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Arts & Life

Putnam Shares Musical Vocabulary With Fiddle

Courtesy Kenny Putnam

It’s always nice for a musician to receive recognition for their work, whether by applause, a standing ovation or an award. Reaching the point where your ability is so acclaimed you’re chosen to be in a Hall of Fame, however, is a rare honor indeed. But as we discover, the induction of one musician into the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame came as no surprise to someone who worked with the man from the U.S. to Moscow. 

Sitting in the music studio at his Rapid City home, tuning his fiddle, Kenny Putnam says no one is more amazed that he was able to follow through on his childhood dream to tour the world as a musician than he is. To begin with, the two-time South Dakota fiddle champ never planned to play the fiddle.

“I wanted to play cello, because of an old recording my dad had,” says Kenny. “I remember the cover of this album…he was holding a cigarette and a cigarette lighter and he had world stickers all over his cello case. You know, he’d been around the world…he had all these travel stickers. So, I thought that was pretty cool.”

But the 10-year old’s only choice in the school orchestra was the violin. So, Kenny reluctantly began learning an instrument that traditionally causes people to run for cover.

“It sounds like…backing over a cat,” Kenny observes. “It can be very painful. And I think that’s the struggle for kids is they have to learn to play and typically on poor instruments.”

Credit Courtesy Kenny Putnam
Kenny Putnam (second from left) with the Red Willow Band - still performing together in 2014.

It was the same for Kenny Putnam as it was for any other kid. In fact, he was terrible when it came to practicing his instrument. And though he stayed in the orchestra through high school, Kenny didn’t begin to take the violin seriously until college. 

Kenny was playing in the University of South Dakota orchestra, majoring in art with an eye toward painting, when he began visiting local clubs in Vermillion.

“I realized that you could actually do something else with music besides sit in a folding chair,” Kenny recalls. “I realized that you could actually play in bands and play the violin.”

Finding out there was something called an “electric violin” sealed Kenny’s future.

“Owen DeJong was first chair in the orchestra…the college orchestra,” Kenny explains. “So, I’m sitting in the back and I looked in his case and there’s an electric cord…hanging out of his violin case. And I thought…THAT’s an electric violin, you know. It was like the clouds parted.”

With this newfound knowledge and enthusiasm, Kenny Putnam began playing in combos, eventually forming The Badlands Swing Band. He also made up for all that lost practice time since the 4th grade. Performing for 4 hours per night, 5 nights per week for almost 18 months not only honed his skills, it brought him two first-place finishes in the South Dakota Old Time Fiddle Contest as well as an invitation to join the Red Willow Band.

“It was a warm-up act,” says Kenny. “We’d play with a lot of recording people.Amazing Rhythm Aces…Pure Prairie League…Charlie Daniels…Vasser Clements…Jerry Jeff Walker...David Bromberg…those kinds of acts. And we’d play a lot of colleges.” 

Credit Courtesy Kenny Putnam
Kenny Putnam (left) on stage at the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Roy Clark's band.

 After touring the country with the Red Willow Band for 6 years, Kenny Putnam settled down in Sioux Falls to finishing his art degree. But the music industry had other plans for him.

“Roy Clark was looking for a fiddle player,” Kenny recalls. “Somebody at the Jim Halsey Agency who had booked Red Willow in Tulsa one time suggested they call me. So, I get this call and…” 

And for the next 8 years Kenny was on the road with legendary guitarist Roy Clark, playing across the U.S., overseas in Bulgaria and Moscow, as well regularly performing on Clark’s TV show “Hee Haw”.

When Roy Clark heard that Kenny had been inducted into the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame, the master musician said he wasn’t surprised.

“When you hear him play…you can almost feel his heart beating,” Clark explains. “Because you can see him and you can see his love for music. And without a doubt he’s one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever been privileged to work with.”

Credit Courtesy Kenny Putnam
“When you hear him play…you can almost feel his heart beating.” - Roy Clark on Kenny Putnam's musicianship.

When the whirlwind died down, Kenny Putnam finally finished school, returned to his hometown of Rapid City, raised a family and set up his own design and photo restoration business. And for the last 20 years has been what he refers to as a “Fiddle For Hire”. 

“I’ve always felt on the road that I was hitched to somebody else’s wagon, you know?” Kenny offers. “Somebody else’s agenda…somebody else’s dream. And it was fine, but I didn’t want to make that my life. I didn’t want that to be it.”

And it hasn’t been. Kenny Putnam can be seen throughout the year at dozens of venues ranging from ballrooms and museums to opera houses and saloons…with no plans to stop anytime soon.

Through it all, Kenny Putnam maintains his focus on what’s gotten him this far: using the tool and the talent he was given to share his musical vocabulary at each opportunity that comes along.

*Thanks to Carlee Hetland for her violin contributions to the audio version of this story.

"Remington's Ride"  from "Sure Beats Me" CD - Kenny Putnam

"Remington's Ride" from "Sure Beats Me" CD - Kenny Putnam

  "A Celtic New Year's Eve" (2007)  Black Hills Symphony Orchestra, feat. Kenny Putnam

“A Celtic New Year’s Eve” (2007) Black Hills Symphony Orchestra, feat. Kenny Putnam

   Kenny Putnam at The Dahl – May 2011

Kenny Putnam at The Dahl – May 2011

 “Prayin’ For Rain” from "The Gift of Song" CD – Shadric Smith (feat. Kenny Putnam using “wah-wah” peddle with electric fiddle) 

“Prayin’ For Rain” – The Gift of Song CD – Shadric Smith (feat. Kenny Putnam using “wah-wah” peddle with electric fiddle)

  “Long, Long Way to Hollywood” – Red Willow Band (incld. Kenny Putnam) July 2014  

“Long, Long Way to Hollywood” – Red Willow Band (incld. Kenny Putnam) July 2014

"Wild Side of Life" - Hank Thompson (with Kenny Putnam and the Roy Clark band) on "Hee Haw"