. A cover story in the Village Voice in 1980 about us, the Dickbrains, Malignant Growth, and the scene in general made it possible for the Dance Band to play New York. At the same time, we were sending out smoke signals to other scenes we had heard of and bands responded with visits: the Embarrassment from Wichita, Get Smart! from Lawrence, the Bad Brains, REM. This was all still pre-indie labels, pre-college radio, pre-fanzines; a tour had maybe four stops and was conducted on a wing and a prayer and word of mouth among the few mouths in town predisposed to being interested.
There were obstacles. We had no support from radio, very little in the local newspaper of note. There was no arts weekly to amplify us. There was one recording studio but no label or anyone with cash or power to make one exist. The Dance Band recorded a single in a pro studio that had zero understanding about how we should sound; we were not conversant with how our music should be captured.
But you know what? After us, Louisville unloaded the flatboat and navigated the currents again and again for decades, reinventing itself over and over. The OGs made a foundation that our descendants ran with. Slint defined a genre. Will Oldham became, well, Will Oldham. David Grubbs, who sent me my first fan letter as a pre-teen, made Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and, subsequently, an incredible career as a performer, educator, and writer. Janet Bean met Rick Rizzo at our practice space and Eleventh Dream Day was born. Tara Jane O’Neil grew up as a fan of Slint and Kinghorse (post-Malignant Growth in lineage) and co-founded Rodan (Jason Noble and Jon Cook, RIP). Catherine Irwin (ex-Dickbrain) made Freakwater with Janet Bean, Wolf Knapp moved to NYC and made Antietam with Tim and me. In NYC we met fellow travelers Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, James McNew, and Sue Garner. They all knew Wink. All of the above plus more are on His Majesty’s Request: A Wink O’Bannon Select.
BACK DOWN TO THE WATER
In July 2019, Antietam played a magical show with old friends on the banks of the Ohio. The stage was located about fifty feet from the shore in a spot that I used to come to as an angst-laden teen looking to drink up the river. Wink played on the last few songs of our set — Dance Band tunes — with Chip Nold, BDB’s fearless leader, back at the front on vocals. I never came to town without demanding Wink’s presence on my stage. The realization I can’t any more breaks my heart. But this one night, all was perfect under the stars, jam-packed with witnesses, sprinkled with the crickets’ high-end chatter and the bullfrogs’ bass counterpoint, me wrestling sonically with Wink, my longtime partner in Les Paul crime. It was one of the best nights of my life. A few months later he told me he was sick.
Feeling helpless, I came up with a plan to try and raise some expense money for him, as he could no longer work at the bar he was the anchor of. I asked him to list his favorite 10 songs of all time, secretly planning to make a record with Antietam backing many of his friends and admirers on vocals. This sent him into a tizzy! All day, texts fired back and forth. How could I expect him to choose only 10! How could he leave out this song that James Burton plays exemplary guitar on? Finally, at the end of the night, he sent a list of 50 and said it was impossible to narrow that down. And that it might all change tomorrow.
It ranged from punk to the pop on our 1968 transistors to country legend to jazz great. He even threatened me with jingles and theme songs, as he saw those as being equally important to his makeup. Then, soon after, we were all locked down, our locations strewn cross-country. The New Yorkers may as well have been a thousand miles from each other in our collective solitude. But we did it, mailed track by mailed track.
Then Wink passed away suddenly, without hearing a note.
We decided to continue with the project, and donate the proceeds to two Louisville charities dedicated to educating youth through music. This record is a tribute to Wink’s brain, to Wink’s heart, and to all that we did, all of us together, then and now.
(Photo Credit: Bill Carner)