Aces & 8s, photo by Dreamspeed Photography

Ace's & 8's - Getting Serious About Your Brand

I love photographing musicians. Without a doubt, the biggest influence on my photography are the album covers of the 70s. As a kid, I used to get lost in the work of Neal Preston, Mick Rock, and Gered Mankowitz. These images, seared into my brain, have served as the template for all the portraits I have ever taken. It's in my blood to photograph musicians. So I was thrilled when I had the chance to work with local band, Ace's & 8's.

Ace's & 8's

The members of Ace's & 8's are Austin Hennington, a diesel mechanic and line foreman for Peterbilt, Bradley"Hawk" Hawkins, a heavy equipment operator and mechanic for RockBottom Express, Clint Hilton, a paint salesman and delivery truck driver for Sherwin Williams, and Levi Testerman a full-time student and part-time offensive tackle for Marion Senior High. Austin, Hawk, and Clint rotate between guitar and bass. Levi busts the snare heads.

From left to right, Levi Testerman, Clint Hilton, Bradley "Hawk" Hawkins, and Austin Hennington. Aces and 8s with The Eagles, Desperado cover.

“Hawk and I have known each other since the second grade, and he was one of the first people I played music with when I first picked up the guitar at age 14,” said Helton. “We kinda drifted apart, but started playing together again a couple of years ago. We really started gelling again as musicians late last year and decided that playing in public again might be something that would help reignite our musical passion. Hawk knew Levi through his parents, and after seeing him play in person, I realized very quickly that while the phrase ‘prodigy’ may seem melodramatic, it's the only phrase that fits. I've never seen a fourteen-year-old drummer who was that talented. After playing with Levi a couple of times, we decided to invite Austin to play with us. Austin was a mutual friend of Hawk and me. We both met him through various open mics around the region and had played a good fair bit with him over the last several years.”

The band works because they all bring something different to the table: “If you were to sit and let each of the four of us play you the music that we like, each band member would play drastically different songs. We meet in the middle and the flavors start to combine,” said Helton. “Hawk is a straight Lynyrd Skynyrd man and was particularly influenced by Allen Collins and Steve Gaines. Austin likes the country picking of Waylon Jennings and gets a strong rock influence from GeneSimmons and Ace Frehley. Levi was teethed on southern rock but is also deep into 80's rock. I'm a little more blues influenced, and I'd say that Clapton had the biggest influence on my early playing style, but I've been really shaped by Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden's licks for the last several years. Allin all, that translates to a Southern Rock, Outlaw Country, and Classic Rock sound for the four of us as a whole. A nice musical blend of Skynyrd, Johnny Paycheck, and Drive-By Truckers.”

The band has been together as a four piece since late January.

The Photoshoot

I do my homework with any of my clients, and I had chosen several images to start with. I browsed through many of images of four member bands for ideas. One of the images I chose was of The Who sitting on the floor in a tight bunch. But after knowing the band 30 seconds, I tossed that aside. I did use The Who for inspiration for the image where the band is holding instruments.  used photos of Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd which produced some good results. But is was the band that came to me with the image they all loved, The Eagles Desperado. Hawk pulled this up on his phone, the guys gleefully grabbed the firearms they had brought along and we made magic. I kept the shadows dark to be true to the Eagles’ image, but used a different angle to the photo unique to Aces & 8s.

Pose based on The Who

“Ace's & 8's is a lofty name. It draws a mental image that, should we fail to live up to, will leave the audience feeling like they've been sold a false bill of goods. We're a band of working class musicians, playing working class music, for working class people, said Helton. That's the image we try and portray, because it's an honest representation of who we are, and if you combine it with the western motif of ‘Ace's & 8's,’ you see what the photos portray. You can see in the dark complexion that Hawk carries, as a result of all the time that he spends in an excavator. You can see in the fade of the denim of Levi's suit of clothes, the work he puts in taking care of horses when he's not at school. We all have ‘blue collar’ cut into our spirits and having a photographer who is capable of pulling that image out of us is the best asset that we can have for our physical presentation. After seeing the final results of the shoot, I think that not only was that goal met, but it may also have been surpassed.”

Ace's & 8's came to the studio knowing who they are. They know their brand, and they know what works for their brand. It’s more than just creating a “look.” It means knowing who you are from the feet up and never stepping out of those footprints. “Every band needs advertising,” said Helton. If no one comes to your shows, no one will book you moving forward, and talent will only carry you so far. People must know who you are, and photographs are the fastest, easiest way to have a physical representation for the band. If they're professionally taken by a photographer who knows what they are doing, you now have something to physically represent the band that separates you from the pack.”

Standing out from a crowded field of musicians in this area is challenging. “Bookings are always the hardest part for a rural band,” said Helton. “This region is blessed with an abundance of talented musicians, and bookings are limited due to the lack of available venues. If you add in the fact that we're an electric band, the list of available venues plummets. The only way to give yourself a step up is through professionalism... professionalism from a musical standpoint, a business standpoint, and a presentation standpoint. I highly recommend that anyone attempting to improve in the ‘professional presentation’ standpoint, start with a professional photographer, and having seen the results of our shoot, Dreamspeed Photography has my highest vote of confidence in getting you the right presentation to get you to the next level of band marketing.”

I’m so happy that I could help create branding for the band. But as I said, they guys know what they are doing. I’m just thankful they trusted me to help them move to the next step. 

Clint Helton closes by saying: “Ultimately, we're a barroom cover band in rural Appalachia. We have no expectations that playing music will replace our regular nine to fives, but having a little supplemental income is never going to hurt. At the risk of being cliche, however, we're in it for the music. We enjoy each other's company, playing music together, and seeing the joy that brings the audiences that we play for.That's the greatest payment we could ask for.”

Don’t miss this amazing band. You can see them at Pap’s at East End, 811 E Main St, Saltville, VA  on Saturday, July 2, 2022. You can also follow them on Facebook at @acesand8sbandva.