Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Of Drummers and Plane Crashes


Arianna Mallett

Whatzup Features Writer

Published April 3, 2017

Heads Up! This article is 5 years old.

What do gospel music, high school drummers and a plane crash have in common? BackWater somehow bring all these seemingly isolated oddities together in a most convincing fashion. Once these guys warm up, whether on or off-stage, there’s no stopping their high-energy cohesion. This group manages to put together so many unlikely bedfellows that it would be illogical to doubt their abilities, musical or otherwise.

The “guys” are Gene Fugate (lead guitar/vocals), Jamie Lewis (rhythm guitar), Rich Schwartz (bass guitar), Adam Kiel (drums) and Don Wharton (keyboards). Everyone contributes vocally. The majority of the group got their start playing for Amarillo, another local band, but parted recently to pursue other opportunities. Having known Wharton from playing with him in their congregational praise band, Schwartz referred him to the group. Once all five members were intact, BackWater managed 10 shows during their first month’s tenure and had another seven shows on the books for August. If this is any indication of their dedication and commitment, BackWater are just beginning to make its mark.

They’re a fascinating motley crew – in appearance, in age and in personality. It seems that these differences really make the band a success. As Wharton mentioned, “I think everybody brings something unique to this group. I’ve been a professional musician for over 30 years and I’ve worked with a lot of musicians. I just like the way this group pulled together. We don’t struggle against each other.”

“A lot of bands out there play very well musically and gel musically,” added Fugate, “but what really brings us together is that everyone strives for the same type of energy and stage presence.”

Kiel and Lewis (formally of Southern Overdrive) were both drummers at Southern Wells High School, where Kiel reminded Lewis that “you wouldn’t let me play anything!” They met up one night when Kiel was playing on-stage and Lewis was in the crowd.

As it turns out, Schwartz is also a busy man; he plays for the Pillars of Society and still manages to play in the Promise Praise Band (for eight years now) where he first worked with Wharton. Recently, Schwartz was unable to make a show because he was double-booked, and Jake Lewis, Jamie’s dad, stepped in for the night. “I’m worried they’ll replace me one of these days,” Schwartz joked.

BackWater’s signature is the high level of entertainment they bring to each show. “I don’t think we’ve had a show yet where we didn’t get the crowd involved. We’ve been at some shows where everybody sits there, and we make them get involved,” said Lewis.

Fugate seconded that motion, saying, “We want to engage the crowd. We’re not great dancers, but we’ll jump on their tables if they look bored.”

When they were first approached about bringing Wharton to the group, they were apprehensive that Wharton might not be accepting of the high caliber table act. “At our first show together up at Coldwater Lake, I looked over and Don is pounding the keyboards with his elbows. I thought, ‘He’s in,'” said Kiel. Wharton explained, “I survived a plane crash 15 years ago; you get real happy after that.”

The story goes that in 1993 Wharton was flying back from a missionary/humanitarian aid trip in Russia when the twin-engine plane he was riding in was forced to land in the Bering Sea near Nome, Alaska. “I spent an hour in 36-degree water before being rescued by a helicopter. The good news is that I don’t ever have to come up with another story,” he said.

Wharton shares his experience, along with his music and talent, across Indiana. He will soon head to China for a brief musical tour (see www.donwharton.com. for more).

So what’s BackWater’s favorite venue? Opening acts and festivals (although “we’d like to be headliners,” says Wharton). The group thoroughly enjoys playing when kids and families can be a part of the show. In July they opened for Billy Currington at the Three Rivers Festival, and had a blast doing it.

Individually, BackWater’s members have shared the stage with several Nashville recording artists such as Chris Cagle, Steve Warner, Tommy Cash (Johnny Cash’s brother) and Doug Stone. Many of the group performed with the Kentucky Headhunters, which they claim was a real treat. Although they’d like to spend time working on more original music, the fivesome generally entertain their crowds with top country songs by artists such as Chris Cagle, old country by artists like Merle Haggard, and rock n’ roll by groups like AC/DC. They like to throw in four to five original tunes per show.

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