Published Monday, October 01, 2012

A Legend in the Making: Leather artist Kyle Landas

By Alex McRae

The Newnan-Coweta Magazine

Country music icon Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac on January 1, 1953. Fifty-six years later Kyle Landas was sitting in the same blue convertible, now known as “the death car.” He says the setting summed up his situation perfectly.

“Hank died when he was 29 and I was just a little bit older than that, and I was remembering times when I was so sick I thought I was going to die,” Landas says. “It’s not a good way to live.”

Today, Landas couldn’t be in a better place. The pain is still an occasional companion, but it’s also a reminder of how far he has come. On his sick bed, the former Iowa bricklayer discovered and nurtured a talent that brought him from America’s heartland to the Deep South as the personal leather artist for country music star Zac Brown, who calls Landas “a legend in the making.”

Landas won’t go that far, but says he’s on the right path.

“I never dreamed things would turn out like this,” he says. “I had to get sick to get where I’m at today, but that’s a trade I’d make anytime.”

Landas was born and raised in Iowa. At age 28, 10 years as a commercial bricklayer had left him in the best shape of his life. But suddenly, he began suffering from intense pain that at times left him barely able to walk. He consulted with doctors as far away as the Mayo Clinic but never even got a diagnosis.

“They finally said it might be fibromyalgia,” he says. “That’s a medical catch-all for ‘can’t figure it out.’ They told me to just take it easy. They didn’t tell me how to make a living while I was doing that.”

When he was physically able, Landas took odd jobs to support his wife, Melissa, and two young children. Landas had played guitar for years and when he was unable to work, he strummed tunes to comfort himself. But during sleepless, pain-wracked nights, his mind was continually drawn to a leather-wrapped Fender guitar wielded by country music legend Waylon Jennings.

“There was something about the leather that spoke to me,” Landas says. “I don’t know why.”

Landas was a talented amateur artist, proficient with pen, paint and paper, but had never considered working with leather. On a whim, he bought a few basic tools, scrounged some scrap leather and with the help of a how-to book, began the work that now defines his life.

Landas and leather were made for each other.

“It just felt right in my hands,” he says. “You can’t explain it.”

His earliest works were guitar straps painted with oils. They were as distinctive as they were gorgeous.

“Traditional scrollwork was like painting inside the lines,” Landas says. “That’s not for me. I wanted to do something different.”

People loved his style and Landas’ wife Melissa began peddling his product to up-and-coming musicians on social networking websites. A Landas strap finally found its way to Willie Nelson. “He loved it,” Landas says.

As his reputation grew, Landas filled orders for country artists that include Hank Williams Jr., Jerrod Niemann, Brad Paisley, Lee Brice, Randy Houser and Miranda Lambert.

Landas’ client list isn’t confined to country artists. Kid Rock sports a Landas strap as does Jerry Cantrell, of Alice in Chains, who says, “Kyle is known in certain circles for his great work and for good reason.”

Landas was a huge fan of the Zac Brown Band, but repeated attempts to contact Brown failed. Landas managed to strike up an online relationship with ZBB guitarist Clay Cook, who suggested they meet at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, where both would be attending a benefit auction featuring Landas’ leather portrait of the museum’s namesake.

After sampling the back seat of the death car Landas had a nice visit with Cook, who suggested he make a strap for Brown.

Nine months later, Brown got the strap and Landas’ life changed forever.

The Zac Brown Band was touring near Landas’ Iowa hometown, and Landas was invited to present the strap to Brown personally. Brown loved the strap, which he called “amazing.” But he had more in mind for the man who made it.

Landas says the two were talking when Brown said, “I just bought this leather business two days ago and now you walk onto my bus. You’re here for a reason. You’re going to move to Atlanta and work for me.” Landas remembers thinking, “Whatever, dude,” certain that Brown had been making small talk. His attitude changed drastically just a few hours later when Brown texted him a formal job offer.

“Man, he was serious,” Landas says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Two months later, in August 2010, the Landas family had settled in Coweta County and Landas was working at Brown’s Southern Hide leather shop.

“We just threw everything in the U-Haul and jumped in head first,” Landas says.

A third child has since joined the crowd. Instead of laying bricks, Landas spends his days molding, massaging and carving leather into everything from guitar straps to ladies’ handbags to tour posters to fine art, including two- and three-dimensional hand-painted leather portraits.

And while Landas is proud of the work he did with the Zac Brown Band and Southern Hide, he is now again working as a freelance artist.

So far, Landas has just one workplace complaint. Seems like the man who makes a living from leather doesn’t like the animals that provide it. At least not on his dinner plate.

“I’m a vegetarian,” Landas says. “The guys at the shop (used to) love to rip me about it, but I’ll get by. I’ve been through lots worse.” 


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