Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
By car, Cookeville, Tennessee, is less than 10 hours from Janesville, Wisconsin. But for Anthony Nguyen, it’s almost a world away.
Nguyen, a 2008 Craig High School graduate, has spent the last several years working on a music career in this small city near Nashville with his band, The Smoky Nights. Along with Nguyen and his guitar, the band features Tennessee natives Carson Correll (percussion), Eric Cullins (violin) and Patrick Shipley (trumpet). Helping front the group is Green Bay native Lily Bethke (vocals/mandolin) who, this coming Saturday, also will be become Nguyen’s wife.
Nguyen, whose parents Dung and Teresa of Janesville are musicians in their own rights, started out as a jazz saxophone soloist in high school before teaching himself drums and guitar. He graduated from Craig as one of the school’s valedictorians but has since “grown my hair out and I’m gonna be a rock star. Take that suburban life.”
Nguyen, who spent six years as a professional engineer before breaking off into music, also has two younger brothers, Alex and Benji, who both attended UW-Madison. Rounding out the family is pet cat Tibby (short for Tiberius).
Wisconsin fans will get a chance to see Nguyen and his new bride perform during a special event starting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at Fermenting Cellars Winery 2004 W. Manogue Road, Janesville.
For those who can’t make it, learn more about The Smoky Nights at TheSmokyNights.com or at the band’s pages on Facebook and Twitter (@thesmokynights) and Instagram (#thesmokynights). Albums and more music also are available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, Google Play and other online platforms.
1. Where did you first develop your love for music? I was always around music growing up. My dad was and still is a drummer, and my mom was always singing and playing guitar. I think there were different CDs constantly playing at our house—pop, rock, Latin, soul, soundtracks, etc. Never a silent moment.
2. Are you a fan of all musical genres, or are there specific styles you prefer? Anything you can’t stand? I think I have some appreciation for most genres, especially Motown/soul music. Never been a huge fan of bro country or metal.
3. Name a skill you wish you had. Man, I really wish I could fluently speak different languages. I’m somewhat decent at Spanish, but I would love to speak Vietnamese, Japanese, Hebrew, French, German, Russian—it’s a universal skill I’d love to learn someday.
4. You started out as a jazz saxophone soloist in high school and taught yourself how to play drums. Are there any other instruments you play or that you would like to learn? Yes, I was playing saxophone and drums before everything else. I’m currently the rhythm guitarist for our band and taught myself about 10 years ago. I would love to learn piano at some point. I think it could really expand our songwriting.
5. You also taught yourself how to play guitar while attending engineering school. At what point did you decide a music career was a better option than engineering? I worked as a professional engineer for six years and tried to balance being an engineer and music as a hobby. But I never really got an opportunity to focus entirely on a music career. It just kind of spontaneously happened that the band became more popular, and we dove headfirst into writing, arranging and recording with our band.
6. Your current band, The Smoky Nights, recently dropped its first album, “Burning Bridges.” How did you come up with the names for the band and album? (Singer) Lily (Bethke) actually created the name “The Smoky Nights.” It was inspired by her love for the Great Smoky Mountains after moving to Tennessee. We came up with this concept about relationships: “I’m tired of burning bridges” and that positive message became the theme for the whole album.
7. Lily is your partner in the band, and she will become your partner in life in a matter of days. How did you two meet, and was music involved? Music was definitely involved. We met at an open mic night in Green Bay. We’ve always shared a connection through music, and as we grew together, we started to perform together more often, ultimately forming The Smoky Nights.
8. Share something people would be surprised to know about you. I’m actually a black belt in the South Korean martial art Kyuki-Do. I think that’s fairly uncommon for musicians from southern Wisconsin.
9. Do you have any pre-gig rituals? Yes, we basically never eat before performing. It throws us off and makes it a lot harder to hit high notes. But that means we eat everything in sight after finishing.
10. You live in Tennessee and perform regularly in the Nashville area. What do you miss most about Wisconsin, and what is better in Tennessee? I’ll give the obvious answer of missing family, but I also miss all the delicious food (beer brats, cheese curds). Things that are much better in Tennessee: the roads, the mountains, the weather (especially winter) and the fried chicken.
11. To this point, what would you consider to be the highlight of your musical career? I’d have to say that recording and releasing our album “Burning Bridges” has been the biggest highlight so far. Being able to share our original music with everyone is such an important milestone, especially with getting to record professionally in a Nashville studio.
12. You just started adding original music to the band’s repertoire this year. From where do you gain your inspiration to write songs? Lily and I were always inspired by a lot of other musicians—just listening to different genres and styles of music. We pulled elements of pop, folk, soul, R&B, Latin and even jazz music to create the sounds on the album.
13. Aside from your guitar or other musical instruments, name the one item you own that you could not live without. Sunglasses. I can’t go anywhere without my sunglasses.
14. The Smoky Nights incorporates many different instruments including mandolin, cajon, fiddle and, most recently, trumpet. Is it beneficial artistically to have so much instrumentation or can it make things more difficult when composing new music? We’re so lucky to have such diverse instrumentation in the band. I think it helps to have a variety of instruments when composing songs, but it’s much more difficult managing live shows with a five-piece band. Adding a new person to the band means he has to learn a lot of music quickly to play four-hour shows with us.
15. When you go to the grocery store, what item goes into your cart whether you need it or not? Salsa. Hot, spicy, definitely-not- Tostitos-brand salsa.
16. Aside from music, do you have any other creative outlets? If not, how much time in the span of a week would you say you dedicate to your music? I guess I’ll go with art here. I spend a lot of time working on different graphic art for our band. I designed the band logo, business cards, the website, a banner, the CD layout, and various advertisements and fliers.
17. Share details of the first concert you ever attended. I was 10 years old, and went with my dad to see Dream Theater live at The Riverside in Milwaukee. It was my first concert, first experience with prog rock, and I had to wear earplugs the whole time since it was so loud. I had a new appreciation for live music (and proper hearing) after that night.
18. Do you collect anything? Actually, yes. This might be odd, but I collect various Hard Rock Cafe guitar pins from different cities I’ve traveled to.
19. If you could get the absolute and total truth to one question, what would that question be? “What year will the singularity and subsequent machine uprising occur?”
20. People assume that the life of a professional musician is all parties, fun and money. Can you offer a personal example that breaks that stereotype? Yeah, I’d have to say being a local folk/pop musician is nothing like being in Aerosmith or The Rolling Stones. We play about four shows every week, and we still try to maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle.