With the stage drenched in blue light and a cascade of pearls from a disco ball, Avery Glenn Crabtree stepped up to the microphone at Austin City Saloon with his guitar. The bar crowd grew silent as he and his band began to peck at a few cords before sliding into the Three Dog Night classic “Never Been to Spain,” infused with a keyboard melody and Crabtree’s powerful voice, drawing dancers to the well-worn wooden dance floor.
As the song faded, a new boot-stomping drumbeat filled the room, and Crabtree ripped into a medley of today’s top country songs along with old-school rock ’n’ roll favorites. After a few tunes, singer noticed the crowd slowing down, and he nodded to his band. They changed their pace and geared down for a few songs — the younger crowd stepping off the floor while dancing veterans paired up for a more traditional country sway.
His black boot pressed against the sound monitor, Crabtree finished the first half of his Friday night set with a guitar solo worthy of a sold-out arena, and the crowd treated him like a rock star, applauding and cheering, eager for more.
Crabtree, 39, is living his dream, performing his “soulful country thing” for the Bluegrass and keeping true to his passion, all while being a husband, a father of four and a sales associate at Lexington’s Crush Bearings and Drives by day.
“Beethoven said, ‘To play a wrong note is insufficient, but to play without passion is inexcusable,’” Crabtree said. “That’s me through and through.”
One of three brothers, Crabtree was surrounded by music at an early age. His father, Chester, was an “exceptional banjo player” who taught his sons bluegrass and gospel music, while their mother, Everette Jean Crabtree, spiced things up with a Motown sound from artists including Otis Riley and Sam Cook.
“I was the only one who took (music) further than just picking,” the Stanton native said. On holidays, the family gets together to play music and sing. “Playing with my family is more enjoyable than playing out.”
His spin on music
He routinely plays weekend stints in Lexington, including this weekend at Austin City Saloon.
The Crabtree Band lineup includes drummer Donnie Parker from Berea, who has played with Crabtree for more than 10 years, Lexington natives Scottie McLease on bass and Keith Flora playing lead guitar, and “one of the old dogs from Lexington,” Hal Cruse on keyboard.
“I’m a firm believer in surrounding yourself with superior musicians so you become a superior musician,” Crabtree said. “These guys are exceptional musicians.”
During performances, there is a flawless blend as the musicians follow the lead of Crabtree, who navigates each show without a set list.
“I’ve never used one,” Crabtree said with a laugh. “I always play off the top of my head, and I always play to the crowd. If you go by a set list, people will think you’re boring.”
Keeping his performances on shuffle isn’t the only way Crabtree makes his live shows interesting. He plays a majority of cover songs, but he makes sure to put his own spin on the song, by changing the key or the pace.
“If I could I just play original songs, that would be great, but to keep a crowd, you have to play what they know.”
That’s not to say Lexington doesn’t know Crabtree’s original music. In 2015, he won best original song for “Black Horses” at the inaugural Lexington Music Awards. A year later, he snagged two more awards: best male vocalist and best country artist.
“There are so many other great musicians in Lexington,” Crabtree said. “I appreciate winning the awards, but it makes me feel better to be part of the local music scene.”
Crabtree is contributing to that scene by working on original material for his first album. He said he is about halfway done with the album, and he plans to release each song online before the record is finished. While writing songs, he likes to play off an emotion.
“I’ll sit down with my guitar and come up with a mood. I’ll go from there to telling a story. I’ll start with the chorus and strive for a double meaning, like ‘blind love can see.’”
Crabtree says he is a performer first, but he does hope to become a songwriter and hear his songs on the radio, performed by people who share his passion and who aren’t overproduced by the record companies. He looks to Kentucky natives Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson for inspiration.
“They created a standstill in Nashville,” Crabtree said. “They came out of nowhere and won Grammys and American Music Awards without using Nashville’s super machines. They toppled the Goliath, so to speak.”
Crabtree said these victories just mean that people want genuine music, which is just what he hopes to give.
“When I sing a sexy song, I want the crowd to feel sexy,” Crabtree said. “When I sing a sad song, I want them to feel sad.”
When he arrived at Austin City Saloon two hours before his scheduled performance, he hurried to help unload his and his band’s equipment in the rainy parking lot before setting up their stage. With an hour to go, Crabtree made his way to the bar. Not to drink, but to exchange hellos with the patrons, greeting them like relatives he hadn’t seen in a while, asking how they were feeling and what they wanted to hear that night. He was crafting the night’s set list based on their responses — a delightful mixture of classic rock, country favorites and bluegrass charm.
Crabtree said he was shy while growing up, but he found his confidence behind a guitar and a microphone, and he can sing in front of a thousand people and feel fine. There is just one person he’ll be nervous around: his dad.
“He’s the only man I ever wanted to impress,” he said. “He’s proud of me. I’m not famous or rich, but I got his approval a long time ago.”
He remembers his dad telling him, “You have a talent and a gift. If you abuse it, then you will lose it.” He took his father’s advice as “don’t use my talent to party; use it to touch people’s lives.
“My wife understands that I don’t love the music more than her and my family, but that I am the music,” Crabtree said. “That’s just who I am.”
Jordan Simonson: @JordieLee_