What’s the connection between Kenny Loggins’ current band Blue Sky Riders and Champaign-Urbana? Well, there’s the custom guitar strap local leatherworker John Coppess made a few months ago for Loggins. “The strap is for Kenny, but it’s a band strap,” Coppess explained when I spoke with him recently. 

Clockwise: Blue Sky Riders Gary Burr (holding strap), Kenny Loggins, and Georgia Middleman, along with Doug Bachtel (friend of John Coppess)

A custom job

Coppess, who hasn’t talked to the band directly, said he got the job through a third party:

My friend Doug Bachtel lives in Kansas City, and Blue Sky Riders have been doing some of their band work out of Kansas City, although Kenny lives in San Diego and the other two, who are married, live in Nashville — they’re songwriters for a whole bunch of people. As they were getting this band going, my friend had some sort of connection with them. He started talking to them, and then I saw my friend in October at my college homecoming in Indiana, and he proposed the idea to me then. He also pitched the idea to them and they agreed. So I made the strap and sent it off to them by Fed Ex. 

Coppess isn’t sure if Loggins is wearing the strap in concert yet. He says he’ll check the photos on the band website when they’re updated.

The strap itself

Coppess told me about the strap (pictured above) itself:

I did a fairly simple design on it. I used a shell scalloped border around the edges. I did the patch with their logo and then stamped their initials into it. Then I dyed it kind of an antiquey medium brown color. To make that strap I probably spent about two hours. I’ve been making leather stuff since I was about eleven years old, so I’ve gotten fairly fast at it.

When I spoke with Coppess, he was clearly excited about the strap. I asked him if that was because of the strap itself, or who he made it for. He replied:

Probably mostly who it was for. Doing the logo was a challenge, though, because it’s a very detailed logo and I’ve got three inches of width to work in, to carve a girl on a horse so you can know what that is. I downloaded a picture of the Blue Sky Riders logo and then photocopied it, decreasing the size so I could get it to where it was within those three inches. Then I used
tracing paper over that and just copied the major lines. I used that to trace it onto the leather, and used a special carving knife to carve the logo on there.

You look at their logo and you look at my strap and you can immediately see that I’ve got the girl on the horse, but not all the detail is there. But I’m very pleased with how it turned out. It looks like a 40’s pinup girl.

Coppess said if he put a comparable strap on sale at the farmer's market in Urbana he would charge about $50 for it.  

The leatherworker

Coppess — who is a retired teacher who taught high school English for 25 years — got into leatherworking as a child through 4-H and never gave it up. Doing leatherwork for musical instruments is actually nothing new to him. He recalled:

When I was thirteen or so, I made a custom case for a marching band bell lyre, which is like a xylophone that a person plays; they’ve got special straps that hold it up there in front of them and they hit all the bars. My sister played it and the band did not have a case for it. This case I made was probably two feet wide and three feet long, and on the front I did a diagonal scroll of a music staff and I carved in the notes of our school song. I thought that gave a nice look to it.

Coppess stayed with his hobby over the years, but it was just that — a hobby. He’d make a belt for himself, say, or a present for someone from time to time. After decades of that, he decided to start trying to sell his work. He told me:

Then, in 2009, I was at the IMC and they had a documentary film night. They had a film about Amos Kennedy, the poster artist, and he was talking about how he supports himself by selling these posters that he makes. He came to the Indigo Gallery actually once. He’s who inspired me to try and sell my leather. He said that your art is worth selling; don’t be ashamed to sell your art. I really hadn’t sold any of my leatherwork until then and this was 2009. So I thought that I could make things good enough that people would buy them.

So I started selling at the farmer’s market in Urbana. I did that for three years and in those three years I sold 1,000 handmade items. I had no idea it would be that big of a niche. I made, like, 450 belts, probably 60 wallets, 50 purses, and just a whole lot of things. It was the most leatherwork I’ve done in my life, and my skill, consequently, has grown tremendously by doing so much.

People come to me now with special requests, like, “Here’s this camera, could you make a case for it?” So, I’d have to sit down and design it. I’d have to think about all kinds of things. Where would be the stress points, for instance; how I was going to shape it so that it would fit this camera? And so my ability to think things out and plan grew tremendously.

The work load got to be a little heavy for Coppess though, and — while still going strong — he had to cut back:

After those three years, I was spending fifty to seventy hours a week working on all these custom orders and that got kind of tiring and there were other things I wanted to do too, so last year I did not do the farmer’s market. But, now people know that I’m doing it and I’ve handed out a thousand business cards. So, in this past year, I had about a hundred items I did for people just by word of mouth.

So it’s been a lot of fun. I’ll see people around town and they’ll raise up their shirts to show me that they’ve got on a belt that I made. That’s cool.