By Mike Ethan Messick
There are plenty of reasons to like Drew Kennedy. For starters, there’s the way his music bridges the gap between Texas troubadour country and classic folk-pop, his warmly distinct vocal delivery, and the deft handling of observational narrative and emotional intimacy in his lyrics. For his longtime fans, Kennedy’s reliability comes to mind as well: at least every couple of years, you can expect a fresh crop of his eminently relatable originals on a newly minted album. Delayed but not derailed by a family emergency that fortunately has a happy ending, this year’s At Home In the Big Lonesome (out Nov. 3) is as rich a project as Kennedy’s ever put out into the world. It’s also his first Nashville-recorded album and his first since scoring his long-held goal of a Music Row publishing deal. We caught up with the New Braunfels-based songwriter — who originally hails from Virginia — to talk about all of this and more, including his involvement with the annual Red River Songwriters Festival (co-founded by Kennedy with friends Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkins Josh Grider, Kelley Mickwee, and Brandy Zdan, all of whom tour together in advance of the annual event), why staying inspired has never been an issue for him, and how a college baseball player from the East Coast found his true calling in life via a roommate’s copy of Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon.
Congrats on your new album! I understand that the circumstances of recording At Home in the Big Lonesome were pretty unusual, even traumatic, for reasons beyond your control. Do you mind talking about that a little?
Yeah, sure. My wife Holly, with both of our pregnancies, she’s been high-risk, meaning triple the check-ups compared to an average pregnancy. So we did all these check-ups, including the week before this happened, and even the high-risk doc in San Antonio is saying, “yep, everything looks great! Go to Nashville, make your record, good luck.” And even our doctor here in town, Dr. Blair — who’s a big music fan, actually, he owns Stingray Records here in New Braunfels — says the same thing: “Looks good, see you Monday.” So Sunday night, the 22nd of May, I flew to Nashville, got in around 7 and dropped my stuff off at my buddy’s house, and I’m out for a walk all over town: thinking about the record, listening to music in my headphones, I probably walked eight miles and then went back to get some sleep. Wake up in the morning, head to the studio, met all these players and the producer’s getting us started on “Open Road.” We’re tracking, I’m in the vocal booth with an acoustic guitar, singing the scratch tracks, and we’ve got electric guitars, drums, bass, etc., tracking in the studio, too. We get through one take and as the last note is ringing out my manager Scott comes running out of the control room with my phone, shoves it in my face: Two missed calls from Holly and a text message that says “baby coming now.” She was two and a half months early. Scott says “I’ll find you a flight right now,” which was good, because I make a beeline to the bathroom to puke.
We found a flight, but the first one I could get on wasn’t leaving for two and a half hours, so I do my best to talk about music with the guys for awhile and then I took off. They kept tracking the record … they were paid for for the day, studio was paid for, and they were like, “We don’t have to keep any of this if it doesn’t work.” But if it does … I mean, we’d already done scratch tracks to click [tracks], all that pre-production stuff, we can feed it through the headphones and they can start playing. And we kept a decent amount of it. You know, to use a sports analogy, when a guy is injured on the field and they take him off, you’ll hear athletes say, “Let’s pick him up — let’s play better, so the injury wasn’t in vain.” And I felt like those guys did that, musically. Keith Gattis was playing guitar on the session, and he told me, “Don’t worry, we got this, go take care of your family.” And they did, they played incredible stuff.
Anyway, I made it home, went straight to the hospital, and a couple of hours later Oliver was born. That was quite a day. And yeah, he’s doing good. There was 37 days in the hospital for him, he had almost no lung function when he was born, but now he’s about 15 months old and he’s doing great. No issues whatsoever, healthy and happy.
That’s really good to hear. And the album came out sounding really good, too! One aspect of At Home in the Big Lonesome that really stands out for me is the fact that a lot of the songs seem to be more piano-driven than usual. What sparked that?
You’re right, it’s so true, and yeah for whatever reason I’ve been writing with a lot of guys who write on the piano. And so I’ve figured out all of the songs on the guitar to play for shows, but two of the biggest influences artistically for me have been Ben Folds and Bruce Hornsby. In fact, my favorite song of all time is “I Can’t Make You Love Me” [a Bonnie Raitt hit written by Mike Reid] and that’s piano-driven, with Bruce Hornsby playing it on the record actually. So I’ve always loved piano, I love the way it sounds, and I’m a big believer in this: Every performance of a song is its own performance. There are some people that go in to make a record and say, “We can’t do that, because I can’t do that live.” But I mean, 99% of my shows are solo acoustic, so I can’t do a lot of stuff live, and it would be so boring to me to just make acoustic guitar records. So if my fans already don’t come to my show expecting to hear what they hear on the record, then why not go completely at it? So like on “When I Miss You Most,” my buddy Davis Nash composed that piano piece and called me the day he wrote it, saying, “You’re here in two weeks, I have something for us.” He played me the whole thing and it knocked me out, how beautiful it was and the images it put in my head. So that’s how we wrote it, and we recorded it at Sanitorium here in Nashville with this big beautiful grand piano. We did eight live takes, him playing and me singing, and the one on the record is take number two.
Are there any other collaborators on this album you’d like to talk about? You’ve written with a diverse group of folks in the past, like Lori McKenna, Jason Boland, Brandy Zdan, and many others.
Oh yeah, I wrote two songs with Davis, who’s an incredible songwriter and producer. And one last-minute one, we thought we were done with the record but Sean McConnell and I wrote “24 Hours in New York City” and I had to put that one on, that was a no-brainer. It was like a cousin to “Walking In Memphis” or something. And I got a song with Lisa Carver on there, she’s incredible, too. The people whose talents I get to be around, just their spirits and their skills … I’m a really lucky guy, and a lot of that found its way onto the record. And the cool thing about co-writing is, even when you’re not co-writing, when you get into a jam you can “use” your co-writers. If we write with Walt Wilkins, or if I get to write with Lori McKenna, then next time you’re writing alone you can think, “How would Lori get out of this? How would Walt, or what would Susan Gibson do?” When you co-write and it goes well, you kind of collect a large group of perspectives and take them with you.
Speaking of Walt Wilkins, you cover his song “Walnut Street” on this record. I know y’all are close friends, but you don’t seem to normally do other people’s songs on your albums. What made you decide to include that one?
Well I’ve never recorded a cover before, except for on that live record Sad Songs Happily Played, there’s a cover of one that Walt and Josh Grider wrote together, but it wasn’t exactly intentional because I didn’t even know they were recording that show but it ended up being a live record — that’s a whole other story! But anyway, I’m here in Nashville, talking to you, about ready to go write songs for the country music market. And I just got to thinking, like, that Walt song is an incredible song. I feel like it was better than anything I can write. And yet here I am getting ready to compile songs for my eighth record, and I still haven’t even considered anyone else’s songs. And you know, that’s kind of stupid, and prideful, and dumb. And here I am trying to write songs for other people, so why not put out into the universe that I’m willing to record someone else’s songs, so someone should be willing to record my songs, right? I hope I never make another record that I don’t put a Walt Wilkins song on. I’m the hugest fan of what he does.
You’re generally pretty prolific. Do you ever dig back into your catalog for older songs you might not have recorded yet, or was everything on the new album written since the last one was recorded?
Oh yeah, everything on this album is three years old, max. All of this is new stuff, didn’t have any holdovers from the Wide Listener days or whatever.
You’re not necessarily a singles-driven guy, but is there anything off this new one you’re particularly pushing? It gets a little harder every year to get people to pay attention to a whole album.
Yeah, we’ve already put a few out for streaming and stuff: “Open Road,” “24 Hours in New York City,” and “House.” So those are kind of ahead of the record, but really I don’t ever intend to change the format of the thing, the full album. I am a guy that will play a record from start to finish, but I recognize that people like to cherry-pick, and that’s totally cool, and the way things are set up digitally you can do that of course. But for people like me that like a full-length record, rest assured I am always going to do that. Even if that makes me a dinosaur, that’s okay. I love the challenge of the track listing and the arc of the story going through the whole thing. I just love a good record. Give me 40 to 50 minutes of your best stuff and I am so happy.
How do you keep making it “new” for yourself? What did you do differently making this record as opposed to the last few? Aside from what you were dealing with as a dad and husband, of course.
Other than this being the first record I recorded in Nashville … yeah, I think I spent more time on pre-production for this one that I did on my last records. And I wasn’t a producer or even co-producer on this one, unlike the last couple. But I love how it unfolds; I love the camaraderie among musicians trying to make something, it’s so easy for it to stay fresh for me. There are good days, and there are bad days, and then there are days in the studio, and those are their own thing. You know, guys like you and I, we get into our cars and drive around to our shows, and every once in awhile I hear an interview with another hard-working artist saying, “ugh, I’m so tired of being in the tour bus.” Dude, I would murder someone to be in a tour bus for a few months! You can read a book! Take a nap! And I’m out there driving 500 miles a day … If I’m ever lucky enough to ride a bus may I never grow tired of it. And if I’m lucky enough to keep making records, may I never grow tired of that, either.
Tell us a little about the Red River Songwriters tour that’s become a yearly tradition for you.
We started that with a festival in Red River, New Mexico seven years ago. A couple years back, we thought it might not be a bad idea to put a tour together to market this thing, because a lot of the crowd that makes the trip to Red River are coming from Texas, plus it’s good practice for us playing together. And I don’t know how much luck plays into this, but there’s myself and a core group of five other musicians involved — Walt, Grider, Susan Gibson, Kelley Mickwee, Brandy Zdan — those five other people are some of the most talented, least egotistical, funniest, most caring, kindest people I have ever met. And we get to travel around together and tour together and it’s so much fun. Any excuse we can find to spend the time together, it’s worth it.
Going back to the very beginning of your own career, before you even moved to Texas, what got you started on songwriting? Who were you listening to that flipped the switch from thinking “I love music” to “I can make my own”?
It was a three-fold event. My freshman year of college, my roommate was from Raleigh; I was there on a baseball scholarship. My first weekend off was in the fall, because college sports takes up a lot of time. I was five hours from my hometown, but my roomate’s home in Raleigh was just about an hour and a half away. So he said, “Come on down with me, I’ll show you around,” and this friend of his was working as a door guy at this club called The Cave so we could sneak in and get a drink. So we went in, and there was a band onstage with the lead singer’s back turned to the crowd. I didn’t know what was going on. I got my drink, started paying attention to the band and thought they sounded really good, but this guy’s back is still to the audience, and that’s kind of weird right? So they do about six songs, took a set break, then the guy comes back out and they still sound awesome but now he’s finally facing the audience. And the band was called Whiskeytown, so yeah that’s Ryan Adams! And that live music really got me thinking, “I’d love to have the stones to get up and do this.”
Then a couple weeks later I’m walking into our dorm room and this song was playing on my roommate’s speakers, and I’m like “what is this?” He said yeah, it’s somebody his brother’s a fan of, hands me the CD and it’s Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon. The song was “The Raven and the Coyote.” How can this music exist and I don’t know about it? That’s not fair, I need to know! So I start reading liner notes, I get a cheap guitar, start trying to figure out how to play. And I figured out pretty quick that I didn’t have a ton of interest in learning other people’s songs, I’ve just got these chords on the brain and I should give songwriting a shot. And God bless my sophomore-year roommate, a guy called Mike Duncan, for saying, “Hey dude, that’s pretty good.” And it was my first song, and it was not good. First songs never are. But if he would’ve said, “No bueno, dude,” I might have just dropped it. But no, the bug had bitten me and that was it.
That’s pretty amazing that Robert Earl Keen played such a key part for you. That’s standard stuff here around Texas for young songwriters, but you were all the way over on the East Coast.
Oh yeah, I’ve thought that too. And what’s crazy is, this publishing company I’m with, they’ve got Robert Earl Keen, too! The day that I had a meeting with my publishers, the day they were going to offer me a deal, we sat down and Robert walks in the door and starts telling stories, then goes to the back of the office to write with somebody. So my conversation continues, and they make me an offer, and on the flight home that night I’m thinking, how insane is it that I’ve been trying to get a writing deal in Nashville for 10 years, one of the major starting points for me was a Robert Earl Keen song, and right when I’m about to get offered a deal Robert Earl Keen walks into the room? How full-circle is that?
Now that you’ve had a little more time to process the fact that you have a Nashs publishing deal, whas are your thsughts on that so far?
Well I know that you and I, in our younger and angstier days, we might have had opinions about Nashville, and honestly I’m finding that none of them hold any water. This town is incredible to write in, the arts and music scene here is great, and the songs I hear on a daily basis would blow anybody’s mind, whether they’re from the Cory Morrow “Fuck Nashville” fold or, you know, straight-up pop-country people. It’s pretty incredible to be a part of it. And you know, my favorite part of it, I like to walk to my writing appointments up and down Music Row with my guitar on my back. And I like to think, “I bet Roger Miller walked right where I am walking now, on his way to write a song. Right here.” I love that.
So if somebody in Nashville — or anywhere, for that matter — asks you what kind of music you’re making, what do you tell them?
Ha ha! Man, I hate that question. I mean, I don’t mind you asking it — it’s a totally logical question to ask. But somebody says “what do you do?,” you say, “I’m a songwriter.” Then the next question is, “what kind of stuff?” “Anything I’ve heard?” Or whatever. But “what kind of stuff” is so hard to answer … I’m always just thinking, “songs,” and I hope they’re good. But eventually I get around to saying, “folk with some country influences,” just because if you say “country” then the current image might be some slicked-up dude. Depending on their age, the follow-up might be, “well, I hope it’s none of that new stuff, I can’t stand that.” But if you say “folk,” then … I don’t think people even quite know what that means, sometimes. They might think Woody Guthrie, or hell they might think Todd Snider. But I just like it. I guess I’m just a contrarian. For a long time I called it “Americana,” but now everyone calls it that, so the stupid contrarian in me is like, “okay, time for a new thing.” First thing out of my mouth to my Uber driver yesterday was “folk,” so … yeah.