|Rita and Leland Sullivan dance on Friday night to western swing music played by The Ward Country Playboys. Above, Luke Erwin plays guitar.|
Leader staff writer
Local country musician Luke Erwin of Lonoke County is looking to head west in pursuit of a music career.
Erwin, a 2011 Cabot High School graduate, can be heard performing Friday nights at the Ward Country Dance off Hwy. 319 in Ward. He said he tries to play three times a week.
On Saturday, Erwin played with the Round Up Boys at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla.
The 23-year-old is a senior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is studying history and set to graduate in May.
Erwin took guitar lessons when he was 13, but quit. He said he was around 17 when he went to the Grand Ole Opry and saw Chuck Mead playing. Erwin said, if Mead could do it, so could he.
He started learning to play the guitar again and taking lessons from Mike Hickman of Austin. Erwin said his dad, Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin, played the piano, and his mom, Gail, was a drummer in a band.
He was a freshman at ASU-Beebe when he first went to the Ward Country Dance. Rockabilly legends Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers were playing that night.
Erwin talked to the band, and keyboardist Kern Kennedy took him under his wing. The young man started playing with Kern Kennedy and the Kampground Express and Hazel Sheets and the Famous Four. Gigs at nursing homes and senior centers honed his skills, and Kennedy taught Erwin how to play the piano.
“I play by ear. I can’t read sheet music,” Erwin said.
He then filled in for The Ward Country Playboys when they needed a guitarist and singer to play at the Ward Country Dance. He says he’s enjoyed doing that ever since.
“I started listening to The Temptations as a little kid. In junior high, I got into classic country with George Strait and Merle Haggard. Kern (Kennedy) got me turned on to western swing. It is like jazz with cowboy hats,” Erwin said.
Ace in the Hole and Asleep at the Wheel are two western swing bands Erwin gave as examples of the genre.
“Western swing takes more talent, too, because the music is more challenging to play. The genre is dying out. There is hardly anyone playing it anymore. I hope to move to Fort Worth and play in Texas and Oklahoma. I sense the music is more accepted there,” Erwin said.
“If kids would listen to western swing, they would love it. People from ages 8 to 80 can get up and dance to it. The country genre has changed from rock to hip hop and rap influences. I like the traditional, but country has to change to remain popular with the times,” he noted.
Erwin said he has played at the Silver Moon clubs in Tupelo, Miss., and Newport; and Stickyz Rock and Roll Chicken Shack in Little Rock. He also played with Sonny Burgress at a private party for Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson at South on Main restaurant in Little Rock.
Erwin also plays every other Tuesday with Kern Kennedy’s band at the Jacksonville Senior Wellness and Activity Center.
His main focus is writing songs. Erwin said he’s lost count of the songs he’s written.
And “Today I Start Loving You Again” by Merle Haggard is one of his favorite songs.
Carl Farmer and Lou Peppers of McAlester, Okla., drove to Ward Country Dance on Friday to hear Erwin perform. The retirees travel to six states to go dancing. They heard him playing two weeks ago at the Fiddlers Winter Convention in Wagoner, Okla., and talked with him after the show.
“He shocked me. He was good. He can sing. I think I floored him when he saw me here,” Farmer said.
Ward Country Dance owners Rita and Leland Sullivan spoke very highly of Erwin, too.
“He can write a song. He’s got talent. He just needs his big break,” Rita Sullivan said.
Leland Sullivan said, “Luke has great stage presence.”
“Luke is very well mannered. He is a good, all-around true-blue American cowboy. Luke dresses the part and is cute. He is funny and has a good sense of humor. He is something special,” Rita Sullivan added.
“There might be someone listening right here one night and, with the right exposure, he will make it. If he can get that one song produced, it will get his foot in the door,” Leland Sullivan noted.
Erwin will be playing with Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Charlie Rich Jr. on May 20 at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.
The local musician added that he’s looking for bookings and wants to start a new group.