Korby Lenker: Back with a smile

by Brent Cole

When it came time to interview Korby Lenker for this feature, I had some trepidation. Back in the day, Korby led the incredibly popular local band, the Barbed Wire Cutters, and he wasn’t exactly known for his humility. Korby was a great songwriter who was very confident in himself and his band; he was also a big fish in a small pond that you knew he’d outgrow.

It’s difficult for those who weren’t around at the time to truly understand how big the Barbed Wire Cutters were. While the bluegrass scene wasn’t huge locally, the band was. BWC played all over the region, bringing in great crowds and getting people dancing. And Korby was the main Cutter, so he was king.

When the Cutters called it a day (members moved away or began to have families), Korby moved to Seattle in 2005 for a year or so. He made the record King of Hearts with Bellingham musicians, which got airplay on KEXP and The Mountain.

“I had management and some opportunities I hadn’t had before,” Korby explained. After playing Sasquatch and Bumbershoot that year, things “kind of cooled” after the record cycle had completed. “I didn’t really get Seattle,” Korby stated. “It seemed like time to go somewhere else – it was now or never.”

Having been to Nashville a couple of times, Korby made the move in 2007. “I packed up all my shit into a rental car, arriving with less than 500 bucks and not having a game plan,” Korby said with a laugh. “In hindsight I can’t believe I did it.”

Korby hit the ground running when he arrived in Nashville, winning a high profile song contest within the first week and signing with a small indie label. Everything was coming up roses. “Six months later the indie label imploded and I was completely broke,” Korby said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to get a job.’”

He started working as a valet parking cars at a hotel. “It was a good education in the Nashville thing. In hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me.”

Over the next few years, Korby parked cars (he was fired from one hotel and picked up a job at another), and he played music but was generally lost. Musically, he’d always been “the guy,” but suddenly, he was just one of thousands of songwriters who were trying to “make it” in Nashville. The confidence that had been Korby’s guide was no longer there. He was knocked down, but not out.

In 2011, “When I got it together, I no longer felt entitled to make music. I realized it was a privilege – the opportunity was a gift instead of something I deserved,” Korby said.

And with that, the rebirth of Korby began. Realizing he had no skills, he dove into video work, learning the ins and outs. “I did a video series called Whigbey. It was kind like a Tiny Desk Concert idea – but higher quality (essentially). I would do these for free for artists that I liked in town. It was a way for me to do something for somebody else – there was a lot of creative freedom and I was also building goodwill – plus it gave me something to do while I figured out what the hell?”

One of the musicians he worked with was the well respected Tim Lauer, who Korby instantly wanted to make music with. “This is the guy I’m going to work with,” Korby said excitedly, “It was like when I met (locally musician) Bruce Shaw. ‘I’m going to play music with that guy – that’s the guy.’”

In Nashville, according to Korby, you truly need to work with other musicians. “It’s not all DIY down here, you need more people than just yourself to make things matter.”

After a year of bugging Tim, they sat down one day and started working together. “We made a song called “My Little Life” together. It was a quirky song, we made that song in a day – it was fun. One thing led to another and we just started making this album together.”

Opportunities, those of which hadn’t been available to him a few years prior, were beginning to happen. “I got hired to be a guitar player for Daphne Wills – I would play guitar for her and open the show.”

Around that time, Tim and Korby finished the record (which was self titled). “Right when I finished the record I made with Tim, I won a song contest at Kerrville (a huge honor),” he said. “That all happened at once.”

Korby found himself in the position of making music full time again, playing on the road constantly. This coincided with a rise in the popularity of house concerts. “Between that and the new record, it made it so I could do it all over again.”

Over the last three years, Korby has toured Europe four times and averaged 200 shows a year. He’s “made it back” and for most any other artist, the story would end there. He was a successful musician who lost his way and in finding it, found himself and success. It’s a feel good story.

But for Korby, the story doesn’t end there – in a way, it’s only a beginning. While trying to raise funds for his album with Tim, Korby did a kickstarter for the album and a book of short stories he had written. “I started selling the book at shows,” he said, “without my trying, it fell into the hands of a publishing company and they loved the book and wanted to put it out formally as a hardcover.”

Suddenly, Korby went from a touring musician to a published writer – a move that has changed everything for him. “That’s what I really want to do in the big plan – I want to be a writer. This is a great opportunity, and it involves being at home,” he stated.

Copies of the book, Medium Hero, have been available for a while, but the official version will be released in December. The book features 27 stories from his 15 years as a solo touring indie artist. The publishing company, which is small but highly respected, holds an option for a second book.

“My whole music career, I’ve never had anyone champion me for want of a better expression,” Korby stated, speaking of his publishing company. “They only put out 20 books a year and the publishing company is behind them full on.”

His book has gained notoriety around Nashville and continues to open doors, including writing three television episodes with a television writer, based on his life.

On the brink of success, at least potentially, Korby has every reason to revert back to the “self assurance” of years gone by, instead he’s full of humility and humor, approaching the new opportunities wide eyed and appreciative. “I still have no fucking clue what I’m doing, but I try not to let out too much,” he said with a laugh.

LIVE SHOW: Catch Korby Lenker at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern on Aug. 5. For more information, see korbylenker.com. 

Published in the July 2015 issue of What’s Up!