Dr. Brett Kinser, Department Head of English at Western Carolina University, signs all his mass emails “The Grey Beard Loon” despite his beard being a goatee and on the darker end of the salt-and-pepper scale. His academic accomplishments are varied and great, including upcoming works published by Oxford and California university presses, as well as being founding director of the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium – vllc.cdhsc.org – an online project to digitize and make publicly available the letters and dairies of Victorian-era writers.
To be a grey-beard, this loon was high-tech.
But before he was an educator (did you catch that title drop?) he was a musician, specifically, a folk musician, and even more specifically, “Most Promising Banjo Player in the United States.”
“My dad was real interested in music, and my dad’s dad – he and his three brothers sang in a gospel quartet in churches in south-central Kentucky”
Coming up in the early 70s, his dad taught at Illinois State University in the English Department. “He started hanging out with these students – one of which had just gotten back from Nam – and they had this house in Bloomington, IL and it became this kind of party house where everyone hung out – they were all real big fans of folk music, bluegrass music, and just music in general. They managed to get some student government association money to start this group called New Friends of Old-time Music. Every Friday night there was a free concert and they would bring in all kinds of people.”
At 12-years-old, Kinser’s father would bring him along, and so began his education. “I had taken some group guitar lessons from a guy who told me that I should just give it up,” he jokes, “my parents started trading meals for guitar lessons and I kept working on it, spent way too much time playing music than anything else, and eventually, just kinda got it.”
A few years later, he was traveling between bluegrass festivals, and, from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, earning the accolade of “most promising,” to which Kinser replies in humor: “so I peaked at 14.”
“I traded in a certificate of deposit that was intended for my college education for an Ampeg v4 amplifier – which caused my mother to cry – 100w head, four 12”s, a magnificent thing – you could hear it across the county.”
After playing music throughout high school and even putting out an album that he had just recently tracked down, he took the next logical step, which was going to university to be a chemical engineer. He noted the experience as “miserable.”
From there, the young Kinser got an offer from a friend to travel south to Florida and play music, so they relocated to Orlando and worked their way up from strolling tables at an Olive Garden, to strolling tables at non-chain theme restaurants, performing at live music venues across the city, and finally, Frontierland at Disney World.
“Orlando was a really big magnet for a lot of good musicians – there was still live music back then – and the crowd would rotate every week so they’d never get burned out on you” recalls Kinser, noting how impossible it would be for current musicians to emulate his path.
By the early 90s, Kinser’s band had impressed the general manager of a hotel in Tokyo who sent the group to Japan to play across the street from Tokyo Disneyland.
“The last part of my music career, I was spending 12 weeks in Japan and four weeks at home for a couple of years – we were sponsored by Budweiser and United Airlines.”
14 years a musician finally took its toll on Kinser. “In Orlando, it was industrial-strength. At our busiest, I think we did more than 400 jobs in a year. We played a lot, we worked a lot, and we had a great time, and it was great for a young person, but by 1996, I wasn’t getting any younger” and he decided to return to academia.
“I had never lost the fascination I had for literature and English. I’ve been around universities my whole life.” Connecting his music and academic backgrounds, Kinser reminisces “my first experience as a musician, I had gotten invited by this Illinois State University dance troupe to be in the orchestra for this trip to Europe they did and while I was there, I kind of became an Anglophile” says the expert on Carlyle who returned home from the trip reading books like Churchhill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”
“I was really fortunate because my dad was in English and my mom was in art, so I’ve been around interesting people in art and literature my whole life.”
By the year 2000, he had earned his MA in English from Illinois State University, five years later getting his PhD from UNC Chapel-Hill, “and I was lucky enough to get this position.” Now he’s head of a department nationally-recognized several times over.
Music and academia are two fields that are notoriously difficult to breakthrough in, but here sits Brett Kinser, an individual thoroughly accomplished in both. When asked what he was secret was, he ponders thoughtfully for a moment, “hardwork,” then, in his usual humor, “and luck – lots and lots of luck.”