BY JAMES MOORE
Ken Mottet, The Mayor of Rockabilly, hosts a show in Chicago called The Otherside.
I decided to write a column about serendipity, about meeting a rockabilly aficionado the other day through Corey Hickenbottom, who has a show called Folkabillyrockblues (Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to noon) on Fairfield’s grassroots community radio station, KRUU 100.1 FM. Corey just turned 21 recently, but he is a dyed-in-the-wool vintage music connoisseur. He loves the pared-down, skeletal, guitar-driven rockabilly as well as the keyboard violence of Jerry Lee Lewis and others, not to mention hillbilly, Americana, and gospel. Maybe it stems from his father Steve’s organic farming roots.
Anyway, Corey is watching a video podcast thing called Rockabilly Revival and on the first show a cat named Ken Mottet (pronounced “Mottie”) mentions growing up as a farmboy in Iowa. Intrigued, he tracks him down on MySpace. The “Mayor of Rockabilly” lives in Chicago, where he hosts a twice-weekly cable music television show, The Otherside. He also plays rhythm guitar in a honky-tonk, country boogie, Western swing band called the Gin Palace Jesters and is the go-to emcee for regional rockabilly events of all shapes and sizes.
But here’s the twilight zone cork-popper. As Corey rummages through the Mayor’s retro-rockabilly archeological digs, he unearths a curious fact. Guess where Ken Mottet hails from? You guessed it: Fairfield friggin’ Iowa! I’m not Sherlocking you. Turns out he’s a damn homeboy. Graduated from Fairfield High School. Even gave the valedictorian address for his graduating class, I’d guess about 1979. Never mind that Corey’s grandparents were close with Ken’s folks.
Wait, it gets better. Corey gets in touch with Ken and tells him about the new low-power FM station where Corey deejays. The Mayor of Rockabilly is intrigued and says he’ll check it out, informing Corey that he and his wife, Mary, are heading back for a visit soon. Lo and behold, when he logs onto the webstream (www.kruufm. com) to check out Corey’s show Folkabillyrockblues, the first song he hears is his favorite tune by none other than Ersel Hickey.
Ersel who, you ask?
Ersel Hickey was born in Brighton, NY, in 1934, one of eight children. His mother was from Kingston, Ontario, his father an Irishman (O’Hickey) who passed away when Ersel was only four years old. When his mother was hospitalized a few years later, Ersel ended up in foster homes, running away many times.
At 15, he started traveling with his sister, “Chicky” Evan, an exotic dancer, eventually becoming a carny and then settling in Columbus, Ohio. In 1951, parroting then-popular singer Johnny Ray, he won an amateur talent contest, snagging a $500 prize. Three years later, Ersel discovered Elvis Presley’s Sun Recordings and became a wholly rock’n’roller. That same year he bumped into Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, who advised him to write his own songs. “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” was written that night. It would eventually chart at 75 in the Top 100, Hickey’s most successful recording.
But something magical happened on the way to recording “Bluebirds.” Ersel had his picture taken by female impersonator/exotic dancer/photographer Gene LaVerne. The silhouetted wiggly-legged image LaVerne captured of Ersel became an iconic symbol for rockabilly itself. Though Hickey never became a household name, he did pen a number of songs like the Top Ten hit “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” co-written with Eddie Miller, for—I’m not making this up—the Serendipity Singers. (My favorite Hickey tune, for the record, is “Shame on Me.”)
Speaking of seren(dipity doo), turns out Ken Mottet, our displaced hometown hero with the anvil pompadour, actually sports a tattoo on his right biceps of this semi-seminal erstwild rockabilly Hall of Famer. Suffice it to say, the Mayor’s socks are blown away hearing a song by his ink armsake the very first time he onlines KRUU-FM. After all, Mottet’s bio on the Gin Palace Jesters’ website reads: “Ken says, ‘To truly begin to know Ken you must first know Ersel Hickey,’ whatever that means.” Indeed.
Into the station strolls our sharp-clad madrigal son, toting his acoustic guitar. He’ll perform on Saturday morning’s Local Yokels, with Corey guest hosting. Warm and personable, he is stoked that a new radio station has sprung to life in his hometown.
A self-described high school straight-A “egghead,” Ken tells me his all-time favorite job was working after school for two years at the local commercial radio station where he held down the fort, spinning discs and whatnot, from 5 to 10 p.m. He gets that slightly glassy-eyed twinkle that anyone who has spent any time doing radio seems to exhibit reflecting on the experience. His rich, resonant voice strikes me as a natural for the airwaves. He graduated from the U of I as a theater arts major. I learn later that his wife, Mary, who is accompanying Ken, started Holler magazine, a local rockabilly bible, back in 1999. It kept retromaniacs up to date with vintage clothes sales, conventions, and concerts.
Understand, for these good folks, this is a lifestyle, not some kind of a fetish. It’s the clothes, the music, the cars, the houses, the attitude—the whole nine yards. Mottet has been dressing the part since 1984. They say the rockabilly era spans from 1955 to that fateful day in Dallas in 1963 when JFK was shot. Mottet, who was born in 1961, has said his life changed when he chanced upon the first Stray Cats album, in the early ’80s while working at a radio station in Iowa City.
“This isn’t just the ’50s or Sha Na Na,” said Mary in a Chicago Reader feature by Michael Glab (“Rebels Without A Clock”). “It’s the ’30s and ’40s, Texas swing, Bessie Smith, or some farmer who made one record 55 years ago. It’s the heartland.” Added Ken: “This all starts out as a collection of affectations. But if you stick with those affectations long enough, they become real.”
A mutated “hybrid of fringe music and shtick,” wrote Howell J. Malham, Jr., of the Chicago Tribune, “The Otherside is served “to urban hipsters who adore obscure videos and plenty of cornball gags that are sometimes so bad, they’re actually entertaining.”
“To me,” Ken said in the Tribune article, “when you see a guy who looks square and then he does something weird, that is a very cool thing. Like, if you were watching Dragnet and all of sudden Jack Webb started tap dancing, that would be a good thing.”
Mottet, who’s lived in Chicago since 1984, summed up his time there by telling the Chicago Reader: “One day I found myself standing in a tuxedo with my best friends in the back of a big-ass church in Chicago, getting married to the woman I want to be buried next to. Sitting in these pews are guys in broad-shouldered suits with their hair slicked back, and the women are all dressed up like Evita. I thought, ‘Goddam it, I live here. This is my home. These are my friends.’ ”
Serendipity aside, you, Mary, and Ersel are always welcome here as well, amigo-billy.
Visit KRUU-LP 100.1 FM to learn more about Fairfield, Iowa’s grassroots community radio station.