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The Opposite of Selling Out

How a month of "Margaritaville" and a bald man with a hair dryer convinced Scott Ligon to get serious about music

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Just a few hours after setting out for Florida, Scott Ligon realized what he'd gotten himself into. He was on his way to a gig he'd impulsively accepted the day before--a month playing keyboard on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. His latest band had just broken up, and he'd been thinking that it was time to leave Morton, Illinois, the Peoria suburb where he'd spent much of his life, and try out the music scene in New York. But the cruise seemed like an easy way to earn some money while he thought about it a little more. So, with passport in hand, he climbed into a van headed for Miami with a bunch of musicians he'd never met.

"To give you an example of the kind of group of guys this was," Ligon says, "the determining factor in where we would pull over was whether or not there was a Hooters." Once onboard the ship, it was "Margaritaville" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" every night. He wasn't allowed to socialize with passengers, and he always had to wear a name tag. Worse, he couldn't smoke--crew members could be fired just for carrying a pack of cigarettes.

On top of that, Ligon had to share a tiny cabin with the band's front man, who turned out to be a little too comfortable with their close quarters. "Every single day I had to lay there in my bunk bed and watch this guy come out of the shower and blow-dry his balls right in front of me," Ligon says. "The unbelievable thing about that is he was bald--that's the only reason he had the hair dryer."

It wasn't just the goofy rules, creepy roommate, and nicotine withdrawal that got to him, though. It was the sense of having sold out. "It made me feel horrible about myself--doing something that you don't like for the money," he says. "It made me think, what do I really, really want to do?" The question didn't require a lot of pondering: the answer had been the same since he was a kid. "I wanted to put the one band together that is the shit. The thing. You know?"

That was five years ago. After the cruise, Ligon abandoned the New York idea and moved to Chicago, where he knew more musicians and where he'd be near his girlfriend in DeKalb. Approximately eight bands later, he's earned a reputation as a versatile guitar player, keyboardist, and singer with a vast repertoire. He's played with legends like Mighty Joe Young and Wanda Jackson, appeared on The Tonight Show with the Redwalls, and collaborated with Kelly Hogan, Anna Fermin, Robbie Fulks, Nora O'Connor, Kevin O'Donnell, and Joel Paterson, among others.

But Ligon, who's now 37, doesn't have so much as a MySpace page of his own, and his only widely available recordings are two tracks on The Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook volumes two and three; Nora O'Connor's Til the Dawn, on which he sang and played guitar, piano, and organ; and the 2006 full-length from Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, Go, where he played guitar and keyboard and served as coarranger and coproducer.

His low profile doesn't seem to bother him. "I'm not going to get out there and bust my butt trying to get on some label somewhere," Ligon says. "I've completely stopped thinking of music in terms of the music business. As far as I'm concerned, there is no music business. I don't care about selling anything. Let the rest of the world sell shit. I'm just not going to do it. When you're a kid and you tell somebody, 'I want to be a musician,' they think that you mean, 'I want to be famous. I want to be a star.' I never wanted to be a star. I just wanted to play good music."

The son of a former jazz pianist, Ligon has known he wanted to be a performer since the age of three, when his older siblings coaxed him into boogying to "Dance to the Music" for his grandmother. Sometime in the second or third grade his mom gave him a guitar, a Yamaha that his brother Chris, who is 12 years older, gouged a hole in by playing it with a pen cap instead of a pick. Ligon taught himself Beatles songs on it and fooled around with the piano. "I really don't remember how that happened," he says. "It seemed like all of a sudden one day I could kind of play."

Ligon's musical development was helped along by Chris, who around age 20 started writing and recording songs his brother plays on stage to this day. "He was making these really bizarre recordings down in the basement on this little reel-to-reel," Ligon says. "He'd have me down there singing on these songs with him. Chris was really the person that made me realize that you could make music."

In 1981, when he was in sixth grade, Ligon and his best friend, a fifth grader named Josh Shane, started a band called Jam. "We didn't know there was a band called the Jam," Ligon says. Rounding out the group were Shane's older brother and another friend, both of whom were in junior high. Their first gig was a talent show in a church basement. "We all wore tan jackets--how rock 'n' roll is that?" Ligon says. "We had this huge marching bass drum that we laid on its side, and Josh played it with a maraca. We played 'Let It Be.'"

Ligon's love of the Beatles--of anything recorded before about 1967, really--only grew as he got older. "I remember bringing my little boom box to school with a Simon & Garfunkel tape, and kids with long hair and jean jackets looking at me like I'm a pussy because I liked Art Garfunkel," he says. "Maybe I am, but I don't care. The feeling that was happening in popular music in the early to mid-60s, that's just kind of my bag. There was this unbelievable feeling of optimism. I just don't relate to the majority of the music that people are making now. I get tired of hearing people complain in a song. I know that things can be terrible and life can be hard, but do it in a major key, for crying out loud."

Chaperoned by their parents, Jam went on to play in "these little dive bars with really, really drunk people listening to 11-year-old kids," Ligon says. For their first professional performance, at a place called Champagne Donna's, they were paid in pork sandwiches. Eventually they got good enough to win the battle of the bands (against adult competitors) at Chicago's Beatlefest two years running, in 1983 and 1984.

Just before Ligon started high school, his family moved to Saint Louis, where he picked up a steady gig playing guitar and keyboard with an oldies cover band, the Castaways. Suddenly the little kid working out "Blackbird" on a beat-up acoustic had turned into a pot-smoking teenager who played in bars until 3 AM on school nights. "My mom's waiting up going, 'What is going on? What is this?' I was like, 'This is it, mom.' I just kind of got into that lifestyle really young." He dropped out of high school at 17, in part because the head of the music program refused to let him participate on the grounds that he didn't read music. (He still doesn't.) "All I wanted to do was play music, and I wasn't allowed to by this fucking small-minded teacher," he says. "To this day, I'm angry about it."

After that, Ligon spent a few more years in Saint Louis, playing with the Castaways and other local bands. He lived briefly in Kansas City and Birmingham, Alabama, before moving back to Morton at age 20. He spent a few months living with Josh Shane at Shane's parents' house, and then the two got an apartment together in Peoria. They started playing steadily with a local cover band, the River City Soul Revue, and formed a rock band, Dollface, which eventually released a CD, Corvette Summer, on a small Minneapolis label, Crackpot Records.

In 1992 Ligon moved to Chicago with his girlfriend at the time. "We both just kind of thought it was a good idea, probably more so her than me," he says. He kept touring with Dollface and did the occasional River City Soul Revue gig, but he also took a day job at a nursing home to help pay the bills. "I did all right at that," he says. "I'm pretty proud of that." But between the job and his girlfriend, who he says had a knack for starting arguments right before a gig, he had less and less time for music.

After he and his girlfriend broke up, in 1995, Ligon moved back to Peoria. Two years later he and Shane quit the cover band and started a group called the Heatersons in which they both played guitar and piano. "We played whatever kind of song we wanted, didn't matter if it was country or rock 'n' roll or jazz," Ligon says. "That band did really well considering we never even tried. We never put together a promo pack or anything like that. My brother Chris dropped off a cassette tape to Bill FitzGerald [owner of FitzGerald's in Berwyn], and that's how we got our first gig in Chicago."

With their friends Tim Brickner on bass and Randy Rogers on drums, Shane and Ligon played a hodgepodge of songs, including a tune by Chris Ligon called "The Camping Song" and, every now and again, the theme from Laverne & Shirley. Ligon says they were sort of like a "teenage version of NRBQ," the eclectic rock band he'd loved since he was a kid. The Heatersons continually toured the midwest and eventually landed a spot on the public radio show Whad'Ya Know? in 2000. They self-released their eponymous debut, but just when Chicago-based Premonition Records approached them with a record deal for the follow-up in 2001, Shane abruptly announced that he'd decided to stop performing music professionally.

"In some weird way I was kind of relieved," Ligon says. "I think Josh was probably tired of me always telling him what to do. I can play second banana. I've done it. But my instinct is to sort of take over. When the Heatersons would play, we never had a set list--I'd just start playing the next song. Plus, I think he was just tired of not having any money and having no health insurance and sleeping till three in the afternoon. And you know, I understand. But I don't know how to do anything else."

Before the Heatersons broke up, Ligon had been working on a side project, an R & B band called Scotty & the Ligonaires. For a year after, that group was his main focus, but he disbanded it after realizing "we weren't going to do anything other than play in Peoria." Then came the cruise ship job. A few months after he got back, his brother Chris got a call from singer Kelly Hogan, who was slated to play the release party for the country calendar Chris and his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams, make every year. Hogan's guitar player couldn't make it, so she was going to cancel. When Scott heard the news he offered to step in, and the two came up with a set list that consisted entirely of songs by acts known for tight harmonies, like the Everly Brothers.

"I had a deep sense of foreboding when I got off the phone," Hogan says. "It was either going to fly or it was going to crash horribly." The night before the show they rehearsed in her living room. "I have a recording of that night, and I swear to you that you cannot tell the difference between that night and Kelly and I singing three years later," Ligon says. "It was that instinctual." They started performing together once a week at the Hideout, singing harmony-heavy tunes like the Louvin Brothers' "I Wish You Knew" and "Pitfall." At first Ligon drove up from Morton every week, but within a month, Hogan says, "I forcibly extricated him to Chicago."

Almost right away, it was clear he'd made the right move. "I just could not believe how well everything worked out," he says. Musicians who'd heard his Hideout performances or who already knew him and had found out he'd moved to the city started calling. Before too long, every time Ligon had a free evening, a gig seemed to magically appear.

From those first Hideout shows a slew of bands emerged: the Wooden Leg, a jazz ensemble that featured Hogan, Joel Paterson, and Kevin O'Donnell; the Lamentations, a gospel trio with Hogan and Nora O'Connor; and the Flat Five, which added Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd to the Lamentations lineup. While none of those bands ever officially broke up, they seldom play together these days. "It's not because we don't want to," Ligon says. "We're just too busy."

Ligon currently divides most of his time between Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, Joel Paterson's Jazz Roundup, a cover band called the Federales, Jimmy Sutton's Four Charms, and a honky-tonkish ensemble called the Western Elstons that features Paterson, Sutton, and McDonough. They play Simon's Tavern in Andersonville the first and third Wednesday of every month; the next show is October 3.

Versatility is one of the main reasons why Ligon is so in demand as a collaborator. In addition to his primary instruments--guitar, piano, and Hammond organ--he plays accordion, bass, drums, harmonica, autoharp, jaw harp, tenor sax, vibraphone, and "a little bit of banjo." One time Robbie Fulks, who sometimes calls on Ligon when one of his regular band members can't make a gig, spotted him in the audience during a show at FitzGerald's, beckoned him onstage, and made him rotate from instrument to instrument every few seconds for an entire song.

"Everybody wants to make music with him," Hogan says. "It's like having five guys in one. He can do everything." A few years ago, he started doing a party trick called the Hypnotic Wheel at the country calendar shows. The bit consists of Chris "mesmerizing" Scott by spinning a cardboard wheel painted with a red-and-white spiral, then shouting something along the lines of, "You are Buck Owens! You are the Lovin' Spoonful!" while Ligon jumps from one musical imitation to the next.

Joel Paterson, who plays pedal and lap steel in the Western Elstons, calls Ligon the best singer in town. "He can sing country, which to me is the hardest thing to pull off convincingly, and he can yodel, which is awesome," he says. "He can imitate a lot of styles, but he always sounds like himself. And he's so natural. He's not schooled at all. He barely knows the names of the notes he's playing, but he can outplay anybody. He's really good technically, but he's also free-spirited. He's always kind of flying by the seat of his pants, but it all works out in the end."

As busy as he is, though, Ligon still doesn't feel like he's fulfilled his dream of starting the band. "I've played with a lot of people that are really good," he says. "The talent is all there. But for whatever reason, I haven't been able to find just the right combination of elements. Most of my friends, we're all in our 30s or early 40s, and we've all already been in a million bands. It makes it more difficult to put something together that everybody's 100 percent committed to, because everybody's idea of what they want is much more defined.

"The thing is, I'm still living like a 19-year-old. I still stay up late. I sleep all day. I don't have a boss. When I moved up here, I moved into a bedroom. I didn't even have a bed--I had a mattress. I've never needed that much. All I ever wanted to do is just be in a good band."

There's a project in the pipeline, however, that might be just the thing Ligon has been waiting for. Last December, the Flat Five opened for Terry Adams, one of the original members of NRBQ and Ligon's "one living idol, other than Paul McCartney." That night the two got to chatting and messing around on the piano a little bit. Ligon told him, "If you ever need a musical slave, give me a call." A few months later, Adams called. The two spent a week playing together in Massachusetts in early September, and Ligon says the visit "went as well as it could possibly go." They even have a few gigs lined up, including a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November.

"To actually end up putting a band together with somebody you've admired for 20 years--it's spooky," Ligon says. "I have no idea what's going to happen, but I know it's going to be great." If nothing else, he knows he's sticking to the promise he made himself on the cruise ship: "Never again will I allow myself to play music that I don't like."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Jim Newberry.

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