What Kenny Greenberg and The Bros. Landreth Have In Common
To isolate one recording that tells a lot of the story of guitarist and producer Kenny Greenberg, one could do worse than Allison Moorer’s track “The Rock And The Hill” from her soul-baring 2019 album Blood. For one thing, Greenberg and Moorer go back as collaborators and friends to her debut album Alabama Song, which he produced almost 25 years ago. And in the sound of this new chest-pounding, ennui-eradicating track, Allison’s voice feels palpably in the room, weary but determined, singing “I’m TIRED, pushing this rock up the hill!” like a feminist Sisyphus. And maybe it sounds so crazy because she was in the room - this room.
“We did it right here. One take. That’s her standing a few feet behind where you are, holding the microphone,” Greenberg says during our June interview in his West Nashville home studio for Episode 215 of The String. He remembers had the studio monitors blaring the band track, including his own electric guitar, with Moorer singing along. It was supposed to be a “scratch” vocal, a placeholder to be improved later, but it had that certain something. “She is a very, very good record maker,” Greenberg continues. “And so she very astutely said, you know, that's the vocal. And we listened back to it. Well, you know what, you're right. It really is.”
Herein are many permutations of what Kenny Greenberg has been doing in Nashville since moving here at age 21 in 1978. He built a reputation as a guitarist who could bring rock and roll punch and jangle to commercial country records. Besides Moorer, he’s produced albums by the Mavericks, Josh Turner, Joan Baez, Toby Keith and just recently Hayes Carll. And his studio resume is extensive and diverse, including work with Etta James, Chris Knight, Lee Ann Womack, Amy Grant, Jon Randall, Bob Seeger, and his wife of many years, Ashley Cleveland.
Added recently to that list was Bonnie Raitt, when Greenberg got pulled into the sessions that resulted in her newest LP Just Like That. Track one on the album, as well as its first single, is “Made Up Mind,” a song by Joey and Dave Landreth of Winnipeg, Manitoba. As The Bros. Landreth, their Juno Award-winning duo has established a reputation as soulful yet refined roots rockers in the spirit of Little Feat and The Band. By happy coincidence, they were in Nashville to play the City Winery around the same time as my conversation with Greenberg, so in this show we get to hear two takes on the story of how Bonnie Raitt came to record a six-year-old Bros. Landreth number.
A friend of theirs recommended that Bonnie make time to catch the brothers’ set before her own at the huge Winnipeg Folk Festival, and she did, much to Joey and Dave’s surprise. “After our set, she called us over to say hi and we sat and just chatted like she was not one of the most important people in our musical upbringing!” says Joey. She invited them to pitch her songs, though when they did, they heard nothing for years. But eventually, they got the call that “Made Up Mind” was about to be officially released. “Every time a friend says check it out, I heard (your) Bonnie cut on the radio, just like, this doesn't make sense to me. But it's very exciting,” Joey says.
For his part, Greenberg is a loud and proud Bros. Landreth fan, proclaiming their new Come Morning as one of his favorite records of the year. Joey and Dave offer perspective on their patient production process, their origins as a duo and the dynamics of touring in the US versus Canada.
Greenberg has a new album of his own, the first he’s ever released under his own name, even after a four-decade career that brought him to the top tier of Nashville session players. His attitude had been, he says, “Why do I need to do that? I’m producing and I’m getting to play a lot. I don’t have a desire to tour as a quote-solo artist-unquote. I’m not that guy.” But through his longtime friend and collaborator Wally Wilson, the wide-ranging producer and songwriter, Kenny started work on a film score. The action involved a fellow from West Africa who comes to the South, so the music became a hybrid of those influences - African beats and blues guitar, Greenberg says.
When the film got put on hold, Kenny saw an opportunity to shape the music into a worldly ambient and mostly instrumental album he called Blues For Arash. It does indeed mingle the pulses of hand drums and finger cymbals and shakers against his varied textures of electric guitar. A few vocal songs worked their way into the mix, notably the languorously cool “Memphis Style,” which Wilson performs in a mix of recitation and impressively grainy blues singing.
Blues For Arash is a bit of a departure for Greenberg, but after more than forty years of contributing to the vision of other artists, a full helping of his own artistry as a creator is more than welcome.