Known for writing honky tonk floor-burners (“Twang,” recorded by George Strait), uncompromising contemporary country hits (“Right Where I Need To Be,” recorded by Gary Allan), lowdown yearnings (“Never Lovin’ You,” recorded by Blake Shelton), heartfelt confessionals (“Startin’ With Me,” recorded by Jake Owen), and instant-classic personal testaments (“That Lonesome Song,” recorded by Jamey Johnson), Kendell Marvel is making his solo debut with LOWDOWN & LONESOME. The album, available October 13th, blends two major influences in Marvel’s musical journey: old school country and rock ‘n’ roll.
I spoke with Kendell this week about his new album (and a whole lot of other stuff). Here is that conversation:
Greg Victor: After all that you’ve already accomplished, how is that you are now putting out a debut album? And how cool is that? And God bless you for still caring so much about country music!
Kendell Marvel: Man, I’ve just been lucky enough to surround myself with really talented people, and kind of keep my head down and carve out a living. I still love music. I don’t know what else to do.
GV: I listen to the songs you’ve written and I’m curious. Your songs cover so much territory—in terms of style, approach to subjects, narrative voice—
GV: It makes me wonder, are you really that talented in terms of your versatility as a storyteller, or are you a survivor of some crazy life that’s pretty much seen it all?
KM: You know, I have kind of lived a crazy life as far as growing up. My parents got divorced when I was a young teenager, and I lived with my dad. He was a character—still is, actually.
GV: So, let me guess—your dad put a guitar in your hands as soon as you could hold a guitar up?
KM: Yep, five years old. Dad was a coal miner and he said I was his lottery ticket. He would take me out and get free beers while I played music.
GV: I’ll bet he’s proud of you.
KM: Oh yeah, he’s my biggest fan. He’s right there at the top. It was a very colorful upbringing, I’ll put it that way. But once I became an adult, I wouldn’t trade anything about my childhood because it made me who I am.
GV: You grew up in Illinois, right?
KM: Yes, Southern Illinois. Just north of Paducah, Kentucky.
GV: Growing up there, what music influenced you?
KM: I would say my biggest influences were Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. And then Randy Travis came along and he was a big influence as well. I loved the Outlaw guys—Waylon, Willie—that’s what I grew up on. And I loved rock ‘n’ roll as well… The Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd were my era. There was so much good music back then. Even the mainstream stuff in the 80s—during what Steve Earle called “the great credibility scare” of the 80s—you had Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. Everybody sold a lot of records and everybody was cool and everybody sounded completely different… which is something we don’t do anymore.
GV: Well, clearly you and a couple of others are bringing that back.
KM: Sure trying to.
GV: When did you first realize that you wanted to write songs in addition to performing them? When did you write your first song?
KM: You know, I was probably a teenager, when I first started dibble-dabbling in writing songs. I didn’t write any good songs until my late twenties. I didn’t move to Nashville until I was 28 years old. I was born to be a singer, and then I realized that if I wanted to be a singer in Nashville, at that time, I’d better write my own songs because they’re not going to give them to a new guy. They’re going to give them to Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. They don’t want some new dude coming to town and cutting their good songs. And I thought, Shit. I better start writing some songs! So I did. And then, I’ll be damned, the people just started recording my songs! And so I thought, Well, hell, this is easy! So for 20 years I was a songwriter. It’s been a pretty good life. I raised my kids and didn’t have to miss anything as they grew up. And they got grown and music got really shitty here in Nashville—
KM: —and I said, “I’m not writing that crap.” And as a songwriter, you have to do whatever’s going on, but I refused to write it. I said, “I’m not doin’ it. I’ll go hungry.” So hit the road, started playing a lot more, and decided to make a record.
GV: And getting to hear the real country music fans out there, while you’re performing. I’m sure they reinforced your taking a stance against crap.
KM: Right. They’re starving out there, for good music. There are so many people that want it, it’s ridiculous. Look at [Chris] Stapleton. I’ve been writing songs with Chris forever and he’s selling out multiple nights in giant coliseums, stadiums. And he can’t get arrested on country radio. They just don’t play him.
GV: In this world where we yearn for authenticity, you gotta figure that country music would never be in danger, that if anything was about real life, it would be country music. And yet…
GV: And good things, once let slip away, don’t always come back.
GV: But thanks to you and Chris Stapleton and Jamey Johnson and a few others, it’s hangin’ in there and it just might be okay, after all.
KM: It is. And thanks to streaming services. I mean, when you think about it, that’s the only place listeners can find a lot of this stuff. There’s Spotify and sites that have certain playlists where they can go and find Sturgill Simpson and Whitey Morgan and Cody Jinks and Chris Stapleton and Jamey Johnson. You know—good, solid, real-life-feelin’ shit… that people have been missing for a long time.
GV: Speaking of, you have an album coming out next week. And you’ve written or co-written nine out of the ten tracks on it, right?
KM: Sure did.
GV: As a collection, for your debut album, what’s the main idea you’re conveying?
KM: We wrote the whole album around the song “Lowdown & Lonesome.” It’s a concept album, and in each song I’m either lowdown or I’m lonesome. As far as the sound goes, it’s gritty, it’s raw. I feel like it sounds fresh—like it was made today—yet it’s still got that old school fell to it. Keith Gattis, who produced it, I always loved his records. I knew he was the guy I wanted to make this record. He used a cool collection of rock players and country players [including guitarist Audley Freed, drummer Fred Eltringham and harmonica icon Mickey Raphael] and found the perfect combination. I always say it’s kind of Merle Haggard meets ZZ Top.
GV: Well, I love the album cover. I would love to check in there for a weekend.
KM: Ain’t that cool? That was done by a guy named Keith Brogdon here in Nashville, and he is a bad-ass.
GV: Really good work.
KM: Very sharp, creative dude.
GV: So as of now, are you venturing out more as a performing artist?
KM: Kind of. I’m just being a lot more selective, since I started this record. I don’t write with everybody anymore. I still have artist friends I write with. You know, Stapleton and I write with Brothers Osborne. My songwriting has really gotten good since I stopped writing all the time. I’ve got several on Stapleton’s new record, several on Brothers Osborne’s new record, and I just got a Kenny Chesney cut last week. I still want to write songs, but I just want to write stuff that I want to say.
GV: So is this all turning out how you pictured, when you were younger?
KM: It’s a lot more tame than I thought it would be in my younger days. People think it’s just one big bash. But I love it. I love when I’m playing for people, meeting the people and making new fans. But it’s a little different, thank God. It’s for the better!
GV: So are you lining up gigs to support the new album?
KM: I’ve book some, and I just signed with the William Morris Agency.
GV: They’ll put you to work!
KM: They’re getting me a few dates. Hopefully I can jump on a cool tour next year, next spring, and get out there in front of some masses and play for them with some cool people. It’s gonna be a good time.
GV: It’s been a difficult week for country music, is there anything you want to say about what happened in Las Vegas?
KM: It’s obviously scary as hell, ‘cause we’re out there. A lot of my buddies were out there… either during the weekend, or there at that time. It’s scary as hell, but you can’t let that stuff stop you from going and doing things or otherwise the assholes win.
KM: But it’s pretty terrifying. There are people out there, everybody knows they’re out there. But this hit a little closer to home. It’s a sad week, man. It really is. And then losing Tom Petty, on top of that. It was just like, “Shit.”
KM: It hurt. I watched Runnin’ Down a Dream two nights in a row.
GV: Yes, the documentary on Netflix.
KM: It’s bad to the bone. But, yeah, it’s been a tough one.
GV: Well, if anything can survive, country music can.
KM: That’s true.
GV: And it’s always brought people together. Either through sharing stories through song…
KM: It does.
GV: …or bringing people together to listen to it live.
KM: You know, people can say what they want about the country being divided, but when stuff like this happens people always come together. So there’s hope.
GV: There’s always hope. Thanks, Kendell.
KM: Thanks, Greg.
The album will be available digitally on October 13th. To order a physical copy, be sure to go to Kendell Marvel’s website.
And read his insightful tweets…
And enjoy his view of things…
And like him, dammit!