Kenny White Shares a “Long List of Priors”
I only recently met Kenny White when he came through town on tour and I interviewed him on the radio. When we started talking off-mic about music, I knew that he would be a great artist to share his stories and experiences.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business? When and why?
Kenny White: I never made the decision to go into the business, per se. … One day I was a sophomore in college and [it seemed] the very next day I was moving to Boston, Massachusetts, with my band to try and play lots of gigs. They mostly ended up being gigs in some of the seediest establishments in Boston’s infamous Combat Zone. We averaged six sets a night and usually walked away with 10 or 15 dollars a man, if we were lucky — and we were thrilled to have the gigs.
There were some rough nights, including a pistol-waving inebriate that had a request: “Do you guys know ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?” “No, man,” I said dismissively. “We play original music!” (Out comes the revolver.) “Do you know ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?” [So I said,] “As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure we do know it!”
Those early years led to me working with Jonathan Edwards [and] Livingston Taylor, and ﬁnding session work as a piano player. But it never felt like it was a decision that I made. I just always knew I had to be around music and that, hopefully, something would work out where I could afford to live.
I’ve been very lucky; I haven’t punched a clock since I was 21 years old. Although, there were some very lean times early on.
What other music-related jobs have you done over the years?
All have involved playing, singing, and producing. Aside from the aforementioned post-college band, I’ve played for hypnotists, runway fashion shows, wedding receptions, backed up some old-time country & western legends … all before moving back to New York City, where I stumbled upon an opportunity to write and record TV and radio commercials, and where I remained, for the better part of the next 16 years, until I made my ﬁrst album and subsequently began touring.
How do you describe your music and/or songs to someone who’s never heard you?
That’s a tough one. I usually resort to the words, “eclectic,” and “lyrically driven,” though I’m hard-pressed to nail it down to any particular genre.
It’s not music to cook dinner by; there needs to be an investment on the part of the listener. That may sound pretentious but it’s true. You probably won’t “get me” with a one-ear listen.
What was the ﬁrst artist or album that got you into roots music?
In the early years, I had a peripheral interest in early folk music. I liked The Kingston Trio … my parents had brought Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba records into the house and I played those over and over. Then I discovered the songwriters — Dylan, of course. The Byrds, Paul Simon … and a little later I discovered the existential possibilities of improvisation through the Grateful Dead. (I’d had little exposure to jazz, at this time.) All bets were off and I was sold, hook, line, and sinker. Though I really didn’t know how yet, [I knew] this was a world I needed to inhabit.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
That’s tough. Too many great ones, too many inﬂuences. I’ve always admired the artists who took risks and never made the same record twice. In any genre, those are ones that endure for me. But to actually narrow it down to naming names?
OK, off the top of my head and in no particular order (I will miss many):
Writers: Beethoven, Dylan, Tom Waits, Duke Ellington, John Prine, Lennon/McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Joni Mitchell, Jonathan Spottiswoode, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Jagger/Richards, Leonard Cohen, Rachmaninoff, Willie Dixon…
Singers: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, George Jones, Dorothy Love Coates, Van Morrison, The Stanley Brothers, Maddy Prior, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, Otis Redding, Shawn Colvin, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Stevie Wonder, Joan Armatrading…
Musicians: Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Evans, Jerry Douglas, Jerry Garcia, Cat Anderson, Duke Levine, Thelonious Monk, Doug Jernigan, Pedrito Martinez, Chris Palmaro, Sun Ra, Vince Mendoza, Jaco Pastorius, Chris Thile, Art Blakey, Axel Tosca, Roy Buchanan, Itzhak Perlman, John Bonham. … Have I gotten past 1972 yet? [laughs]
Where do you see the music business going?
If I knew the answer to this, I’d try and get there ﬁrst!
There are so many factors that have altered the course of the business: Label greed and short-sightedness, for starters. The post-boomers’ sense of entitlement: if you ﬁnd a way to get it for free, then you should have it for free. I don’t understand how they don’t see the inherent problem with this line of thinking. There is no such thing as nurturing an artist anymore. I hate to think how many of the great artists and albums that have shaped our collective consciousness might not have even seen the light of day in today’s climate.
But to answer the question, I believe the trend will continue to be to self-release. There seem to be fewer and fewer reasons to give the lion’s share of income to today’s labels. If you can afford to ﬁnd quality radio promotion and publicity, and you’re willing and able to be out there playing, I no longer see any great beneﬁts from signing with a label. Even the caché of a label is no longer mandatory in order to grab someone’s attention.
One more thing: I made the mistake of not keeping a strong enough social media presence, never realizing that that, in itself, was supplanting artistry and quality. You’ll do a lot better with 20,000 followers than you will with a great record. Does that sound cynical? Maybe, but I’m realizing that it’s the reality.
I had a label this year write and tell me that they were sorry but my record didn’t “ﬁt in” with their roster. [That was] before I ever sent them the record!
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
There are quite a few. Producing and playing on a session with Keith Richards for Peter Wolf’s Sleepless album. That was a five-hour, basic tracking session, and it was a bit surreal to be recording with this particular guitar player. Of course, once the tape rolls, you’re focused only on the music.
Working with Peter for four records has been another, long-term, memorable experience for me. He’s a dynamo and few have a more encyclopedic knowledge of American heritage music.
Let’s see. Producing Felix Cavaliere, Dwight Yoakam, Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Skaggs, Gladys Knight, Dobie Gray, the London Symphony … and a few others when I was writing and producing TV ads.
Having the Neville Brothers cover one of my songs — and having Aaron sing it. Touring with Tom Jones two years ago was a blast. There will be many more that I’ll remember tomorrow
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
Writing, recording, and performing. In that order. Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Although there is great fulﬁllment in ﬁnding that perfect line or couplet.
My songs are snapshots of my heart. I don’t tend to write ﬁctionally. That outlet becomes a relief valve in these often troubled times. But there needs to be perspective. You can’t write while you’re in the throes of emotional turmoil or it’s going to end up being self indulgent and un-relatable for the listener. Which is another thing that keeps me going: To see how a song you’ve written has impacted someone in a profound way. There’s no better feeling and no stronger afﬁrmation. In a way, what we do as musicians is intangible.
When a street cleaner goes home at night, you can see that the street is clean. When I go home at night, I just have to hope that I’ve left something good behind.
What are you working on now?
I spent five songless years before catching the first spark that would soon lead to my latest album, Long List of Priors. It took being able to tune out the noise and interference of the world before I could hear what was rattling around inside me. That did the trick.
I also wanted to make a pure-sounding record, where you can lose yourself in the sonic landscape and feel you are in the room with the musicians and singers. As on my past recordings, it enabled me to assemble some great friends and guest artists, including David Crosby, Peter Wolf, Larry Campbell, Amy Helm, and Catherine Russell, along with my regular band featuring the dexterous Duke Levine on guitar, shape-shifting Shawn Pelton (of the Saturday Night Live band) on drums, and the masterful Marty Ballou on bass.