As part of a series of interviews with some of my favorite Joy-Followers, I’m proud to introduce Kenny Lee Lewis, guitarist and vocalist for the Steve Miller Band for over 28 years.
Bill and I first saw the Steve Miller Band live a few years ago and were completely blown away. Here’s a group of guys that knows how to have fun and how to show the crowd a good time, connecting people through the joy of their music.
I particularly felt a connection with Kenny and after reading about him, I decided, yep—this was the guy I wanted to talk to. The Following Your Joy blog is full of stories of synchronicity, and I was enthralled with Kenny’s write-up of how he and Steve Miller started working together way back. On his website, Kenny tells how he snuck out of his house as a 13 year-old in 1968 to see Steve Miller play live.
From his website: “When I watched him that night in ’68, I could swear he made eye contact with me for a moment and winked. I made a sub-conscious auto-suggestion to myself right then and there that I would meet him someday and play with him.”
And in 1981 that all came true!
I was further inspired by Kenny’s philosophy that he describes on his website: “If I play the guitar, and it makes people smile, then I must share this gift everyday, even if it means no monetary reward other than the sheer pleasure of doing my spiritual duty. After all, the Power that gave it to me in the first place also gives me my awakening breath every morning.”
What a joy for me to have a fun conversation with such a cool dude. Enter in my friend, Kenny Lee Lewis.
Michelle: What is it about your life in music that brings you joy; what do you love most about it?
Kenny: What I do with a guitar is a gift that was given to me before I was born. And the reaction I get from people listening to my music is what I call a transference of joy. I’m not even in the equation; it’s like I’m like the vessel.
And Steve Miller has finally come to that realization, too, and knows he’s a very lucky guy. Sometimes he’ll turn to me and say, “Can you believe these tunes? These songs that we’ve written are doing this to people?” It’s amazing. And people keep wanting to come every year. When you see tens of thousands of people going through this experience, and the energy behind it—it’s so exciting!
When I was younger, I used to think it was me and that I was doing this. But now that I’m older and more in touch with all this, I realize that it’s not me; it’s just a transference of the energy. It’s bigger than us, including Steve. What a gift we’re given as musicians—through art and sound, we can help a person alter their perception and maybe even change the way they feel…even for the rest of their lives, because of that one moment in time.
Being a part of this gives me a feeling of relief—I don’t have to hoard it, encapsulate it, try to market it, or become a millionaire. It’s not about that. It’s about transferring this gift—that I had nothing to do with—and pass it over to the listener. And that is such a thrill.
It’s cool to see how music releases a lot of people who normally wouldn’t get up and move or clap or sing. People have stuff that weighs heavily on their shoulders and it’s difficult for them to express themselves. Sometimes I’ll see a guy at the beginning of a show with his arms crossed, looking at us like: “What are you gonna do for me?” He’s not fully there. And then he’ll get up and go get a beer.
But then all of a sudden I can actually see him go through a transition. By the end of the night he starts changing. Now he’s clapping, smiling, standing up, fighting his way to the front of the stage because he wants to be a part of the show. Then he’s the guy who ends up begging for a guitar pick! That’s the thing I’m talking about—to watch someone go through this transition for a bunch of songs. It’s pretty cool.
Michelle: What else in life brings you joy?
Kenny: I love fishing. For me, it’s selfish; it’s my meditation. When I fish, I get to concentrate on something so intently that I can shut out all other things…not unlike music. It allows me to be able to go to a different place and disconnect. It lowers my blood pressure. When I’m out on the road, if there’s a body of water nearby, I’ll go fishing after sound check on occasion. I’ll fish right up until it’s time to go on-stage. Then I go from this guy in funky shorts running around with my fishing gear up to the last second…to putting on my “costume” of rock and roll idolatry and go up on stage and be a god to somebody.
I also enjoy cooking. I don’t use recipes, but instead I dive into ideas—not unlike writing a song. I like to use a combination of different things blended together in a different order and use all my senses to create. I get to test things out on my family, and sometimes my wife will say, “That was so hot it blew my head off!”
Writing, too—I’m working on a novel and a TV show.
And I’m a foodie. When we’re on tour, I always enjoy the regional food. When I’m in Florida, I have grouper; in the south, it’s collard greens and ribs; in Minnesota, I do walleye; steak in Kansas City; beignets in the French Quarter.
It gives me great joy to share playing music with my wife, Diane, who’s an excellent professional keyboard player and vocalist. We’re both music teachers as well, and helping students perpetuate the transference of musical ‘joy intoxication’ is one of the gifts we both share.
Michelle: In the busyness of life, it can be easy to lose sight of the things that bring you joy. How do you know when you’re straying from those things?
Kenny: There are times when I played music and didn’t experience joy—those were the jobs where I just did it for the money. That’s where art gets polluted. I’m always trying to be the best artist I can be, but at the same time, there’s a point where you start refusing those jobs because you realize that you’re just not getting anything out of it. It’s not fun.
So when I’m playing a wedding and they tell us to keep turning it down every second, we can’t have any of the food, and we have to go out to the parking lot for our breaks and enter only through kitchen…I realized this is not for me! I finally had to make a decision: Do you want the money or do you want the joy? I’m gonna go for the joy!
But in order for that to happen, I had to eliminate those private event gigs because they weren’t satisfying any longer. Yeah, you take a cut in pay, but you get the potential for more joy. When I’m not at a goofy wedding band gig, I can be at home writing a song or spending time with my kids.
When you find yourself taking longer lunch breaks, finding excuses why you can’t make it to work, just not wanting to be there physically, punching the clock and counting the hours—that’s when you know you’re not following your joy. Even though you’re doing your job and getting it done, it’s not working.
It’s like going to church and not getting fed. You race in right before the service starts and count the minutes ‘til you can get out of there and then run out the door. You gotta ask yourself why you’re doing it. That’s when you know you’re not following your joy.
Michelle: What’s the advice you’d like to pass along to readers?
Kenny: Follow your dream, and never think that you can’t do something. You can do it if it’s something you want to do as a ‘bucket list’ thing. Never say never.
I have a guitar student who runs a heart center at a hospital. He’s in his 60’s and he knows he’s rotten but he went out and bought all these amps and guitars. He just loves playing. He turns his phone off and plays, and it completely brings him joy. You don’t have to be an expert, be the best, or even be gifted. You can find your joy center in areas that are completely opposite of what your occupation is.
Michelle: What’s the most exciting part of all this for you?
Kenny: That transference of joy I talked about. It’s about someone listening to the music and saying: “That was really cool. By being exposed to that art, I changed; I thought differently, I had an epiphany. I decided to be nicer to my kids, or rotate the tires on my car,” or whatever it is!
Michelle’s final thoughts
Before my conversation with Kenny, I spotted a guitar pick sitting on my desk. It was one that Steve Miller handed to me after their last show here in Minneapolis earlier this year (yes, I was one of the goofballs dancing up front near the stage). I’ve kept that pick on my desk as a symbolic reminder to me of an evening filled with joy, where music connected people to one another and to themselves.
As I waited for my scheduled interview with Kenny, I reflected on this ‘transference of joy,’ so to speak. And after the interview was over, I was delighted to know that what brought me joy about that concert experience…was also what brought him joy.
Tapping into Kenny’s joy!
Learn more about Kenny Lee Lewis here. And you can support him by checking out his amazing jazz guitar album, New Vintage. You can also see his work with the Steve Miller Band; their new album, “Bingo!”, is getting great reviews! One final thing that drew me to Kenny was his recent blog post about meeting one of his musical inspirations, Jeff Beck. If you’re a music fan, don’t miss this one.
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Portrait artist: Chris Shin