Photo by Amy Richmond, Courtesy of Rebel Records
At age 33, bluegrass singer Kody Norris hardly seems to fit into the category of “seasoned veteran.” But sit down with him for a conversation about the music business and you’ll find that he is wise beyond his years. His formula for success: start with passion and drive, find good mentors, be observant, work hard, be resourceful and open to innovation, and never give up on your dreams.
Kody was born in January 1988, in Watauga County, North Carolina, but has lived in Mountain City, Tennessee for most of his life. Although there were no musicians in his family, his father and great uncle were bluegrass fans who provided Kody with his earliest exposure, beginning around age five. “My dad was a big fan of the Country Gentlemen and the Stanley Brothers,” he recalls.
“My great uncle Jack had a Chevrolet El Camino that had a Stanley Brothers eight-track tape stuck in the player, and it would play continuously. It was 16 Greatest Hits, and I know every word to every one of those songs.”
Around that time, Kody’s father began taking him to concerts and festivals in the area. Kenny Norris worked for Duke Energy in the Carolinas, and was away for extended periods, but every summer he would take two months off, during which he and Kody hit the bluegrass circuit. “Anything that was going on within a couple hundred miles of Mountain City, we would be there,” Kody confirms.
“We’d go to the Slagle’s Pasture festival in Elizabethton, to Ralph Stanley’s festival, to the Paramount Theater in Bristol, to events in the Lenoir/Hickory, North Carolina area.”
Kody describes himself as a very observant person, and those early experiences of seeing his heroes, such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, and Jimmy Martin, made a lasting impression on him. “There would be five people on the stage with each of those groups, with the same five instruments, but they all sounded like they were from completely different planets,” he marvels. “It was like somebody walked off that stage, grabbed me by the collar, and smacked me in the face. It was the energy. And those guys wanted to uplift the people. Right in the middle of a song, Jimmy Martin would scream, ‘Are you happy?’ And I really feel the lack of that in today’s bluegrass music. It’s all about the precision and the perfection. They put way too much time in that and forget about transporting people’s minds to another place.”
Kody got his first instrument, a mandolin, when he was about nine years old. His dad purchased it from a lady who attended their church and played in a local gospel group. She showed Kody a few chords, but then he was on his own, learning mostly by observation at various jam sessions. But even that was a challenge. “Most of the musicians in my area were men in their eighties, very set in their ways,” he explains. “There was one jam session I went to and I was watching the guy play some lead on the guitar, and when he saw me watching him he turned his back to me.”
Fortunately, Kody soon met some better mentors, including a larger-than-life mandolin playing tenor singer named Calvin Coolidge Allen. Allen was from Johnson County, Tennessee, but had lived much of his life in Pennsylvania, near the iconic country music venue, Sunset Park. When performers such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, or Jimmy Martin would play at Sunset Park, Allen would bring them home after the show for a meal or an overnight stay. In the 1960s, he and his brothers played regionally and on radio in a band called The Allen Brothers and the Sunny Valley Boys. They intermingled regularly with the Baltimore area bluegrass musicians of the time, including Del McCoury, Jack Cooke, Billy Baker, Bobby Diamond, and Walter Hensley.
In the late 1990s, Allen introduced young Kody to several of these performers, and shared many stories and photos with him. “He was one of the biggest personalities of a human being I’ve ever met in my life,” Kody says. “I had a fan base [in Pennsylvania] before I even knew what a fan base was, just because I was mentored by this guy. The one thing that was instilled from him to me, right off the bat, was conduct and a good clean-cut image. He was always in a pair of slacks, a starched white shirt, and a Stetson hat. I picked up on that early on. I realized, even as a ten-year-old kid, that people pay a lot more attention to you if you look like somebody.”
Allen began taking Kody to a weekly jam session at a local barber shop where he met other respected musicians. “Surrounded by people who were so well-versed, instrumentally and vocally, I learned by example,” Kody affirms. “And they [also] taught me the pitfalls of the music industry. It helped me immensely, later in life, to create something classy and streamlined and to never bend on that within my group.”
Another of Kody’s early mentors was Mountain City mayor Kevin Parsons, who was a radio DJ and took Kody along to concerts in the area. When Kody was about twelve, they went to see Jim & Jesse perform in West Jefferson, North Carolina, and spent time talking with the duo backstage. A couple of weeks later, another friend took Kody to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where he once again encountered the McReynolds brothers. “They were walking towards me and they had on blue rhinestone jackets, red ties, white shirts,” he recalls. “And, as Jim McReynolds passed me, he says, ‘You’re a long way from West Jefferson, North Carolina, little buddy.’ I was a hundred feet tall at that point! That’s something I’ve carried with me all through my career: it’s monumental when you remember somebody!”
Mountain City guitarist Clint Howard, who performed regularly with Doc Watson beginning in the 1960s, was also an important role model for Kody. “Clint taught me a lot about singing, about putting on a show, all the elements of keeping people in the palm of your hand,” Kody states. “Always make sure everybody can hear you, learn your rooms, learn your crowd, and be sure they’re getting your message.”
When he was eleven, Kody began performing in local bands. Within a few years he had taught himself to play guitar, banjo, and bass, had become proficient at singing multiple vocal parts, and was in demand as a fill-in musician with various groups. He also became interested in songwriting. “In high school, believe it or not, with my thick Appalachian dialect, my favorite subject was English,” Kody says, “and I loved writing. I write strictly off the cuff, mostly just from day-to-day happenings.” He also loves to read, especially history and westerns. And, he adds, “I’m a Mark Twain fan. I get a lot from the writings of Mark Twain, as far as how to captivate an audience.”
As a teenager, Kody teamed with his friend Tom Isaacs, first as a duo, and then in a full band, The Watauga Mountain Boys. They toured regionally in a Cadillac with the bass tied on top, in the tradition of their first-generation heroes. During that time, Kody got to know several of those heroes, including Ralph Stanley, with whom he worked as lead singer and guitarist early in his career. “Over an eighteen-month period in 2005 and ’06, I learned more, just being around Ralph, as far as the business side of things,” he acknowledges. “[You’ve got to] know what you’re worth and how much somebody’s willing to pay for it. Those first-generation guys, they knew what they had, they knew how to sell it, and they knew who they were selling it to.”
In 2006, Kody was invited to appear on the Cumberland Highlanders television show on RFD-TV. He soon became a regular cast member and spent nine years playing guitar on the program and at the affiliated Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Festival in Rosine, Kentucky. “That was just a great time in my life,” Kody says. “They really got [bluegrass] out to the masses, and I met so many musicians.”
Tom Isaacs left to pursue other interests, but Kody continued to front the Watauga Mountain Boys, gradually increasing the scope of his touring to include much of the country. The band often included other up-and-coming young musicians, such as John Rigsby, Alex Leach, and Jeremy Stephens. In late 2014, Kentucky fiddler and mandolinist Mary Rachel Nalley joined the band. She had graduated from high school that spring and spent the festival season playing fiddle with Larry Sparks.
Kody had first encountered nine-year-old Mary Rachel and her parents years earlier when she made a guest appearance playing fiddle with the Cumberland Highlanders. After discovering that her father was a skilled carpenter, Kody commissioned him to remodel the first Watauga Mountain Boys’ tour bus. Kody stayed in touch with the family, and by the time Mary Rachel joined the band, she and Kody were dating. They married in September 2019. Kody reflects on their first meeting, “I never dreamed in a million years that this aggravating little inquisitive girl would wind up being my wife. But Mary Rachel’s got a lot of talent, far beyond the music. She can do anything.”
Having processed the valuable lessons from his years of apprenticeship, Kody’s vision for his stage show was gradually evolving from performance to entertainment. He began to incorporate more comedy, storytelling, and choreography into the act. In order to increase the visual appeal, he began to perform in colorful sequined suits, western boots and hats, and he dressed the band in coordinating outfits. “I was the first of my generation to bring rhinestone suits into bluegrass,” he says. “And I got laughed at a lot by other groups.”
Kody recalls an instance when he was about to take the stage at a festival as another popular group was tuning up backstage, and he heard the chuckles.
“But that’s just fuel to my fire,” he asserts. “I got five encores that day. I played to, probably, twenty-five hundred people. When [the other band] hit the stage, they might have had two hundred people to sing to. You know where the rest of them were? In the line at my record table. And that told me all I needed to know. I knew right then I had something to sell, if I’d rebrand it and get [the right] people to play.”
Within a couple of years, Kody was well on the way to putting his plan into action. He changed the band name to The Kody Norris Show, deliberately omitting any reference to musical genre. “I want to create a high-energy visual ensemble to reach the masses,” he says. “I want to transport people’s minds away for just a little while. I don’t want it to be genre-restricted. My take on music is, if it’s good, it’s good. The show that I would play at Slagle’s Pasture, I want to be able to sell that exact same show to a group of college kids in California. So they’ve just been introduced to a whole new culture they never knew existed, and because of how I present it to them, it’s cool.”
Kody credits much of his current success to Mary Rachel’s skill at using technology and social media to market the band to a broader and younger audience. “I had a built-in fan base for so long, but unfortunately they’ve started dying off,” he laments. “I knew I was going to have to do something. And now, when we get the reports from our online hits, we have as many people in the 25 to 36 age range as we had in older ranges before. And I attribute all of that to Mary Rachel.”
Banjo player and tenor singer Josiah Tyree was the next piece of the puzzle to fall into place. A native of Carthage, Tennessee, Josiah had first come to Kody’s attention when he served as a judge for a banjo contest at the Wilson County Fair in Lebanon. Out of about eighty contestants, Josiah was the only one who played clawhammer style. Kody recalls, “It was some of the best music I’d ever heard in my life! He won the contest.” A few years later, Kody encountered seventeen-year-old Josiah in a jam session at the 2017 SPBGMA event in Nashville. They sang a song together and, “Three notes into it, it was like singing with a brother I never had. He’d only been playing banjo with picks about two weeks, but I got to thinking, if he could play clawhammer that good, he had the talent.”
Two weeks later, in need of a banjo player for a show date in Colorado, Kody called Josiah from Arizona. Josiah caught a plane to Denver and has been with the band ever since. “He’s learned so well,” Kody says. “He’s a very loyal person. Even off the road, Josiah helps me every day. He’s so dedicated to our business, and I’m really glad to have him.”
In late 2019, at age eighteen, bass player Charlie Lowman joined the band.
Kody first met him several years earlier at a show date in Evanston, Illinois, when Charlie’s band was the opening act. The next time they met, Charlie was playing guitar with Tommy Brown and the County Line Grass. He knew Kody was looking for a bass player and expressed an interest in the job. A few months later Kody called him, gave him a list of songs to learn, and Charlie was ready to go.
Around that same time, The Kody Norris Show signed with Rebel Records, and in 2020 the band recorded its first Rebel release. Kody has released sixteen self-produced albums over his twenty-year career, but this is his first affiliation with a label. “There’s not a better place in the world I could be,” he says. “My heroes were all on that label. That’s major. [Rebel Records president] Mark Freeman and I have such a good relationship, so I feel that it’s a good thing for both of us.” Freeman notes, “This group is entertainment personified. They are a very detailed and hard-working act as well—two key attributes for long-term success!”
All Suited Up was released in April 2021. It was produced by Kody’s long-time friend Darin Aldridge, who also contributed vocal harmonies and mandolin accompaniment. Also making guest appearances were fiddler Jason Barie and bassist Mark Fain. Kody sees this album as a benchmark, his most important recording to date. In addition to songs from established bluegrass writers such as Bill Grant, A. L. Wood, Johnny Williams, and Greg Preece, it features five of Kody’s originals, three of which were inspired by his relationship with Mary Rachel.
Kody surprised Mary Rachel with “Kentucky Darlin’” as a high school graduation present, and it has become one of the band’s most requested songs. The bouncy novelty tune, “Love Bug,” begins with the line, “Everywhere I go, everybody I know, they just look at me and smile,” which harkens back to when Kody first introduced Mary Rachel to his mother. “My mom told me, ‘You’ll marry that girl one day,’” he recalls. “And all through that time, literally everywhere I’d go with Mary Rachel, I’d get this little cheesy grin from people.” Kody sealed the deal with “Let’s Go Strollin’”, a tribute to life-long love. “That’s just kind of a recap of our wedding day,” he says. “Everybody needs that one person in life. There’s a lot of strength in that song, especially in the last verse.”
The couple has drawn on their shared strength and resourcefulness to carry them through the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When performance venues closed, they started a successful house painting business. In addition, they own several properties which they operate as Airbnb rentals. Kody even took a couple of weeks to fulfill his long-time dream of attending auctioneering school. He was able to find work for Josiah and Charlie at a local grocery store to keep them afloat until the band can return to regular performing.
Fortunately, The Kody Norris Show has been able to continue its weekly appearances on Radio Bristol’s “Farm & Fun Time Noon Show,” which airs on Fridays from 12:00 to 12:30 pm. The program is broadcast over the air at 100.1 FM, online at birthplaceofcountrymusic.org, and on the WBCM Radio Bristol Facebook page. In March 2021, the band performed before a live audience for the first time in a year, at a taping of the Song of the Mountains television program in Marion, Virginia.
The group played over 100 show dates in 2019, and Kody is eager to return to a full schedule of touring. “I miss the people,” he stresses. “I miss the relationships. I miss sitting up all night, driving the bus. We’re excited to be back to the people, and I’ve not let COVID destroy any of my dreams. It’s not the end of anything. Maybe it’s the beginning of many new things. Whatever the new road is, we’ll go down it, and we’ll learn it, too.”