A miniature skeleton hangs from a stand on one side of a drawing table in Keith Neltner’s
Camp Springs studio. Nearby sits a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniels. In between them, a smoke-breathing guitar-player lunges from a framed print that leans against the wall.
On the table there’s a preliminary sketch for a new Justin Townes Earle
poster, with Earle’s head peeking out of a cannon that’s sitting atop a skateboard.
With a style that’s both rough-hewn and highly deliberate, always ironic and at times whimsical, Neltner has made a name for himself in the underground music world, thanks in large part to his decade-long partnership with Hank Williams III
While he spends three days a week as an art director at Intrinzic
in Newport, Neltner’s heart lies in the fields where he grew up, not far from the AA Highway, surrounded by the land and the lifestyle that inspires him.
The artist who was commissioned to create the first-ever gig poster for Cincinnati’s oldest tavern, Arnold’s Bar & Grill
, speaks softly about his love for music and its ability to spark emotion and meaning.
“It’s just real,” says Neltner, 35. “It touches people; it’s lasting. You could go into a record store in 10 years, and you’re going to find that same Hank III album that you picked up today.”
Growing up on the Neltner family farm just two doors down from his current stone farmhouse home meant listening to lots of country music. “I was a fan of Hank Jr.,” he says.
So in 1999, when he had a chance to hear Hank III play at Annie’s, he went. The three-hour show was not what he expected. “It was kind of like watching Kurt Cobain play honky-tonk music,” Neltner says. “It was like this clash of things.”
The intensity of the emotion appealed to him so much he designed a poster for Hank III, years before the “gig poster” craze had begun. Neltner delivered it, with a letter and contact information on the back, to Hank III after a concert in Indianapolis. He describes it as “a Hatch Show Print mashed up with the Misfits.”
“I didn’t know about the gig poster world,” he says. “I was just like, ‘It makes sense to make a poster.’ ”
Hank III called Neltner a few weeks later, and their partnership began. Four albums, multiple skateboard decks, belt buckles, sunglasses and countless other merchandise later, the two parted ways in 2010.
But Neltner’s talents and style had already earned him fans, from record label professionals to followers who had his work tattooed on their bodies to bands like the Avett Brothers
and Shooter Jennings
, Waylon Jennings’ son.
“I think Keith’s work is very influenced by where he grew up,” says Todd Lipscomb, 33, a fellow art director at Intrizic who also grew up in Northern Kentucky.
He and Neltner met at a vocational school formerly housed at Northern Kentucky University; both studied commercial art. Neltner also does design work for Lipscomb’s band, The Kentucky Struts
“He’s not afraid to go out and use materials that are literally on the farm and infuse them in his work,” Lipscomb says. “He uses everything from spray-painted stencils to dipping chicken claws in ink and drawing with it. It’s really inspiring because it does create a link between where you came from and what you are doing.”
For Neltner, who has worked for some of the biggest branding agencies in town, the link extends even further, into his work for companies like Procter & Gamble and Wrigley’s.
“You think about the Rolling Stones, Kiss, The Misfits, there is an icon that represents them,” Neltner says. “That’s not unlike – pick a brand, any brand.”
The big difference, he says, is emotion. While customers get attached to products, their devotion to bands and music runs much deeper, giving him richer territory to explore artistically.
“Usually there are themes in the music,” he says. “It starts there, taking the lyrics and building on those. I’m attracted to lyrics that are emotional.”
While his early work with Hank III embodies the intensity of the musician’s rage, Neltner’s work continues to evolve. His commission piece for Paleface
, who has been described as a cross between Tom Waits and Neil Young, is downright lighthearted.
Knowing that the poster would hang in Arnold’s after the Aug. 31 show, Neltner used the bar itself as inspiration. “I wanted it to feel at home,” he says. “That’s why it took on this European poster feel, so that people might gloss over it.”
His nine-month-old wiener dog, Sadie, became the animal model for Paleface, who, like the dog in the poster, wears a bolo hat. His son’s Red Flyer tricycle also worked its way into the scene, as did a large sun in the sky, a reference to Paleface lyrics that Neltner had jotted down in his sketchbook.
The aesthetic of a gig poster, he says, is something different from the branding of a band or artist.
“You’re creating this one thing for this event that is not the Olympics, but is very important for the people that are there,” he says. “You are creating this lineage of visual art that is connected to it.”
From hand-drawn typefaces to stains and other textures, Neltner plans every detail, eschewing technology when possible, but also using it to his advantage.
“I think there are endless possibilities to take something that feels made by hand, and from this real place, and apply it to many different things,” Neltner says.
“It could be video, it could be the side of a building, it could be anything. That’s my vision—to take the aesthetic further.”
A closer look:
• Buy one of Neltner’s Paleface with Shiny and the Spoon posters
. And of course, go to the Paleface show, Aug. 31.
• See Neltner’s first documentary project, which includes interview with Emmylou Harris, Allison Kraus and George Jones: Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' the Devil’s Cage
Photos by Scott Beseler