Jun 20, 2022
Jun 16, 2022
By Travis Erwin
If the desert had a voice, I can’t help but think it would sound a lot like Drew Kennedy.
That might come across as pandering, or at the very least obvious given the title and geographical setting of his latest album, but as a longtime fan of Kennedy’s, this is not a new thought for me. I am a native Texan, a windblown son of the Texas Panhandle who now calls Southern California home after forty plus years in the Lone Star State. Drew Kennedy originally hails from Pennsylvania and now proudly calls the Hill Country his home.
I write these facts to highlight the fact that here I am, an expat of sorts writing about an adopted son. Texas might not truly be its own country, but the state is certainly as close to independent as any nation in this land. At least in spirit and my upbringing shapes how I see and react with this world. So long before Kennedy created his side project, Ocotillo, or this new album Marathon, he pulled me in with emotionally laden songs like “Vapor Trails” and “Stars In California.” As a novelist, Drew’s storytelling and strong emotive threads spoke to me. Stuck to me one might say, like the barbed spines of Cholla, so when I moved here and visited Joshua Tree I thought of Graham Parsons first, and Drew Kennedy second because I can hear his music in the rustle of the ocotillo or feel the sheltering emotion of his words as I stand in the meager shade of a Joshua Tree.
I feel a link to Kennedy as a fellow creative and that is because of the emotional relevance he spins into his words. We are both big, bearded men with softer sides that I would at least like to think is born of empathy for the human condition. So yeah, I’ve long been a fan and still, Marathon just might be Kennedy’s best work to date. Unconventional in both its creation and sound, the heart and life show in unexpected ways. This is not a studio album in that it was recorded in the tiny town of Marathon, Texas, but it very much is a finely crafted and polished product. I won’t spoil the fine work Kennedy did by describing any of the history or wonderment of the area but then again, I don’t need to. It is all there in musical form for you to enjoy.
Painting in both words and emotions, Drew Kennedy sets the scene with the title track, “Marathon,” and he does so with a calm soothing style that feels like sitting on the porch beside a skilled historian and storyteller. This opening track invites you to sit and listen in to a place that time might not have completely forgot, but has left mostly unscathed.
In these days of streaming music and a barrage of singles, a finely crafted album is a rarity, but Kennedy and his collaborator Davis Naish have arranged this collection like chapters of a novel. Each track tells an individual story and weaved together they form a larger picture. After setting the scene, “Peace And Quiet” is where this story about broken hearts and the quest for belonging truly begins. “The Hat” then takes our forlorn wanderer and gives him mentor of sorts. No one wants to feel like their best days, or at least final adventures are behind them because we all hope to have a piece of us continue on and this track takes that metaphorical idea and transforms it into the tangible.
Walt Wilkins very well might be the poet laureate of Texas, so Kennedy’s take of Wilkins’ “Watch It Shine” is one of those pairings that feels like stepping out in the warm sunshine after a long cold night. No matter how dark it has been, letting the warmth hit you reinspires and reinvigorates, and this is a track that I will turn to over and over again, fully expecting more meaning to shone through with each listen.
The oompah cadence of “West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society” reminded me of vintage Robert Earl Keen blended with Randy Newman. The track left me longing for a dance partner to grab and waltz across the floor. “Hi-Ho Silver” carries a hint of 90s Country but still delivers Kennedy’s intense emotional edge both in the performance and writing. Nostalgia and pop references combine to create the lonesome sensation only remote places can instill, but the track also brings out the unrelenting heart and determination of those who seek out such far-flung places.
“Hope” is a fragile concept, but one we all need, and this track walks that line in a way that lends credibility to the story with its genuineness. Drew Kennedy is an easy guy to root for. His positivity and compassionate outlook invites you in much in the same way the hopeful character of the track “Lucky” helps us feel the spark of falling in love.
Few things have been romanticized as much as trains and while “Sunset Special” is less about the glory days of rail travel than it is the emotional side of being excited in love it was inspired by a train that passes through Marathon on its travels back and forth from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The actual train is called The Sunset Limited but how that got mixed up is a story for Kennedy to tell because one of the hallmarks of a Kennedy’s live shows is the storytelling that goes on between offerings.
“Boots On My Feet” is a song about travelling and how no matter how far you roam, your past goes with you. The spirit of Guy Clark is almost tangible on the final track, “So Far To Go.” The build pulls you along instilling the sense of wisdom shared and knowledge gained. The track does not tie in directly to the album’s overall narrative, but with lyrics about love shared and emotions earned the song is universal enough that few people will even realize the story has ended. That said, one can argue story endings are simply the new beginning to the next story. I hope that is the case because as the story of Drew Kennedy’s “Marathon” closes, I am left eager for the beginning of his next great tale.
Marathon is available everywhere you buy and stream music tomorrow.
Travis Erwin is an author and freelance music critic. His latest novel, THE GOOD FORTUNE OF BAD LUCK was released in May of 2022 and follows other works such as THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES, TWISTED ROADS, WAITING ON THE RIVER, and HEMINGWAY. Follow him on twitter @traviserwin
Jan 28, 2022
By Kevin Broughton
One of my favorite political/theological commentators recently joked that modern Evangelical services consist of “a Coldplay concert and a Ted talk.” As the sage Homer Simpson once observed of every good joke, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Put another way, as a former pastor of mine once said, “Music in most Baptist churches now follow the ‘747’ model: Seven verses, sung 47 times each.”
I’ve got a million of ‘em, folks.
I’m a “get off my lawn” Southern Baptist, and defiantly proud of it. And that’s why I love Brent Cobb’s And Now, Let’s Turn To Page…, his love letter to his, my and your youth, provided like him and me, you knew what it meant to be in church twice on Sundays plus Wednesday nights.
Esoteric? Sure. This may not be your thing, if you’re not from the Deep South. But for authentic country music fans of a certain bent – and Cobb gets his “country” honest – this album will move you viscerally. It’s been a good while since I could “have church” just by listening to a record, but Cobb has made a joyful noise in such an authentic way. It’s time to spread the good news.
In late November, we caught up with our fellow Georgian to talk faith, hymns, coincidences (spoiler: they don’t exist,) and meeting destiny at a clogging great aunt’s funeral.
Hey, Kevin. It’s been a while, man.
About four years, best I can tell.
Yeah. Let’s do this!
This is the first “new” album I’ve listened to where I knew 90 percent of the lyrics ahead of time and found myself singing along involuntarily. A gospel record was on your checklist for a while, but something happened to move it up on the schedule. How about you let folks in on that?
Aight. Well, first of all, we’ve gotta make sure that it’s known as a Southern gospel album. (Laughs) I grew up with Southern gospel, and I grew up in Antioch Baptist Church, where we sang all of those songs. Of course back then it was just with piano and congregation. But I always had it in the back of my mind that that I would do a gospel record, because all my heroes did it: Johnny Cash, Elvis…Willie Nelson still closes out his shows with gospel songs.
But then last year, my son and I got T-boned at this little intersection, a four-way stop I’ve been going through my whole life – on the way to my grandparents’ house. And it’s really rural, a lot of Chinaberry trees, plus it’s in July so everything’s in bloom. And I did my best to look, but it was timed so this guy in a little Honda Civic was in my blind spot. He’s not from the area and didn’t see the stop sign, so he hit me full-on.
My son was right behind me, and we got hit on the driver’s side of the truck. He was okay; I broke my collarbone. So that accident really hurried the making of a Southern gospel album along.
And here’s what crazy about that story, too, that sort of relates: The first thing that I found when I was cleaning out my truck after the wreck was a Rosary that a priest had given me years ago on a Jamey Johnson tour. The necklace was slung way up on the other corner of the dashboard, and I found the cross between my seat and my son’s. But that whole situation’s what made me go ahead and record this album.
By my Baptist count, there’s just one “invitation hymn” on the record, “Softly and Tenderly.” I imagine we’ve both sat (stood, more accurately) through altar calls set to this hymn – and others – that cycled through all the verses multiple times….
“…if anybody’s feelin’ it in their heart today, come on down.”
…exactly! That said, now seems a good time to ask about when you “walked the aisle.”
I was young when I walked the aisle. I was ten years old when I got baptized. It’s funny you ask about that. We played a show down here Saturday, and one of the guys I got baptized with, his daughter was at the show and we talked about that.
When you’re young, you don’t really know about the world, but I just thought Jesus was really cool. The kids I grew up with, we went to Royal Ambassadors and all the different activities. In fact, when I was little – before I started sinning when I was about 16 or 17 – I thought I might want to be a preacher. Obviously, I didn’t go down that path. But yeah, I got saved and walked the aisle when I was ten.
Is this album more spiritual than nostalgic to you? The other way around, or a bit of both?
It’s definitely both. It’s what I grew up with, as I was saying. But I sing these songs…I think I sing them better than I sing my own songs. I think it makes you sing different. My grandaddy, he led the singing at our church, but he wasn’t really a singer. But when he got up there to lead the songs, he could sing. I guess it was because he was singing those songs. And it’s the same way for me. I don’t try to push my beliefs on anybody, but it’s definitely spiritual on a personal level. But also nostalgic.
As we were setting up this interview, I mentioned that when my grandaddy died in 2000, my cousin and I sang “The Old Rugged Cross” at his funeral, and that it was fifteen years or so before I heard that hymn sung in a church house. You said that you’d had a similar experience that we could talk about. Now’s the time.
I actually have two stories about that.
My grandaddy’s mother died when he was in his teens. Or he might have been in his twenties. Regardless, after the night she died, he and all his siblings woke up singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” The next day when they found out about their mom, they got to talking and every one of them said they woke up singing that song. “That was always her favorite hymn,” one said, and then each of them said the same thing. So, that song has always had a real personal connection to our family.
So, when my grandaddy passed away, April 4, 2012, me and my cousin were sitting on the front pew. And the piano was right there, and we had a guest singer who was gonna come in and sing that hymn because it was his favorite, too. The hymnal was already open, and every so often the breeze from the fan would turn a page. And when the singer sat down at the piano, it was opened to “The Old Rugged Cross.” He didn’t have to flip a page.
Isn’t that somethin’?
And Now, Let’s Turn to Page…
Let’s talk about some of the arrangements. The bulk of these hymns are traditional and acoustic, but a couple have distinct interpretations. “Are You Washed in the Blood,” with its thumping bass line strikes me as a Southern white boy’s funk-infused reimagining of some the great black gospel tracks. On “When It’s My Time,” the band also lets it fly. Even “Softly and Tenderly” ends with a sweet guitar solo. How did you and Dave decide when and where to step the sound up?
Well, here’s the deal. I call it a “Southern gospel” album because of the gospel, one, but also for Southern rock. All the music I grew up with was born of Southern gospel. Lynyrd Skynyrd – a huge influence of mine, you know? All the soul music – Otis Redding and all those greats – Southern gospel is all it is. So, for it to be a true Southern gospel album, I wanted to infuse all the sounds of the South that make the South so great. And Dave also does, you know?
So, when we first went in, I wanted to make a Jerry Lee Lewis-type country album, but with gospel songs. But when we got to playin’, the first song where we really found the sound – and it wasn’t really intentional – was “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” We hit that groove there – kinda laid-back, kinda Southern and funky – and we realized this album wasn’t gonna take the Jerry Lee Lewis approach. (Laughs) And we just kept findin’ stuff like that.
Like on “We Shall Rise,” that was the last song we recorded. My great aunt Christine, she was Pentecostal. That was Dave’s grandmother, and she would come every so often and guest sing at our church. And since she was Pentecostal, she didn’t believe in instruments, so she’d come in with her clogs…
…Man, I know. But she’d have her hymnal while she was clogging, singing “We Shall Rise” in a good a Capella, and she would sing it at the top of her lungs. What’s also a coincidence – I don’t know if I believe in coincidences – is that it was the first single of the album, with no influence by me; that was my radio team. And her funeral is where I met Dave for the first time. I was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Pretty wild, huh?
Does Cousin have a Grammy winner in the “Gospel” category yet? Asking for a friend.
Dude, he’s got about every other one, doesn’t he? (Laughs) I don’t know, man. Here’s hoping. Who knows?
You’re about to head out to the United Kingdom for a tour. Two-part question: (1) Is there one cut from this record you might consider springing on a British audience; and, (2) What’s the first thing you look forward to on your return?
Well, I’m sure I’ll play “When It’s My Time” when I’m over there. It’s not purely a gospel song, but I think a lot of people can relate to it. When I get back, I’m looking forward to flying straight to Texas and joining Robert Earl Keen on the “Merry Christmas From The Family” tour. That’s just a dream tour for me and I can’t believe I’m on it; he’s been a major influence of mine since I was a teenager.
And I haven’t had a whole lot of time off. I just got off the road with Nikki Lane and Adam Hood, so I am looking forward to being at home for just a little stretch, anyway.
Ye who are weary, come home: And Now We Turn To Page… is out today wherever you purchase fine music.
Jan 19, 2022
Dec 31, 2021
Dec 25, 2021
Dec 23, 2021
The Caulder family of West Memphis, Arkansas is taking songwriter Robert Earl Keen to task and possibly to court over a popular holiday anthem. They say Keen’s “Merry Christmas From the Family” is based entirely upon them and their kooky holiday exploits.
Sure enough, the singer and writer of the song, Robert Earl Keen was exactly who he thought it was. “I met that fella up to the dog track in about 1993; he was cleaner cut back then but that’s him,” growled Caulder. “I was tore up on about a case of Schlitz and we made buddies real quick watching the 1:15 race.” Caulder went on to explain that he told the presumed Robert Earl Keen all about his dysfunctional but love-filled family Christmas that previous year.
“The fake snow, the Diet Rite, it’s all there,” continued Caulder. “He even left some stuff out to make it more family friendly… he ain’t mention the baby pooping in the Christmas tree water or Fred and Rita getting it on in the coat closet.”
Caulder, now married to Ken’s first wife Lynn, says he expects a public apology from Keen or else he’ll pursue legal action. “I ain’t worried about the money, unless he don’t be a man and make this right with me and my people; I trusted him with my personal business and he made a big joke out of it.” frowned Caulder. “But he was kinda an odd feller, kept bragging about a 5 pound bass, hell I can catch a 5 pounder out of the sewage ditch over yonder.”
At press time, the Caulder family was filling up the above ground pool for Christmas, which is forecast to be in the upper 70s this year.
Dec 22, 2021
Dec 9, 2021
Aug 19, 2021
Jul 7, 2021
Feb 12, 2021
by Travis Erwin
I’ll start this review with a confession. I had never heard of Mac Leaphart when I took the assignment to write this review. I took the assignment and frankly put off diving in until he eleventh hour of my deadline. Three tracks in I regretted my procrastination because I could have first listened to this album weeks before I did.
Music City Joke is an album that is sneaky good with simply intelligence and honest observation at the heart of the writing and a traditional sound to the music. “El Paso Kid” is a classic storyteller song delivered in that tender space between spoken word and Folk ballad. There are hints of John Prince and Robert Earl Keen in this story of an abandoned baby which ushers in this album quite well. Leaphart’s vocals are not going to wow those looking for the shiny, but it will wrap around those who appreciate honest emotion.
Remind me of Jason Isbell singing an old Mac Davis track, “The Same Thing” is a nicely written unpretentious song from a songwriter who knows what he wants to say. The whiskey burn of a classic 70s Country song, and the smooth delivery of a songwriter’s intellect will quench your thirst on the track, “Blame On The Bottle.” The Honky-Tonk vibes give way to more a Hillbilly Rockabilly with a dash of Zydeco on “Honey, Shake!” This faster tempo track would be welcome on any dance floor come Saturday night, and while this track comes with a bit more vocal grit, it still feels like the kind of fun that you regret the next morning.
I tempted to describe “Ballad of Bob Yamaha or A Simple Plea in C Major” as Hayes Carll meets Blaze Foley, but the fact is Mac Leaphart sounds like so many different artists at once that you have no choice but to realize he is an artist all to his own. Sure, the influences are there but it is the overlapping, swirling whirls of these venerated influences that produces Mac Leaphart’s own voice and style. This is a track that will both make you smile and think, and in fact you can say the same for most of the songwriting on this album.
“Music City Joke” utilizes the power of honest observation and a genuine point of view to deliver words that talented writers make seem so simple but are in fact, ever-so-hard to distill down in a meaningful way. Leaphart does with ease through the album and here on the namesake track. “That Train” is the most commercial song on the album, but also my least favorite cut on the album. I think perhaps the metaphor and glory days of the train have been tackled in so many songs that it is a tough land for me personally, but for others this relatable metaphor will no doubt be their favorite as it is the most likely track to gain radio play.
The writer in me, fell hard for the imagery and metaphor of “Window From The Sky.” This is the kind of truth we all need to hear from time to time as we avoid flying after and into the wrong thing. The grind of daily life is a toll we all pay and “Every Day” is relatable because of that. The smooth progression and emotional turning of the wheels gives this track a pulse uplifting in its honest relevancy. The entire album has a Kristofferson kind of vibe and it is especially strong on this track. Even if you’ve never been to Nashville’s actual “Division Street,” you can appreciate this track about chasing your shiny dreams in a place where the sparkle is hard to find by the harsh glare of morning light. We all tend to fool ourselves that the underbelly of what we want is all too often a reality rather than a mere speed bump.
I do regret the weeks I could have been listening to this album and it is an early favorite here in 2021. I love hearing threads of influence from so many of my favorite artists, and I appreciate Mac Leaphart’s ability to tip his hat to them, without losing his own voice and style. This is an album I will listen to for years to come and that makes him far from a Music City Joke in my eyes.
Music City Joke is available everywhere today.
Dec 29, 2020
Dec 25, 2020
Dec 23, 2020
Hooked to the front of the sleigh
Delivering toys to all the good ol' boys
And girls along the way