CORIANNE EGAN | The Sun
Lew Jetton & 61 South played at the Barbecue on the River Festival in September.
CORIANNE EGAN | The Sun
Lew Jetton (right), and 61 South play at the Barbecue on the River Festival in September. Jetton and his band play year round, and hit most of the festivals in the area.
There’s one band that shows up in the lineup for nearly every festival and celebration in the area. There’s one voice that rings out over a crowd, singing sweet, soulful blues music at every party that is worth going to. Twenty years after they started entertaining the people of western Kentucky, Lew Jetton & 61 South are still going strong.
“The only good thing about being together so long is that along the way, technology made the equipment get lighter,” Jetton said. “Man, that makes me sound old.”
Jetton has been with the band, which includes drummer Erik Eicholtz, Sam Moore on guitar, and James Sullivan and Dan Bell on bass, for 18 of their 20 years. His first gig with the group was at an old joint called the Landing, which was located where the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau is now.
If you ask Jetton whether he feels old on stage, his answer is always no. He loves to perform, and music makes him happy. He does, however, have a catalog of things that have made him realize just how long he has been in the business.
“Last spring, the guys and I went down to this blues club in Mississippi we’ve performed at a lot,” Jetton said. “And we opened up for a guy who is the grandson of a blues singer I opened up for when we first started playing.”
That same night, the band got to see just how loyal their followers were. In that Mississippi blues club, they had fans travel from as far away as Indiana and Houston, just to hear the sound that the band refers to as “Southern-fried blues.”
When they are on stage, Jetton and the band show just how fun blues music can be. Their high-energy performances get people’s attention, but it’s their soulful charisma that keeps them listening. Jetton says blues has been imprinted on him since he was young.
“When I was a kid in the ’60s, we were still picking cotton by hand,” Jetton, a Tennessee native, said. “Everyone who picked alongside of me was singing. That was my first exposure to blues, and it touched my soul.”
Jetton and 61 South travel to almost every festival they can, playing smaller events and blues joints along the way. The band has had gigs in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Mississippi and nearly every state in between. They are usually in the lineup for most western Kentucky festivals, including the Lower Town Arts and Music Festival and Barbecue on the River.
One would think that with so many years of playing, it would be hard to pick one favorite moment, but Jetton didn’t hesitate when he selected his. Five years ago, the band was opening up for blues legend Chuck Berry in a club in St. Louis. During their sound check earlier in the day, Jetton and the boys were jamming and having fun when Berry walked out of his dressing room and took a seat in the front row.
“I am singing, and he is looking up at us, enjoying the music and tapping his foot,” Jetton said. “It lasted for about five songs, then he just got up and left. It was surreal.”
The club manager later said that in all of the years Chuck Berry had been playing at that particular club, he had never come out to watch a band. Of course, modest Jetton downplays the significance.
“We could say we put on a private concert for Chuck Berry,” Jetton said with a laugh. “But in reality, he could have just been bored. Who knows? It was awesome either way.”
Each band member has a full-time job to go on top of their entertainment schedule. The result keeps the boys out and about for an average of six days a week, if not seven. But even after 20 years together, there are no plans to stop.
“We may slow down, but I don’t think we will ever stop playing the blues,” Jetton said. “It’s in our blood. I could be 100 years old and play on my back porch without an audience, and that would be OK with me.”