Kendell Marvel Wants Country "About Real Life, Not Girls and Tailgates"

Kendell Marvel comes out from behind the scenes.
Kendell Marvel comes out from behind the scenes. Laura E. Partain
Kendell Marvel has spent the majority of his 25-year music career behind the scenes of Nashville's music machine. He’s penned hits for big names like Chris Stapleton and George Strait, and has picked up a handful of Grammys for his efforts.

But a few years back, Marvel, now 52, got an itch to focus on writing and performing his own songs, and as of September, he'll have a trio of records to his name. While each has its own personality, they all offer stories told by a mature purveyor of country music. Popular country music has shifted to songs about girls in jean shorts drinking beer on pickup trucks at tailgates. He’s too old to write those kinds of songs.

“Commercial country doesn’t do much for me anymore,” Marvel says. “Country music is about stories, about real life stuff, not girls and tailgates. That’s fine when you’re 22, but when you're my age, you’re like, ‘I don’t want to hear that shit.’”

Marvel will be at the Black Buzzard on Friday, July 8, where he's likely to play some tunes from his upcoming full-length, Come On Sunshine. The new album offers nine stripped-down, thumpy-as-hell songs delivered in Marvel’s bass-y vocals — which, although modern in sound, evoke outlaw country heroes of the 1970s like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe.

“That’s just a great era in music, great songs,” he reflects. “Great musicians, great singers and characters. They really were characters. It wasn’t made up...there weren’t any stylists involved.”

He adds that musicians such as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle emerged from “that weird 'urban cowboy' phase” in the 1980s to make some great songs in the tradition of their outlaw forebears.

The record incorporates occasional fuzz guitar and flourishes of psychedelia, which impart a markedly non-country quality. Anyone can make a country record, Marvel posits, but he and his collaborators wanted to make something a little different.

“We do a show here in Nashville called ‘The Honky Tonk Experience,’” Marvel says. “We do a whole gamut of songs, from Merle Haggard to the Allman Brothers. It’s kind of a big jam band, and that’s where that psychedelic sound comes from.”

The new album, he notes, serves as a synthesis of his two earlier releases. Lowdown and Lonesome boasts a more straightforward honky-tonk sound akin to Marvel’s live show — where he employs a stripped-down rock-and-roll band — and Solid Gold Sounds offers a softer palette and is more of a “singer’s” record.

“I feel like the new album is if those two records had a baby,” Marvel says. “It’s a happy medium between the two of them.”

Marvel collaborated with a big cast of characters for the project, including Stapleton, Dee White, Waylon Payne, Dean Alexander, Kolby Cooper, NRBQ's Al Anderson, Josh Morningstar, R&B musician Devon Gilfillian and Dan Auerbach of garage-rock duo the Black Keys. Gilfillian and Auerbach don’t make country music, but Marvel doesn’t consider himself a typical Nashville songwriter. When he started making his own music, he wanted to step out of the “Music Row thing” and work with outside influences.

“I like to get away from the modern radio songwriter mode,” he says. “If they say ‘That doesn’t sound like radio,’ I say ‘Perfect.’”

Once the songs were written, Marvel and company spent four days recording all nine numbers as a live band — a punk-rock level of studio brevity. It’s the second time he’s recorded at breakneck speed, and he likes working that way. There’s not a lot of overdubs and splicing the best takes together.

“The little imperfections and things, little things you’ll hear — ‘Oh, that’s kind of a weird note' — I wouldn’t go back and replace it," he says. "Once you go back and replace things, you kind of take some of the magic out of it.”

Lyrically, Marvel tackles topics such as hypocritical clergy with his floor stomper “Put It in the Plate” —  a song inspired in part by The Righteous Gemstones, an HBO show concerning a family of crooked televangelists. His father, who was and is a bit of a wildman, inspired “Habits.” And for “Keep Doing Your Thing,” he took a cue from his daughter, who manages his career and told him he needed a “stick it to the man” song.

“We want to stick our noses in everyone else’s business and tell them what they're doing wrong, me included,” he says. “That song is about, ‘Why don’t you mind your own damn business and I’ll mind mine?’ We'll all be better people for it.”

Marvel says he doesn’t write as much as when he was essentially a staff writer for other musicians. He used to spend five days a week at the office, writing with any new artists coming along. These days he’s a lot pickier.

“I’m sure we all want to have a hit and make money,” he says. “I’m to the point where it’s not like that anymore. I just want to write a great song and do something unique.”

Kendell Marvel plays the Black Buzzard, 1624 Market Street, at 7 p.m. Friday, July 8; tickets are $15. Come On Sunshine drops on September 23.
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