Throughout his near-life long tenure with Exile, J. P. Pennington figured there was only one instance when his nerves didn’t act up before going onstage. Peruse the specifics of that performance, though, and the veteran guitarist, singer and songsmith would have been well within his artistic rights to be terrified.
The occasion came last March – St. Patrick’s Day, to be exact. Convening for a concert at The Blue Moon in Chevy Chase for the first time in nearly 23 years was the ‘80s lineup of the Richmond-raised, Lexington-bred Exile that was once a mainstay of the country music charts.
There have been, of course, scores of Exile lineups before and since. Shoot, Pennington even fronts a completely different version of the band that continues to play clubs, festivals and fairs. But this was the band that gave Exile a lasting, national visibility. Together again for a benefit performance, it was about to play in a hometown club that sold all allotted tickets before the concert could even be advertised.
“It may have been the only time in my life that I went onstage and did not get nervous,” Pennington said. “We realized that not only did 90% of the people in the audience – maybe more, really – know us, but they knew each other. So nobody there was going to scrutinize much what we were doing. We were playing for friends.”
“I remember telling the guys that night, ‘If you do this again, don’t do it in a club,” said J.D. McHargue, co-owner of The Blue Moon who also booked Exile into the long-defunct Breeding’s on New Circle Road during its ‘80s heyday. “They need to play in a place with 800 to 1,000 seats, like the Opera House or the Kentucky Theatre. They need to do it in place where the boomers that were fans of the band 25 years ago can sit down and enjoy themselves.”
So this week we have a second, more public reunion of the early ‘80s Exile: Pennington, co-vocalist/guitarist Les Taylor, bassist/vocalist Sonny Lemaire, keyboardist/vocalist Marlon Hargis and drummer Steve Goetzman. The band will perform Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre and may collaborate on further dates and perhaps even a new recording down the road. But for now, the focus is simply on accommodating local fans of a Central Kentucky pop and country favorite that became, for a time, a national sensation.
“We went through a lot, these five guys,” said Goetzman, who, like the other members of Exile, save for Pennington, has long since relocated to Nashville. “Most of it was great. Some of it was horrible. But we’re family. And now, all these years later, the history is just part of us – as is our friendship. That friendship, especially, becomes a major part of these shows.
“When we got back onstage for soundcheck last March, I tell you, it was magical.”
The last thing Pennington considered when the first version of Exile formed as The Exiles in 1963 was that it would be a living, beating band some 45 years later.
“We’re talking here about when I was 14,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t think a whole lot past 7 o’clock that night.”
The Exiles began as a strictly rock ‘n’ roll unit in Richmond, toured as part of the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars in 1965 and eventually relocated in Lexington. Hargis was on board by 1975. Goetzman and Lemaire joined in 1977.
The first major break came at the height of the disco era with a sleek pop single called Kiss You All Over. It became a No. 1 hit during the summer of 1978. Taylor replaced founding singer Jimmy Stokley the following year, just as Exile was approaching a creative crossroads.
While there was no serious pop hit to replicate Kiss You All Over‘s popularity, two other Exile tunes – The Closer You Get and Take Me Down – were gaining interest in Nashville circles. They were eventually recorded by an up-and-coming country-pop combo called Alabama.
“That opened the doors for us,” Pennington said. “Country music was a little more wide open then and lent itself more to the pop side of things than it ever had. But it was also a scary time for us. We faced a decision of either breaking up as a pop band or trying the country music route and giving things one last shot. Luckily, it worked out good.”
It did a lot more than just work out. After modestly tweaking its sound (“We put an acoustic guitar on everything and just kept writing pop-oriented songs,” Pennington confessed), Exile signed with Epic Records and in 1983 began a string of popular country singles with High Cost of Leaving. They hit No. 1 in 1984 with four hits (including Woke Up in Love and Give Me One More Chance) and added another six by 1987. By then, though, the cracks were visible.
Hargis left in 1985. Taylor split during the summer of 1988. By the end of that year, Pennington, the lone link to the original Exile, had clearly had enough.
“I was so burned out,” he said. “We had gone up and down the road for so long. I had a family at home with two young children, but the demands just kept coming for more and more songs. I was worn out and the guys knew it.”
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At the onset of the ‘90s, much of the band’s songwriting and vocal duties shifted to Lemaire. With Goetzman still on board, Exile shifted labels to Arista Records, cut two more albums and scored several additional hits including Nobody’s Talking and Even Now.
“On one hand it was terrifying,” Lemaire said. “But on the other it was quite exciting. J.P. was the heart and soul of everything Exile did. But the door was now open for me to go creatively in a slightly different direction with the songs I wrote for the band. But looking back on it now, no matter how good the new Exile seemed to be, it simply wasn’t what it was.”
“We went past two years without a record deal,” Goetzman recalled. “The crowds were falling off. Sometimes we played to 5,000 people a night. Sometimes it was 10 or 12. One day Sonny called a band meeting and said, ‘Guys, I can’t do this anymore.’ And, frankly, all of us had been thinking the same thing. So what it came to was, ‘Let’s get out while we have some dignity.’”
So Exile spent five months fulfilling performance and business obligations. In February 1994, it quietly disbanded. Sort of.
Re-enter Pennington and Taylor who formed a new Exile band in 1996 and maintained a healthy performance schedule without new recordings. Taylor left again in 2006, although Pennington continues to perform with that Exile lineup even as the reunited ‘80s crew plots a future course.
“It keeps you on your toes,” Pennington said of his life in two Exile bands. “With the reunion band, for instance, I may be singing totally different harmony parts than what I’m singing with the current lineup. It’s tricky.”
For Goetzman, who has worked in music management companies (“the business side of the business”) since leaving Exile and went nearly 11 years without as much as touching a drum stick, the prospect of reuniting the ‘80s Exile is exhilarating.
“None of us are anticipating doing a lot of shows,” he said. “But the reunion, for me, has been a bit of a life saver. I don’t mean financially, so much. Just emotionally. Spiritually.
“The music business today is horrible. It’s really, really bad. It’s difficult to do well and even more difficult to have fun. In a tanked industry where you’re always looking for what little fun that’s still out there, working with the guys again is a real shot in the arm.”
“Exile was one of the greatest things to happen in my life,” Lemaire added. “The music is so much fun to play. It takes me back to when I first joined the band, to when I was playing music just for the fun of it. Period. That’s what this reunion feels like.”
(at top Exile 2008: Les Taylor, J.P. Pennington, Sonny Lemaire, Steve Goetzman. Photo by Carla Winn.; above, Exile 1983: Taylor, Marlon Hargis, Pennington, Goetzman, Lemaire)
Exile Reunion Concert: 7 tonight at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main. $19.50, $24.50. Call (859) 231-7924.