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With a labor of love, he has something to prove

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image Kelly Emerson reflects in the gleaming surface of his latest, nearly complete custom banjo. MItch Traphagen Photo

Kelly Emerson has combined the music in his DNA from a famous father with designs in his mind to fill some big shoes. It turns out, the shoes were his own.

The older woman at the Bullet Free Sky fundraiser left $50 in the donation box, sitting next to a table of t-shirts and other items for sale. “Thank you for your support!” the volunteer said with sincere gratitude. “Oh, I’m not here for you, I’m here for him,” she said pointing to the silver-haired man on the stage with an electric guitar strapped over his shoulder. “I’m a groupie.”

The guitarist was Kelly Emerson, performing with his long-time partner Gary Garbelman, bringing everyone in the crowd at the fundraising benefit to their feet. Emerson is a man of diverse talents.

“I’m a senior maintenance supervisor in Sun City Center,” he said. “I’m on my 16th year there now. Luckily, the good Lord has blessed me to do it.”

The talent for his day job was proven at an early age. When he was five years old, his family home flooded and among the casualties was a destroyed lawnmower.

“I just had this innate curiosity about making it run again,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing but yet I somehow did. I kept trying and trying, finally taking the motor apart one day. I pulled on the cord and it fired up. Victory, man.”

But aside from his wife of seven years, music is his first love. He sometimes calls it a hobby but it is clearly far more than that. Music is in his DNA and seeing people respond to him on stage reveals just how innate it is. Emerson is the son of banjo great and bluegrass hall of fame inductee Bill Emerson. His parents divorced when he was just a young child, and over the years he has had little personal contact with his father, but the music comes to him as naturally as breathing.

“I have a beautiful wife, Amy, and where I’m at in life, I’m happy,” he said. “It makes me happy to be able to express myself through my music. There is nothing like it. We are really content with that alone. The reality is that if we ever got signed to a major deal, our lives would change. It would be fun, but it would be all business.”

Such as it was for his father who had a life on the road as a bluegrass musician, a life that involved paying a price for missing out on his son’s life.

Emerson, too, knows because he was a guitarist in a band signed to a major label as a young man. “I was just a kid then,” he said.

“He was a very high level banjo player in the world of bluegrass music,” Emerson said. “They were signed to a major label and touring around the world. He had too much of that life to even imagine another life.”

That is not necessarily the life Emerson wants for himself and his family. But he still sees big shoes to fill.

“I always thought that I was supposed to hit the big time but my calling hasn’t come yet,” he said. “That’s my dream, whether it comes or not.”

For a lot of people in Sun City Center and the surrounding area, he has hit the big time. Like the woman last week, hundreds of people routinely turn out to see Emerson and Garbelman perform. They invariably pack the venues in which they perform. “That guy can sing,” Emerson said of Garbelman.

Ironically, his dream may well come true through a combination of the music in his blood and the lifelong skills at creating things in his mind. Last year, Emerson began building custom banjos. He plans to build 20 of them over the next 20 years. Now nearing completion of his second, he has 18 years left to go.

Emerson long considered himself a guitarist rather than following his famous father on the banjo. But over time, things change.

“I’ve been playing the guitar for 42 years. I’ve been playing the banjo for 17 years,” he said. Today, he has an endorsement deal with Goldtone Banjos out of Titusville for their EBM Electric Banjo.

And now he is building them. Kenny Bailey of Bailey Music offered lessons on instrument making, generally guitars, mandolins and banjos. Kelly took the class, after commissioning Bailey to build him a banjo.

“It was just beautiful but I didn’t like the way it played and the way it felt,” he said of the instrument he had commissioned. “It was a beautiful banjo but it just wasn’t right for me. It broke my heart to sell it, and I think it hurt him. But over the years we worked back into our friendship. A few years later he called me up to tell me about a class he was offering.”

For the past seven years, Emerson has had the design for a banjo in his head. He created the first one with the help of a talented woodworker and instrument maker in Sun City Center named Bill Kobel.

“He helped to build the prototype and it was a little raw but it was still a work of art because everything was made by hand,” Emerson said.

Emerson sold that banjo and received a letter from the buyer, thanking him for an instrument that looked and sounded beautiful; he described it as a work of art worth twice what he paid for it.

And thus the Emerson Power Banjo was born. With his second instrument nearing completion, as distinct from the first as the second will be from the third, it literally gleams beauty.

Mitch Traphagen Photo“I think I have something to prove, mostly to myself,” he said. “In my family, I was the one that got Bill’s genes, I was blessed to have the music.”

He is not only proving himself through his music, visible to all who have seen him perform, he is also setting himself apart from his famous father with banjos that emerge from a labor of love. Whether he knows it or not, the shoes have been filled. Soon they’ll be overflowing. His banjos are a legacy in the making.

Back in the Firehouse Cultural Center, Emerson and Garbelman had the crowd on their feet, with music ranging from original tunes to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n Roll” to “YMCA” by the Village People. Now a lot of people would turn the dial if the latter song came on the radio but there was something fun and magical about how Emerson and Garbelman performed it. The entire crowd, ranging in age from five years old to 80, was on their feet, smiling and acting out the letters. It was phenomenal.

Emerson and Garbelman performed the event at no charge. It’s not something they can always do because each time they set up, they incur expenses. Not to mention, their talent is worth something.

“For that, for Bullet Free Sky, that involved one of our kids. It was important,” Emerson said.

After the show, he invited Diego Duran, the young Ruskin boy who was injured by celebratory gunfire, up on stage to try out his vintage Fender Stratocaster electric guitar.

Their appearance at the event made more of a difference than he could imagine. They provided hope for the fledgling public service organization. They made something good happen that night, they changed the dynamic and provided momentum that will carry well past when the guitars were put away and the speakers were packed up.

Few people have an easy skate in life, and despite making crowds happy wherever he performs, Emerson is not immune to ups and downs. But he is patient and he has faith.

“My dad emailed me about three months or so and saw one of my original songs on YouTube,” he said. “He told me that he just had to say that it was really good and that he was proud to see that I had my own style and was doing so well with it.”

The note was signed, “Dad.”

Emerson hasn’t seen his father since 1997 but recently found out that he will be an instructor at a banjo camp Emerson will be attending in Nashville in October. For the first time ever, the father and son will perform together. The big shoes are filled, as is Emerson’s heart. He will perform as the son of a banjo great but more importantly as his own man.

“That’s my life and it makes me who I am,” Emerson said. “I always try to be all I can be. I always try to be above par. I always have something to prove but I’m happy with my life.”

For Kelly Emerson, life continues to unfold like sheet music that is still being composed. His dreams are coming true. In many ways, they already have.

On Saturday, August 10, Emerson and Garbelman will perform two shows at the Rollins Theater in Sun City Center. Tickets are available at the SCC Kiosk on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. or by calling 813-220-7913. For more information, visit www.thekegg.com. Kelly’s premiere, well-reviewed bluegrass CD, entitled Big Daddy’s Barn Burner Blues, is available by emailing ub2soup@hotmail.com.

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