The Jam Kings
The Jam Kings are committed to keeping it real
For Johnnie Burrows, it had been a fine morning. He was feeling flush after selling a guitar for a good price to the ex-husband of an ex-girlfriend — and nobody knows better than Johnnie that there is a country song in there somewhere.
Burrows has been around guitars since he was a kid growing up in Kansas about 30 miles east of Joplin, Missouri. His brother won a six-string as a prize from the Arthur Godfrey radio show, but couldn’t figure out how to finger it. But Johnnie, then 14, did, and it wasn’t but a few years later that he caught on with a band called The Ravens, put together by Steve Raines, aka Okie Crawdaddy, who went on to play for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Such was Burrows’s brush with fame.
These days, Burrows, 71, is the guitarist for a three-piece, old-school variety band, the Jam Kings, which plays in and around Panama City. I meet him at Coram’s Steak and Egg on 23rd Street. Leaning on his black, extended-cab Chevy pickup, we chat for a time while waiting on the band’s other members to arrive. Burrows has a voice that reflects a lifetime of smoking, and he’s mastered the art of false modesty. I couldn’t much hear him, but I nodded along.
Presently, John Russo (keyboards/bass), 66, and Joey Kirkland (drums), 61, roll up on us. We all slide into a booth and each order today’s special: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy; macaroni and cheese; yellow-green, school-lunch-program style peas and cake for dessert. Five ninety-nine.
I ask the Kings to describe their target audience.
“Middle age, appreciate music, like to dance,” Kirkland offers. “We’ve played places where the manager tells us they had never seen people get up and dance before. But they get up for us.”
The Kings’ playlist includes rock, pop, country and piano-bar standards. “Rocky Top” and “Wagon Wheel” are about as close as they come to bluegrass, but Russo can coax a banjo out of his piano so effectively that audience members, especially after a few, have been known to look around, trying to find a picker.
All three Kings sing, and Kirkland has been known to affect female voices when necessary.
“If there’s a song I can’t sing, I’ll sing at it,” Kirkland confesses. (Be sure to request “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town the next time you catch the Kings.)
“Johnnie’s the crooner,” Russo allows. “Interacting with the audience is a big part of what we do, but Johnnie connects with the ladies in ways that Joey and I wouldn’t dare.”
(Russo and Kirkland are married, and their wives never miss a show — or a beat.)
“In the course of a night,” Russo continues, “Johnnie will have four, five women each convinced that she is with him. Those ladies might sit together for a time, but they wind up leaving separately.”
Collectively, the Kings emphasize that their music is real. No canned stuff. What you hear from the Kings at the VFW Hall is no different than the sound they produce in a recording studio. In laying down their CD, in fact, they nailed nine tracks out of 12 in one take.
“We haul a lot of equipment. We’re too cheap for computers,” Russo chimes in. A purist such as Neil Young would applaud their devotion to authenticity.
The group came together three years ago when Russo and Kirkland, who both graduated from Bay High School in Panama City once upon a time, knew there were gigs to be had, but they lacked a guitar player. They approached Burrows, who briefly demurred, but Russo and Kirkland, who are convinced that Burrows could play just about anything, knew better.
They’ve been jammin’ ever since.
From time to time, the Kings are joined by bass player Mitch Rexrode, another local product, whose middle-of-his-back-length, white-blond mane Mary Travers would have envied.
“We should have had Mitch join us,” Kirkland muses aloud.
“I can promise you he would be the funniest guy here,” Russo adds.
Not that the Kings are humorless — far from it. At the mention of the gag he employs involving outsized women’s undergarments, Burrows chortles.
He’s been quiet, having taken a methodical approach to his meal, ciphering on which parts of it he should leave alone. He’s dieting, you see, and has amazed his doctor by losing weight and kicking his tobacco habit at the same time.
Burrows stares down his cake for a time, and then it is gone, as suddenly as a frog ingests a fly.
As the party breaks up, Burrows tosses a double sawbuck and a 10-spot on the table — proceeds from the guitar sale. But, at that, the waitress relays to him a message from the owner of the restaurant.
“Your money’s no good in here,” she says.
It’s good to be Kings.