By Keith Strange
August 12, 2013
For many people, music is something to have on in the background while doing housework, or maybe something they listen to while driving.
For others, music is life. Kelsey Carlisle belongs to the latter group.
While many teens around the county spent their summer vacation lounging by the pool or working a summer job, Kelsey, 13, traveled to Mississippi to attend the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Music Workshop, where he received instruction on blues guitar by some of the country’s best. After the week-long music workshop, he was put on stage at a blues club owned by actor Morgan Freeman.
Why? Because playing blues guitar is what Kelsey does. And he does it well.
Kelsey has earned the respect of at least one Grammy-nominated guitarist, the legendary guitarist for Muddy Waters, Bob Margolin, who has extended the young teen an open invitation to join him on stage whenever, wherever.
It all began when Carlisle was 7 years old, according to his mother, Kelley Carlisle.
“His dad (Randall Carlisle) had a guitar he was going to sell, but Kelsey wanted to try to play it,” she said as her son sat surrounded by more than a half-dozen guitars. “He spent all that summer playing, then started taking lessons from everyone locally he could take lessons from, until they said they had nothing else to teach him. Now they say we should just get him out there playing, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Kelsey said music is something that is in him.
“I don’t really know why I felt like I had to play,” he said with the usual timidness of a teen. “My dad played music in a band in high school, so maybe it just rubbed off on me.”
And with the blues traditionally being the genre of the older, more life-seasoned crowd, Kelsey’s youth and short stature makes it appear a case of strange bedfellows, until he begins playing.
“The blues are what most music is based on,” he said. “Blues is kind of the foundation of music. That’s one of the first things I learned to play because my dad likes it, so I’d listen to CDs and pick up on the stuff they do.”
The rising Mount Airy Middle School eighth-grader said he practices at least an hour a day. “But if I’m feeling it, I’ll just keep playing for hours,” he said.
Kelsey said he is trying to get another band together, after the band he founded, the Foothills Blues Society, took a break.
Because it’s all about the music.
“I really don’t have a favorite style of blues, I like it all,” he said. “I try to play a little bit of all of it because I feel like there’s a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the music. There aren’t that many people out there these days who still play it with music growing the way it is right now. But the people I’ve played with a lot really want young kids to learn so they can keep the blues alive after the older musicians die.
“At one point, I was interested in maybe playing rock music, but not so much these days,” he said. “I like some of it, like the older stuff, but some of the newer stuff is really basic and not very exciting for me. But maybe that’s just me.”
As he picked up his favorite guitar that he received from guitarist Matt Murphy, who performed in the Blues Brothers movie, he began strumming quietly, perhaps out of habit.
“My hero at first was Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he said quietly. “But as I started learning more my heroes are people like Bob Margolin. I’ve been on stage with him several times and really liked what I heard when I first heard him perform at the Piedmont Blues Festival in 2008. I started trying to copy his style and it’s just gone from there.”
He continued to play while he talked.
“I never get tired of hearing the music,” his mother said. “I encourage it. His little brother, Christopher, is getting ready to turn 6 years old, and he’s already talking about getting his first guitar.”
Kelsey said he sees his future filled with music.
“I’m hoping to go to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and if the being famous thing doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll get a teaching degree,” he said with a smile as his fingers strummed the strings of the highly-customized Squire Telecaster. “But it’s going to be about music. That’s for sure.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.