by Ben Gotschall | photos by Jonathon Augustine
I don’t know why, but I've often been mistaken for a member of Kill County. Aside from playing guitar on “This Family,” the hidden track on The Year of Getting By, I’ve never played with them onstage. Maybe it’s because I attend most of their shows and practices or because I was in Triggertown with most of them at one time or another. This is not something that bothers me ― quite the contrary. I love those guys and their music, and have been friends with them for a long time, from the early days of Triggertown when Kill County guitarist/vocalist Josh James played dobro with us to a few months later, after Josh moved to Austin, when Joe Salvati (who plays pedal steel and dobro for Kill County) joined us and Triggertown became a quintet. But this isn’t a Triggertown piece, as nostalgic as I am about that time. This is about Kill County, with whom my time spent is just as valuable to me.
One evening this past September, while Kill County was in town for Lincoln Calling, recording a new track at drummer Brad Kindler’s house, I loaded up my grill, grabbed some hamburger and headed over to hang out. After we spent a couple of hours drinking beer and Bushmills, eating burgers I’d grilled in the backyard and listening to the newest recording, we started talking tattoos. Josh and Ringo (who plays banjo and shares songwriting and singing duties) took off their shirts, and Jon snapped a few photographs. Brad scribbled some barely-decipherable notes on the back of a PBR box, which we later deciphered (barely) in a more sober setting.
Ben: Tell me about your first tattoo.
Ringo: I was 18, in high school, in Wayne, Neb. They didn’t have a tattoo parlor in Wayne, so I had to go to Sioux City to get it. When I left, my dad told me not to come back home if I got a tattoo. The funny thing about that is, 10 years later, I bought my dad his first tattoo.
Ben: So has he gotten more?
Ben: Will you?
Ringo: I don’t think so. I think I’m done with tattoos, actually.
Ben: So was the first one the most painful?
Ringo: Actually, no. Neither was my biggest one. The one that hurt the most is actually the smallest one, this one.
Ringo points to a huge vertical scar in the middle of his torso. Spaced along the vertical scar are four shorter, horizontal scars. At one side is a simple stick figure, falling backwards.
Ringo: I got this one after my fall.
Because I know Ringo, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Once, at a college party in a partially-constructed building, Ringo accidentally stepped into an open elevator shaft, fell four stories, and landed on his head, breaking his back and neck, along with many other bones.
Ringo: This scar was from my operation after that This little stick guy is me, and the four short scars are for each story I fell.
Ben: He’s barely noticeable. Do you have a tattoo that people notice a lot?
Josh: I do (he shows us the flower on his left arm). It’s a tiger lily. Middle-aged women are always complementing me on it. I call it my “cougar-lily.”
Just then, Josh’s wife, Anna, walks up, tells us she’s going to the store and asks if we need more beer. We look at each other and at the empty bottles and cans all around. Need?
Ringo: People always notice the banjo on my forearm. They always ask me if I’m a banjo player. I’m so fucking sick of that question. It’s like the tattoo itself could be meaningless — like I’d have a huge banjo tattooed on my arm but I don’t play the banjo? I guess I deserve to be asked that, though. Meaning isn’t the most important thing, anyway.
Ben: So do you have a tattoo that meant something specific when you got it, and then over time the meaning of the tattoo changed?
Ringo: Yeah. After I had been with Anna for several years (Ringo’s Anna, his wife ― not to be confused with Josh’s wife, Anna), we were eating dinner at The Oven on my birthday. I asked her to write her name on a napkin, without telling her why, and then went directly over to Iron Brush after dinner and got her name, the way she’d written it, tattooed on my chest, over my heart. At that time it was kind of a love-struck, spontaneous thing, but now we’re married, so the meaning of that tattoo is just as powerful, if not more so, than the ring I wear. It’s not different ― not like, "now that we are married it is no longer a 'love struck' thing" ― not like marriage has nothing to do with spontaneity and love struckness. In fact, I would argue the contrary.
Josh: My whale tattoo’s kind of like that for me (aside from both having a wife named Anna, Josh and Ringo both have whale tattoos). It’s Moby Dick.
Ben: Have you read Moby Dick?
Josh: Yeah. One-and-a-half times. I guess at first I felt a connection to the whale because of the injustice to nature you see in the book, and you see it today, with people’s ambivalence. Most people don’t give a shit. But now I think I identify with Captain Ahab, too. The whale can also mean destruction and failure ― you know, personal destruction and failure ― like Ahab’s.
Ringo: This one on my back is kind of like that, too. (Along Ringo’s spine is a tattoo of vertebrae, almost like an X-Ray. At the top of his spine, the vertebrae are dark, and, descending, they grow lighter, until they fade and disappear along his lower back. On the base of his neck is the word “unity.”)
“Unity” is a reference to the band Operation Ivy. I started this tattoo thinking I would get the whole spinal column done and darkened, but at the time I ran out of money, and since I don’t really ever see it, I’ve never thought to finish it.
Ben: So, since you’re “done with tattoos,” it’ll never be finished?
Ringo: Well, this one probably won’t be. I kind of like it the way it is, unfinished. But I might get another one. I probably will. Fuck it. I’m never going to be done with tattoos.
Ben Gotschall is the owner/manager of Holt Creek Jerseys, a cattle business. He's the director of Pipeline Outreach for Bold Nebraska, and is the Lancaster County President of the Nebraska Farmers Union. You can purchase his book of poetry, Where It Happened, here, and contact him at email@example.com.
Jonathon Augustine is a Hear Nebraska contributor and plays bass in Kill County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.