Ben Abney’s first audience was a church congregation in Millington.
“My dad was a Southern Baptist minister, so I was on stage at the church when I was three or four years old,” said Abney, 34. “I had this little three-piece suit with the vest and everything. I had little wingtip shoes.”
His dad, Terry Abney, a songwriter, taught Ben how to play guitar. “(He) had some minor success in the ‘90s. He’s a pretty traditional guy in the vein of Marty Robbins and George Jones. That’s what I grew up on.”
Ben got into Nirvana “and whatever was cool in the ‘90s” when he turned 13.
His dad wasn’t happy about that. “Secular rock and roll was definitely not encouraged in our house.”
That lead to confrontation. “I was in high school and I had my stereo blasting away some ‘Free Ride! Come on take a free ride!’ I thought my dad was going to lose it.”
His dad, who referred to the music as “that ‘70s rock and roll stuff,” made him turn it down. “I was a teenager. Nobody’s parents are cool when you’re’ a teenager. I realized later that he was pretty cool because my first concerts were Porter Waggoner and Jerry Reed. That kind of stuff.”
Ben began writing poetry in middle school. “It was probably about being sad about something. That’s still kind of what I write.”
When he turned 15, Ben got into punk rock. “I kind of discovered it through Navy brats who had moved to town.”
They introduced him to Blink 182, the Vandals and NOFX. “I wasn’t a great guitar player at the time, but I could play that. I could play three power chords. I think, for me, it was the energy. I was always pretty energetic and silly and goofy as a teenager, especially.
“A son of a Southern Baptist preacher man, there was a lot of rebellion just in listening to that music. I didn’t have to do anything crazy or against the law, but just listening to that music, for me, was like a small rebellion.”
Ben and a couple of guys “who’d gotten into punk rock,” including Chris Wagner, who went on to play in 7 Dollar Sox, formed a punk rock band, Punks for Christ. “We got a couple of churches that let us play.”
They weren’t really a Christian band, Ben said, but his mom and dad were supportive. “I think they were probably afraid of bearing down too hard on me. They wanted to give me some leeway. They actually drove us to a couple of shows.”
After Punks for Christ, Ben started a band, Bedford Falls. “Still very pop punk stuff.”
He began writing music when he was 16. “I think I was just writing about whatever I knew about in high school. Going to punk rock shows. Wearing Converse All-Stars.”
Ben moved to Memphis when he turned 18 and helped start a new band, Hold Me Yesterday.
He also got his first tattoo - a black star on his back.
He held down two jobs - waiting tables at Spaghetti Warehouse and Hard Rock Cafe, but he couldn’t pay his rent and moved back to live with his parents in Millington.
Joining the Navy was next. “Part of it was I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had kind of flunked out of my first couple of semesters in college.I was back in Millington and I didn’t really have a lot of job prospects. My car had broken down and I didn’t have any money to fix that. I just joined up because that’s kind of what kids that don’t have any money do.
“I finished boot camp. I graduated top of my class. I was in a performance division. I got to play marching snare at one of the White Sox games.”
Ben only was in the Navy for four months. He went home because of medical issues. But he wrote a song about his experience, “Teenage Anarchism.”
He joined a new band, While I Breathe I Hope, but the Navy still was on his mind. “I actually did go back and talk to a recruiter about joining back up. I was pretty well covered up with tattoos at that point. They were like, ‘No, man. You can’t.’ They had changed their policies of how much you can show in the uniform and they wouldn’t take me back. It’s like, ‘Alright. Cool.’ I just started playing music more.”
Ben worked construction jobs and at UPS and Two Chicks and a Broom. He continued to play in bands. After three years in While I Breathe I Hope, he joined another punk rock band, First Wave.
He also played in the Angel Sluts. “Contrary to the name, it was just a bunch of really nice guys. We just had fun. We played music just to hang out with our best friends.”
How did “Angel Sluts” go over with his mom and dad? “Not my parents’ favorite band name.”
They continued to be supportive, Ben said. “I feel like as long as I wasn’t in jail they were like, ‘OK.’”
His first band tour was three-months on the road with First Wave. “While I was on that tour, I met a girl in Los Angeles. I ended up moving out there and getting married.”
He was in an indie rock band, The Chase, in LA, but after moving to Memphis, Ben started a punk rock band, The Drawls.
He got a job as an archeology tech for Pan American Consultants, a private cultural management company. “I started taking all these contract jobs through them for the National Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers and basically wAS doing archeological survey work.”
He only was home eight days a month. “I was still playing music, but it made it harder to be in a band. So, I started taking an acoustic guitar with me on the road. Being gone and being in a marriage that was not healthy, I started writing songs to get through that stuff.”
Those songs were country. “I don’t know any other way to write that kind of stuff without it coming out as just country-folk-Americana.”
After a few years, Ben and his first wife divorced. He met his future wife, Cat Allen, and they now have a daughter, Lily.
Ben began playing more solo shows - and got a good reaction from the audience. “I do have a lot of tattoos and I’m sort of a former punk rock dude who’s playing acoustic guitar. That seems like kind of a standard these days except I don’t have a gravelly voice. I have a pretty tenor register. It’s a pretty clear voice.”
Even his punk rock friends were supportive. “Everybody that I’ve ever played in bands with were like, ‘Man, you should have been doing this the whole time.’”
Ben doesn’t really consider himself ever being a “punk.” “I played punk rock music, but was I ever really a punk? Did I ever really think that punk rock music was going to become a political revolution? No.”
So, what is Ben Abney’s favorite style of music? “I really like singing gospel. I like the way that it’s written. I like the musical structures, especially Southern gospel. That has a lot of roots in working people. I feel like that’s some of the most emotional music ever written.”
Ben continues to write. “I write a lot of stuff about struggling with faith. And whether or not to believe or not to believe.”
He’s working on several albums. “I already have an album written and I’ve started writing the one after that. And then I already have the concept for the one after that.”
Ben recently completed his first year teaching music at Holy Rosary Catholic School. “I absolutely love it. I also cantor for Mass three days a week.”
And, he said, “I have sort of a middle school choir club. We meet on Tuesdays and then they sing with me on Wednesday mornings.”
So, what do the kids think about Ben’s tattoos? “They don’t, really. The administration and I haven’t gotten any sort of negative feedback.”
But, he said, “I wear long sleeves to work.”
Ben Abney & Familiar Faces will play with Kitty Dearing & the Dagnabbits and Justin Vinson & the Wayward Saints at 8 p.m. July 28 at Canvas, 1737 Madison. Cover: $7 at the door.