December 5, 2013

Our Neighbors: ‘An instant connection’ to music

By Rob McDaniel
Staff Writer

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — “In the past three or four years I moved between Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama somewhere around 16 or 17 times,” said Jo Jo Stephens, 24, of Corbin.  “I would just pack all my stuff into my car and would move various times throughout the year.  One time, my dad said ‘Son, you’re like a kite in the wind.’”

Being called a ‘kite in the wind’ stuck in Stephen’s mind and eventually transformed into what he and three other like-minded individuals would call themselves as they came together to do what they love — perform music.

Kites is made up of four friends who have shared similar life experiences, including Stephens; his younger brother Nick, 16, as the lead guitarist, pianist, mandolinist and bassist; DJ Allen, Stephen’s friend and former college roommate as the drummer; and Leah Hatmaker sings with Stephens.

To Stephens, Kites is more than just a band. It’s a representation of overcoming adversity and hardship, it’s about four people trying to find their way through the rough patches in life and finding the people who make that struggle a little easier.

Kites started with Stephens fighting to overcome heartbreak.

“At the beginning of this year, I was in a really, really bad place,” he said.  “I was really depressed over a past relationship.”

Stephens said during this time he was coping the only way he knew how – by writing and performing music.

“I remember I was in Nashville and I was trying to make it in the music industry,” Stephens recalled.  “I wasn’t in a state of mind to be successful.  I was playing some of the same songs we do now, but my heart just wasn’t in it.  I wasn’t in the right state of mind to make it.”

Stephens planned on staying in Nashville to work on his career, despite knowing that something was missing.

“I was getting ready to sign a lease agreement with some guys I met on Craig’s List,” Stephens said.  “The day before I was going to sign the lease, my car broke down and it cost me all the money I had except $30, the amount of money it would take to get home to Kentucky.”

Facing financial hardship, Stephens decided to come home.

“I felt so lost, musically and with everything in life,” Stephens said.  “I always felt like I was so alone, so I wrote it down hoping that some day I’d run into someone who was singing about the same things I was going through.”

That’s when he decided to visit his friend, Leah Hatmaker.

“Leah was just a friend for years,” Stephens said.  “She was someone I trusted and I valued her opinion very much.  She was a lot like me, a kite floating in the wind trying to find a place in life.”

Shortly after that, Stephens and Hatmaker started singing together.

In early spring, Stephens and Hatmaker were sitting together at You and Me Coffee and Tea in Corbin near closing time.  Hatmaker saw a guitar sitting near the stage and started playing.  After a brief conversation and the recommendation of a friend, they had landed their first real gig together.

They had nine days to figure out a two-hour-long playlist.

Stephens and Hatmaker worked tirelessly and came up with 20 original songs for their show.

“Our first show was almost a full house,” Stephens said.  “You and Me Coffee and Tea can hold like 110 people.  We played for two hours and did very few covers.  We were nervous, but were really proud of our music and hoped it conveyed the story of what I was going through in life.”

A short time later, Stephens and Hatmaker began dating and began playing shows together on a regular basis.

“On August 16, we did a live recording at You and Me Coffee and Tea,” Stephens said.  “They suggested, since we were doing a live recording, we should bring in some more instruments to give it that full-band sound.”

That’s when DJ Allen and Nick Stephens joined the band.

“They played with us that night and you could just feel the connection instantly,” Stephens said.  “They really felt the music and kind of completed the sound we were going for.  It means a lot to me to have people in my life that understand the heart and emotion behind each song we perform. I couldn’t imagine having anyone else in the band.”

Stephens said after hearing the band perform his parents began home schooling Nick so that he could continue his education while also being able to concentrate on the band, a gesture Stephens says moved him greatly and serves as a symbol of his family’s faith in the band’s future success.

Currently Stephens and his fellow band members are in the studio recording their first EP and expect that it will be released at the beginning of 2014.

Stephens says he is excited to see what the future has in store for him and the rest of the band.

For more information on Kites or to book them for an upcoming event, visit or call (606) 802-3487.