Kansas harmonica player inducted into the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
To call someone innovative and traditional seems contradictory.
However, Leavenworth resident Don Spain is living proof that this is not so. That’s because Spain is a unique sort of a hybrid between old and new in the world of harmonica music.
Since picking up a harmonica at the age of 17, Spain has devoted his life to pushing the musical envelope while simultaneously remaining rooted in the traditions of old-time country music.
For his efforts, the musician was inducted into the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame on Sept. 1 in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
Spain said he began playing harmonica just two weeks before joining the Army. At first, he said he played straight harp, which takes little skill but limits the amount of notes that can be played. Spain soon found something better.
Spain said he was playing with a group of musicians aboard a military transport ship when he came across a man who was able to produce harmonica notes that Spain had never heard. The man told Spain that he was playing in a style known as cross harp, which allowed him to play in multiple keys using a single-keyed harmonica.
Spain asked the man to show him how it was done and soon became addicted to the pursuit of squeezing as many notes out of his harmonica as he could.
“It takes a lot of practice,” Spain said.
According to Spain, unlike straight harp, cross harp is something that not everyone can play. This is because one must be able to literally bend the reeds inside the harmonica while playing. Learning cross harp is made even more difficult, Spain said, by the fact that there are only a handful of people in the world who can do it well.
For Spain, the only source of inspiration was a harmonica player named Charlie McCoy.
“He’s the best there is,” Spain said.
McCoy is the former musical director of the television show Hee Haw and, according to Spain, is responsible for just about every harmonica piece that has been used in film or television. Although he has only met McCoy a handful of times, Spain said he considers him to be his mentor.
By copying McCoy’s songs and style, Spain was able to hone his skills and create a style of music distinctly his own — a style that combined edgy methods with traditional rhythms.
Soon, Spain found himself being asked to perform at shows and festivals around the country and the world. He said he has performed in several states and even a few foreign countries.
“I’ve played all over the world,” Spain said.
He said his favorite concerts have been the ones that involve traditional country, bluegrass and blues songs, and promote wholesome family entertainment. However, Spain’s most memorable concert was one that certainly breaks from the mold.
“China’s the biggest one,” Spain said.
In 2002, Spain and several band members traveled to Guangzhou, China, to play in a jeans fashion show. There, Spain performed his traditional country music in front of the largest crowd of his career. Despite the fact that there was nothing even comparable to country music in China at the time, Spain said the crowd went crazy for it.
“They really loved it,” he said.
At the time, Spain probably thought that his career was at its high point, but he said that his recent hall of fame induction was even better.
Spain and a number of other old-time country musicians — including McCoy — were invited to a music festival in Missouri Valley to perform and receive awards signifying their hall of fame achievements.
For his set, Spain played five songs, the last of which was a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” Spain said the song was special because it was dedicated to all of America’s veterans and active-duty soldiers. It was also special because it included the first vocal performance of Spain’s career.
“That’s the only song I’ve ever sang in my life,” Spain said.
While Spain will be the first to admit that his voice is nothing special, it is that sort of innovation that has made his career such a success.
Spain and his band, “True Country,” performed Saturday at the First City Festival in downtown Leavenworth.