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Billy Kay: Lonesome, Homeless Country Music

Of all the country singers – no, of all the singers – we have had on Music Friday Live!, none has a story as interesting as our next guest. And few write and sing music as well as he does. And very, very few link their music to their life and their values as tightly as he does. Billy Kay is a Long Island-born country western singer songwriter who arrived in Tennessee by way of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Veterans Administration. (More on that later.)

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Billy Kay’s music is solid country - it tells stories of hurt and joy and women and life while it moves your feet, tickles your brain and stabs your heart. Whether he is singing about the excitement of being embraced by a beautiful woman or the pain of being left by her, his songs are earworms – they stay with you and end up on the top of your playlist. Best of all, everything he does, from his own homeless lifestyle to his tours and music, help other people. I was fortunate enough to catch him between recording sessions and touring for a chat on Music Friday Live!

(The following is an abbreviated transcript of the on air interview conducted 1.10.14. Download the full audio here)

Patrick. Billy, there are so many things to talk about with you it is hard to know where to start, but since this is a music program, let’s start with the music – let’s start with where the music started – age 5 with an accordion, is that right?

Billy. Yes. I come from a large Italian family and they all played some kind of instrument and on any given day, there were a hundred goombas (New York-area slang for Italian) in the basement for a wedding or a confirmation – any excuse for music. Or we just sat out on the back patio and my dad played “Your Cheating heart” and other songs from their generation until I got old enough to leave. To be honest, that is what I do now, just like my dad did. He had the crowd going, Aunt Kittie was singing uncle Louie was on the guitar Uncle James was on drums.

Patrick. And you switched to a guitar at age 7 because you understood that accordions were not great instruments for picking up women.

Billy. Just think about that…an accordion. When will that come in handy? Guy Lombardo is probably the only many who made it work.

Patrick. In that song you talk about a girl who left you and moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia – about as Southern as you can get with its mountainside carving of Robert E. Lee - and you wound up by chance living within a mile of her – did you ever get a chance to sing this song to her?

Billy. Don’t get me started on that one, dude. We booked a recording studio about 4 miles from her house, my brother drove up from Savannah to sing backup vocals and she was late! It took us about 2 hours to record the vocals and get them corrected and all that was left was the “oohs” and “ahs”. You got to be kidding me.

Patrick. You have said that when you sing that song, you hear a Beach Boys like wall of harmony in your head, instead of the three-part harmony in the song? Can you explain that – is the song different from the song that you wrote?

Billy. What I hear and what we record are sometimes two different things. I like a wall of harmonies like Phil Spector used to do. When I write a country song I tell the producer that here’s what I want – usually I say like the Eagles because they are four-part harmony. Here’s a country song. Make believe the Eagles recorded, four vocal tracks. And then they say it will sound too Eagle-ish we will give you three vocals. So I do it with three tracks. If you listen to that song, it sounds like it is happy and upbeat, but I am really giving Debbie (the Stone Mountain girl who was late for the recording) a hard time. All of my songs have a little twist – they sound happy but the words say something different.

Patrick. Billy another song on the album about a woman is Ready. Set. Gone., but the context is much different. It is an incredibly powerful song that I understand that it was inspired by a woman who came into your studio…can you tell us the story?

Billy. Yes. It is based on a real woman. She was a stunning blond and she came in three days in a row with sunglasses on and I assumed she had been out late partying three nights in a row.. Then on the third day I saw that she had a black eye. So we went out to the pool and she told me that her boyfriend just beat her all the time. That didn’t make any sense to me – you don’t hit a woman. So that night I sat down and wrote the saddest thing I could write and decided I can’t do anything with this. So I moved it around so it doesn’t sound horrible and gave it an up-tempo dance beat so no one would cry over it. It is about her and hopefully people will get the message that you don’t hit women.

Patrick. I am very happy you brought attention to this problem and I think you did it the right way. 

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Billy. I donate all the proceeds from that song to a battered women’s shelter in Las Vegas. They invited me to the shelter. It was a powerful experience...there were even kids there. So they get those proceeds 100% perpetually. They need it more than I do.

Patrick. With stories like that, I understand why you donate proceeds from your album and merch sales and tours to shelters and organizations that care for battered women, but you go even further. You live in a homeless shelter despite a successful music career, a huge website, a prolific twitter feed, and your songs on about every online music know in the universe. Why?

Billy. The IRS seized my asserts and claimed that I had a son, which I don’t, and I was never married and divorced, which is untrue, and many other things that were wrong, and that I owed back taxes. My Congressman said he couldn’t fight the IRS but since I was veteran, he would get me benefits. One branch of the government took everything and another one is giving it back to me a little at a time.

Patrick. So you are now living in a homeless shelter. What is that like – do you have roommates? What do they think of your music and your career?

Billy. It depends. I move around a lot. I was in a shelter in Nashville which had a 7 pm curfew. With a straight face I told them “hello – I play music. Where would you like me to play where the bar closes at 7 pm.– And, apparently all homeless veterans are ex-addicts and alcoholics so the VA won’t let you work anywhere where alcohol is served – like in a bar, where I play. Even the bowling alley served alcohol …we couldn’t go to the bowling alley. So they said we have this place in middle Tennessee in the middle of nowhere. You can go down there. I did and they have a curfew and rules but don’t enforce them. But if I am gone for three days – like when I play in Alabama – I have to pee in a cup for a test before I can get back in.

Patrick. You are offering your Bellmore EP for a donation to RockCANRoll. Tell us about RockCANRoll and why you support it?

Billy. It is a great organization. They have name bring acts like ZZ Top and Melissa Etheridge and Willie Nelson. You go to their concerts and you donate can goods. I can’t play the bog concerts in Madison Square because I am out here in the middle of Tennessee but I offered them that I would give my EP to anyone who donated and they said yes!. Sogo to my website and donate to rockCANroll. When you donate I get a notice and will mail you an autographed CD – US only.

Patrick. One of our listeners wants to know if you play in homeless shelters.

Billy. Well, I live in a homeless shelter, so YES!. Seriously, we were at a homeless shelter in Lexington, South Carolina, filming the video for When You hold Me Tight and a lady loaned us a classic Bentley Car and my model for the video was Misses South Carolina. So we showed up at this shelter in a Bentley with models and cameras and 50 guys in rags came out to greet us. It was a scene and they weren’t convinced I lived in a shelter too. That was the only time anyone pulled up to a shelter in a Bentley.

Patrick. Another listener wants to know if music helps you and others who are homeless?

Billy. Seriously, I don’t drink or do drugs so everything I write gets me through whatever girl is dumping me this week. All my songs start off personal and then go from there. I get email from people I don’t know who say a song inspired them or helped them get through something bad. That’s why I do this.

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Patrick. And we are glad you do. Thanks for being with us today on Music Friday Live!

Patrick O’Heffernan
Host, Music Friday Live!