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By the time Matt Kelley was awarded the Special Whammy Award in 2010, he was already very familiar to readers of whatzup and the Fort Wayne community at large.
As the founder and head honcho at One Lucky Guitar and a musical performer himself, Kelley has long found ways to bring his creativity and his commitment to Fort Wayne into sharp focus through numerous projects which go outside of his own personal and professional endeavors.
One example of his contribution to Fort Wayne was the initiation of Down the Line, an annual show which was first devised to showcase the city’s rich musical talent and raise much needed funds for the historic Embassy Theatre while introducing it to a new generation.
Kelley, a Fort Wayne native, earned his degree at Indiana University, where he first got in touch with his more artistic side, even if that wasn’t his original intent.
“I went to IU a math major, with little idea what that may mean for a future career. Actuary? Oh my, the life I might have led. Midway through my sophomore year, in Honors Calculus of Several Variables, I was losing my mind. It was either too much math, or that I was falling for Elise Fischer, across the classroom, and knew in my heart that she’d only see my heart if I bailed on math and pursued my passions, which was fine art and English lit. And so I did. Still got a math minor out of it, though!”
Although that brief romance never panned out, Kelley came back to Fort Wayne with a new mission, though it still took another bit of divine intervention before things fully came into focus.
“I came home to live with the folks, pay off some debt, and gain some experience in this professional world of marketing and advertising. My new job was fun, challenging and full of opportunity. But while the place I worked had a background in music, the approach to creative wasn’t quite as Dylan-esque as I’d always dreamt about, and I eventually made plans to find something new.
“Around that time, I purchased a guitar on eBay—this was the year 2000, and I literally had to create an eBay account to bid!—from Bob Dylan’s guitarist, Bucky Baxter. Bob was my hero, and I’d seen him in concert 30 or so times over the previous four years. And in Bob’s band, Baxter was my favorite. When he left the band to open a studio in Nashville, I was pretty bummed…until I realized he was going to sell some instruments to finance the studio, including a 1964 Gibson B-25 acoustic guitar. I won the auction, and soon enough a series of serendipitous events occurred that led me to believe there was just something special about that guitar, something that blew up the rat race of day-to-day life and made me think that maybe anything in the world was possible. Including starting a design & marketing boutique in downtown Fort Wayne, doing work and staging events that seemed to upend the probable and possible.”
Kelley has also followed the lead of his other musical hero, Bruce Springsteen, realizing that the best way to change the world is to stay close to your roots and make your own community better. Only, unlike the Boss, he didn’t head to California first to figure that out. His determination to make Fort Wayne the kind of place he wanted to raise a family – instead of heading out to find a place that fit that bill – has changed more than his own hometown experience.
“I found that while place can influence your happiness, what mattered most was surrounding yourself with people who are exciting, who are ambitious, who are authentic, and who want to take on the world. And I found people like that in Fort Wayne. We took several trips to Nashville to house shop around this time. We took several trips to Nashville to house shop around this time, but I eventually started thinking that moving was too easy. I was part of Gen X, and had grown tired of many of my peers grousing about there being nothing to do. Many of the most negative moved away, and then those of us that were left started asking, ‘What if we … ?’ And we filled that blank with as many weird, wild and non-traditional ideas as we could muster. Not everything works, of course, but eventually in the mid-00s, it felt like there was a bit of a tipping point.
“I also suppose I’m lucky in that I really like my parents, and quite like living in the same city as them.”
Down the Line was one of the ideas that stuck. Based on a similar concept he worked on with Richard Repogle at Columbia Street West, Kelley pitched the idea to the board of directors of the Embassy and saw the initial show attract 1800 people, with an increase each year. During the years of his involvement, the shows also generated more than $130,000 for the Embassy.
Although Down the Line is now handled by the Embassy and Kelley has relinquished his duties, he continues to find ways to bring more music to Fort Wayne. An eclectic number of artists have come through town in recent years, thanks to his ability to gauge what the local audience wants.
“I think the implosion of the music industry has worked in our favor in this regard. Artists that I once felt were iconic and untouchable will now reply to a random email from a design & marketing boutique in Fort Wayne, Indiana asking if they want to do a show in our fair city. Record labels, management, even booking agents are gone, or ancillary. The performers seem to truly enjoy working with people who really love their music, and why wouldn’t they? So, mix willing artists with great venues like The Brass Rail and CS3 and an increasingly open-minded and hungry audience, and the next thing you know… sparks fly on E Street, if you know what I mean. It also helps that our only financial goal is to lose as little money as possible!”
Kelley says his Special Whammy, now dubbed the Liddell Award, was an honor but assures that it should not be considered a Lifetime Achievement Award. With a host of new projects all in the offing, and some involving music as diverse as alternative rock bands and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Kelley continues to be inspired by this community and the possibilities which he’s more than happy to explore.
“It seems to me that every day there are more and more people doing more and more incredible things in arts and culture, and there’s an audience that appreciates, craves and indeed, demands it. That’s pretty awesome.”