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One man, three mini-disc players and an undeniable country flavor

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Country singer Kenny Knapp traveled through the western United States from 1974 to 1990 - in vans and motor homes - playing in a different club in a different state every few weeks.

He was the lead guitarist and singer for a four- or five-piece band. They spent days on the road, evenings at nightclubs, late nights at faceless hotels. There was little trouble finding a gig.

"A lot of nightclubs had entertainment back then, so it was pretty easy to keep working," Knapp said. "We never made a lot of money, but enough to feed ourselves and get to the next town."

By 1990, however, the nightclub scene had dried out. Knapp had been through several hundred musicians, and he was tired of balancing personalities and finding people who wanted to tour.

So he bought an eight-track Tascam cassette recorder, pre-recorded the drums, bass and rhythm lines to five-minute songs, and began anew as a one-man band - playing lead guitar and singing along to tape.

"It wasn't too far removed from the band situation," Knapp said.

Nowadays, Knapp and his rack of mini-disc players are the house band at the Sandbar at 2525 Industrial Blvd., from 9 p.m. to close Wednesdays through Sundays, in April, May, September and November.

Sunday, Nov. 23, will be Knapp's last Juneau show until the spring. He co-owns a sleigh-ride business in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and returns there to provide the entertainment, seven nights a week, during the winter.

He spends a month in the summer playing at a casino in Reno. The rest of the year, he rides around the West taking pictures - sometimes on his Goldwing motorcycle - indulging his lifelong hobby of photography.

"I knew I wanted to come up to Southeast Alaska to play, and I knew I wanted to incorporate my photography with it," said Knapp, who's been playing the Sandbar for six years. "I came here, and it's worked out for both of us for the last six years.

"I've never made a lot of money, but I've done things I've wanted to do, and I've gotten by, so that accounts for something," he said. "A lot of people work and make a lot of money, but they're not doing what they want to do. So it's a trade-off."

Knapp has a repertoire of about 500 songs - 25 or 26 discs that store 20 songs each. On stage, he sings and plays lead guitar, fiddle and harmonica to a variety of genres - mostly country, or rock with a "country flavor."

"I can do what I feel the people want to hear and dance to, and I can do it the way I want to do it," Knapp said. "I don't have to worry about (a musician) not showing up and all the things that could go wrong."

Knapp has released 15 cassettes and compact discs, including two greatest-hits CDs. Most of his tapes are sold out. His latest disc, "Burning Love," came out this year. All include covers. He doesn't perform his own songs, but he's written a few.

"Every time I sit down and write a song, it sounds like Merle Haggard's last hit," Knapp said. "I've been listening to the radio too much I guess. Songwriting is something I would like to do. But it's not a natural thing for me."

Knapp grew up in Tempe, Ariz., playing along with Elvis and Hank Williams records in his bedroom. By high school, he was fronting a band and playing at fraternal lodges in the Tempe area. For the last six months of his senior year, his band played six nights a week at a nightclub in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"As soon as I got out of high school, I wanted to travel and go out on the road," he said. "I wanted to get out and see what else was out there. Back then, you could do that kind of thing and keep busy."

It was easy to find work, a little bit harder to find breaks.

But in 1976, a management company hooked up Knapp's band with Merv Griffin Productions. Knapp's group played a rodeo in Las Vegas - serving as the backup music to stars such as Wayne Newton, Eddie Rabbit and Rex Allen Jr.

In 1983, Knapp found his way to Nashville, Tenn. He performed on "You Can Be A Star," The Nashville Network's version of "Star Search."

"But at the time, I didn't want to stay in Nashville and work as a dishwasher trying to get a music deal," Knapp said. "I always had a band, and we were playing around a lot, and that's what I enjoyed doing."

So the endless touring continued. And like before, the band had no trouble finding work.

"In the early 1980s, 'Urban Cowboy' came out, and that sort of revitalized everything for country music," Knapp said. "That went strong for another few years, and then it kind of slumped in the mid- to late '80s. It kind of goes in cycles, but you have your die-hard fans that are going to stay with country no matter what."

Knapp quit traveling so much in 1990. He was starting to have trouble finding musicians who were willing to be on the road for a long time.

"I would play in a band again if it's the right situation, but I just don't see it," Knapp said. "Most people just want to play weekends, and there's not enough money or clubs around to keep you busy to do it full time. Now I have a full band and orchestra behind me, and I just have to pay myself."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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