'The Mule,' a 17-year-old string-bender, earning high praise for hot licks

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, June 19, 2013

— Janesville native Zach Molitor stood on an outdoor wooden stage, slinging a Fender Telecaster guitar as the sun set over the back yard of Big Willy’s bar on the south end of Portage.

With his straw cowboy hat tilted low, Molitor stomped his brown western boots and plucked out the guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

As he tromped around above a Jack Daniels banner, red and green stage lights flashed off his lanky 6-foot, 4-inch frame, hiding the youth in his baby face.

Molitor, known on stage as Zac “The Mule” Matthews, is just 17.

He’s been playing guitar only about two years, but he’s not plunking out “Smoke on The Water” in somebody’s garage.

Instead, he’s been on stage at The Rave in Milwaukee, where Molitor and his country-rock band, The BuckNeck-Ed Band, in April played a three-hour show in front of a crowd of 4,000 while opening for major country music act Randy Houser.

And he played in front of 10,000 revved-up gearheads at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds in Pecatonica, Ill., where Molitor and crew entertained a crowd at Metal Mayhem, a major-circuit demolition derby.

But the recent Saturday night in Portage was a little different. It was dues paying, a pick-up gig to fill in for another that had fallen through.

Instead of thousands, it was a cigarette-smoking biker crowd of about 50 people sprinkled with a handful of weekend cowboys and a few 20-something golf junkies.

The small crowd jangled around in the back yard at Big Willy’s while Molitor and The BuckNeck-Ed Band played from a stage that backed up against the white block wall of Carew Concrete and Supply, a concrete mix plant next door.

Cars kicked up dust as they parked along a gravel road between the bar’s yard and a set of railroad tracks. Girls danced in front of the stage, and a guy nodded his head to the music as he dug a big pinch out of a can of Copenhagen.

People slapped at mosquitoes that bit like angry dogs. A southbound train passed on the nearby tracks, and a motorcycle ripped into the parking lot.

A gray-haired man in a leather biker jacket walked through the gates just as Molitor was announcing the band was taking a breather from its five-hour set.

“No you ain’t!” the man yelled. “You’re playing another song! Right now!”

“All right,” Molitor yelled.

Then he and the band launched into a cover of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.”

Who is this kid?

Zach Molitor first picked up a guitar when he was 14. It was his grandma’s guitar—an ancient, beat-up acoustic. Zach’s dad, Matthew Molitor, restrung it and showed Zach how to play an E major chord.

“I practiced that chord until my wrist was numb and my fingers were bloody, but it was that sound, that vibration of that E chord. I fell in love,” Molitor said.

Molitor, now a junior at Milton High School, plays the guitar about six hours a day. In the early days, that troubled his father a bit.

Molitor has always wanted to be a rollicking, outlaw country music performer, and that’s the main type of music he plays.

A few years ago, Zach’s father talked him into getting a Fender Telecaster. The guitar has a twangy sound and a country look, with a pearl-inlaid pick guard. It embodies everything Molitor shoots for musically, a guitar style that is something out of the norm for a high school kid.

Molitor’s guitar heroes include Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eddie Van Halen, but he doesn’t play guitar like those musicians. Molitor plays the guitar more like a golden-era country and rockabilly player. He’s a finger-picker.

It’s a string plucking method preferred by such guitar granddaddies as Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore and used to create a template for contemporary country and rock and roll.

Finger picking scars up the fingernails of seasoned country guitar players until they practically develop claws. Yet, Molitor is so young that his fingernails haven’t toughened up yet. He’s torn off his nails playing fast solos.

Now he glues on fake fingernails. A few times, he forgot and wore them to school. That got him ribbed by some classmates who don’t see the big picture.

For Molitor, it’s not about physical style. It’s about the music.

Along with playing in a road band that travels country-style with a gear trailer and beat-up van, Molitor writes his own songs.

This year, he penned an original song, “Drink All Night.”

He wrote it while serving a school detention earlier this year at Milton High School. He earned the detention after he told off a student who’d squirted ketchup all over his new shirt at lunch.

The BuckNeck-Ed Band plays the song at live shows, and Molitor sings it while he plays lead guitar. It’s a favorite when the band plays at rowdy taverns.

Big Willy’s owner Willy Whittaker got a kick out of hearing Molitor play “Drink All Night,” because the only bottle Molitor was tipping during the band’s show was a container of mosquito spray.

“For a kid who’s never had a beer in his life, it’s a pretty good song,” Whittaker said.

‘The it factor’

Before he became “The Mule,” Molitor tried his hand in a Christian rock band for about a year. It didn’t last.

A pack of wild, outlaw country rockers then got a hold of him.

About a year ago, when Molitor was 16, he saw a Craig’s List advertisement by a Stoughton-area country-rock band looking for a lead guitar player. It was the Buck Neck-ed band.

Molitor put on some cowboy gear, loaded up his Telecaster, and went to audition for the band. When he walked in, he saw a bunch of guys in their 40s and 50s. He promptly lied about his age, telling the band he was 18.

Molitor figured the band wouldn’t hire someone too young to legally break curfew.

“We knew he was lying through his teeth about his age,” said the band’s drummer, “Dakota Fred” Clark, said. “But after the first five minutes we heard him play, I said, ‘Look, I don’t give a damn how old this kid is.’ He’s got the it factor.”

Clark’s been playing country and rock music for a living for 30 years. He’s never seen anybody who’s a more natural player of any style of guitar.

“The kid is hands down the best guitar player I’ve played with in my life,” Clark said. “He could make the band of any damn country rock star out there, and I’m talking right now.”

It’s not just Molitor’s smoking guitar licks, which he showcases in a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” He’s learned to have fun performing, too.

“He’s a livewire, and he really gets energy from a wild crowd,” said Whittaker, the owner of Big Willy’s. “When the band plays inside the bar, he’s up on the speakers, he’s up on the bar, he’s behind the bar. He’s practically doing everything but mixing drinks.”

He’s no Prima Donna, though. Molitor doesn’t mind loading out all the band’s gear for shows. That’s why they call him “The Mule.”

Band bassist “Gentleman Jim” Mortensen, a Stoughton resident and Janesville native, said Molitor at first was tentative on stage, but after Mortensen gave him a few pep talks, The Mule began to unleash his inner outlaw.

“I kept telling him, ‘Mule, whether you’re playing for 11 people or 11,000, you’ve got to give ’er the gas.’”

Growing up fast

It’s looking like the BuckNeck-Ed band’s been giving the gas more lately with Molitor at their side. The band’s working to book another show at The Rave, probably opening for a major Nashville act, Mortensen said.

Molitor said he can’t wait to play The Rave again. The first time the band played there, people were screaming before the stage lights even came up. That actually settled Molitor’s nerves.

“The way that crowd hit me, it felt like the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life, and I just never knew it,” Molitor said.

The Mule plans to finish his high school coursework online. He needs six credits to graduate, and he wants to get finished so he can jump on any musical opportunity.

Some possibilities include a country music tour of the western U.S. later this year and a chance next year to study music while living in Nashville.

Molitor’s father, Matthew, works the soundboard for The BuckNeck-Ed band. He watches his son like a hawk at shows to critique his performances and because he’s seeing his son grow like a prairie wildfire.

Zach said that can be scary for his dad sometimes.

“You learn a lot fast when you’re playing with people who are older and have experience. These guys, they know how to handle themselves all night. They help you grow up fast,” Zach said.

Brent Archibald has been a sound technician for Madison-area country and rock acts for decades. He’d never seen Molitor, but when he pulled up at Big Willy’s, he could tell while still in the parking lot it was somebody who knew how to play.

Archibald was blown away when he walked in and saw it was a kid playing those licks. He said it was like watching a high school pitcher who has a 100 mph fastball and a knuckleball.

He said Molitor puts in the time and crafts his own sound, he’s got a huge future in country music.

“It’s the floppy outside carnivals, the bars, the back road dives. You’ve got to do them. You’ve got to pay your dues,” Archibald said.

“If this kid hangs with it, he’s going to go a lot of places. I can tell you that.”

Last updated: 7:51 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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