Lexington, KY - Exile (formerly The Exiles) got its start 50 years ago in Richmond, Ky., playing local clubs, which led to touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars and opening shows and providing backup for major rock artists of the period. They hit the peak of their success in 1978 with the rock-pop ballad hit Kiss You All Over. After subsequent pop hits, they re-established in 1983 as a country music group. Between then and the early 1990s, the band had several country chart hits, including the No. 1 songs Woke Up in Love, I Don’t Want to Be a Memory, Give Me One More Chance, Crazy For Your Love, She’s a Miracle, Hang On to Your Heart, I Could Get Used to You, It’ll Be Me, She’s Too Good to Be True and I Can’t Get Close Enough. Exile has continued to record ever since and has projects in the works in 2013. Mike White of the Lexington Area Music Alliance spoke with Exile founder J.P. Pennington.
MW: Exile came together in Richmond, Ky., a rural little Kentucky town where all these extremely talented musicians found each other. Do you find that strange?
JP: Well, you know, it is strange that we could find as many as six guys in Richmond, Ky., in 1963 who wanted to dedicate themselves to being in a band. I just can’t believe it’s actually been 50 years, and also that I still have the enthusiasm for it that I do.
MW: One of the things that you guys brought to the table back in the day, which nobody else did, were the harmonies, which you still do unbelievably today. Why did you feel that was important?
JP: From the moment we started rehearsing together, it seemed that everyone could hear harmonies. You know, it’s one thing to like to sing harmony, but it’s a whole other deal to be able to hear harmonies and how the different parts stack up against one another. It’s just something that, over the years, we have found that we got the best crowd reaction from. We just really like to do it, and still do. We do more harmony singing now than we ever did.
MW: And it makes the music sort of distinctive?
JP: Well, I think it has its way of defining you, especially now. Not many people do it. I’m not arguing with the way people are making records, because I really like the music that I’m hearing now, but it seems like harmony singing has sort of gone by the wayside. We are trying to keep it alive.
MW: A lot of people may not know that, when the band first got together, you were the bass player.
MW: Not the guitar player. And now you are one of the finest guitar players that I know. How did it all evolve?
JP: I was always a guitar player, but when the band formed, what they needed was a bass player.
They had two other guitar players, Paul Smith and Mike Howard. I’d never played bass before. As a matter of fact, during those days it was rare to see an electric bass anywhere, because most bands had a standup bass or acoustic bass. ... So I was a bass player for the first nine years of the band.
And then we changed some members, and as chance would have it, we changed one member who had to go to the army; it was Mike Howard. The band started looking for another guitar player, and I campaigned to be that guy. The first guitar I ever played on a recording with the band was when we made our first album in 1972, up in Chicago.
MW: You’ve really made a name for yourself as a songwriter. How do you approach that?
JP: I don’t think there are a whole lot of rules in songwriting, other than making rhymes, but I usually like to write from a title. If a title is good enough, then it will help the song write itself.
I’m most likely going to write a chorus first. The chorus is the section that will occur several times over the course of the song, and it’s usually after a verse or two. So I kind of go to the middle of the song and write that part of the song, which is the chorus, and then when I get that like I want it, I’ll come back in and write what I call the dreaded first verse — and then the double-dreaded second verse or third verse. I like to write short songs, short commercial songs.
MW: Any recording projects on the calendar?
JP: ... We’re discussing a couple of things. We would like to have a boxed set. We’re thinking about calling it Fifty Fifty — 50 songs in 50 years. So finding all the songs and the masters, and even the rights to do it, has been pretty much an uphill battle. But we want to include the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, and maybe do a few new songs that we’ve got in our pocket too. And this year we would like to do a live album, so we’ve got a lot on our plate.
MW: Speaking of “live,” I don’t think people realize you are on the road as much as you are and have been every year. How many dates a year are you averaging?
JP: We probably average 80 to 90 dates a year. That’s plenty enough. That’s every long weekend, just about.
It’s not like we did it back in the ’70s and ’80s, where we would do 225, but the touring is what allows us to be able to afford to go into the studio and make the music. So which comes first? It’s kind of a double-edged sword: You have to work to create work. You create work by releasing music and hopefully garnering some interest in people, and it keeps you out there working.
MW: Tell us about this year’s tour schedule.
JP: I think our number of dates are going to be up this year. In September we’re doing eight shows in 10 days — all in different cities, mostly in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. I’m griping a little bit about that, because I don’t know if I’ll have a voice at the end of it. But we complained at the end of the year to our agent that we felt like we didn’t have enough dates last year, so he says, ‘OK, here you go.’ But he benefits too.
MW: What is the current lineup of the band?
JP: I’ve been here all the 50 years, except for a couple of hiatuses here and there when there wasn’t much going on. We have Marlon Hargis on keyboards from Somerset, Ky., who’s been with us since 1975 or ’76. And then came Steve Goetzman in ’77. Steve’s on drums. He’s originally from Louisville. Then came Sonny LeMaire in ’78. Sonny is originally from Jeffersonville, Ind. It’s just right across the river from Louisville, so we claim him as a Kentuckian. And then Les Taylor came in ’79. Les is from London, Ky.
MW: As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. True in your case, correct?
JP: My daughter, Jessie Rose, has been involved in the music business for several years now. She’s a deeply talented artist, and it’s been my pleasure as fellow musician and Dad to watch her progress skyrocket over a fairly short period of time. She began to fully define herself when she started writing songs. I encouraged her early on to write until she was blue in the face — and then write some more. Once she got a taste of it, it was obvious that she had a natural understanding of the process.
As crazy as the business is, I never discouraged her against it, because I knew she had all the tools required to succeed. One of her most important assets may be that she has no fear in front of an audience nor with the style of music she writes. Her songs and her stage presence are truly unique. She spends most of her time in Nashville now, working with an excellent producer who believes in her.
On the homefront, ours is a house of music. My wife, Suzie, is Jessie’s biggest cheerleader and is a great songwriter as well. The three of us have written quite a few songs together and plan on many more.
My son, James, sings baritone with the awesome barbershop chorus group, The Kentucky Vocal Union. They placed third in the world in international competition in Portland, Ore., this past summer. James knows more about singing harmonies than I could ever hope to know. I’d say he has the best ‘ears’ in the family. He and Jessie are my go-to backing vocalists on the many recording projects I’m involved in as a producer. James always bales me out when I can’t think of how a section of a song should go. He’s brilliant, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
MW: Thank you, J.P.
JP: Thank you, Mike.
For more information on Exile, check the website at www.exile.biz.
For more information on the Lexington Area Music Alliance visit lamalex.org.