DANVILLE - Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Rakes believes it's no coincidence that some of the best people he's ever known would not be in his life without music.
"Through being a musician, I've met some of the best people," he said. "I've lost touch with some through the years, but when you think about it, it's pretty incredible the way music brings folks together."
Despite his skillful fretboard work, Rakes, 41, wasn't born with a guitar in his hands. It took some time for him to develop an interest in music and his first tangle with an instrument came in elementary school when he took to brass.
"When I was 6 or 7, I had a keyboard and I'd mess around with that. I grew up in Harts and when I was in junior high, they offered a guitar class and kids were bringing guitars to school. I had one before that and my parents found it at a yard sale and I had a couple of uncles that picked around, but I never really took to it until junior high."
While Rakes' style today leans more toward country with a splash of rock and blues, initially his interest was piqued by hard rock.
"I was really into Ozzy Osbourne and his guitarist Zakk Wylde back then," he said. "I just liked the sounds that came out of the electric guitar and he was unique and it made me want to play guitar. Later, I got into guitar players like Elliot Easton who played with The Cars. He blended so many styles together to make his own and it made me branch out and listen to other things, which eventually led me to country pickers."
Rakes father, who was from Harts, worked on the railroad; in the late 1970s, the family lived in Columbus, Ohio, before returning to West Virginia when he was very young.
The picker said West Virginia connections run deep, and music has a funny way of connecting people.
"I was playing a gig out in Montana," he said. "I lived there for about five years and when the band took a break, a guy came up to me and he told me that he was from Lincoln County. After we talked for a bit I realized that he and my dad were first cousins. He was from Ranger, which is actually where my dad grew up. He was working on the pipeline there and had been in Montana 35 years and never came back to West Virginia. It just amazed me that we made a connection so far away from here."
Rakes played his first gig in the Stardust Lounge in Logan when he was just 15 years old. He said he was nervous and he was playing with older musicians who showed him the ropes pretty quickly. Rakes noted that when he was learning the instrument, the internet wasn't available to use as a tool.
"I learned the old-fashioned way," he said. "You sat down with a record and you'd find ways to slow it down to hear what the guy was doing. There wasn't a visual element to it, at least for me. You had to use your ears, man. Later on, I got most of my education playing every weekend."
When he was 17, he was playing in The Broken Arrow Band with good friend Ritchie Wiley (lead vocals, rhythm guitar).
The band still performs today and is rounded out with Roy Schwaban (bass), Pete Ferrell (keys, backing vocals), Rakes (lead and backing vocals, lead guitar) and Chuck Brown (drums).
Rakes has a tattoo of the band name on his arm, which represents the longevity of the group and their friendship. He also tears up the stage with the Audio Outlaws.
In 2005, Rakes got his first taste of the road and touring with Adam D. Tucker, who takes center stage as a Tim McGraw tribute act. Recently, Tucker, a Sissonville native, has held a residency in Las Vegas with the show. Back then, Rakes was touring clubs across the country with Tucker.
"It was a real learning experience for me," he said. "He needed a versatile player who could play dobro and acoustic guitar. Adam took me to a lot of places. My first gig with him was in Mobile, Alabama. There was big crowds and we played big festivals and if we played a club it was a huge one that did line dancing. It was good to get out of here and see the world. It's also good to leave the world behind and come home at the end of the day, too."
From there he moved on to a 1980s rock/pop tribute band based out of Nashville called "Zero Echo."
"I went to Nashville and rehearsed for about an hour with the band and we loaded up and hit the road and worked out the rest of the songs rolling down the road," he said, laughing.
Rakes' first Nashville experience had come previously with Tucker, and he was able to open for artists like Eric Church and Confederate Railroad.
"One time we did a gig at the beach and we had to leave the beach and go to Wise, Virginia, and we were opening for Confederate Railroad," he said. "Their singer (Danny Shirley) saw my acoustic guitar and it had rusty strings on it and he commented on how the beach air will wreak havoc on guitar strings. He could tell we had just left the beach. He told his guitar tech to string up my guitar for me. He had no idea that at the time, it really helped me out a lot."
Rakes said the ability to sing in harmony makes a musician more valuable to a group and it is something he takes pride in. He also takes a few lead vocal spots throughout the evening on any given night.
"I started out on trombone in school, so I was always harmony to the trumpets," he said. "That was my first harmony lesson and it stuck with me. I've never taken lessons, but I watch, listen and learn from musicians all the time and they don't even know it."
Rakes left his mark on a bow hunting-themed television show in Montana called, "Shoot Straight" that features a song that he helped arrange and played multiple instruments on. Rakes said that music has taught him the value of learning a craft and that an instrument is a tool of the trade just like a hammer to a roofer or a saw to a carpenter.
"You can't ever put it down or that skill fades," he said. "You have to use it or you lose it to some extent. You have to play to stay sharp. Sometimes this happens to me with the steel guitar. I'll get so busy with my acoustic and electric (guitar) gigs that it gets neglected."
Rakes takes the stage every Wednesday night at the Madison Moose, a gig he's had for over four years. Local musicians like String Therapy's Brandon Shuping are regulars at the jam session.
The husband and father said that his wife, Mandy Thompson Rakes, is supportive of his passion and even helps out in various ways.
"She's a big help. She helps me pack up instruments, takes photos and can even run lights at a gig," he said. "When the kids can, they like to come to a venue where there is a restaurant and they can eat and enjoy the atmosphere."
Rakes said he'd like one more shot at backing up a major artist in his career, but said he's also blessed to be able to play music locally with people whom he respects and enjoys spending time.
"It's been a fun ride," he said. "I'm not through yet."
See Rakes perform with the Audio Outlaws on Sept. 28 at the Apple Butter Festival in Chapmanville. Time TBA.
Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-307-2402.