The Way-Longer-Than-Necessary Story of
Jake Speed & the Freddies
In 2000, Speed teamed up with another vagabond folk musician, Caleb Bennett, and old friend & percussionist, Cedric Rose, to create The Corn Cob Trio (an homage to Woody Guthrie’s earliest band). The three performed a few gigs at Arlin’s Bar, Baba Budan’s Coffeehouse, The Comet and Top Cat’s before finally landing a regular Wednesday gig at Cody’s Cyber Cafe in Clifton Heights. Over the next few months, The Corn Cob Trio renamed themselves The Freddies (after the acronym for the Flashing Rear End Device on the back of a train), and morphed into a just-below-average band that eventually honed the musical art of knowing when a song starts and stops.
In 2001, after Bennett and Rose moved on to other projects (The Side Cars and Fists of Love, respectively), Speed accidentally joined forces with new Freddies. After playing solo as an opening act for the Hoodoo Caminos, Jake met Chris “Suga Britches” Werner who told Jake he really needed a bassist. A week later, Chris was in the band. A fortnight later, after playing as a duo at Cody’s Café with Chris, aspiring mandolinist Justin “J-Dog” Todhunter (a familiar face from a brief shared tenure at Burrito Joe’s) told Jake that the band needed a mandolin player. A week later, Justin was in the band. The following week, across-the-street neighbor Brad “Howe” Schnittger didn’t have anything better to do on a Wednesday night, so he brought his Dobro guitar and joined Jake, Chris, and Justin at Cody’s Café. A week later, Brad was in the band. Within a year, the band had a vast repertoire of original tunes, a growing group of fans and their first Cincinnati Entertainment Award as Best Folk Band.
Jake Speed, fresh from immense failure in the pop punk scene, listened to his first Woody Guthrie album in the summer of ’99. After drinking in Woody’s performance of dust bowl and hobo ballads, Jake dusted off his acoustic guitar and began a little hoboing of his own. Upon the street corners & coffee shops of Cincinnati and Dayton, Speed hacked away at old tunes by Hank Williams, Jesse Fuller, Johnny Cash, the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers and of course, Woody Guthrie. Accompanied only by his foot-driven washboard, harmonica, and $1 kazoo, Speed refined his bluegrass-style flatpicking and Piedmont-style fingerpicking while making a few tips of spare change.
Those four core Freddies quickly recorded an album filled with traditional folk tunes as well as many of Speed’s new compositions. Released in 2002, Queen City Rag garnered praise from Cincinnati Enquirer’s revered music columnist & fellow folk musician, Larry Nager. At the 2002 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, Queen City Rag received a nomination for Album of the Year while the band won Best Folk Band for the second year in a row. In addition, Speed took home the award for Best Songwriter and Artist of the Year. His song “Hard Times in Cincinnati” (about the 2001 Cincinnati Race Riots) won Speed 2nd place in the national Woody Guthrie Songwriting Competition.
Following the wagon train of their 2002 successes, Jake Speed & The Freddies began performing regularly all over the Cincinnati area, including venues like Arnold’s Bar & Grill, The Southgate House, Leo’s Coffeehouse, and The Rabbit Hash General Store. In addition to regular gigging, the band organized a few annual events like the Rivertown Breakdown Music Festival, the live-on-the-air (WNKU) Opening Day Baseball Show, and the Woody Guthrie Festival.
In 2003, Jake Speed released another album, The Cincinnati Legends of Jeremiah Schmidt, a collection of original tunes extolling the history of Speed’s new muse: the City of Cincinnati. With help from The Freddies, Speed interwove truth and fiction in 16 tall tales of Porkopolis Past, solidifying his unofficial role as Queen City’s official folk singer. The album’s accounts of subway ghosts, riverboat explosions, river flood fiascos, and the origin of Cincinnati-style chili helped win the band more acclaim; they again won the CEA for Best Folk Band.
2004 was a year of transition for The Freddies. During the process of recording their third album, Huzzah!, Brad “Howe” Schnittger left to join forces with The Sundresses. Longtime friend, Robert Brown, filled in on six-string guitar for a few months before a bum hand forced him to retire early. One day, Jake wandered into The Famous Old Time Music Store jam session where he met “Kentucky” Graham Hentschel, a 19-year-old who could roll a banjo like a barrel. After a fairly forgettable conversation that amounted to “Hey Graham, do you want to play a show?” “Yeah, I guess,” Kentucky became a life-long Freddie. Even though Kentucky couldn’t drink the beer at his debut gig at Northside Tavern, his Scruggs-style banjo-picking kept folks drunk on music.
For most of Graham’s first year with the band, Jake thought his last name was Herschel, not Hentschel, a misunderstanding that made Jake feel so stupid that he decided to rename him “Kentucky” (a word that happened to be embroidered in one of Graham’s jackets). The newly-formed Freddies released Huzzah! at year’s end, another successful album that helped them win Cincinnati Entertainment Award’s Best Folk Band for the third year in a row. Speed’s song, “Volvo Girl,” appeared on Car Talk on NPR while songs like “First Street Fell,” “Old Man Joe,” “Ohio River Waltz,” “Streetvibes Rag,” and “Ohio River Blues” continued Speed’s Cincinnati-centric songwriting approach. His Woody Guthrie-inspired “Talkin’ F-Word Blues” received significant airplay as it satirically addressed the anti-French sentiment that spread across America at the start of the Iraq War.
In 2005, the band continued performing regularly across the region, playing around 75 shows in bars, riverboats, museums, parks, backyards, and even bat mitvahs. During the summer of ’05, Jake thought it’d be a great idea to produce a Christmas album. Perhaps a mistake, the band did record Losantaville (a witty title created by J-Dog), a collection of six original Christmas-themed songs (and four traditional carols). This period marks Kentucky Graham’s transition from banjo-picker to tenor guitarist. After battling focal dystonia for over a year, Kentucky finally hung up his Scruggs-style finger rolls for a less painful flatpicking approach. His frustration with the sound of a flat-picked banjo launched his pursuits for a completely new instrument: the tenor guitar. The last time someone played the tenor guitar successfully in Cincinnati was sometime in the 1950s (when the Delmore Brothers rocked one). Kentucky leapt into the new challenge, grew a handlebar mustache, and found a new voice on the banjo-tuned, four stringed tenor.
Losantaville did not win The Freddies another nod as Best Folk Act or Album of the Year, but it did inspire them to produce their one and only music video: Queen City Christmas. The video reached its pinnacle of success while being played on the JumboScreen at Fountain Square.
After four straight years of producing albums, Speed needed a break from recording and a return to songwriting. So, in 2006, he began his Songatorial project: a weekly song inspired by newsworthy events. For an entire year, Speed’s weekly Songatorials appeared in raw form on CityBeat Magazine’s website. The effort landed Speed his second CEA for Best Songwriter, and by year’s end, The Freddies had 52 new tunes and a mentally exhausted leader. Many of these Songatorials got polished up and became featured on The Freddies’ 2008 release, World Come Clean.
World Come Clean showcases a new height for The Freddies. After grinding out years and years of shows, the band’s tight chemistry (helped out by regular monthly gigs at Northside Tavern) finally coalesced in a well-oiled machine by 2008. Recorded at Chris Werner’s Go To Your Room Studios in Northside, World Come Clean featured a variety of new instrumentation lineups for the band, including some electric guitar, drum set, and string quartet. The album received an Album of the Year nomination, and the band’s efforts resulted in their 5th Best Folk Band CEA.
In November of ‘08, Jake Speed & The Freddies received their first opportunity for national attention. Although their travels aboard the Cincinnati music scene had landed them many high profile shows over the years (i.e. opening sets for national acts such as Ralph Stanley, Asleep At The Wheel, Yonder Mountain String Band, Chris Hillman of The Byrds, Over-the-Rhine, Hot Buttered Rum, and Jay Bennett of Wilco), their live performance on A Prairie Home Companion at Cincinnati’s sold-out Music Hall led to their infamous 15 minutes of fame. They performed three tunes, “Queen City Rag,” “Ohio River Waltz,” and “Coffee Bourgeois Blues” at anxiety-inspired super-speeds. In his short interview with Garrison Keillor, Jake Speed foolishly claimed that what he liked best about Cincinnati was the pigs and three-ways with Pete Rose. The opportunity to impress Keillor and eventually take over Prairie Home Companion was forever lost to Chris Theile.
In 2008, Jake Speed became a first-time Cincinnati Daddy, so band pursuits took a backseat to fatherhood. In 2009, perhaps the band’s most memorable performance occurred at the Cincinnati Ballet where The Freddies performed live as dancers bounded across the stage to choreography set to their music.
Still reeling off of the inspiration of an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, Jake Speed & the Freddies launched the Old Time Music Revue at Arnold’s Bar in 2010. The variety-show-inspired monthly performance paired Speed & The Freddies with a different Cincinnati musician for a night of shared songs, jokes, mock-interviews, faux-commercials and other hijinx highlighting the group’s spur-of-the-moment approach to entertainment. Over the next three years, the band shared the stage with Ed Cunningham (of The Comet Bluegrass Allstars), Daniel Martin Moore, Mark Utley (of Bulletville), Sean Geil (of The Tillers), Ricky Nye, and several other local musicians. The final Old Time Music Revue of 2012 featured a return of all of The Freddies from over the years including original member, Cedric Rose, as well as Brad Howe, Robert Brown, multi-instrumentalist Chris Cusentino, and fiddler Chris Larsen.
By 2014, Jake Speed wasn’t the only Cincinnati Daddy in the band; Kentucky Graham added two boys to the mix. A job offer in Houston enabled Kentucky Graham to better care for his budding family, but it also required an undefined hiatus from The Freddies. Graham’s emotional farewell performance at Arnold’s Bar left the band saddened and uncertain. After filling the Kentucky Graham void with subs for a few months, Jake bumped into a fiddler named Chris “Fox” Gibson by complete accident. A mutual friend introduced the two informally, saying “Hey Chris, did you know Jake was a musician?” “No.” “Hey Jake, did you know Chris plays violin?” “Who?” After a mostly incoherent introduction, Jake offered Fox a spot onstage at Wednesdays on the Green (at Clifton Cultural Arts Center). There’s a fine line between intuition and desperation. Without even one rehearsal, Fox swung right into the groove, and just like every Freddie before him, became a more-or-less accidental Freddie.
Since 2015, Jake Speed & The Freddies have continued to perform with Fox Gibson on fiddle (except for a few annual returns of Kentucky Graham). Although no albums have manifested, the band continues to perform many of their long-held shows at Bockfest Hall, Behringer-Crawford Museum, The Black Walnut Fest, Tunes & Blooms at The Cincinnati Zoo, McGlasson Farm, The Woody Guthrie Fest at Mt. St. Joseph, and an occasional appearance at Arnold’s Bar or Northside Tavern.