Knowing when to quit is one thing. Actually following through with it is much, much harder, as Chris Padgett, formerly of the duo the StereoFidelics, will tell you.
Padgett and Melissa McGinley formed the StereoFidelics, an Asheville, N.C.-based indie rock band, back in 2008. With their unabashedly creative jazz-synth-funk-inspired sound, McGinley’s skill on the drums, violin, and vocals, and Padgett’s prodigy-like guitar playing (he sings too but prefers being an instrumentalist), the StereoFidelics hit the ground running — almost from the start, they were averaging 200 shows a year. In heavier years, it was closer to 250. Their success was steadily building, but it was also taking a toll on the duo. In August, they played their final show before declaring a hiatus.
“It was tough to call it when we did, because with all that work and traveling and stuff, it was kind of finally starting to come around. We were noticing big increases in our crowds at shows, people were just coming out of the woodwork, people were starting to talk — there was a bit of a buzz going on,” Padgett says. “It was a really tough decision to make, but we decided that we needed to if there was any chance of us continuing on.”
Since hanging up his StereoFidelics hat Padgett has been free to pursue solo work, which he’s been doing tirelessly. He’s something of a magician on the guitar, as comfortable with rock ‘n’ roll riffs as he is gypsy music, as adept at finger picking as he is classical. That skill is even more impressive considering that he’s only been playing for 10 years or so, since he was 17, and he’s completely self-taught.
Padgett grew up in the Midwest, where, as he says, there’s not all that much to do. Guitar was something he picked up to fill the time. “When I first started playing, I had no intention of carrying on with it. I thought it was just something to do,” Padgett says. “I was learning pretty fast when I was first starting out, and people would ask me how long I’d been playing and I’d tell them, not really thinking anything of it. But the common response was people didn’t believe me — they thought I’d been playing a lot longer, that I was lying or whatever. So I thought, maybe there’s something to this.”
Coincidentally, he ended up going to college at the University of Indiana, which has one of the best music schools in the country. He didn’t attend for music, though. Instead, he continued his program of auto-didacticism with a little help from his friends who were part of the music school.
“At the end of a semester, they’d be done with whatever classes they were taking in the music department and they were going to sell their textbooks. And I’d be like, ‘Hey, I’ll buy ’em off you — you’re only going to get like a dollar back for them anyway, so just let me buy it,’ ” he says. “So I had all these great materials to teach myself from that I don’t know if I would have had or known about on my own.”
After graduating, Padgett found himself in Asheville by happy accident. “It’s a funny story, very short — I had a free place to live for six months,” he says. “At the time I’d never been east of Illinois, so it seemed like such an exotic place to me, 450 miles away.” He’s been in Asheville almost seven years now, and although he loves touring, he’s always happy to come home to his mountain town.
One might expect that after going through five intense years with the StereoFidelics, Padgett would want to just hole up in his house and play music for himself for a while. And that’s partly true — he’s been working plenty on his own music, mostly acoustic instrumental tunes that range from originals to traditional folk songs to classical works by Bach and the Renaissance composer Frescobaldi. No matter what genre he’s playing, Padgett emphasizes melody and musicality over technical fireworks. He’s committed to learning and improving as much as he can. “I think there’s a big difference [between being a musician and just playing an instrument] — I always think really being a musician requires some serious dedication. You owe music more than just learning a few songs and then calling yourself that,” he says. “That’s just my own opinion, but I think it’s a pretty big thing, an important thing, a part of our culture and society.”
But despite his recent focus on writing and practicing — he’s planning on recording an album some time in January — Padgett isn’t neglecting the performing aspect of his art. He’s been booked pretty solid since October and will continue touring right up until Christmas, with a couple of stops back in Asheville here and there. And next year, he’ll be touring even more, playing some larger shows out West as well as along the East Coast.
So even though the StereoFidelics are done for now, 2014 will still be a big year for Padgett. “There’ll be a new album, I’m writing some new stuff, just seeing where it takes me,” he says. “I might potentially take it overseas. I’d like that.”