Meet The NeighborsMay 01, 2021 ● By Lisa Dawson
When singer-songwriter and guitarist Billy Kirby describes how local classic rock band The Neighbors came together, he makes it sound similar to cooking gourmet cuisine. “A band is all about the chemistry,” he says. “It takes a while for all the ingredients to come together and make it work.”
Members of The Neighbors are always up for a good time. They describe themselves as a group of Frisco neighborhood musicians who play what sounds good to them – as well as to audiences – and have fun doing it. Performing crowd-pleasing covers by musicians and bands including Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones and Al Green, they get show-goers clapping, singing along and up on their feet dancing.
Mr. Kirby and his bandmates – Russell Cunningham, Tammy Fox, Johnny Kruse and JayDee Watson – have played together for just a few years. The band members blend both onstage and off. “Musical tastes have to mesh,” Mr. Kirby says. “That’s what makes our band unique, because so many generations of music are represented and allowed to be a part of the show.”
If you’ve been to the Frisco Rail Yard on First Street during the past two years, you may have seen The Neighbors onstage. The original quintet came together in 2018 via Nextdoor, an app for neighborhoods that allows users to report happenings in their areas, share news and information and connect online to organize events and get acquainted with their neighbors. When Frisco resident Randy Kamin, a founding member of The Neighbors, posted on the app, “Anyone wanna be in a band?”, people took notice.
Since then, The Neighbors have welcomed and said goodbye to several members, but it is the initial Nextdoor post that current members continue to credit for the band’s beginnings. “Many local musicians responded to that ad, so we definitely recognize Randy … for starting it all,” Mr. Kirby says. “Without him, this would never have started.” He also credits Wendell Reich, a Frisco resident who opened his home for a couple years to serve as rehearsal space; and original bassist Kyle Kundivich. “He was amazing,” Mr. Kirby says. “He never played bass before and learned on the go.”
The Neighbors’ drummer, Frisco native Russell Cunningham, has played drums for more than 40 years. He is the newest member of the band, having joined last year. His passion for the drums started when his older brother got a drum set for Christmas. “I was intrigued,” Mr. Cunningham recalls. “He and a few friends were in a band, and I would go and watch them rehearse. ... During their breaks, he didn’t mind me playing on the drums.” Fast forward several decades: Mr. Cunningham is still drumming. He names his brother as one of his musical influences, as well as drummers John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Ronnie Tutt, who played with Elvis Presley.
Johnny Kruse plays the Hammond organ, guitar, bass and keyboard for The Neighbors. A New Orleans native, he has played music for 46 years and grew up performing on the famed Bourbon Street jazz-and-blues scene. “It opened my eyes and ears to absorb as much as possible,” he says of the experience, as did having parents who were involved in music.
Mr. Kruse, who joined The Neighbors in 2018, is a multi-instrument player and brings a diverse skill set to the band. “It is tough to pick a favorite instrument. … But it is much easier to identify the most influential instrument in my life, and that is hands down the pipe organ,” he says. “The wide breadth of soundscaping opportunities, full pedalboards, combined with several manuals, really make this instrument the most influential. This was the instrument that carried me through college and (was) the most difficult for me to master.”
With powerful vocal and tambourine skills, Tammy Fox is The Neighbors’ lead singer. Fox, who grew up in a small Illinois town before relocating to Frisco in 2001, has sung for three decades. “I joined a band when I was 15 years old. Close high school friends started a band and asked me to sing, so I had to oblige,” she says. Among her musical influences she names Bette Midler, Stevie Nicks and the Eagles. “My parents introduced me to classic rock,” Ms. Fox says. “Generally, I just enjoy great music regardless of who it’s by.”
JayDee Watson (aka Bubba) also lends his vocal talents to The Neighbors as well as plays bass guitar, six- and 12-string guitar and ukulele. Formerly a resident of Fort Worth, Mr. Watson has played music for 60 years. Like many musicians, he points to rock legends including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Led Zeppelin as having inspired him musically. “I knew I wanted to be a musician the first time I saw The Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show,” he says.
Like the instruments they play, the spouses of The Neighbors’ members also have an important role in the band, namely supporting their loved ones’ musical passions. Kay Kirby says that when her husband, Billy Kirby, isn’t involved with music or his other passion, soccer, somehow his life doesn’t seem full. “He’s usually doing one or the other,” she says. Brenda Watson, wife of JayDee Watson, says her husband is happy anytime he can pick up an instrument or write a song. Also, “Studio work is also a biggie” for him, she says.
Bethanne Kruse says joining The Neighbors has helped her husband, Johnny Kruse, explore his musical interests. “It gets him to follow his passion and love of music – and it also gets him out of the house,” she jokes. Mrs. Fox’s husband, Paul Fox, says his wife enjoys connecting with audiences. “She is a powerful vocalist and loves to make people happy,” he says. “She loves the opportunity to take a mixture of talents and blend it into a cohesive, good-sounding band.”
Mr. Kirby says Frisco Rail Yard, where The Neighbors got their start performing and where they most recently played a gig in April, will always be a bit of a sentimental place for the band. “We also enjoy playing there because it is in the open. People can mingle around, get close to the stage if they wish, grab food and walk farther to the back if they just want the music as a backdrop,” he says. “The Rail Yard ... is just a great local watering hole that fits with Frisco and us.”
According to Frisco Rail Yard co-owner Tamme Leff, “One of the main reasons we opened is to support local bands,” she says, explaining that The Neighbors and other music groups “just want to entertain and have a chance to play their songs. … The crowds love them, and we love having them.”
Like many acts whose mainstay is performing live, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a difficult blow for The Neighbors. In a Facebook message to fans posted late last year, the band expressed regret over having their shows put on pause. “We wanted to play out a lot more for you than we were able to, but life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” they wrote. “2021 finds us licking our wounds from that horrific 2020 debacle and slowly regrouping for what, hopefully, will be a better year ahead.” So far, so good: The Neighbors are scheduled to return to The Rail Yard for a live performance June 11 and say they are looking forward to playing more shows in the Frisco and Little Elm areas in coming months.
Lisa Dawson is a professional writer and mom of three. She is grateful to call Frisco home since 2013.