“I have this nasty habit, which is to convince my friends in various bands who are immensely talented to give me a couple evenings of their time, their company and their great conversation, and let’s put on a thing.”
Sitting at a small table outside the library at Transylvania University on what feels like the first real day of fall, Professor Scott Whiddon is in his conversational zone, a somewhat contradictory combination of an easygoing nature layered over an almost manic drive. That usually surfaces when he gets to talk about his favorite subjects, music and community, and in this instance, he gets to discuss both together.
Whiddon is the organizing force behind a unique convergence of the two which will culminate on October 28th with the “Zombie Prom” at The Burl. There, he will take to the stage with other local musicians – Dr. Kevin Holm-Hudson, Dr. Jim Gleason, Mark Richardson, Thomas Hatton, Larry Nelson, Megan McCauley and La’Shelle Allen – to recreate the seminal Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.
“There’s something about getting people together who love music, who are damn good at it, and watching them give to something that’s bigger than they are, be it the music itself, or the amazing work that Habitat does,” says Whiddon.
The upcoming Pink Floyd show is at least the fourth dive by various Whiddon-led assemblies of Lexington musicians into the catalog of a specific band, following forays into Cheap Trick, the Velvet Underground, and New Orleans funk staple The Meters, forming a series of shows benefiting Habitat for Humanity.
“I realized there were some really good opportunities to do some really creative things for a non-profit that I love,” says Whiddon. “The bench [of musicians] in this town is so freakin’ deep, in terms of talent. And also, unlike many musicians in the world, people in this town are really responsible, they’re good with calendars, they’re good at planning ahead.”
The intent wasn’t, however, to turn to the idea into a series.
“I started thinking it would be one, then I thought it would be six months,” says Whiddon. “The fuel for this is the amazing exuberance and talent and generosity of the musicians I get to work with, the community partners who throw in to help…People along the way saying, ‘Let me help you with this part, let me make a small donation to cover this’ – you’d be shocked.”
Along the way, the series has picked up community partners in Smiley Pete Publishing and Bleed Blue Tattoos, in addition to venues such as The Burl. What sets these shows apart from other benefits is that they cover the expenses of the musicians in addition to providing contributions to a charity. In this way, they’re more sustainable for the people involved, but there’s an added personal bonus to playing these events.
“You hang out with your buddies,” says Whiddon. “You get the joy that you had learning other peoples’ songs when you were fifteen or sixteen and starting to learn how to play your instrument. It’s been fun getting to play the music of bands that made me want to play music with people that I admire.”
That enthusiasm for working up the music that formed one’s musical upbringing is shared by Gleason, who will be performing both Dark Side of the Moon with Whiddon and a set of songs by the Allman Brothers with his main group, the Johnson Brothers.
“What makes the Johnson Brothers so good at these ‘documentary’ kinds of shows is the depth and range of the players,” says Gleason. “We’re very careful to get all the elements (notes, sounds, arrangements) right. In that sense, the Dark Side of the Moon band is similarly adept. The homework is done before coming in. What’s different is building the chemistry of the individual players, who were all new to me. But that’s always fun, and really enriching for me as a player.”
Gleason admits to less than a complete knowledge of the back catalog of Pink Floyd, but he jumped at the chance to help recreate the classic album.
“It’s always great to climb inside a new body of music and learn the parts from iconic players. Can’t help but to make you a better musician,” says Gleason.
The heart of this series of benefits drums a personal beat for Whiddon. His father, Ennis Whiddon, worked with Habitat for Humanity for over a decade before passing away two years ago. Putting on these events is a way to honor the memory of a man who spent his life building – first structures, then souls.
“He was the kind of guy who got really excited about engineering schematics and dirt,” says Whiddon.
As the son of a sharecropper, Ennis Whiddon knew poverty firsthand. He went into construction, then later in life, the ministry. Habitat for Humanity was his way of bringing the things he cared about together. He also cared deeply about music, instilling a love of playing in his son.
“He loved to put on big ole’ barbecues and have bluegrass bands come and raise money for Habitat builds,” says Whiddon. “I think Habitat kept Dad alive for a couple years. He loved the sense of community, he loved the sense of fellowship. The best way to honor the memory was to serve an organization that served him.”
To do that, Whiddon had to draw upon his strengths…while overlooking a glaring weakness.
“I knew I didn’t have Dad’s construction gene. I’m completely inept at that,” says Whiddon. “But I did get a little bit of his logistics planning, community building, active listening, networking…and I love playing rock music.”
This unconventional approach to giving back sits just fine with Habitat for Humanity, according to Communications & Major Gifts Officer at Lexington Habitat for Humanity, Trish Roberts Hatler.
“We love community partnerships,” says Hatler. “It gives us the great opportunity to share our mission.”
It is not uncommon for those in the community to find other ways to support Habitat for Humanity without lifting a hammer, she notes.
“We have a lady who brings lunch to builds,” Hatler offers as an example of others can give. “Time, money, whatever…it has to work for the person as well as the organization.”
She also appreciates the creative effort going to benefit her organization.
“The more interesting and inventive, the more successful it usually will be,” she says. She’s looking forward to attending the event at The Burl, but will not divulge the costumes that she and Lexington Habitat for Humanity CEO Rachel Childress will be wearing.
As for Whiddon, for him the Zombie Prom will serve as a fitting capstone – for now – to a cascade of benefit shows, especially in light of what sounds like a crushing musical workload of finishing a solo album, working the next half of an album with his usual band Palisades, putting out a film score, and starting up a new musical project to bow in December. This is all in addition to his regular gig as a professor and Director of Transy’s Writing Center. With all of this on his plate, he’s reluctant to say if he’s ready to put together another benefit, but he won’t discount the idea out of hand.
“I have some ideas in the works,” Whiddon says, arching an eyebrow, “and I’m always up for an adventure.”
The Zombie Prom to benefit Habitat for Humanity takes place on Saturday, October 28th at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at http://www.ticketfly.com.
Habitat for Humanity is the largest construction company in the world, active in over 70 countries, and has provided better housing to over a million families since 1976. Lexington Habitat for Humanity has served over 500 families locally and celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 2016. For more information on Lexington Habitat for Humanity, visit http://www.lexhabitat.org.
(Full disclosure: the author, along with half of Lexington, is a longtime friend and recidivist bandmate of Dr. Whiddon, and during this interview, the author agreed to drive Dr. Whiddon to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland, Ohio, in exchange for gas money, a free ticket, and probably a long conversation about how Cheap Trick and Mötley Crüe are underrated.)