Kody Norris stands next to the painting of his friend Frank Grayson on the wall of the Muse Hardware Building in downtown Mountain City, TN Photo by Dan Cullinane
By Dan Cullinane
Tiger By The Tail: The Rise of Kody Norris takes the stage this Saturday at Heritage Hall, and it’s a heartfelt homecoming for the rising Bluegrass music star.A lot has changed for Norris, 33, since he last performed in Mountain City. His major-label debut, All Suited Up, the dust-raising boot stomping blast of authentic Johnson County bluegrass the world sorely needed, entered the Billboard Music chart at number 7 and produced three hit singles so far.
Norris was in the middle of a 120-date tour when the shut-downs began in 2020, and he and his band (wife Mary Rachel Nalley-Norris, Josiah Tyree, and Charlie Lowman) have just been nominated as Best New Artist by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Sadly, the highs have been matched by hardship. Just before Christmas of last year, Norris’ father, Kenny Norris, passed.
“You think you’ve got the tiger by the tail,” Norris said of his rollercoaster year. “And then it gets away from you.”
A fan of Bluegrass, Americana, and Roots music, the elder Norris, with his little boy Kody in tow, hit up music festivals all over the region, fostering in his son the love of traditional Appalachian music that would be his ticket to the world. Norris’ career first took off in 2005, while still a senior at Johnson County High School, when he was with his Dad at The Carter Family Fold, and he was recruited by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Those memories make for deep roots, and those roots keep Norris close to home.
“Bluegrass music was a little boy’s dream,” he said. “I’ve been able to see the world on someone else’s dime, and I guess career-wise, it makes sense to be closer to the action, but I love this town. I’ve always loved this town.”
Going to shows with his Dad and watching Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, and the like not only infused the young Norris’ music with authenticity, it informed his showmanship as well, and he emulates the tight, sharp look of his idols to this day.
“I’m not a fan of shrugged shoulders and not being neat,” said Norris, who is known for bringing rhinestones, embroidered lapels, and bespoke boots back to the stage. “I built my business on a slick shave and a good haircut. At the end of the night, we’re making memories, and I want my guys to look like something.”
Norris’ fierce adherence to the musical tradition of G.B. Grayson, Fred Price, Clint Howard, Doc Watson, and other area legends, along with the signature style that he says almost got him laughed off the stage is now paying off handsomely. Hard-driving original songs like Love Bug and more haunting traditional tunes like Ole Carolina on The Kody Norris Show’s album All Suited Up shows once again that Johnson County is the real deal.
“We can take this show,” he said, “That might seem hick or corny, and play the major Bluegrass festivals in Washington or Oregon, and the young folks have a ball with it. They know real when they see it and hear it.”
However, all success aside, Norris is humbled and excited to be the guy who turns the lights back on at Heritage Hall because it’s not just that he remembers where he came from. It’s that he never left.
“When I was 13, I used to play Cook’s restaurant down on 421 on Friday nights for tips,” Norris said. “And whether I’m on stage in Los Angeles, or New York, or Switzerland, I talk the same way. I act the same way. I’m the same man.”