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Lexington, KY | Established. Jan 01, 2013 | SELF

Lexington, KY | SELF
Established on Jan, 2013
Band Folk Indie




"Soaring With Kites"

The best way to get a kite off the ground is to run straight into the wind, fighting the prevailing current. And one aptly named band with local ties is doing just that – and seeing the success of going against the grain.
Jo Jo Stephens, a 2006 McCreary Central Graduate and three close friends formed the band Kites last year, and are seeing the fruits of their efforts soar high into the sky.
Stephens, along with his younger brother, Nick, best friend and college roommate D.J. Allen and girlfriend Leah Hatmaker, form the core of the group who recently released their first EP to rave reviews.
The success of “Yellow,” released on iTunes two weeks ago, has been affirming for the young group, to say the least. Within the first 24 hours of availability, the album rocketed to #21 on the iTunes charts, and stayed in the top 100 all weekend.
“We thought we might crack the top 300,” Stephens said. “To see it get into the top 25 was amazing.”
The music is deeply tied to the area they call home. The group recorded their album in Helenwood, Tennessee, at Odell Brummett’s Brimstone Recording, much of their practicing is done in Winfield, and the songs themselves come from living in southeastern Kentucky.
“With all the time we took on it, and to see the results, it is cool to know that everything we have done is organic to the culture of the area,” Allen said.
“It feels really good,” Hatmaker added. “We were a little discouraged by how long it took in the studio, but to reach #21 is so rewarding.”
Stephens, credited as writer on the songs, and Hatmaker’s vocals complement each other perfectly, while Allen’s rhythm and the younger Stephens’ accompaniment on keys or strings round out a delightful sound unlike anything you have ever heard.
The five-song EP (including one radio edit track) showcases Kites’ eclectic style and range. It’s hard to classify the music into one genre, as the sound can range from rock, country, alternative and folk from song to song – and that is by design.
Allen says the group is still forming their own identity, and to develop their own signature.
“The world has not seen what we can do,” he said. “We are constantly developing our sound and trying to find ’us.’”
The roots of Kites formed a few years ago in Stephens’ and Allen’s dorm room at Lee University, where the pair would spend countless hours jamming and playing music. After a failed relationship, Stephens left school, and embarked on a pseudo-vagabond journey – unsure of what to do next. As he traveled from place to place, he worked on writing new songs, using the heartbreak to fuel his creativity, but never really got around to finishing them.
With his last $30 to his name, just enough to come home to Kentucky, Stephens left Nashville, where he was about to sign a lease on an apartment, and returned to Corbin.
Stephens had formed a friendship with Hatmaker, meeting through a mutual acquaintance. Over the years their friendship blossomed, and the pair grew closer. Stephens would play her some of his music, and she started to sing along.
Last April, while hanging out at “You and Me Coffee and Tea” in Corbin, Stephens and Hatmaker were sitting around when Hatmaker picked up a guitar and started playing and they started singing.
That chance moment led to the duo being booked to perform at that shop a week later. The days leading up to their debut was hectic, but worth it.
“We had nine days to come up with a two-hour set. I had 166 songs started, and we took about 20 and just finished them,” Stephens said. “We had always worked on these songs to transform them, but Leah really helped complete that transformation into something more than what they started out as.”
When the night of the show came crowds packed the house, and Kites was off and running.
Stephens and Hatmaker started dating, and performing on a regular basis.
“At the beginning we were just happy to be playing songs together, and it grew from there,” Stephens said.
Later that summer, they made a live recording of one of their shows at the coffee house, and the owner of the shop encouraged them to add more instruments to their music to round out the sound, and booked them a gig.
It wasn’t hard to complete the band after that.
“We knew there was more to what we had before,” Stephens said. “There is only so much emotion you can get with two people and an acoustic guitar. It came down to just two people- my best friend and little brother.”
Allen quickly joined forces as the group’s drummer, giving up three jobs in South Georgia to follow the dream. Younger brother Nick completed the quartet; playing keyboard lead guitar, piano, mandolin and back up vocals. At 16, Nick is the youngest member of the band, and his parents have opted to home school him in order to allow him to play full time.
“That was a huge symbol to me in my family’s belief in what we’re creating here,” Stephens said.
With the core in place – things started to take off.
Their first performance as a full group came after a week of cramming in as much practice together wherever they could. That show established a solid fan base that has been growing ever since.
“We packed the house and got a standing ovation at the end,” Stephens said. “Everything leading up to that; all the bad things that had happened, were all gone at that moment.”
Kites is getting recognition on local airwaves as radio DJ’s had been clamoring for a recording to play over the air. Their music can be heard on Somerset, London and Corbin stations already, and now that the album has hit the streets, more are sure to follow.
Kites will be a featured guest on Corbin’s 107.3 fm radio station Friday morning between 8-10 a.m. They will be performing several of their tunes live, and giving away free copies of their album.
Saturday night they will be appearing at You and Me and Coffee and Tea in downtown Corbin for a 2-hour performance starting at 7 p.m.
The group is even planning a live performance for WHAY radio in Whitley City in the near future.
As for what’s next. Allen said the future is wide open, but they vow to stay true to themselves.
“We are still trying to figure that out,” he said. “This release and the attention we are getting has opened up a lot of opportunities. We’ve always known we’d rather be complete failures at trying to live our dream, than do anything else.
Stephens said they plan to record and release additional albums this year, along with appearances across the state, and hopefully farther.
“We want to book as many shows as we can over the summer, and at the end, we hope to go on tour.”
But whatever the future holds for the four young and talented performers, Kites will always be a part of it.
“People don’t have to listen to you,” Hatmaker said. “They always have other options. We are so appreciative that so many choose to listen to us, and like what we do.”
“This is what grounds us the most.” - The McCreary County Voice (Whitley City, Ky)

"Our Neighbors: ‘An instant connection’ to music"

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. - The Sentinel-Echo (London, Ky)


  • Yellow EPMarch 7, 2014 / #21 in the World on iTunes Charts
  • Red EP - September 5, 2014 / #40 in the World on iTunes Charts



Heading into the winter of 2013, what had been a folk duo touring Kentucky’s farmers markets, coffee shops, & small festivals was re-establishing its identity. Going into the studio with two new members & an arsenal of songs based simply around acoustic guitar and vocals, there were many questions to answered. Kites rose to the challenge.

When the release of the Yellow EP came in March 2014, the band was reassured in their decision to expand their sound & direction. With songs like “Hey You” & “What Can I Do” the transformation from duo into a band had arrived, & the audience responded with open arms. Recorded as a demo merely for booking shows, the EP was long-awaited after four months off stage, and rose all the way to #21 in the world on iTunes charts the weekend of the release. Taken by the response, the band prepared for the shows & stages that followed as the year rolled on.

The summer of 2014 took the newly renovated foursome all over the Eastern U.S., reaching from Cleveland, Ohio’s historic venue Mahall’s all the way to Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s new Sugarlands Distilling Company. Kentucky also took notice of its Corbin natives, booking headlining shows at the Redbud Festival in Barbourville, NIBROC Festival in Corbin, The World Chicken Festival in London, as well as The Kentucky Green Living Fair & SLAM Festival in Somerset – all while recording their latest music in studio with every open window. Radio stations across the state and region began playing songs from the Yellow EP in rotation with Top 40 Hits. The new year and new sound was a hit as it progressed, wowing audiences live & through the airwaves.

September 5, 2014 marked the release of the Red EP - a new approach to the studio & their entirely independent album production. With its first single, “Home” listeners clamored at the growth and blend of folk, ambience, & rock. Songs like “I’ll Stay” brought the addition of DJ Allen on drums & Nick Stephens on lead guitar full circle, with energy resonating beyond the song & into the heads and hearts of the fans. Down-tempo, emotional ballads like “The End” paid homage to the band’s simplistic and stripped era as a duo, but took the emotional heights of the song far beyond the previous ceiling. Kites had another hit release on their hands, this time reaching #40 in the world on the same iTunes charts.

With 2015 underway, songwriter & male lead Jo Jo Stephens took his lady lead & band bassist Leah Hatmaker by the hand vocally, as well as lyrically in parallel to their lives together. After their marriage in June, the two hit the road with Nick & DJ and brought their music to universities & iconic venues all over the Southeast. Scheduled for an early 2016 release, the Blue EP is set to tell those stories & reach even greater heights, echoing songs of the heart and tales of life, love, & hope.

Haunting harmonies & soaring choruses. Ambience painted in dynamics. An occasional mix of regional Appalachia. Song to song. Verse to verse. Each line tells a story. Regardless of genre, you'll find memories rushing to mind in the midst of very human music.


Band Members