Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Musicmaker

Story Jason Browne | Photographs Luisa Porter

Over the course of 40 years in music in the Golden Triangle, J. Dee McKay has seen big national acts come and go. He’s seen hundreds of local bands come and go. He’s seen his own bands come and go. But he’s still here.

McKay, known as Dee to his friends (he added the “J.” to help unfamiliar folks remember his name), can be found these days running sound at Rick’s Café in Starkville and at the Trotter Convention Center in Columbus, or playing in a few of the 10 bands he’s joined over the decades that survived the rigors of time and attrition. He relishes the opportunity to work with nationally known artists and old friends alike, but he gets wistful when he talks about the limited opportunities for live music in the GT.

“Maybe 20 years ago all the venues and clubs started drying up. There’s just not that many places to play, sadly,” said McKay.

He has his theories on the history and politics behind the marginalization and closure of old clubs like Classix, The Depot and Sam’s Goodtimes Lounge, but, regardless of the reasons, they’re gone. And McKay misses the camaraderie and atmosphere of a musician culture that thrived in Columbus through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and is only seen now in glimpses at special events like Market Street Festival and Sounds of Summer. He said it’s disconcerting considering the area’s musical pedigree “to have such great depth and so many people on the bench.”

But it would be inaccurate to paint McKay as bitter or trapped in the past. He’s neither. And he readily counts his blessings when speaking on his own musical odyssey in Columbus.

His story begins with a musical family heavily involved in church choirs. McKay used to pass the time on long car rides singing with his mother and sister, which is how he learned to sing harmony. From there he progressed to playing in the high school band and studied music theory for a short time at Mississippi State. Somewhere along the way he picked up the guitar, but didn’t get seriously involved in bands until returning from a tour in the Army in the early ’70s.

“I picked up the guitar to boob around on it. Not like my friends who started studying the grooves on LPs for Zeppelin and Hendrix licks,” he said.

Regardless how seriously he took it at the time, McKay quickly found himself in a number of bands playing everything from blues to rockabilly to soul. Bands with friends. Bands with people he barely knew. Bands with dumb names. Bands that disintegrated quickly and bands that still exist 40 years later.

“When you’ve been around and in the music business, you tend to either play or rub elbows with all the local musicians,” said McKay.

While he was still playing in bands like The Dips (a 45 Club staple for a few years) and Air Freight, touring the festival circuit all over the South, McKay and a couple friends started Backstage Music in Starkville, which remains open to this day, although McKay left the business years ago. But the experience of working in retail led McKay to begin installing speaker systems in venues and churches, which led to running sound at festivals and in venues, which led to a steady job at Rick’s, where McKay has pushed faders and twisted knobs for more than 20 years. Over that time he’s run sound for acts like Snoop Dogg, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Blackberry Smoke and plenty more you’d recognize.

“It’s been a privilege to be associated with such huge names,” said McKay.

To this day, McKay remains active in multiple bands with various combinations of old friends around Columbus. The list of bars to play in has shrunk, but as long as there’s a single venue and an audience, McKay isn’t going anywhere.