Kim Person

Helping Musicians Achieve their Dreams
by John Thomas

“Listen, mate,” says Tommy Emmanuel, “I just want to know how to make my records sound as good as your records.” “Well,” replies Stephen Bennett, “you can start by practicing more.”

Bennett recently recounted this conversation to me over lunch. The conversation occurred several decades ago when Bennett and Emmanuel first met at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society’s annual convention in Nashville. After that trademark, glib response, Bennett waxed serious: “What you really have to do is meet Kim Person.”

Bennett met Person met shortly after he won the 1987 National Winfield Flatpicking Championship. Their mutual love of acoustic music and dedication to achieving the finest guitar tone possible led to a twenty-five-year partnership beginning with Bennett’s 1990 release, “The Nutcracker Suite for Guitar Orchestra.” Some thirty recordings later, the team of Bennett composing and playing and Person producing and engineering continues to yield stunning art, both musically and sonically. Do yourself a favor. Click over to Bennett’s website, harpguitar.com—Bennett is perhaps the world’s foremost harp guitarist—and buy a CD, or three. You can choose at random but do purchase at least one of his harp guitar offerings. Like Tommy Emmanuel, you’re going to want your records to sound as good as Bennett’s.

Emmanuel did heed Bennett’s advice and reached out to Person. The result has been a series of stellar recordings that netted Emmanuel and Person a Grammy nomination and two Golden Guitar awards from a music organization in Emmanuel’s birth country, the Country Music Awards of Australia. Emmanuel is effusive in his praise posted to Person’s website: I would like to say a big “thank you” to Kim Person, who lovingly puts her whole heart into everything she does with me. Her quiet guidance, which I am learning to listen to more, has been a steady rock for my soul to stand on, depend on. Kim, your work is pure gold.

Gold, indeed. The music production program in Keele University in Staffordshire, England, for example, lists but two recommended recordings in the folk/acoustic category: “The Secret Language Of Birds” by Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull fame) and Emmanuel’s Person-produced and engineered “The Mystery.”

Emmanuel and Bennett are not the only luminaries in the acoustic guitar world to seek out Person’s talents. She has also worked her magic with the likes of Martin Taylor, Frank Vignola, Christie Lenee, Dustin Furlow, and Matt Thomas.

In your search for all things Kim Person, do not forget her own music, especially her duo work with Lana Puckett. As the World Folk Music Association has proclaimed, the two “write music in the key of life.” Person and Puckett are four-time finalists at the Kerrville Festival’s songwriting competition. They also won the “Country Vocalist Award” in 1982’s American Song Festival/Columbia Recording Artist Search. In 1984, the duo won Virginia’s “Best Traditional Female Country Vocalist” award. Best is that their recordings all sport Person’s production and engineering sorcery.

Person’s love of and affinity for making music surfaced early. At around the age of two, she began picking out on a tiny, toy piano melodies she’d heard on the radio. By the second grade, Person began taking piano lessons and continued playing the piano through high school. But, well, she wasn’t piano-centric for as long as that sounds. She graduated high school at the age of sixteen. Yeah, a quick study … at everything.

Eschewing music for the first and only time in her life—she turned down full-ride scholarships at three music conservatories—and at the ripe old age of sixteen, Person decided to embark on a career in medicine. She studied biology at Randolph–Macon College, a small liberal arts college in Ashland, Virginia. Her plan was to attend medical school and then practice in the Appalachian mountains in Tennessee, where she imagined living a simple, rural life .

The call of music, however, drowned out the call of the anatomy lab. Unwilling to schlep her beloved piano to college, Person switched to the more portable acoustic guitar. Soon, she was playing the songs of the usual folk and folk/rock suspects like James Taylor, John Denver, and Jim Croce. Then, Person made one of the most important of her discoveries: women folk singers. “And that was it!” says Person. “I could actually sing in the keys that they sang in!”

Person quickly found herself hunched over a reel-to-reel machine, slowed to half-speed, learning the songs that were inspiring her. One of those songs was Joan Baez’s ode to Bob Dylan, “Diamonds and Rust.” Soon, fate intervened. Learning that Baez would be performing in nearby Richmond, Virginia, Person packed her Joan Baez songbook and headed to the concert. When Baez’s manager saw the eighteen-year-old Person sitting on the sidewalk, clutching that songbook, he invited her to attend the soundcheck. After the soundcheck, Baez stepped off the stage, greeted Person, and signed the songbook.

Even at that early age, Person was not one to let an opportunity pass her by. She mentioned to Baez that she was having difficulty deciphering one guitar passage in “Diamonds and Rust.” Baez invited her onto the stage and showed her how to play that portion of the song. Person learned more than a few notes; she learned a life lesson that she follows to this day.

“I’ll never forget that. I was a kid. I was very impressionable, and she took her time to show me how to do something. I’ve lived my life from that point forward vowing to do the same when I can. If there is something somebody needs to learn from me, I’ll do my best to help them out.”

With some guitar chops under her belt, courtesy of that reel-to-reel and Joan Baez, Person hit the folk venues in Virginia and other, nearby states. She landed one semi-regular gig in Newport News, Virginia, hometown of Ella Fitzgerald. Yep, you guessed it. When Fitzgerald was in town, for the Newport News Jazz festival or to visit family, “she would come to hear me play,” says Person. “She was just so nice and so sweet, so complimentary.”

Now, let’s see. You’re about twenty years old and you’ve attracted the attention of arguably the world’s most celebrated folk and jazz female artists. Your own songwriting is beginning to blossom. What do you do? Obsess about acoustic guitar tone. Really.

Throughout her early musical development, maybe because she had the difficult-to-transport piano, Person’s musical friends would gather at her house. The group put Person’s reel-to-reel to use almost nightly. And Person soon embarked on a quest to improve the sound of those nascent recordings. She and her father converted the room above the family garage into a recording studio. Over time, the acoustic guitar become Person’s main instrument and she set out on a “quest to record a really great acoustic guitar sound.”

That mission to make her friends “sound good” soon drew the attention of other local musicians. At some point, Virginia native and guitarist/banjoist/mandolinist/fiddler Bill Gurley came knocking. Gurley then crossed paths with Stephen Bennett. Bennett asked, yes, “How can I make my records sound as good as your records?”

Meeting Bennett was “providential,” says Person. “It was meant for us to have this journey together.” The catalog of acoustic guitar music that they have created, Person accurately avows “will go on beyond the both of us.”

But wait! After graduating college, Person promised her father that she’d engage in her musical folly for no more than five years before committing to using her biology degree to pursue that medical career. Surely, it’s now time to apply to medical school. After all, Person’s mission is to help people whenever she can.

No. It would be a shame should Person deviate from her chosen path. She has found her place in time and in history. And she has and is helping people “attain their dreams” in a deep and moving way. It’s difficult to imagine a more impactful life. As Person puts it, she chose a path in music because, “When words fail, music speaks.”

Kim Person’s music speaks loudly and clearly.