Wichita Shut-ins – Partners in chime
The musical partnership at the core of the Wichita Shut-Ins began a couple years ago at the Hideout, where Lawrence Peters played regularly with a loose outfit known as Deanna Varagona’s Gospel Jubilee. The crowd usually amounted to a dozen friends who paid by bringing a dish to the pre-show potluck dinner. One night Varagona invited Kelly Kessler to sing and play guitar with the group.
“It was my first night there,” Kessler remembers. “They were covering a tune from the Jim Lauderdale & Ralph Stanley record, ‘Like Him.’ There’s a falsetto break on the chorus, and oh my god, Lawrence nailed it. I remember just leaning over, looking, going, ‘Who the hell was that?'”
“It’s funny how people’s perceptions of each other occur,” Peters laughs. “I remember there was one part, a harmony, that was kind of tricky for me, and I thought I fucked it up during the show. After the show, everybody else left the stage, and Kelly said, ‘Can I talk to you for a second?’ And I thought, ‘Oh no.’ I think I actually said, ‘Yeah, I’m really sorry about that harmony part.’ And she said, ‘No, I’ve got this song that I’m recording, and I was wondering if you might want to come and give it a try.'”
Both Kessler and Peters had been around the Chicago-scene block long before they met. Kessler’s former duo, the Texas Rubies, played country music here well before that could be called a wise career choice; she later curated the Honky-Tonk Living Room concert series at the Hideout. Peters helped book bands at the Lounge Ax and then the Hideout while playing around town with Ground Speed and other groups.
That first duet, on a majestic weeper called “Meet Me Tonight At The Landfill”, is found on Kessler’s solo debut, The Salt Of Your Skin. The pair’s collaboration has also yielded Life Of Regret, an EP credited to Kelly Kessler & the Wichita Shut-Ins, and their label, Melungeon Records, which released both discs in March.
Salt covers ground from greasy roadhouse rock to a cappella sea chanteys and sparkling country ballads, and includes cameos by the likes of Lonesome Bob (on the memorable “Your Darlin’ Ain’t Done Shit Today”) and Robbie Fulks. Life Of Regret, a four-pack of honky-tonk tear-jerkers, isn’t quite so sprawling. The Shut-Ins lineup plays on each: Kessler on guitar and Peters on washboard, plus Evelyn Weston on musical saw and Robbie Lynn Hunsinger on oboe and upright bass.
“I think that we’re drawing on some of the essential stuff that’s been overlooked both by mainstream and alt-country,” Kessler says. “Country needs the influx of new stuff to keep it pertinent and alive. That’s the lifeblood of it.
“And I have an itch only country can scratch.”