Johnny needs wheels to get to Memphis

Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys will compete in Journey to Memphis in January.

Lead singer of the Swamp Donkeys fundraising for custom van

WILLAMINA — When he’s performing music, Johnny “Wheels” Kennicott says he feels entirely free.

The lead singer of Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys, Kennicott was in a swimming accident in 1996 that paralyzed him from the chest down.

Music helped him through his adjustment after the accident, and provides him with an escape. He learned to sing and play harmonica.

“I definitely sit around and feel trapped 90 percent of the time, not being able to explore and do what I want, whenever I want,” Kennicott said. “It makes me free. It’s the only thing that 100 percent allows me to just be myself, and there’s no judgment.”

He and band mate Taylor Frazier started the Swamp Donkeys six or seven years ago. They’ve played local gigs, including Dallas’ Summerfest and Freedomfest celebrations.

“We had a good time. Then, we changed members and after a two- or three-year search for the right members, we found three guys and we joined the Cascade Blues Association and the Journey to Memphis,” Kennicott said. “Last year we took second, and this year we won.”

The Cascade Blues Association includes the Portland area, and Journey to Memphis is an international amateur blues band competition held in Memphis in January. Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys qualified for the contest by taking the top spot at the Waterfront Blues Festival in July.

The band was presented the award by Jim Belushi, who lives in Southern Oregon, and has become a close friend of Kennicott’s.

That followed other recent accolades, including the Cascade Blues Association’s 2018 Muddy Award for Best New Act, and the Newport New-Times Best Local Band award.

Earning a trip to Journey to Memphis is by far the most prestigious.

“It’s probably one of the biggest honors to go over there and compete,” Kennicott said. “For us, as an amateur blues band, to go compete in the biggest amateur blues competition that there is, is huge.”

He said there will be 272 bands from all over the world competing.

Kennicott and the Swamp Donkeys have an extra challenge that the other bands don’t. Due to his health issues, Kennicott isn’t able to fly to Memphis. He has to drive, but his customized van broke down in May and is beyond repair.

The band and supporters started a fundraising effort, “Johnny Needs Wheels,” to purchase a new van to get him to the competition and provide more freedom in his life. Friday, Kennicott will perform at a fundraiser at Fort Hill Public House.

Chelsea Teal, one of the Johnny Need Wheels organizers and the former director of Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s been heartwarming to see Kennicott and the band reach this level of success.

“I met him playing in Tony’s Bar on a Thursday night for tips,” Teal said. “He played in there, wanting to get exposure.”

She started booking him for Summerfest, Freedomfest and Bike Nights.

“Just about everything we could here,” Teal said. “I’ve been fortunate in those past seven years in watching him and his band grow.”

Kennicott said the old van, even if it could be fixed, no longer had a working heater or ramp. His new electric wheelchair didn’t fit, so he couldn’t get in and out of van by himself.

“The motor on my way to a gig in Eugene overheated and just blew up,” he said. “Thankfully, my mom was trailing behind us, and we still made it to the gig. Unless I’m going to die, I’ll be there to play. It’s just the way it goes.”

He said the fundraiser will have items for auction and feature an all-star band of his band mates and other musician friends.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun for me to hang with my friends, and hopefully everybody else will have a good time, win prizes and listen,” he said.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $80,000 to pay for a new van and necessary modifications.

He said Belushi will host a party at his house later in the year to help the cause.

Kennicott said the extra attention that comes with his band’s audience growing takes some getting used to. Music is something he says he was born to — his father was a bass player in a hard rock band before he died in a work accident in 1990 — not something he does to be famous.

“To be getting recognized is definitely an honor. It’s something that isn’t needed, though,” he said. “But it’s very much appreciated.”

He said he’s used to being recognized in his community and around Polk and Yamhill counties.

“I’m kind of known in my town, but to go other places, like Portland, and be eating dinner at 2 o’clock in the morning with my niece, and some guys come in and are like, ‘Hey that’s Johnny Wheels,’ it’s really kind of different,” Kennicott said.

Johnny Needs Wheels

What: Johnny Needs Wheels Fundraising Party.

Where: Fort Hill Public House, 8655 Fort Hill Road, Willamina.

When: Friday, 6 p.m.

Who: The Swamp Donkeys are: Johnny “Wheels” Kennicott – vocals, harmonica; Doug Knoyle – drums; Brandon Logan – guitar/vocals; Taylor Frazier – bass; Michael Rabe – guitar/vocals.

For more information: On Facebook “Johnny Needs Wheels,” or johnnywheelsband.com.

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