Musician Kevin Elliott is not a blues artist, but he’s going to try his hardest to sound like one tonight. Weirdly enough, his week-and-a-half-long cold that has affected his voice, and a right ear he currently can’t hear out of, may assist him.
The sixty-year-old Elliott is sitting in the Great Hall of WEFT radio station in Champaign, tucked within the space of giant shelves that hold copious amounts of CDs. As if to counter the one-man-show that’s about to begin, a wood board across the shelves above Elliott is plastered with stickers advertising bands like Bristle, the Bible Belt Sinners, the Inn Keepers, The Fights, and Elsinore.
Elliott doesn’t have a bass player or drummer around him like the groups advertised above his white-haired head, but he does play a mean guitar. He also sings with feeling and is a solid songwriter—all talents, he admits, that bloomed later in life.
Wearing a casual black sports jacket, blue jeans, mostly green tennis shoes, and glasses when he plays the guitar, the bearded Elliott, who lives in Urbana, has a professorial look about him. He’s well-educated with a master’s degree in clinical psychology, but left the doctoral program he was pursuing in counseling psychology years ago because he had a good job as a clinical director at The Pavilion in Champaign and wasn’t interested in research. The future musician didn’t want to be a professor.
WEFT DJ Bob Paleczny, hosting the Friday-night show Blues Live, walks up to chat with Elliott prior to Elliott’s live-on-air performance.
“My voice is terrible,” Elliott admits to Paleczny, “but the show must go on, right?”
“It’s a blues voice then,” Paleczny says helpfully.
“Well, you’re gonna get a good blues voice,” Elliott responds with his typical accompanying laughter.
The two WEFT DJs—Elliott hosts the show From the Joshua Tree Inn on Tuesday evenings—discuss their various ailments and unfortunate accidents that happened to them separately years ago in a car and on a bike. Paleczny puts things in musical perspective: “Hey, it’s all blues, you know.” He tells Elliott to perform Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, none of them known as particularly bluesy artists.
“I’m doing all Kevin Elliott stuff.” He again emits his endearing laugh.
“Well, that’s fine. That’s blues too.”
With a bum right ear, a blind right eye, and a scratchier voice than usual, Elliott launches into “Hey Jaybird” from his 2016 CD Patterns of Blue. In the tradition of the blues, he describes the ditty to the audience of twenty or so as a tad “naughty.” What comes through to the casual listener, however, is a tender, beautiful love song.
Elliott’s three CDs, two of which were released by Soona Songs, are abound with rhyming patterns, quirky lyrics filled with dysfunction, and finger-picking acoustic guitar that isn’t afraid to meander and sound discordant in spots.
He noodled around on the guitar in college and got pretty good, and then improved considerably with time. During his twenties, Elliott wrote many songs and put out home recordings while performing “once in a real blue moon.” He loved the music of folk singers and rock-and-roll artists, but Elliott’s own singer-songwriter career wouldn’t bloom until much later.
Elliott says starting the business he ran for more than a decade, Elliott Counseling Group, was very satisfying. Now semi-retired, he has pulled way back on his clinical duties while his wife, Sandra Ahten, manages the business, which started in 2002.
He caught his big musical break one year while attending an event known today as the Folk Alliance International Conference, where he networked with like-minded people as a music fan and DJ. One of those contacts approached him with an offer.
“This little record label called Soona Songs—I played some of their artists on my radio show as a DJ here at WEFT—they liked my music and offered me a contract,” Elliott says.
Elliott is fine with releasing his albums at a pace of every five years (2006, 2011, and 2016) and says he has ideas for future collaborations. He’s lucky, he says, to work with a record label staffed with friendly, music-minded people who are lenient about his timetable for putting out new tunes.
It turns out Elliott needn’t have worried so much about his voice. After a few played songs he does sound a bit gruffer than on CD, but his ailment also gives his voice a soulful, indeed a more bluesy, sound. An echo effect on Elliott’s voice on one of the songs adds flair to the performance.
Paleczny talks with Elliott in an on-air interview, discussing his past music, his reluctance to tour because of a six-year-old grandson he likes to be with, and the Folk Alliance event, which Elliott has rarely missed during the last decade. As dedicated WEFT volunteers, both music aficionados love such happenings because of the wealth of CDs they acquire from talented, independent artists.
“First and foremost I’m a music fan, so it’s totally the kind of place I want to be,” Elliott explains to Paleczny. “It’s where I’m surrounded by music I love and meeting the people making it and getting stuff to take home.”
“Well, that’s WEFT,” Paleczny responds, shifting gears a bit. “We’re all volunteers here, and people like Kevin go way out of their way to bring music here to the community. We really appreciate it.”
“Thank you. I know you do the same thing. It’s definitely a labor of love.”
Elliott’s performance in the Great Room is complemented by the imaginations of local artists who have presented their work atop sheet music. The benefit show, “Chorus,” is part of Champaign-Urbana’s sprawling Boneyard Arts Festival, which has been around for fifteen years.
The approximately fifty images hanging on the shelves are varied and vivid, projecting a range of thoughts and emotions. Approximately thirty people have made their way in and out of the room all evening, mingling, talking, purchasing, and eating munchies and drinking beverages. It’s a cozy, ambient affair.
The words in Elliott’s songs—on tunes such as “Prettiest Girl in AA”—convey situations that may have attracted him to being a therapist. He’s met many folks in his life who wouldn’t be considered role models, yet their stories are fascinating.
“I think people are interesting and complicated creatures, and it’s not cut and dried and there’s a lot of ambiguity and paradox and contradictions,” he says.
As Elliott’s set winds down, Paleczny asks him if he’s got a few more numbers left in him. The singer jokes that his voice is not the “finely tuned instrument” he usually produces.
“We’re on Blues Live here,” Paleczny reminds him.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. It’s Blues Live. It can sound funky.”
Elliott plays the song “Patterns of Blue” and then ends the evening with “Impressions,” sung with his wife, whose melodious voice supports her husband’s to the finish line. For a few minutes, under the array of rock-band names, Elliott is no longer a solo artist.
Discover more about singer-songwriter Kevin Elliott at his website here.