John Gage was already in his mid-50s when his life’s mission became clear.
“I had this epiphany,” he says. “I am a minister, and my main tool of being a minister is music.”
This revelation was a long time coming for Gage, now 69. Though a mainstay on Louisville’s music scene, Gage had a long, peripatetic path toward music as a full-time profession.
Those who know him as a folk singer might be surprised to learn, for example, that Gage is also a minister and has officiated more than 600 weddings. Or that he spent many a late night out on the road in the 1970s, partying and carousing.
For Gage, it was all part of his evolution, on his way to becoming something akin to Louisville’s own Pete Seeger, sharing music and fellowship wherever he performs or even drinks coffee. We met, for example, at the Java Brewing Company on Bardstown Road, and as we left, two fans stopped Gage for pictures and to tell him how much he meant to them. Gage greeted them like old friends.
In conversation, Gage is thoughtful and laughs easily, often at himself. He’s shorter than you might think, about 5-foot-5, and a bit stout. His trademark tweed cap covers a mostly bald pate.
His eyes are kind, if a bit weary, and he doesn’t duck any questions, even tough ones, though he’s prone to taking the long way around to answer. What surprised me most was how thoroughly steeped in spirituality he is, as this informed many of his answers.
Over the past two decades, Gage has had his share of health problems. In 1995, he had his first heart attack; in 2000, he had a septuple bypass; and in 2010, he was on the wait list for a heart transplant, though his condition improved with the help of an upgraded defibrillator.
This past July, he required a medical procedure stemming from an ongoing cardiac arrhythmia. He says that for five to 10 minutes, he wasn’t sure if he was going to live. Gage also has diabetes and respiratory disease.
Still, he remains in good spirits. “I’m not afraid to die,” he says. “Fortunately, I’m a really lucky guy, feel really fulfilled. My life is rich.”
Gage is best known as the host of “Kentucky Homefront,” the public radio show that started broadcasting, in various forms, in 1984. He’s also a fixture on the Jewish pre-school scene, teaching Hebrew songs to children at three area synagogue schools, though he’s not Jewish.
Gage was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Okla. He was steeped in the Southern Baptist church where he learned gospel music and hymns and listened to country music on the radio. His father, he says, loved all the Hanks: Williams, Thompson and Snow. “Not Hank Sinatra,” he says, laughing.
He came to Louisville in 1967, newly married, to study at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He wasn’t a great fit for the conservative seminary. On the podcast Louisville.am, he told host Danny O’Day he angered seminary leaders when he set up a booth to protest the Vietnam War the same day Fort Knox came to recruit.
Gage also sampled the musical delights Louisville had to offer in the late ’60s and early ’70s, of which there were many.
He first heard bluegrass music at Louisville’s Red Dog Saloon in 1969, which amazed him. He was amazed further when he attended shows at a Bardstown Road joint called The Storefront Congregation, where he would see players like Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill.
The bar was owned by Ken Pyle, another seminary student who went his own way. “I said, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy,'” Gage says. Pyle later owned the Rudyard Kipling.
Gage also went to Louisville rock shows, seeing the likes of Soul Inc. and Elysian Field.
Marvin Maxwell, drummer for Soul Inc. and now the owner of Mom’s Music, remembers Gage from back then, first as a fan. “Since the ’60s, I would see his smiling face in the crowd … And what a kind person.”
Maxwell even remembers Gage officiating a wedding at Mom’s in 1990. “I didn’t realize he was that serious a dude that would allow him to do that,” he says. “But he sure as hell did.”
Gage left the seminary in 1970, five hours shy of graduating. He was an angry 25-year-old fed up with the conservative dogma of the church. There was an exclusivity to Southern Baptist teachings that infuriated him. “Like we’re the only ones going to heaven.”
In 1974, he formed a trio called Country Folk with Roger Culter and Bill Clark that toured extensively though the Ohio Valley for the next four years.
It might surprise you to learn the kindly, avuncular John Gage engaged in rock-star excesses at home and on the road. “There was a Woody Guthrie thing in me,” he says. “Woody took off and left his family in the lurch. I never did that but (was) pretty darn close to it.”
He would leave home without telling his wife Emily and then show up at 3 a.m. “Sometimes I was involved in illicit liaisons … I’m not proud of it.”
He quit the band in 1979, burned out, and mostly stayed close to home for the next year, raising his sons Eric and Geoff.
He got a gig singing in the Unitarian choir, and in 1981, got a job in the Jefferson County Public Schools system teaching a class of 10- and 11-year-old African-American boys labeled as “learning disabled.”
Gage loved these kids. “I learned the harm labels do,” he says. “I would say they were behind … but not impaired, they didn’t have the right curriculum to connect with them.”
The class re-ignited his social activism, which remains lit, as he says social injustice only has gotten worse since then.
The next big change came in 1984, when Gage and friends launched “Kentucky Homefront.” Pyle secured the venue, an old church Gage likened to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, only smaller. The first show was live, rough and passable. Eventually, a producer at WFPL named Dan Gediman whipped the team into shape.
The first iteration of “Kentucky Homefront” continued through 1994, while Gage continued to work as a teacher and counselor with JCPS, eventually becoming manager of organizational development for the Gheens Academy for Curriculum Management.
He officially worked with JCPS through 1997, though he had his first heart attack in 1995. “That was my exit ticket,” he says.
Around the time of his heart attack, Gage had also gotten on the roster of the Kentucky Arts Council. He used this position to travel the state, while on disability, listening to musicians throughout Kentucky. Gage considers this when he began to support himself as a full-time musician. He was already close to 50.
He restarted “Kentucky Homefront” in February 2001, with a focus on showcasing the talent he’d scene throughout the state, and hasn’t stopped since.
Gage’s long road to supporting himself as a musician changed how he sees his job.
“When you’re 25, you think you’re gonna be the next Bob Dylan, but after a time, it becomes clear that probably isn’t going to happen,” he says. “So your motivation changes, and it really began to be trying to reach people … to serve the community through your art. That’s really what it should be about anyway.”