Interview MIKE ESTES (Skinny Molly)
par Philippe Archambeau et Yves Degand-Philippot - Juin 2016

RTJ : First, I'd like to come back to your start, can you remain us where you come from ?

Mike Estes : I'm from Williamsburg, Kentucky

RTJ : Was your family a musical one ? Who where the main artists you listened to ?

Mike Estes : Yes, my dad plays some guitar and is a really good singer. He's actually singing with me on a track I did for my solo CD. We did a totally different take on the Hank Williams Sr classic "Your Cheatin' Heart". My dad's mother's side of the family were also really musical. Music is very important in that part of the south, and Kentucky is, of course, "The Bluegrass State".

My mother wasn't a singer, but she loved music and was a hell of a dancer! Most of the stuff we listened to was country music; Hank Williams SR was probably the main artist. My mom had some really great Hawaiian records; she was from there and she and my dad met while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor when he was in the Navy.

The Hank records and the Hawaiian records both had a lot of lap steel guitar, and there's no doubt it's a big influence on me, and Derek Parnell and I are both playing lap steel all over my new CD.

RTJ : Which instrument do you begin to play ? And which tunes ?

Mike Estes : I started off with my dad's acoustic guitar. The songs I tried to play were out of the"Mel Bay" basic guitar chords book. I was about 6 years old, and It took me a long time to get a song together. I just learned a couple of folk songs in the book.

I learned the same chords everybody else did. G, C and D pretty quick. Then I didn't really play for a long time. I started playing again when I was about 14, and had gotten in to what is now called "Classic Rock" and "Southern Rock" But I still loved good Country Music, which is a rarity these days. When I heard "Ramblin' Man" by the Allman's and then "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd a year or two later, neither one sounded all that different to me than the country records I grew up with, and I gravitated towards that style.

RTJ : How did you start to play in a band, was it in the high school ? Was Helen Highwater your first band ?
Where did this name come from ? Have you some recordings from this time ? What did you play live ?

Mike Estes : I guess I was 16 when I was in my first band; it was called 100 Proof. We played cover songs, and probably one original which I'm sure was really awful. We won our local "Battle of the Bands" two years in a row. Then another band called 100 Proof said they were going to sue us over us using that name, as they said they had it "Trademarked". We changed the name to Helen Highwater, as by that time, I had become friends with Craig Reed, who worked for the Rossington Collins Band. 100 Proof's singer and I found a Jacksonville, FL phone book and decided to see if any of the Skynyrd guys were listed in it. Next thing you know, I called up the Rossington Collins Band office phone, and Craig Reed answered it. We started talking about music and became fast friends. I told him about the lawsuit from the other band and that I needed a new name for our band. He got Allen Collins on a "conference" phone call with me, told Allen my problem, and Allen said, "Helen Highwater!". "It's yours!". "Do something with it!" To say I was excited about playing under a name that Allen Collins had given me is a complete understatement. Allen was my number one guitar hero! Helen Highwater did a five song demo. It wasn't very good…We later did a vinyl "45" that was a little better. We played a lot of southern rock songs live. Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, CDB, Outlaws, etc.

RTJ : How did you meet Allen Collins who became a friend of yours ? Is it true that you knocked him down the first time you met ?

Mike Estes : Not long after I talked to him on the phone, I drove to Florida to meet Craig, and the first time I met Allen, we wound up in a boxing match. I punched him in the nose, damn near knocked him out, but he came back like a windmill and I got hit a few times. A completely epic boxing match! I was 17 or 18 years old at that time. He bear hugged me after the fight, and we were buddies from then on. That's the day I met Billy, Leon, Barry Harwood, Derek Hess, and Randall Hall for the first time too. We really had some laughs that day.

RTJ : You said that he gave to you a tape with Skynyrd tunes, can you tell us more about that ? Was it tunes of Skynyrd’s First And… Last ?Allen Collins remains for me as Skynyrd's leader : at Knebworth 1976 he illuminates
the stage with his presence. Can you tell us more about him ?

Mike Estes : I came back to Allen's some time later on Easter Sunday, 1983. I brought him a tape of Helen Highwater, and he loved a couple of my more country songs on it. That REALLY made me happy. That was the day he showed me how to play the Freebird solo. I was spending a lot of time in Jax, so I ended up moving there, playing in Helen Highwater six nights a week. Allen came in to where we were playing, sat in with us, let us open an Allen Collins Band show on Jax Beach and was really supportive. He went around telling everybody that I was leading Jacksonville's "Next big thing".

It was a great time in my life and I'll never forget it. He had giving me a tape of some previously unreleased songs that wound up on "Legend" and other albums. The "Legend" album didn't sound like my tape though. The mixes I have are much better. Allen was a prankster, a really funny guy that loved comedy, guitars, amps, pretty girls, but he could, at times, be his own worst enemy… mostly when it came to drinking and driving. He wrecked a lot of cars. I actually have driven the car that he wrecked in his last bad accident. He was a great friend. I miss him all the time.

RTJ : How did you meet Ed King ? Do you still see him from time to time for a drink ? How is he ?

Mike Estes : I met Ed King thorough Craig Reed as well. Skynyrd had a song they were working on that nobody could come up with lyrics for. It was supposed to go on the "Last Rebel" record. It was actually titled "Blessing in Disguise". Craig called me up and said "Nobody in the band can come up with any lyrics for it. Write it for them" So, I did. In about 10 minutes. It wasn't all that great, but it was good enough to get Ed's attention, and he flew me down to Orlando where he was living right after that for a couple days. I think I wrote lyrics for three of his tracks in a couple days. I came home and made demos of them. Ed and I were a heck of a good writing team. He took me places I never would have went musically. I learned a hell of a lot from him. We wrote for over a solid year together, ALL the time! The clock didn't matter. To be honest, NOTHING mattered to us more than writing and then recording the results. Probably the most fun time of my life. I don't get to see Ed near as much as I'd like to…he did come out with Sharon and the dogs and jammed with Skinny Molly at our studio last summer. It was a GREAT time. He's also on our "Here for a Good Time" CD, on a track he and I wrote 20 years ago called "Make it Easy" As soon as you hear his first note you know it's him.

RTJ : How did you join Lynyrd Skynyrd ?

Mike Estes : As far as joining the band, I had been staying at Ed King's house, and one night Ed he decided to go visit his kids in Orlando, after he had moved to St Augustine, FL. I was practically living with him and Sharon at that time. Anyway, Gary called me up at Ed's and asked if I wanted to hang out and play guitar and write since Ed would be gone. It wasn't unusual, Gary and I had been hanging out together on the road with Skynyrd, as I often went out on tour with them to write songs. So, Gary and I wound up drinking a bottle of Booker Nose at somebody's house…I don't remember whose…and we started playing a bunch of songs and drinking. We played Skynyrd songs, other songs. I played the intro to "I Know A Little" for him and he asked me to join the band. Honestly, we were both pretty drunk at the time but we could both still play. I said " Sleep on it and ask me again tomorrow, if you still want me to.” I didn't want him to jump into a decision he might regret (laughs) We went back to his house and slept it off. I got up early and drove Gary's truck back to Ed's. I didn't want to wake Gary up before I left because I knew his head would hurt as much as mine did. I'd been back at Ed's for about ten minutes and I told him Gary asked me to join the band. Ed said "I knew this was gonna happen" (laughs) Ed was actually opposed to the idea, because he thought it might adversely affect my song writing. He was probably right about that. At least partially.

RTJ : What are the memories that you keep from this time in one of the greatest American bands ?

Mike Estes : Suffice to say, I had a lot of help from the Skynyrd camp over the years. Craig Reed, Allen Collins, Ed King…The managers, road managers…I was friends with everybody. When I was in the band there were four original members still playing. Although I never thought the lineup I was in was as good as the original Skynyrd, there were times it was pretty dang good. I have a lot of good memories about the whole experience. The best one probably being my mom and dad coming to a Skynyrd show and seeing me play with them, and the band dedicating Simple Man to my mom.

RTJ : How did the first rehearsals go ?

Mike Estes : They went pretty well, but it was difficult for me to get used to the drummer at first, as he used a click track to play with. Owen Hale was pretty much a studio drummer, and he liked using a click track. I personally didn't care for it at the time, but I understand why he did it.

RTJ : Have you still never released titles written during your period in Lynyrd Skynyrd that we could
see with Skinny Molly ?

Mike Estes : Actually, I have used a few riffs with Skinny Molly that were originally going to be Skynyrd songs. "Here for a Good Time" and "Girls Like You" are two riffs that I wrote that Skynyrd had jammed on back then. Gary loved that riff I had that wound up being "Here For A Good Time"… Let's see…"Too Much" and " When The Goin' Gets Tough The Tough Go Fishin' " are two more I can think of. I saved all the cassette demos I used to make back then and I'm real glad I did.

RTJ : Did you have the opportunity to see Lynyrd Skynyrd live this year or to listen to the CD One More for The Fans ? If you did, what is your opinion ?

Mike Estes : No, if I listen to Skynyrd these days, it's the original band. Unless I feel like listening to some recording I was on, which is only maybe once every couple of years. I haven't seen them play live since I left.

RTJ : I'd like to come back to what you have done between Lynyrd and Skinny Molly, can you tell us more about Drivin’ Sideways ? I love this record. How was it composed ?

Mike Estes : I wrote a lot of the songs with my good friend Paul Abraham. He used to be Skynyrd's road manager. We both loved NASCAR and thought we should try and do a record. That was a real good band, I thought.

RTJ : Will the record been released again in order to be found by the new fans on CD BABY ?

Mike Estes : Probably not. It's outdated as far as the lineup of NASCAR drivers are concerned.

RTJ : You also had a more Country project called BRAVE NEW SOUTH, with a record released, how did it go ? Can you tell us more about this project ?

Mike Estes : This is the best record I've ever done in my opinion. It has some of my favorite songs on it. "No Present Like The Time" is probably one of my high points, lyrically. The record did pretty well in Scandinavia when it was released, back in 2001. The record company did a sort of re release of it there recently, I'm told.

RTJ : You also had a Horsetraderz project, a record was released, can you tell us who was with you and how you composed this acoustic project ? How did you meet Pontus J Back ? What does he become ?

Mike Estes : Horsetraders was basically an excuse for Pontus and me to tour. It was a lot of fun at the time, but things went bad with Pontus for a while because he drank continuously and got into money problems with a lot of people. He has since found God and I hope that he's OK.

RTJ : For our readers, can you remain us how SKINNY MOLLY was set up in 2004 and why you choose this name ? After Dave Hlubeck's departure, Chris Walker went behind in Skinny Molly, what does he become ?

Mike Estes : Well, Dave Hlubeck called me up one day in 2003 and said "Hey, Mikee, I'm looking for a gig. Know anybody looking for a guitar player?" I knew Dave had recently left the SRA as I had been playing with SRA too, but had left before Dave did just to concentrate on Brave New South. Technically, Dave joined Brave New South for about a year. Then Pontus Back heard that Dave and I were playing together and asked if we'd like to do a tour with him. Just one tour in the summer of Scandinavia. I said "Sure. We'll do it. We'll call it Skinny Molly". It was a play on Dave's and mine former bands names. It went really well so we decided to continue doing it. We covered Skynyrd and Hatchet songs mostly. But I said back then : "If we are going to continue under this name, we have to write some original stuff. I don't want to be in a tribute band of any sort." We started writing, but Dave went back to Hatchet, and Kurt and I continued to look for the right guys to put a band together that could do good original material. We finally got Chris Walker on guitar, and then Luke Bradshaw to come in on bass. Chris is a really good guitar player, but he really couldn't totally commit to the road due to the fact that he has custody of his two kids. This band is a road band, so we had to get somebody else.

RTJ : Jay Johnson succeeded him, can you give us some news about his health further to his replacement during the last European tour ? Was the choice of Jay Johnson natural ? Since when do you know you each other ?

Mike Estes : Jay is perfectly fine now and is back on track with us, and will be on tour with us this summer and for the rest of the year, and for however long he wants to do it. Jay and I met at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky on the Skynyrd Tribute Tour in 1987. I actually sat in with Skynyrd that night. Since we have known each other and played tons of shows together it was totally natural for him to be in this band. He was the first guy I called.

RTJ : If you have to define SKINNY MOLLY's music today, how would you present it ?

Mike Estes : Southern Rock. We are waving the flag, and have been since 2004.

RTJ : I'd like to come back on your last record, it begins with the tune giving the album its name, « Here for a Good Time », a classic mid-tempo Southern Rock and two solid guitars, is it a good definition of SKINNY MOLLY's music ?

Mike Estes : I would say yes, for sure! The first record we did was kind of dark, the second record was a bit harder, and the third one, for lack of a better word might be a bit "countrier". More good time sounding… though there are a couple of dark songs on there, like "Ride" which I really like. This band is all about having a good time these days, though.

RTJ : We go on with « For Y`All », a nice Country tune in which you declare that it's not worth burning candles in your memory, that you had a good life and that this song is for your true friends up to the end (« Don’t burn candles in my memory, I’ve lived a good life. Lord knows I’ve had a ball, and for my true friends up to the end this one’s for you all »). It could squarely become an epitaph on a tombstone. In any case, it's a good summary of the life of a musician. Did you have a message to convey ?

Mike Estes : Well, yes I did. I'm glad you spotted this… While I was writing songs for the "Here For A Good Time" CD, I was thinking that this might be the last record I was ever going to play on. Ever. The music business had become very difficult and touring had become very difficult and it is a very expensive and tiring enterprise. I thought that I might just start writing and producing for other bands, and quit the road. I'm not 20 years old anymore, and we were dealing with agents and promoters at that time that were making me miserable and I was getting no sleep for two months at a time on the road… it was wearing me out. So, I thought I should write a song for the fans from my heart. Kind of like "If I die today, tomorrow, or whenever, thank you for liking my songs and coming to see us play over the years, I really DO appreciate you" That's what was in my mind or my message, so to speak. One never knows what might happen in life, or when. I just wanted the people that have enjoyed my songs over the years to know how much I appreciate them for their support. If it all ends tomorrow, thanks for a hell of a ride! Now, we have a new agent in the UK, and a new manager in the USA. We have been playing much bigger shows at home this year, including the "Rock the South" Festival which is a big show, was great for the band, and made us a lot of new fans. So, now, after 12 years of doing Skinny Molly, I'm just going to keep doing it indefinitely.

RTJ : « When The Goin´ Gets Tough, The Tough Go Fishin´ » was on the Brave New South album, it's a Southern Honky-tonk with a “redneck” guitar solo, why did you take this tune again, and did you change something inside ?

Mike Estes : I didn't really change it a whole lot… I just counted on the fact that the Skinny Molly guys would be playing on the new version and that would make it sound like Skinny Molly, which I think it did. The reason I chose to record it again was because we were playing it a lot live, and it goes down real well with the audience. So, I thought we should record it.

RTJ : « Make It Easy » is a jazzy and nagging « Southern Blues » that Ed King co-signed. We can immediately recognise the inimitable slide of our good ol' Ed, when did you compose this tune ?

Mike Estes : I believe it was 1993… I came up with that riff in my head… I couldn't even play it after I heard it in there… I practiced and practiced until I could play it, and then I showed it to Ed. He said he loved it, so I wrote the lyrics for it, and he arranged it. It was originally meant for a female singer.

RTJ : Ed King probably has a lot of tunes composed for 20 years, couldn't you compose an album in an old fashion way, recorded with a singer in the same vein as Skynyrd ?

I would love nothing more than to do that with him, honestly. I'm sure between Ed and I we could come Mike Estes : up with the songs. He tells me he's retired these days, though and only wants to come out and record or play on occasion. I'm lucky that he has told me he'll at least play on a song or two on any record I do. Hopefully, he and I can write something new for a Skinny Molly CD in the future, at least.

RTJ : « Girls Like You » is a medium tempo Rock with a guitar duel, how do you share the solos with Jay ?

Mike Estes : That one was really fun to record. We just came up with solos on the spot, which is something I normally don't do. Normally I write each of my solos in my head then I learn them. That way, my guitar playing doesn't get in the way of my solos (LAUGHS) but seriously, I like to hear something in my head first, then play it. But on this song, Jay and I just let it fly for fun, because the song is fun and we wanted to have fun playing it.

RTJ : SKINNY MOLLY tours regularly in Europe, do you think that today the band is more successful here than in the United States ?

Mike Estes : I would have to say yes, but I think that is changing. This year the band has been recognized more at home than ever before and we have been playing much bigger shows here than we do in Europe. But, having said that, this summer in Europe we are doing some pretty big shows too. It really doesn't matter to me how big the shows are though, as long as we can keep playing, it'll be OK. I do think, however that the band has paid a lot of dues, and the guys in it deserve to make a decent living playing music. We are finally doing that. Nobody in this band cares about being famous… that would be fatal…we only care that we can keep doing what we are doing.

RTJ : Jay Johnson had to let his place during the tour in November and December 2015 in Europe, how did his replacement go with Manu from Natchez and Pavel Marcel ?

Mike Estes : Both Manu and Pavel were GREAT especially in the amount of time they had to learn the songs. It was a great experience for everybody, because everybody had to be ready for anything. Those guys play totally differently from each other… Manu is more of a "southern player" than Pavel, but they both put their own touches on our songs and I really enjoyed the time with both of them.

RTJ : I have seen videos on YouTube with Pavel and you seemed to have always played together, like brothers, is it a good reflection of your interaction ?

Mike Estes : I've been hanging out with Pavel since I was in Blackfoot, and he and I have spent some time together on the road before this last tour, always having a laugh. We have the same crazy sense of humor and are exactly the same politically, so we have lots to talk about. He's the Czech Mike Estes, only he's a better guitarist than Mike, but a worse lyricist. (LAUGHS)

RTJ : Is there a difference between the European audience and the American one ?

Mike Estes : I don't think the audience is really that much different. I DO think that Europeans value music more than Americans, though. A lot of Americans have become too concerned with their "Facebook lives" to pay attention to music that much any more. They think music should be free and that you should stop by their house to play a concert, so they don't have to drive, also for free. (LAUGHS) I'm probably exaggerating that, because we DO have some hardcore American fans. But fans on the continent in Europe will do a lot of driving when they want to see a concert, and many Americans won't do that any more. They are too busy counting the "likes" on their posts of food pictures. (LAUGHS) I'm kidding, of course.

RTJ : Do you think that one day you will record a tune with Natchez in studio ?

Mike Estes : They are a great band and I would be honored to do that. If they ask, the answer would of
course be oui!

RTJ : During your tours, you bumped into a lot of bands in Europe, are you sometimes listening to some ?

Mike Estes : Sometimes! If a band gives us a CD at a show we listen to it in the bus.
Some are good, some not so good. (LAUGHS)

RTJ : Question for the guitarist : at the moment what is your preferred gear in studio and on stage ?

Mike Estes : I'm usually using some sort of Les Paul JR or Les Paul Special…My favorite is and always has been "Sugar", my 1959 Les Paul JR. I also have a '56 JR, and a '57 VOS JR and '58 VOS JR (both in TV white)
that I use a lot.

I have my own model of guitar coming out this summer, which is a cool looking thing that I cooked up with a local guitar maker in my home town. It's a cross between a Telecaster, a Firebird, an Explorer, and a Les Paul JR. It's crazy but fun. They will be made one at a time, here in Tennessee.

There is just one minor issue to work out with the tail-piece and we will be on our way. I might be playing the prototype on the summer Euro tour.

As far as amps, I can play through most any Marshall or early Fender and make it work. I'm working with a guy in Scotland that my friend Steward Denny turned me on to for a custom Marshall-like "plexi" amp. At home, I'm using a Marshall JCM 800 with Eminence speakers, and they are a huge part of my sound.

RTJ : Your voice changed in 20 years, it's husky and velvety when it's needed, saturated with sun and bourbon, and tickles our ears like we love it in the Rock, how did you work it ?

Mike Estes : Well, I've probably smoked and drank too much over the years, but yeah, it has changed… It used to be cleaner sounding. I learned some different techniques for singing when I was in Blackfoot, and I actually extended my range when I was in that band, and sang higher than I ever thought I could.

I just figured out how to do that on my own, somehow. But now I can use that with Skinny Molly, so that might be one reason it's changed. I'm glad you like it, Merci!

RTJ : Where is the project Monsters of Southern Rock ?

Mike Estes : I'm never opposed to playing with those guys. I love each and every one of them. It's just a very expensive band to hire because there are so many flights involved. I hope to do more with them in the future though!

RTJ : What are the projects of SKINNY MOLLY for the future, CD, DVD to be released, acoustic project ?

Mike Estes : The DVD "Live at the Shed" is on our website. It will be available in PAL this summer I'm real proud of it. It's REALLY live, unlike most music DVDs that are out there. My "solo" acoustic CD (which is not so much acoustic anymore) will be out sometime this year. I'm working on it in my spare time which is something I don't have much of these days. There will be a new Skinny Molly CD next year. Probably in early Summer. Skinny Molly CDs take up a lot of my time, because I do most of the writing. I also produce and even do some engineering. I really have to be mentally prepared to do a Skinny Molly CD, because I know a year of my life will be dedicated to it.

RTJ : Last and traditional question, if you have to stay on a desert island, what are the five records that you would take with you ?

Mike Estes : This list changes daily for me… today the list would be:

"Stripped"- Rolling Stones

"Guitar Town"- Steve Earle

"Bad Co."- Bad Company

"Step Inside This House"- Lyle Lovett

"Cracked Rear View"- Townes VanZandt

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