A legitimate rock star is leading a life of quiet anonymity in Johnson County.
As front man for the abrasive rock band Sevendust, Lajon Witherspoon has spent decades cultivating a rebellious image. When he’s not on stage, though, he embraces tranquil suburban domesticity.
“I've been wanting to be a part of this Kansas City lifestyle for a long time,” he insists. “I don't think people know that I even lived here.”
Such conformity was unthinkable in the 1990s, when the charismatic artist began applying his massive voice to a rowdy form of hard rock. Soon after the band was formed in 1994, Sevendust was aligned with nü-metal bands like Limp Bizkit.
The band's 1997 debut album went gold, as did its next two records. That first album cover shows a distorted illustration of Witherspoon that appears to depict him imbibing in an illicit substance; the album closes with the nihilistic anthem "Born To Die."
But Witherspoon got his start as a choir boy.
Growing up in Atlanta, where his father was an R&B musician, it was in church where Witherspoon discovered his love of music.
“I knew I was really into it when I couldn't wait to wear the red robes,” he recalls. “I felt like, maybe even at a young age, when you put that on you were ready to perform. That was your gear, like a superhero.”
After experimenting with various styles, Witherspoon fell in with the rock musicians who coalesced into Sevendust. In a rock and roll rarity, the original lineup remains intact almost 25 years after the band got together.
Sevendust might no longer be a top-tier attraction, but it has outlasted trends and remains a fixture on the hard rock circuit. The band's next appearance in Kansas City is on September 19, opening for hard-rock traditionalists Clutch at the Uptown Theater. They'll likely perform songs like "Medicated" from its new, and 19th, album "All I See Is War."
But Witherspoon and his bandmates retain their swagger.
“Maybe this is why we're still here and a lot of the bands that went fast are already gone,” Witherspoon says. “I'm happy where I'm at now.”
The work ethic Witherspoon shares with his bandmates has kept them together through lean times.
“We have worked hard,” he says. “We stayed away from home and we busted our butts to build up the relationship that we have with these people around the world.”
Sevendust guitarist John Connolly says Witherspoon's move to the Kansas City area hasn't changed the dynamics within the band, especially since Connolly and fellow guitarist Clint Lowery have moved away from Atlanta as well.
“So besides the sports teams he supports now," Connolly says of Witherspoon, “he's the same guy he always was band-wise.”
But when he decided to stay at home more often, it was his wife’s roots in the Kansas City area that motivated his move from Atlanta.
“My wife grew up at a dairy farm in Baldwin with her grandparents,” he says. “We decided to come to Overland Park.”
While he pals around with the ribald radio personality Johnny Dare and other staffers at the influential 98.9 The Rock, Witherspoon still confuses some locals. His dreadlocks and powerful physique have led a few of his neighbors to mistake him for a Kansas City Chiefs player.
“I'm probably the shortest football player ever,” Witherspoon says with a laugh. “But I'll deal with it.”
He says he’s grateful for the high quality of the education his two daughters receive in the Blue Valley Unified School District.
And as he gets older, Witherspoon appears to delight in challenging assumptions and defying rock-and-roll stereotypes.
He confesses that he and his buddies bond during “mantiquing” expeditions at antique stores, and he tells a story about one day a few years ago, when a series of events was “the least rock-star thing ever”: After Sevendust performed at the massive Rockfest concert at Liberty Memorial in 2011, Witherspoon helped his wife and mother-in-law move into their new Overland Park home.
Witherspoon didn’t have time to celebrate the big show or the momentous move. His family dropped him off at Sevendust’s tour bus to resume the band’s tour that evening.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.