Glenn Acree, who plays bass, keyboard, harmonica and sings with the band Off the Clock, was struggling through a late-night gig last Saturday at the Parlay Social nightclub on Cheapside.
His voice was shot from an outdoor concert the night before at Keeneland, where temperatures in the 90s had sapped the 57-year-old musician’s strength.
Besides, it had been a stressful week: His high school baseball coach and another mentor from his youth had both died.
Oh, and he had been sworn in as chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
That’s right: When he’s not wearing a black robe and helping decide some of Kentucky’s most complex legal cases, Acree is wearing jeans and covering classic rock ‘n’ roll.
“I kind of tried to keep this extracurricular activity of mine a secret, because you don’t know how people will react,” Acree said. “But golf could never do for me what music does for me. This is a complete release.”
Occasionally, Acree will be onstage and an attorney who has practiced before him will come up with a strange look on his face and say, “Aren’t you judge …” Acree said. “Sometimes it’s people I know really well, and they didn’t know I did this.”
Musical talent runs in Acree’s family. His father “could pick up anything and play it,” he said. His uncles, Rollin and Johnny Sullivan, became Grand Ole Opry stars as the comedy duo Lonzo and Oscar. His nephew, Jordan English, is a rising professional singer and songwriter.
Acree joined the Army after graduating from Metcalf County High School in 1973. When his hitch was up, he went to the University of Kentucky and considered medicine, journalism and history. He spent a semester playing keyboard for the Kentucky HeadHunters, but he never wanted a music career.
Acree earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Maryland and was planning to go for a doctorate when his brother-in-law suggested law school instead.
Acree spent a decade with the Lexington firm McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, where Terry McBrayer became a mentor. He then did a variety of legal work with partners and on his own.
Among his clients were the state Realtor and homebuilder associations. Their conventions would sometimes end with Acree pulling out his guitar to entertain. “It was a nice tool for me to have to get to know my clients on a different level,” he said.
Word of Acree’s talent got around. In 1999, a friend asked him to perform with other amateurs at a benefit for Kentucky Children’s Hospital. “I said I couldn’t play in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know who weren’t drinking,” he said. But he did, and the audience approved.
Then Acree discovered his brother-in-law, Victor English, was a good singer and guitarist. They formed Off the Clock with friends. Their wives, Lisa Acree and Susan English, joined in as singers.
Benefit concerts led to paying gigs at bars, clubs and events, including Alltech’s annual international symposium. The band practices each week at Acree’s house and plays a gig or two a month. Other current band members are Pat Hanna, Phil Simmons, Bobby Zimmerman and Mike Marsh.
“None of us does it for the money,” Acree said. “At our age, if you gave us roadies, we’d do it for free.”
Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed Acree to a Court of Appeals vacancy in 2006, and he was elected to the post soon afterward. On June 5, Acree’s colleagues elected him to a four-year term as chief judge. His first day on the job was July 1.
Acree knows two other Kentucky judges who play music on the side: Jeffrey Walson, a family court judge in Clark and Madison counties; and Steve Wilson, a circuit judge in Warren County, who for many years was lead singer with a band whose name always makes lawyers chuckle: Skip Bond and the Fugitives.
Wilson was one of the first people to congratulate Acree on his new job, but the call included a warning: “Just because you’re a judge, don’t be so highfalutin that you quit playing music.”
There seems little chance of that happening. “I don’t want people to think I don’t take this work seriously just because I have so much fun playing music,” Acree said. “But most people say, ‘It humanizes you, judge.’”