Not many people can say they were named the “most promising bluegrass player in America”, played in bands across the U.S. and Europe and have met and hung out with U2.
Dr. Brent Kinser, 19th-century British literature professor and director of literature programs at Western Carolina University, has lived this story since he was 12-years-old.
Kinser started playing the five-string banjo at that age. His father taught at Illinois State University in the early 1970’s during the early folk revival. His father’s students, whom Kinser fondly remembers as “hippies,” helped to revitalize the folk music scene on campus. Kinser rode along with his dad to hang out where the students played music. It was then that his musical interest blossomed.
Gordon Wilfong, who was part of the crowd at the house call “Locust Arms,” was a talented guitar and banjo player who became friends with Kinser’s father.
“My dad convinced Gordon to trade meals for banjo lessons, and I was hooked,” Kinser said.
While Wilfong was teaching him, Kinser’s mother cooked meals, and Kinser often wanted to play through supper.
“I’d rather play than eat,” he said.
“We’d rather hear you eat,” his mentor Wilfong would retort.
From that early age, Kinser spent a lot of time playing in festivals, bands and even a six-week trip to Japan to play in an orchestra. It was a lot of traveling for a young teenager.
“While other people were playing sports and hanging out on weekends, I would be out playing music,” Kinser said.
By the time Kinser turned 16, he said he figured out girls did not particularly like banjo players, so he picked up the electric guitar. In 1983, he moved to Orlando to play in a duo and then in a four-piece rock band called The Terrier Brothers. He said they lived it up playing all over Orlando at clubs and places like Disney World and Universal Studios, and with 50’s bands, such as The Shirelles, The Platters, Spencer Davis and The Mamas and Papas.
Kinser then joined a cowboy trio band called Handpicked. They played at Frontier Land in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, played the Wild West Show Grand Opening at Universal Studios and recorded music for a Super Bowl pregame show and more.
He also played at the White Horse Saloon at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort for five years.
“Everyone travels to Orlando so you get a few crowds of people every week,” Kinser said. “It’s great for musicians.”
One of his best moments arrived when U2 came to Florida to prepare for their ZooTV tour in 1992. Bono and his band stayed at the Hyatt where Handpicked played. After long hours rehearsing, the U2 band members ended their nights by hanging out and listening to Kinser and Handpicked.
By the mid-90s, Handpicked was traveling to Europe and Japan to play. They would travel to Japan for 13 weeks at a time then travel back to the U.S. for four weeks to stay at home. During this time, Budweiser and United Airlines sponsored the country trio.
After this lifestyle for so many years, in 1996, Kinser figured out he was ready to change his career drastically. In 1997, he returned to his roots of Illinois State and majored in English with a minor in history, getting his bachelor’s in December 1998. In 2000, he earned his master’s in English, also from Illinois State University, and in 2005 earned his doctorate at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.
Kinser has been around university life since his childhood. In his family, his mother, father, uncles, aunts and cousins were teachers. Kinser fondly recalls one cousin who once explained to him why so many Kinsers become teachers: “It’s the only way we can get people to listen to us.”
Kinser also knew he wanted to teach when he got his “ah ha” moment while he was in Europe at the age of 14. He visited Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, at the alleged site of Chaucer’s grave.
Kinser said, “At that moment, I became a total Anglophile.”
Besides teaching classes at WCU, he serves as an editor of “The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle” and is the coordinating editor of the Carlyle Letters Online, an electronic version of the project, both published by Duke University Press. He is also a co-editor of the international journal “Carlyle Studies Annual” and the author of “The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy.”
Kinser is happy that his new journey in education and teaching has led him to Cullowhee. Kinser married in 2008 and has two children from a previous marriage, a daughter who is 23 and a son who is 21.
He seems very content with his life now and really loves teaching. When asked about his “past life”, Kinser said it was a wonderful thing to do at the time.
His last comment on his music journey was, “I don’t miss it and am very happy at home with my wonderful, loving partner and three crazy dogs.”