Drew Kennedy hails from New Braunfels, Texas. This bearded, bespectacled singer songwriter is friendly, witty and extremely talented. We renewed our acquaintance at this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he was chosen as a finalist in their Telluride Troubadour Contest (he finished second out of 445 entries).
Kennedy and I first met at a house concert in Mississippi a couple years ago. Actually, it was an outside-the-house concert. On a cold evening, he and Josh Grider entertained us with original songs as we stood by the fire pit, trying to stay warm. I was lucky enough to see him several months later at another Mississippi gig, this time at a local coffee house.
In 2011, Kennedy released his fifth album and first novel (both titled Fresh Water in the Salton Sea). The record showed up on a lot of year-end lists, and for good reason. No Depression’s Hal Bogerd did a nice piece on the record/book project at the time, so I decided not to do the same with the thought that I would eventually get the chance to do something on this guy I first admired from a fire. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Telluride provided that opportunity.
I was able to see Kennedy perform at Telluride in the first round of the Troubadour contest and then later when he performed on the Town Park stage. He’s got a great presence that is partly inborn and partly learned from years on the road playing just about anywhere anybody will let him play. (Last year, he played 237 shows in 19 states and three countries.) We made a plan for a phone interview several weeks later. As it worked out, he had left Colorado, gone back to Texas, and was back in Ouray, Colorado when did this interview, in which we talked about life as a troubadour, the music biz and the Telluride Troubadour Contest experience.
ML: Talk about life on the road?
DK: A typical month for me is between 15 and 23 shows. I’d say 20 to 25% of my shows I play outside the State of Texas, and the reason why it’s not more is because I can make a living close to home and I like being at home. We’ve talked about Steve Earle … is Allison Moorer his 8th wife? There’s just this thing about the troubadour lifestyle that doesn’t really work with having a normal life at home. I do my best to try and balance that. Thankfully, my wife is extraordinarily understanding and sees value in what I do in the same way that I do. There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad on the road. I get to see wonderful places like Ouray, but there’s also long hours and it’s not necessarily the healthiest lifestyle. A lot of times when I show up in a town I’m the party. People want to drink with you, buy you drinks, and it’s tough to turn people down.
You know, it’s hard, and there are times when I get burned out and there are times when I’d like nothing more than to just live a semi-normal life and be home for a barbecue on the weekend. Then there are also times when I get to meet incredible people or see incredible things. The Bluegrass Festival is one of most incredible things I’ve been a part of in my entire life. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not been plugging away like I have over the last eight years that I’ve been doing this professionally.
ML: You do most of your own tour management?
DK: I do all my own booking, all my own management. I drive myself around, I sell merch after the shows, I take care of all of that stuff. I spend a lot of time even when I’m on the road trying to arrange where I’m going to be the next month.
ML: We’re seeing more and more house concerts by Americana musicians. You and I met at one, in fact. Tell us about house concerts from the perspective of a performer.
DK: First of all, they’re incredibly enjoyable to play. It’s a small crowd and most of the time people are there specifically for the music. The people that are there are comfortable around each other and it just creates a great atmosphere to perform. But, from an artist standpoint, the most valuable thing about a house concert is that you get to connect with your hard-core fans on a personal level. When you can get down to a one on one level with the people who care about you and show them that you care about them, that is a way to build support that will be with you throughout your entire career as a performer. I would rather play all house concerts than I would at regular venues if I could choose that. It’s intimate and special for the performer and it’s special for the listener, too, because it’s truly for them.
ML: I’ve noticed that you don’t play many covers.
DK: I almost never play covers at my shows. There are so many jukeboxes in bars all across the country, bars that don’t have live music. And that’s fine, that totally works. There are so many opportunities for you to turn on the radio or put in an album and listen to it. When I’m hired to play a room or a party or a show, I don’t feel like it’s my place to put my own spin on someone else’s song that happens to be familiar with everyone else. Is that a cardinal sin being violated in performance? A lot of times it is. But I’d rather play the songs that I’m proud of, that I’ve worked so hard to create and perfect, than I would play someone else’s songs. It’s just as simple as that. Who’s to say that this opportunity that I have to travel the country and play music doesn’t evaporate tomorrow and if I want to play live I’ve got to go play at a bar that wants you to do covers or at an open mike night? While I have this opportunity, even if it puts me at a disadvantage, I would much rather people see who I am than anything else. And I go into every show thinking: These are my songs and that is hopefully why you came and if it is not hopefully you will come back after you hear them. And if you don’t dig it, and would rather hear me play Sweet Home Alabama, there’s plenty of opportunities to hear someone play that, it’s just not going to be me.
ML: Tell us about your project Fresh Water in the Salton Sea?
DK: I started thinking about the reason why musicians do albums. It seems like right now in an era where it’s less about album sales and more about touring and things like that, it’s turned into, “Hey, I’ve got ten new songs to sell.” Or, “Hey, I’ve got 5 new songs for 5 bucks, here you go.” As much as I appreciate that, I just feel like we lose something. It’s not a comment on how people consume their music. It’s not up to you or me or any other artist or music lover or journalist to decide that. That’s just how things have progressed. You can try to hide from it or you can try to embrace it, figure out a new way to make it work for you.
I just wanted there to be purpose behind the entire thing, and that’s when I formulated the idea of the book. I always wanted to write one, and I came up with the notion of the narrative of how creative people view their surroundings and how they in turn interpret what they’ve seen through their craft. Put all those things together and you get to see the world through the fictional character’s eyes for five or six chapters and then you get to read his craft, you get to read his songs in the book. The ten songs in the book are the same ten songs on the album.
ML: How do you see the music business right now?
DK: As peoples’ preferences change, from the album to the tape to the mp3, from the album to the single songs, it’s up to those of who make our money through music to figure out how to keep up with those changes. All of that continues to change or evolve. The thing that doesn’t change is how these songs come into being. No matter how digital things get, whatever the next ten years in the business holds, it’s always going to be about a moment of inspiration or a certain trip or a certain person or a certain thing one overhears that leads you to compose a song. That never changes.
ML: How was your experience at Telluride? You had a great showing there, finishing second overall in the Troubadour Contest.
DK: The experience was more community than it was a contest. I got to meet people who travel from all over the country for this festival every year. I got to meet other songwriters who were in the troubadour competition who are out there working hard, trying to write good songs. Every single one of those people were insanely talented and could easily could have put themselves into the factory of writing marketable and popular songs but are trying to be true to themselves in a different way and they believe that they’re good enough to stand on their own merits. Getting selected and getting to go to Telluride is a way to prove to these troubadours (myself included) that what we’re doing is the right thing. People are out there actually listening and noticing the hard work that you’re doing every time you sit down to write.
The people involved with Telluride Bluegrass and the Troubadour Contest were complete angels. In my line of work, we call them road blessings. Once upon a time, the Medici family hired some of the greatest artists in the world to make their city more beautiful. The idea of patrons, true patrons of the arts, has been lost somewhere over time. The people who put this festival and the Troubadour Contest on are those kind of people. You realize that they seriously consider all the applicants, they listen to everything, they put a good panel together. When you sit in a room with the other nine people who were selected to do this you know that your instinct is right and that you have a reason to be a proud of what you’re doing. There’s hope. And that kind of thing can recharge your batteries for another year of gigs where you might be aggressively ignored or stuck in a room where you’re background music or what have you. It’s just as important to the psyche as it is to the resume.
From a logistical standpoint, the festival is run as smoothly as any festival I’ve seen. But aside from that, just from the Festivarian standpoint, that’s what they refer to everyone as, what an incredible collection of people. I was the only Troubadour contestant that camped. Everyone else got hotel rooms. On the first day, I was wandering around, people had already gotten their spots, and I’m thinking I’m not going to find a place for my tent. I stopped and this guy named Bevin, a lawyer from Albuquerque pointed at me and said, “Hey, you looking for a place to put your tent?” I said, “I am.” I remembered that the Planet Bluegrass staff told us to tell people that you’re in the Troubadour competition and people will help you out. So I said, “I’m in the Troubadour competition.” He said, “Holy shit. You see that tarp right there? That’s your spot. You’re camping with us.” That group of twenty people from Alabama and Albuquerque came to almost every performance that I had.
As you know, everyone stands in line each night for the tarp run. I felt like it was generous to for them to be so kind to me so I said you guys can sleep in and I’ll go sit in the line. One of them said, “No, this isn’t a chore, we like it. You can come along, but don’t feel obligated to volunteer. We enjoy this.” These people pay hard earned money to go stand in line over night to get a good spot to hear a day’s worth of music for a day and then they do it again the next night, for four straight days? Those are the people you need to get plugged in with if you’re someone in my shoes.