Ken Champion

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Steel guitar virtuoso Ken Champion was born in Oshkosh, WI, in 1949. After receiving his first six-string at 12, he initially migrated toward jazz, playing in Madison-area groups while studying physics…
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Steel guitar virtuoso Ken Champion was born in Oshkosh, WI, in 1949. After receiving his first six-string at 12, he initially migrated toward jazz, playing in Madison-area groups while studying physics at the University of Wisconsin. By 1969, Champion was earning enough playing music to drop out of school, and two years later he co-founded the rock & roll revival band Dr. Bop & the Headliners, capitalizing on the '50s-era nostalgia zeitgeist in vogue thanks to the hit film American Graffiti. Dr. Bop proved so popular that the band toured nationally, culminating in 1973 with a weeklong tenure at the famed Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go, and even released a live LP on the group's own Chicken label before dissolving in 1978.

During his time with Dr. Bop, Champion bought his first steel guitar, and in 1980 he joined his first country vehicle, the Horsefeathers Cowboy Band, which earned minor fame via infrequent appearances on Ernest Tubb's Nashville radio show Midnite Jamboree. He relocated to Chicago in 1985, joining the house band at the Country Music Inn before moving on to the Nashville North; when the city's honky tonk scene hit the skids in the early '90s, Champion resorted to teaching guitar and playing in wedding bands, although he remained a staple of the annual Buck Owens all-star birthday tributes at the local club Schubas. His career took a dramatic turn in 1996, when experimental artist and producer Jim O'Rourke invited him to play steel guitar on Smog's superb Red Apple Falls LP -- from there Champion appeared on three of O'Rourke's solo discs, and in 2001 he joined drummer Mike Reed's roots jazz outfit the Treehouse Project. A fixture on Chicago indie rock sessions throughout the decade, in 2004 Champion also teamed with his former music student Eric Chial in Decoy Prayer Meeting.