When you share a birthday with the great Earl Scruggs, and grow up in the mountains of East Tennessee, destiny may well be written in the stars. That’s the case with Johnson County’s Kody Norris, celebrating the 10th anniversary of his band, The Kody Norris Show.
Growing up in Mountain City, Tennessee, Kody learned the strong musical legacy of the county and the region. Johnson County is home to musicians including Clint Howard, Fred Price and Clarence “Tom” Ashley; the first group that toured with Doc Watson during the folk revival of the 1960s. The First recording of “House of the Rising Sun” was created in Johnson County by Tom Ashley in the 1930s. Tom Dooley (of the oft-recorded folk murder ballad) was captured there by Col. James Grayson who lived there as well.
Although he did not grow up in a musical family, Kody recalls a couple of great-uncles who owned instruments, including his Uncle Jack, who would tolerate the young Kody dragging a banjo around the house and “making a racket.” Kody has fond memories of riding around in Uncle Jack’s Chevy El Camino with the music of the Stanley Brothers playing on the 8-track.
“I purchased that car from him in my teens,” Kody says, “and my Dad and I restored it.” Norris still owns Uncle Jack’s El Camino.
Kody’s musical journey began in earnest when he was around ten years of age. A couple with whom his family attended church had a bluegrass gospel group, and one of the members offered a mandolin for sale. Kody’s parents purchased it for him and he was immediately bitten by the bluegrass bug. Today, the multi-instrumentalist is adept at guitar, mandolin, banjo, and bass.
“My dad took me to numerous festivals where I saw all my bluegrass heroes,” Kody says. He treasures the memories of experiencing Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, and others whose music continues to inspire his own original songs. Blending echoes of the past from numerous genres with newer styles and arrangements has become the hallmark of Kody’s music.
Like most writers, Kody draws from the well of his own life, as do many other writers. He weaves his love for words and literature with a clever wit and genuine emotion. While still in high school, he endured the passing of his beloved grandfather, and divorce of his parents. Keeping everything inside, he turned to writing to work through the pain and upheaval.
From the age of 15, every job Kody held was something in the music business, from sideman to studio musician, festival or event emcee to teaching music lessons. Being a multi-instrumentalist and parts singer opened the door to many opportunities including filling in, playing full time or part time with artists including Ralph Stanley, Ralph Stanley II, Melvin Goins, and The Cumberland Highlanders.
During his teens and between other gigs, Kody was part of a duo project with his friend, Tom Isaacs. The duo performed old time songs and mountain music in the tradition of the Stanley Brothers. Eventually, the act grew into a full band. As Kody Norris, Tom Isaacs and The Watauga Mountain Boys, the group toured in a big, blue Cadillac Deville with a bass tied on the top and luggage packed inside with 5 musicians. They hit the road, taking as many gigs as they could find, staying in cheap motels and learning the business as many young acts do.
A chance meeting with Campbell Mercer, executive producer of the Cumberland Highlander’s Show on the RFDTV network, led to a few appearances on the show. During one of the Cumberland Highlanders tapings the guitar player, Wayne Lewis was ill, which became a gig of 9 years, well after Wayne had come back to work. Eventually, Tom Isaacs chose a different path and the band became Kody Norris and the Watauga Mountain Boys. Unable to recreate the chemistry he’d had with his good friend, Kody began to consider a new direction, including performing his own original music with a bit more story-telling and humor thrown in. The Kody Norris Show was born.
A decade later, the foursome is now fronted by Norris on guitar and his fiddling “sweetie,” Mary Rachel Nalley, who recently released a project of her own. There have been many incarnations of the group, with players who’ve gone on to play for top, nationally touring groups. The current Kody Norris Show is rounded out nicely by Tyler Wiseman on bass, and Josiah Tyree on banjo.
Call it retro, hillbilly, bluegrass or rockabilly, the group strives for something Kody simply calls “dern good entertainment.” Deeply rooted in North American folk music, Norris has crafted a performance that harkens back and tips a hat to the traditions created by Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin’s showmanship, the Stanley Brothers’ harmonies, performances of the Grand Ole Opry and a bit of Vaudeville. Top notch picking is center stage, but humor and visual flash are part of the entertaining package. Always clad in colorful, tailored suits adorned with rhinestones, ties, classic hats and ornate boots, the band earns its moniker as a “show.” The brand is traditional, clean cut, acoustic and always entertaining.
The band’s album, When I Get The Money Made, was named 2017 Bluegrass Album of the Year by the National Traditional Country Music Association. The Kody Norris Show was honored with 7 nominations in the 2018 SPBGMA Awards in Nashville.
Playing 80+ dates a year, The Kody Norris Show covers the road from Canada to Mexico, only missing two states to date. They’ve been part of the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and have performed at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center.
Norris is currently working on a new recording of all original songs.