My Afternoon with The Kempters

KEMPTERS

It was roughly 1:30 p.m. when I pulled out of the office parking lot on my way to meet Elmore County’s first family of music.

I had already heard a lot about the Kempters, how they play constantly and most of their shows are to packed houses and adoring fans, so I was looking forward to finally shaking hands with these fine, local musicians.

A couple of quick turns down Hill Street then Bridge Street and I was cruising down Highway 111 toward Slapout.

The scene was beautiful on that spring afternoon as I rolled past green pastures and old farm houses, noticing thick patches of cumulus clouds watching me from above.

After grabbing a quick soda from a nearby convenience store, I pulled into The Kempters’ gravel drive just before 2 p.m.

Without even noticing the numbers on the mailbox I could immediately tell I was in the right place.

A large travel trailer sat in front of the house and, alongside the enormous work shed beside the house, was a tour bus.

I approached the large wooden door and knocked rhythmically.

A young girl, who I would later learn was 10-year-old Charli, answered with a smile and welcomed me in.

“Mama’s on the phone,” she said, leading me into the home. “But she’ll be back in a minute.”

“No problem,” I replied.

Just inside the front door were a couple of road cases which, being a musician myself, I recognized as being for a sound system and other equipment, as well as a large rolling wardrobe full of stage clothes.

To my left, was the 150 year old cello I’d read about on The Kempters website, as well as an electric bass and drum set.

Teresa Kempter soon entered the room, quickly adjusting her classes and tugging at her ash colored hair.

Immediately, she began telling me about the family and the schedule they keep, all while leading me on a tour of the work shed and tour bus.

The bus is an old passenger bus that the family has outfitted with eight bunk beds, leaving the overhead storage and chunks of seats in place.

In the work shed, Teresa showed me the various work spaces her children maintained.

The main area was used by Teresa’s husband Chaz Kempter and their two sons Nathan and Chris.

There were parts of upright basses leaning against the wall, as well as replica pistols and other wood pieces.

In another room, off to the side of the main area, was Sara’s work room.

Inside were bits of paintings on mirrors and slabs of wood, all projects Sara, 22, had been contracted to work on for friends.

Most of the work features calligraphy-style words set atop a back drop of pale blues and ambers.

In the room behind Sara’s was Dani’s  workspace, a room painted to look like the inside of a brick castle, complete with views of glowing sunsets painted where windows would be.

This is where Dani, 20, works on her intricate pencil illustrations, drawing ultra-realistic pictures of babies and movie characters and anything else she finds interesting.

Alongside the tour bus, covered from top to bottom in oil and sweat, were Chaz, Nathan,23, and Chris, 16, busying themselves at rebuilding the bus’s engine…again.

Chaz wiped off his hand and offered it o me.

“I think it’s clean,” he said with a smile.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” I replied, taking his hand and shaking it heartily.

And this was just the beginning of my afternoon with The Kempters.

After making the rounds, Teresa and the other Kempter women led me back to the house where they quickly brewed a pot of tea and made me an excellent cappuccino.

Around the kitchen table, Teresa sitting across from me while Sara, Dani, Charli and Jo, 18, milled throughout the kitchen, was where I began to learn the story of how this “hand-made gospel band” came to be.

All around the kitchen were pieces of Kempter art, from the birdhouses that Teresa and Chaz built and sold all across the country to paintings by Sara and drawings of Dani’s and even the delicate paper-work greeting cards that Jo creates.

Many of these works don’t get sold as Teresa and Chaz buy them up to keep them at home.

What was missing from the house was a TV set, a fact Teresa credits with building her children’s uncanny creative prowess.

The girls laughed and smiled, one sitting at a coffee table and another sitting on a nearby couch while the others moved from sink to counter and back again, as Teresa began laying out the tale that is their family history.

Years ago, when their oldest son Nathan was just a baby, Chaz and Teresa Kempter ran a successful cabinet making company.

As the years passed, and more Kempters joined the family, Chaz and Teresa found themselves busier than ever, business was booming and the girls were playing tennis constantly.

The last project the cabinet-making Kempters would work on was a three-story monstrosity, complete with custom woodwork throughout.

Then, the housing bubble burst.

“We were so busy we didn’t even notice that the phone had stopped ringing,” Teresa said with a laugh. “Then, the music thing just kind of happened.”

No one in the family can pinpoint when or how the Kempters became The Kempters, but slowly that’s what happened.

During their days as a cabinet-making, tennis family, the Kempters had bought a bus for travelling to tournaments.

Dani had taken up playing the piano and the family put a keyboard in the bus so Dani could practice while on the road.

Dani was the first to give up tennis and turn her attention toward music.

A short time later, the Kempters hosted a missionary family whose child played the violin, which inspired Nathan to pick up the fiddle.

“It was awful” Teresa said. “It just sounded so bad.”

Nathan had played the violin for just two weeks before tragedy struck.

While working alongside his father in the family wood shop, Nathan lost his left ring-finger and, as a result, his ability to play the fiddle.

Chaz and Teresa told Nathan that when his hand had heeled they would get him a bass, which he taught himself to play left-handed.

In the meantime Chris, then only 10 years old, decided to take up his brother’s fiddle.

“The first time he drug that bow across the strings it was magic,” Teresa said. “He could really make it sing.”

Chris took classical lessons for a few months but quickly realized that his passion was more for fast-paced licks like those found in bluegrass and fiddle reels.

Now, with Dani playing piano, Nathan playing bass, Chris on fiddle and Chaz on guitar, the family decided they would seek out an instrument for the rest of the kids.

On a trip to the music store, Jo noticed a mandolin and decided it was “cute” and the Kempters took it home.

Now, Sara was the only one without an instrument.

“I told my dad I didn’t want to play an instrument,” Sara said. “I’d just sing or something, but I didn’t want to play anything.”

After Chaz’s uncle brought his grandmother’s 150-year-old cello to the family’s house, Sara was in love.

Charli, who was still very young at the time, would eventually go on to pick up the drums.

“Just As I Am” was the first song the family learned and played it over and over again for anyone who would listen, people they referred to as “victims.”

“We were still doing a little cabinet work at the time,” Teresa said with a chuckle. “When somebody would show up we’d say ‘Hey, do you want to be a victim?’”

This song made up their entire repertoire for awhile because it was only three chords and could be played on open strings while the children honed their abilities.

“We really didn’t have any musical influences,” Dani said. “Whatever came out, that’s just what it sounded like.”

It wasn’t long before someone offered them a job at First Baptist Church in Prattville.

Upon returning home after that first gig, their voice mail was full of people looking to book the band.

This is where Teresa found her calling in the family band as manager, booking agent and sound engineer.

“When we get ready to pull out of the driveway we have to look at mom,” Dani said. “So, do we go left or right?”

Today, The Kempters play roughly 150 shows across the South, and even make yearly trips to Minnesota and Colorado.

Further, the group has recorded four albums and a DVD, work they do themselves at their home in Slapout where each room is connected remotely so that the family can practice together without sitting in the same room.

For the DVD, they even made their own green screen and microphone booms.

While the Kempters are all phenomenal musicians, brilliant artists and craftsmen, I found that their greatest talent lies in being a family.

I spent the rest of that afternoon holding kittens with Charli, listening to Dani play Chopin on the grand piano in her bedroom and checking out the vibrant deco job in Jo’s room.

Teresa and I chatted about gardening and the way that television and technology are having an awful impact on today’s youth.

Before I left, they gave me a CD and DVD to take along with me and, with a wave and a smile and a promise to see them play soon, I made my way back down 111 toward the office.

As “Will the Circle be Unbroken” spilled forth from my car stereo, and those calm cumulus clouds napped above, I was already thinking about the time that we’d all meet again.

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