Tuneful Teachers

(L to R): Kevin Chambliss, Bob Darden, Theresa Kennedy, Bob Kane, Patrick Farmer

Tuneful Teachers

There probably aren’t too many places on the Baylor University campus where someone visiting a faculty member might find a washtub bass sitting next to a Ramones calendar on the wall. But that’s what you’ll find in Dr. Bob Kane’s office in the Baylor Sciences Building. That’s because Kane, an associate professor of chemistry, director of the Institute of Biomedical Studies and faculty-in-residence at University Parks residential community, is one of many Arts & Sciences faculty members who spend part of their free time away from campus as working musicians. 

Washtub Jammer

Kane started playing drums when he was about 10 and was in bands throughout high school and college. For a while, it was punk rock –– hence the Ramones calendar –– then blues and “Texas stuff.” Now, Kane plays bass and is into gypsy jazz of the 1930s, a style attributed to the great French guitarist Django Reinhardt. 

At various times, Kane jams with other Arts & Sciences faculty –– Dr. Alexandre Thiltges, senior lecturer in French, and Dr. Scott Spinks, senior lecturer in Spanish (guitars), Dr. Theresa Varney Kennedy, associate professor of French (vocals) and Dr. Simon Burris, senior lecturer in classics (trumpet). Various iterations of this group have played gigs at Waco Winery, Barnett’s Public House in Waco and Valley Mills Vineyards. 

“We would love to travel to France to play in the cafes there,” Kane said, “and in fact already have an offer to play at an art gallery opening in Paris…Texas.”

Kane said the inspiration to build himself a washtub bass came from a couple of sources. First was the animatronic band in the Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Walt Disney World, and then he saw Split Lip Rayfield, a “thrashgrass” band whose bass player, Jeff Eaton, played a one-string instrument that consisted of a gas tank from a 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis, a length of hickory and a piece of string from a weed trimmer.

In addition to the washtub, Kane’s instrument is made from a piece of bamboo his sons cut in Cameron Park and a length of clothesline cord.

“That’s probably a $20 instrument,” Kane said. “The string is probably the most expensive part.” 

He has another washtub bass at home, and has plans to soon buy a “real” bass as well.

Longtime guitarist

Sometimes sitting in with Kane’s band is his department chair, Dr. Patrick Farmer, who “grew up in a time where everybody was a guitar player.”

guitar and amplifier

Farmer, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, got his first guitar when he was 13. He stole it from his older sister.

“She wasn’t playing that much,” he said, so Farmer learned and eventually played in bar bands when he was in high school, “and then I played through my college years and through my 20s.” He gave up the instrument for a while as he was earning his PhD at Texas A&M, but picked it up again during his time as a NATO postdoctoral fellow at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. 

“When I was a postdoc in France, I had to go out and buy a guitar because I couldn't live for a year without a guitar,” Farmer said. 

During his 14 years teaching at the University of California, Irvine, Farmer played in faculty bands before joining Baylor in 2009 as chair of chemistry and biochemistry. In addition to sitting in with Kane and others, Farmer has played in the worship band at First United Methodist Church and travels to Austin to sit in on gigs with musician friends there. 

Country Picker

Another professor of chemistry at Baylor, Dr. Kevin Chambliss, plays lead guitar in a church band and is also a member of a country/Southern rock/rockabilly band called Rackjabbit. 

“Our drummer is a retired bull fighter named Jeff ‘Jackrabbit’ Harris, and our lead singer jokes and says he’s dyslexic and calls him Rackjabbit. So it just kind of stuck,” said Chambliss, who also serves as Baylor’s interim vice provost for research.

Chambliss started playing guitar when he was 12 and was eventually in a “really bad high school band” that played covers of songs by Metallica, AC/DC, Poison and other “metal and hairband” groups, he said. “It’s a funny thing. It’s very different than the music I play now.” 

Chambliss and Rackjabbit still play covers, but they now feature songs from classic musicians such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more recent artists such as Chris Stapleton. 

Chambliss also plays lead guitar in the worship band at Bosque County Cowboy Church. He had never played lead guitar before joining the group.

“I was a pretty decent rhythm guitarist, and we needed a lead guitar in our church band,” he said. So about four years ago, Chambliss began taking lead guitar lessons from Frank Exum in Waco, a teacher with degrees in both classical guitar and
jazz guitar.

drums

“It’s really been cool to kind of take some of the jazz approach and play it in sort of mainstream country,” Chambliss said. “What I didn’t know at the time but I’ve learned is that western swing music, which I love, is all jazz. It’s really helped me get into that western swing genre. The band I gig with, we don’t do much jazz. We’re three chords and the truth, and more about stories than about sound. But it’s still a lot of fun.”

Medical Songstress

Three chords and the truth. That’s a theme that Dr. Lauren Barron references when she’s talking about music as well, especially the music that she enjoys singing.

“All you need are three chords and the truth to make a good song. That’s it. All Willie Nelson songs are three chords and the truth,” said Barron, a medical doctor who is a clinical professor at Baylor and the director of the University’s medical humanities program.

Barron and her husband Dale –– who recently joined Rackjabbit, playing fiddle and mandolin –– are members of the musical group Contemplative Desperados at DaySpring Baptist Church in Waco, along with Dr. Greg Hamerly, associate professor of computer science, on banjo, and his wife, Dr. Ivy Hamerly, senior lecturer in political science and director of the International Studies Program, on cello. 

The Contemplative Desperados’ music “has sort of a bluegrass bent to it,” Barron said. “It might be a little more up-tempo than usual. There might be some boom chicka boom sound as well.”

As a child, Barron played piano, flute and guitar, and she was good enough at the piano to play on Sunday mornings at Waco Christian Church, a congregation that no longer exists, during her days as a student at Baylor.

“I got to choose the hymns, so I picked the ones that I could play well,” she said.  

Now, Barron pretty much sticks to singing, preferring acoustic jam sessions in a living room or on a patio. 

“To me, that’s the best time,” she said, with friends and playing the music of Willie and Waylon and Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris. 

Midnight Musicians

Robert Darden’s favorite part of playing music is getting to sit back and watch people. He’s done that during his entire professional career as a journalist, and it transitions to his role as drummer in the band After Midnight, which is made up of an interdisciplinary group of Baylor faculty and staff.

piano

“I love, as I have since I was a kid, sitting back with the bass player, behind the two lead people who everybody looks at and play in a little place like an SPJST Lodge in Elk or something, and watching couples become couples and couples break apart, families with kids and grandmothers and watching interactions of people,” Darden said.“And you generally don’t go to a dance to have a bad time. You go because you want to have fun and see people laughing and interacting to real music.”

And the real music that After Midnight plays consists of a few hundred songs in genres like rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues, funk and soul.

“We figured out once we could play five hours without repeating” a song, Darden said. And if the band is hired to play at a wedding reception, the members will learn three new songs of the couple’s choice. Many of those songs have made their way into After Midnight’s repertoire. 

“If we liked them, we kept them,” Darden said. “But we haven’t always because not all of them are dance songs –– because in the end, we’re a dance band. We get pleasure seeing people dance.”

In addition to Darden –– a professor of journalism, public relations and new media –– After Midnight consists of keyboard player Dr. Stephen Gardner, professor of economics, director of the Mayo McBride Center for International Business and holder of the Herman Brown Endowed Chair in Economics, bassist Lance Grigsby, a senior web consultant in Baylor University Marketing and Communications, and guitarist Dr. Barry Hankins, chair and professor of history. All of the band members contribute vocals.

After Midnight came together around 2000, when Darden, Hankins and Darden’s son Van, on bass, would perform a blues or rock song during a talent night at Seventh and James Baptist Church.

“Bob came to me after we did a couple of these at Seventh and James and said, ‘We really need to think about putting a band together,’” Hankins said. Gardner signed on, as did a graduate student bass player. 

“We have been through a number of bass players, a la Spinal Tap, through the years, partly because they were always younger and they would graduate, or they would leave and join the Army in one case,” Darden said. 

Grigsby, who played guitar and had an office near Darden’s, heard the band was in need of a bass player. He learned the new instrument quickly, “and within a very short time was a virtuoso, and it was the best combination and the nicest fit,” Darden said. 

While After Midnight plays weddings, birthday parties and class reunions, many of its gigs are benefit events, including a recent one for Ernesto Fraga, longtime publisher of the Tiempo newspaper in Waco, who suffered a heart attack in June 2018 and had to close his publication.

“Most of the shows we play, we’re just donating our time for a good cause,” Hankins said. “The last couple of years we’ve done the Keep Waco Beautiful picnic in the park and we really liked doing that. We don’t care about making any money. It’s nice if we play and get a hundred bucks apiece or something. But we just like to play, you know.”