Classic Country: Forsythe honored for contribution to tradition
He loves to sing in smoky bars until way past midnight. He believes his music, what he offers, loses something in the daylight.
Pittsburgh country-swing musician Kevin “Slim” Forsythe reverently channels Hank Williams Sr. and injects his own spirit into the classics of Bob Wills, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, the Stanley Brothers, Merle Haggard, the Carter Family, George Jones, Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb.
For Forsythe, 58, it’s all about the power of the material.
“My music needs a ceiling, I like to be up close,” he says. “I like to hear the beer bottles crashing into the garbage can. I like to hear the barmaids yelling across the room.”
He sees himself as the conduit, a “broken vessel,” he calls it. “And if I can be that, I am content.
“The music will find its way into the hearts of the listeners if a place can be found for it to enter this world,” he says. “I am that place, in the corner of Nied’s Hotel (his musical home base in Lawrenceville), between the cooler and the Pennsylvania lottery machine. I am that place, I hope and pray.”
His induction Aug 29 into America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Iowa solidifies that wish.
It’s well-deserved recognition, says John Pergal, owner of Lawrenceville’s Thunderbird Cafe, where Forsythe also performs.
“His music is real,” Pergal says. “Slim is a gentleman in the true sense of the word, a classic country performer. He is everything that pop-country music is lacking today.”
“Real” country music isn’t an electronically produced, vocal-altering, studio production, says musician Robert Everhart, who with wife Sheila Everhart are founders of the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame. “It’s ‘real’ people like Slim Forsythe, singing real story songs just as they were written, with sincerity, honesty and from the heart.”
Forsythe says he had a moment of clarity during festivities at the National Old Time Music Festival in LeMars, Iowa, where he performed 10 times in two days.
“It made me realize that I stand in a tradition,” he says. “I’m one guy, and there’s thousands of men and women, some still living, but many who have passed on. It’s what I like to call the ‘Great American Songbook.’”
In his own way, his late father, Frank Forsythe, was part of that songbook, singing big-band and jazz standards in the 1940s and ’50s, performing with Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra and entertaining on “Duquesne Showtime,” a weekly variety show on KDKA-TV in the early ’50s.
A ’60s kid
Slim Forsythe, who came of age in the 1960s as a self-described Beatles, (Bob) Dylan, Stones, Creedence (Cleerwater Revival) and Van Morrison guy, didn’t come to country music until much later in life.
“Big Rock” Evan Kanuer, his friend and guitarist in his New Payday Loners band, got him to listen to Hank Sr. in the early ’90s.
“And that was all she wrote! That stuff just seeped into my bones. Later, Evan and I listened together quite a lot to the Stanley Brothers and other mountain-gospel material,” he says. “There is a spirit and a power to that stuff that just knocks me out, and one of the chief joys of my life is to sing it in saloons and night clubs way past midnight.”
Every once in a while, he’ll be in a bar by himself and somebody will play Hank on the jukebox. “And I am reminded for the 100th time how his voice was simply a rip in time, a gift to the world; it grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It must be served. It’s about the story that’s being told,” he says.
Forsythe and his band are telling many of those stories in a Kickstarter crowd-funded, made-for-television pilot program, “Live at Nied’s Hotel,” produced and directed by Dino DiStefano, a Grammy-winning sound-recording engineer. Now in post-production, Forsythe is exploring options on where it might be aired locally and via the Internet internationally.
“Taping it was one of the most fabulous experiences of my life, so far,” Forsythe says.
Skipp Barr of West View, son of late Pittsburgh mayor Joseph M. Barr, saw Forsythe perform his first show at Nied’s and has been a fan and friend since.
“He simply makes you feel good just being around him,” says Barr. “As a songwriter, Slim’s compositions are full of wit, vivid images, heartfelt stories and melodies you continue to hum once you hear them.”
Barr attended and photographed his friend’s Hall of Fame induction.
“For Slim to be included with all the others who come from places where traditional country is much more popular than it is in Pittsburgh is a testimony to their recognition and respect for Slim’s talent and professionalism,” Barr says.
It is no small accomplishment, says Forsythe’s friend Jim Nied, owner and proprietor of Nied’s Hotel.
“It’s the biggest of big deals because your peers and powers that be in your field recognize that you belong in elite company and deserve to have your body of work appreciated for future generations to learn about and enjoy,” Nied says.
Slim being Slim
The magic of Slim is “being Slim,” Nied says. “He’s so human, I’m humbled to know him. He’s the most memorable person I ever knew.”
The Bradford native, who was involved in the ’70s communal farm experiment, is a former lawyer, school-bus driver and Zippo lighter factory worker. He is now employed in the city of Pittsburgh’s management and budget office. When he was arrested during an anti-nuclear protest in 1988, he spent 30 days in the Allegheny County Jail.
“No big deal. I used the time to finish my first novel,” ‘Murder on the Mon,’ ” he says. It was the first of his self-published Pittsburgh River Trilogy, including “Stardust on the Allegheny” and “Twilight on the Ohio,” released as a set in 2003.
Forsythe and his “favorite second ex-wife” tried to provide another kind of comfort when they volunteered in 1988 at Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying in Calcutta.
He founded and hosted “Slim Forsythe’s Old Time Country Western Radio Hour,” emanating from Nied’s Hotel.
He hopes that those who need it find strength and comfort in his music “as they struggle with lovesickness and heartache,” he says.
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or [email protected]
Harmonica virtuoso George Miklas of Findley Township, Mercer County, also was inducted this summer into the 2014 class of America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Iowa.
A former member of Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, Miklas, 49, leads the Miklas Family Harmonica Band.
Miklas, a teacher at at Freedom High School, Beaver County, promotes harmonica playing. “In America,” he says, ”the harmonica has lived a past life that today not too many people know about or acknowledge.”