Whether touring the country with a legendary band or entertaining a crowd until closing time in a hometown bar, years of the late-night grind can prompt musicians to start looking for a second act. For Johnny Colt — the Black Crowes’ founding bassist and a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd from 2012-2017 – the perfect follow-up was in a Florida art gallery.
His epiphany came when he was getting ready to play a show with Skynyrd several years ago. “I’m in Dallas. I’m sitting in a hotel connected to a mall playing some kind of outdoor show that’s attached to some sort of cattle contest. Not that there is anything wrong with cattle contests,” Colt tells Billboard with a grin. “I’m just saying I’m doing that, and my daughter becomes a senior in high school. I realize, ‘Oh my God! It’s like she’s out the door.’ I had an odd midlife crisis for a guy in a band. My midlife crisis was the opposite what it was supposed to be. I wanted to go be with my kids. I didn’t want a car. I just wanted to get out of there. So, I came home and didn’t know what to do with myself.”
An Atlanta native, Colt and his wife decided to move to the Florida panhandle after he exited Skynyrd in 2017. “My kids got to be a certain age and I was traveling all the time anyway so we decided to move down here to the beach and have our kids do their high school years here — more nature, less crime,” says Colt, who also formed the Brand New Immortals and spent time in Train and Rock Star Supernova with Tommy Lee prior to his career change.
Now, Colt is relishing his new gig in the art world, where he works at the Justin Gaffrey Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. Justin Gaffrey — a New Jersey-born former chef/restauranteur who has become an acclaimed painter with a thriving gallery and devoted clientele — employs not just Colt at his gallery, but veteran coastal performers Jeremiah Campbell and Neil Sebree as well.
“My nature is to work in ensemble,” Colt explains. “I love people and I like to work in a group. I’m just happy not being in an actual band. Creatively I get the best of both worlds now. I can play guitars as much as I want. I get to participate in Justin’s world and be part of his band, then I get to unplug. We’re not all on a tour bus together. Hotel rooms aren’t next to each other, and I don’t spend 23 hours a day with Justin. In that sense, there’s some self-awareness that comes with time. I’ve been lucky to play in bands and I had a band where I sang at one point. That was all great. I got to do all those things, but I’m probably best served as the guy next to the guy.”
Colt’s association with Gaffrey began after the bassist and his family relocated to Florida. “I did not specifically aim to hire musicians,” Gaffrey, who started painting in 2001, tells Billboard. “It’s just that there are a lot of musicians that live around here. It started with Jeremiah [Campbell]. He worked here in the studio with me as my assistant. He built a lot of things for me and did everything.”
When Gaffrey saw Campbell performing locally, a realization dawned on him. “He was such a showman,” Gaffrey says of Campbell’s gregarious personality. “I’m kind of a recluse and he’s outspoken. I was like, ‘You need to be out talking to people.'”
Soon Campbell stepped out from behind the scenes and began working in the gallery, selling art to individuals and placing paintings in local businesses. “I handle all the day-to-day operations and the clientele. There’s a lot that goes with that,” says Campbell, a Jacksonville, Fla. native who has worked for Gaffrey for seven years and became the director of the gallery three and a half years ago. “You have to negotiate a deal and then after you’ve negotiated a deal and gotten the money and everything then you have to get the painting to the people. Sometimes that involves delivery and installation and sometimes that just involves shipping. We ship all over the country and I’ve even shipped paintings to Lebanon, Canada, Australia and India. It’s a constant battle to keep up with that when you sell 500 paintings a year.”
Gaffrey says Campbell’s local connections are an asset. “When you are a musician on the local scene, you know everybody,” Gaffrey says. “Since I’m a recluse, I don’t know anybody anymore. Jeremiah knew more people, so then a lot of people that started working here were friends of his that were musicians.”
That’s how Neil Sebree came to Gaffrey Art Material, the paint manufacturing division of Gaffrey’s enterprises. Sebree and Campbell had performed together in the Waco Ramblers (Waco referring to Walton County, Fla.). The popular bluegrass band released one album, and in addition to performing around the Sunshine State, also played national bluegrass festivals and noted venues like Nashville’s Station Inn. “Neil started playing bass with us and that really took the band to another level,” Campbell says. “And Neil is one of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever met. We really started hitting and started getting six to seven gigs a week. We played doubles and triples on Saturdays.”
The same creativity and attention to detail that makes Sebree a gifted musician translates to his work in art. “I refer to him as the paint chef because he’s the guy that starts in the beginning with the ingredients,” says Campbell, “getting them together, sourcing them out, getting them here, getting them off the truck into the containers, out of the containers into the mixers. All the chemicals put in, all the pigment and coloration, mixing it and getting it ready to bag? That’s all Neil.”
In addition to music, Colt is also a visual artist. “I sell a bit, but that’s mostly to fans of the music career that I’ve had, so it’s kind of hard to call myself a professional artist,” he demurs. “I don’t think of myself in that way even though I sell some things. It’s a glorified hobby, if you will.”
Colt leads Gaffrey’s production team and his duties encompass a variety of areas including overseeing an upcoming book on Gaffrey’s art and handling marketing for Gaffrey Art Material, the division the artist launched in 2020 to manufacture paint. “I had an idea that I wanted to start a paint company because I started painting in textures and nobody really painted in these textures like I was doing,” Gaffrey says. “I would use certain types of paints, but they didn’t exist in high volumes. It was 2009 that I ran out of paint: there was no paint in the country for me and I was busy in my career. I hired an analytical scientist down in south Florida to help me develop a recipe, and I flew up to New York to talk to this guy about pigments. I just started studying about paints and I started developing this process.” When paint became readily available again, Gaffrey put his burgeoning paint business on hold to concentrate on creating, then finally launched the manufacturing division of his company nearly two years ago.
Colt sees room for growth in the paint business. “Anytime someone invents something new what they’ve done is they’ve empowered a whole new group of artists to go in a different direction,” Colt opines. “When Justin started the paint company, I really believed in what he was doing and I just felt like it would be a good fit because I wanted to be around the visual art world. I knew I’d learn a lot from Justin and I have learned a ton, but I also knew that surviving the music business for 30 years and being in commercial real estate, I figured I’ve got to have some skills that he could use to help his paint company get to the next level.”
Working in the art world was a magnet for Campbell and Sebree, too, although both still occasionally perform with local bands in the area. Campbell says he’s always pleasantly surprised when he hears people calling out his stage name, Red Rocket, when he’s at the local grocery store or elsewhere in town. “This has kind of become like a refuge for misfits of the real world,” Campbell says of Gaffrey employing local creatives. “In order to work for a man whose sole purpose is to create and to come up with things that don’t exist and then to go out and sell it, you’ve really got to have a great deal of understanding and a creative mind in order to work with that person. Normal people aren’t going to be able to work with Justin because Justin will start a project, get an idea and then go 900mph in the other direction. I can handle that. We’ve totally developed like an old married couple relationship over the years.”
In some ways, Colt sees himself “behaving more like a producer would in music or television” when he works with Gaffrey to help execute his vision. “I don’t need people to clap for me at this point in my life, so it’s great to work with Justin because I can really focus on being a service to him,” says Colt. “It doesn’t mean I don’t have things I want to do. I just know how to put me aside enough to help him get what he needs [done] if he had the hours. In the end, the ego is down and the work goes up. That’s our idea. It’s all about being of service, being able to create things that take things to the next level. I think Justin is an innovator. He is a Les Paul. At the end of the day, what the music business gives me is an understanding of creativity meeting commerce — with Justin I see another brother on the road in that process.”