D.J. Crowe remembers one of the first transitional programs he and Rennie Neubecker staged for LexJam. It was a folkish singer-songwriter derivation called LexJam Acoustic. It was staged, as were most installments of the monthly open-mic music showcase, on a Saturday afternoon. The makeshift stage was the program’s original home, Lexington Center.
Lots of people were about. The only trouble was that none of them were there for LexJam.
“One of Rennie’s favorite stories he likes to tell was when we started LexJam Acoustic, recalling a day nobody was there except the musicians and a Kroger bag that rolled by on the floor,” Crowe says. “He said, ‘There goes our crowd.’”
That was then. Through various shades of musical preferences and a handful of assorted Lexington venues, LexJam has survived and thrived to the point that it has turned 10 years old. On Saturday, organizers and musicians who have championed LexJam over the past decade will reunite at the program’s current home, Willie’s Locally Known.
“I went through the people who have gone on to do bigger things because of LexJam,” said Neubecker, who has been the primary producer of LexJam in recent years. “I also looked into people who really, even if they hadn’t shown up for a year or two, were still very interested and still asked about LexJam by going to our website. Most of these people just happen to be friends. Our music community here in Lexington is really like a giant musical family, so everybody, even if we don’t see each other all the time, still maintains pretty good contact through social media and things like that. That really helped make accessibility with each other much easier.
“This is something I’ve been looking forward to for about the last two years and have been working on the last 2½ months. A lot of our old-time regulars through the years expressed interest at playing this event. So when we did decided to put this on, we wanted it to be more like a showcase.”
The interesting thing about LexJam for me has been the number of people that have dusted off old instruments that might have been sitting in a closet for years. It’s like they have truly reconnected. They brought out their guitars and realized, ‘Hey, wait. This is fun.’
Mark D. McKinley, LexJam photographer
LexJam’s premise, ever since its inaugural performance, has been an appeal of sorts. It strived for an atmosphere that encouraged musicians of any age or expertise level to take part. That meant encouraging young novice players, artists who might have placed performance desires behind real-life duties and experienced musicians eager to network with like-minded souls.
“We began in Lexington Center, outside of the shops there,” LexJam co-founder Tom Martin said. “They generously allowed us go down into the bowels of Rupp Arena and retrieve this nine-foot Steinway grand piano and a Hammond B3 to bring up there for the jam sessions. We also raised some funds and bought a drum kit and amplifiers. We tried to have everything there so it wasn’t a major hassle to come and play. If you were a guitar player, you would just come and plug in. If you were a drummer, there was a kit there. If you were a keyboard player, there were keyboards there. We thought that would help encourage people to come out.”
As the years went by, the venues shifted from Lexington Center to ArtsPlace to Annette’s City Café to an extended stay at Natasha’s that lasted until the venue closed in late 2015. The musical focus also shifted. When Neubecker and Crowe took the reins, the focus became less band-driven and more reliant on singer-songwriters. But what Mark D. McKinley saw through the lens of his cameras was always the same. A self-described “photography enthusiast,” he has helped chronicle much of LexJam’s performances over the year for the program’s website, Lexjam.com.
“The interesting thing about LexJam for me has been the number of people that have dusted off old instruments that might have been sitting in a closet for years,” McKinley said. “It’s like they have truly reconnected. They brought out their guitars and realized, ‘Hey, wait. This is fun.’ There have been quite a few bands that have formed through the years out of the network of connections made at LexJam.
“We all get older and get into careers and things like that. That’s been one of the really neat things about it. It has simply brought music back to the forefront for a lot of musicians.”
The first time so many of the people come to perform, they are nervous wrecks. We try to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that they were among their peers and that everybody is there to support and encourage them.”
Rennie Neubecker, LexJam organizer
For Neubecker and Crowe, part of the excitement surrounding LexJam has come from watching artists, especially younger ones, transform from timid beginners to sure-footed professionals as they discover the thrill of performance.
“The first time so many of the people come to perform, they are nervous wrecks,” Neubecker said. “We try to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that they were among their peers and that everybody is there to support and encourage them. Then, as they come back two or three times, they’re not nervous anymore. They don’t dread it. They go, ‘Man, this is so much fun.’”
Crowe cites Lexington country songwriter Taylor Hughes, a now-practiced artist who frequently performs at regional clubs and festivals, as one of LexJam’s success stories.
“Taylor, when she first began, was like a little scared rabbit,” Crowe says. “But when she started belting out her songs, you just thought, ‘Girl, you are going to go places.’ Just watching these kids grow onstage, it’s like they’re my own kids.”
But what of Saturday? What does Neubecker have in store by way of celebration for LexJam’s 10th anniversary? Well, a lot. Veering away from being an exclusively open-mic affair, he has planned appearances by several past LexJam regulars — so much so, in fact, that he used the term “the first three hours” as a way of describing the evening’s opening segment.
“I tell you, I could probably do the show for six hours and have nonstop music just from people who come through LexJam,” Neubecker says. “Year after year, it kind of shifts and changes. People get older and go on to different things. But there also seems to be a pretty healthy batch of people that we love to call regulars.”