On The String: A Country Songwriter Returns To Artistry And Finds Freedom At Easy Eye
So far, the artists who've been embraced into the exotic and exclusive world of Easy Eye Sound, the studio and label run by rock star producer Dan Auerbach, have had little if anything to do with Music Row. The Gibson Brothers, Yola, Dee White and others were already pursuing roots music careers, and their Easy Eye projects represented subtle shifts of style. With Kendell Marvel, we hear a successful veteran country music songwriter having his shackles removed.
"It's unlike anything I've ever been around," Marvel says of the Easy Eye experience in Episode 102 of The String. "Usually when you're in a tracking session, especially doing demos, you've got to get as many songs done as you can in four hours. But when you take your time and let these guys figure parts out...I can't wait to make another one." He calls Auerbach a "maestro" and says twelve hour days of record-making were energizing, as he watched a process that perhaps resembled Music Row in the 60s more than today. "The guys (musicians) respect him and listen to him, and he respects and listens to them," Marvel says. "Them guys all have something to say with their instruments and you have to give them enough rope to be creative."
The result of this creativity is Solid Gold Sounds, set for release on Oct. 11. It's only Marvel's second album as an artist in his 20+ year Nashville career. It's the kind of sincere, tape-saturating country opus he'd have been celebrated for by the industry in 1973. Nowadays, an album this pulsing and heartfelt yet radio-ready is a little act of rebellion, or an excellent contribution to Americana, a scene and identity Marvel has grown excited about after some initial skepticism.
There he is on the cover, straddling an exotic black and chrome chopper with dark glasses and a foot-long salt and pepper goatee. He looks tough, but in conversation he's unguarded and delighted in his bones about emotionally honest songs, sweeping melodies and hearty twang. But then, he literally wrote George Strait's "Twang."
Marvel grew up in downstate Illinois. Many in his family, his father included, were coal miners. He started fronting country bar bands and made two takes at living in Nashville. The second, at age 28 in 1998, clicked. With a bit of luck, his first co-write became a hit for Gary Allan, and with a young family he settled into the life of a Music Row songwriter, deferring ideas of leading bands and touring. "I just kind of put the artist thing on the back burner," he says. "I stayed with the songwriting thing. Seemed to work out for me, and I stayed home and watched my kids grow up."
He became a go-to for country music’s last traditionalists, scoring cuts or hits for Lee Ann Womack, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson and Jake Owen among others. And there have been leaner stretches, he says, when he and his song publisher had to just hang in there. Marvel is candid about wrestling with the forces that tempted him to write songs he thought were inferior: "There came a time in country music where, I don't know what happened. It just switched from where you could be pretty cool and have some success, and then all of a sudden they just sucked all of the cool out of it and followed everybody else - if one person's doing this, then we all should do that."
In 2017, Marvel went proudly indie and worked with his friend Keith Gattis, Dwight Yoakam's band leader, to make Lowdown & Lonesome. And to get his stage buzz back he launched a residency at the Exit/In called Kendell Marvel's Honky Tonk Experience. These country variety shows, built around a collective of musicians, have drawn guest spots by Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Tanya Tucker and others. Clay Bradley, grandson of Music Row icon Owen Bradley, took Marvel on as a manager, which led to a chain reaction of relationships that produced the Dan Auerbach sessions.
The next Kendell Marvel Honky Tonk Experience is next Tuesday, Sept. 10 at the Exit/In.