Steady at the Wheel: a conversation with Ted Russell Kamp
Although he is perhaps best known (at least in the United States) as a bass player and sideman, Ted Russell Kamp is easily one of the most underrated songwriters in the music business today, crafting intelligent and eclectic songs with tons of soul as well as lyrics that more than hold their own with the best of the California country-rock tradition.
When I spoke to Ted last Monday, he was spending some time at home in L.A. after playing three showcases at SXSW the previous week. He had just wrapped up producing an album for the band 29 Mules, his latest record Get Back to the Land had landed at the number one spot on the Euro Americana chart in January, and he was preparing to set out on the road again to support the album’s American release in May.
These days, it seems like Ted Russell Kamp is a star on the rise , both as a performer and a songwriter. But it’s been a long and winding road to get there.
“I started out doing a lot of different stuff,” he says, “When I was in high school I was in rock bands playing REM covers and U2 covers. I was into Boston and Rush, like a lot of young musicians. Then towards the end of high school, I got into soul. I discovered The Blues Brothers movie and that kind of opened the door to that type of roots music. I got into Sam and Dave and Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.”
“My first instrument was the trumpet,” he continues, “so I was playing trumpet in the big band at school and then I more or less put myself through college with my bar bands, playing for the jazz brunches on Sunday mornings and every Tuesday night I had a cool residency, but at the same time playing in my rock band all weekend long… Then when I finished college and moved to Seattle, I played jazz for a living for about four or five years. I used to tell people, ‘if you want an electric bass player, call someone else. I’m playing acoustic and that’s it.’ So my first record is a jazz album and that was like 1995 or ’96. But after four or five years of playing jazz, I was slowly realizing that I didn’t like bebop as much as I liked working with singers. I was missing the song… So I got more into jump blues and old swing and Western swing, and back when jazz was still pop music.”
Kamp mentions artists such as Little Feat, The Band, Whiskeytown, the Old 97’s, and Delbert McClinton as major influences and credits them with helping him discover the other side of roots music.
“A lot of those artists changed my perception,” he adds, “They were guys who got country music and old blues, but they had their own take on it. It’s roots music, but it’s rock ‘n roll. It’s songwriter music, but there’s a full-band power to it.”
Soon after leaving Seattle for L.A., Ted left jazz behind and began his career as a singer-songwriter in earnest. Though Kamp fits squarely into the alt. country scene, perhaps because of his somewhat unique musical background he still incorporates many elements from soul and jazz into his music.
“I love having a country tune with a soul interpretation,” he says, “I love Tony Joe White and actually Jessi Colter is a great example of that too, where the music has some funk leanings, but it’s not just a funk tune. I love funk and I have for many years, but once you get it going to a certain extent, it’s just booty-shakin’ music. It’s not about the lyrics anymore, it’s not about a story, it’s not about an arc. And for many years, I’ve been trying to find a way to have it be funky but still have storytelling.”
“On some of my early records,” he adds, “I’d have a country waltz and then halfway through the song the Hammond organ and the horns come in and it becomes this Otis Redding kind of thing. When it comes time to make records, I ask myself what can I do to make this song special, more unique, more me. A lot of people use horns only when they want to make an obvious soul thing, but I really like bringing out the horns and on the record I play most or all of the horns. It’s nice to take a song that would otherwise be just a country-rock tune and put some horns in there to give it a little bit of extra depth.”
But he’s also following the tradition of great troubadours such as Guy Clark and, in more recent times, James McMurtry. Songs such as “Down at the 7th Heaven” on his new album or “Dixie” and “Player Piano” on his last album Poor Man’s Paradise display a keen poetic sensibility reminiscent of the Texas country scene and the mark of a born storyteller.
“I love the storytelling,” he says, “and I try to have a few songs on each record that really has that whole arc. Guy Clark is a major influence of mine and the way he can kind of have an entire short story or fit a person’s whole life into one song is really amazing to me….So “Player Piano” really came to me when I was feeling kind of overwhelmed by technology and the mp3. You know the debate. Everybody’s like ‘Nobody is listening to whole albums anymore. They just download one song and move on.’ And so “Player Piano” came as this young guy who meets this old guy in a bar who was a singer back in the day and who would sing along to a player piano. What I love about that song is that it deals with people’s love of music. People need music and whether it’s digital or analog, or one guy playing a banjo while his buddy plays a washboard and sings on the porch, or it’s a million people downloading a song that was recorded on a synthesizer and drum machine, it’s the love of music that counts.”
Still, Ted isn’t impressed by much of what he hears coming from Nashville or the pop establishment these days, as evidenced by the title track of Get Back to the Land and lines such as “He looks so damn fine, I just wish that he could sing.”
“I’ve been spending a lot of time writing in Nashville,” he explains, “and a lot of great artists are trying to write songs so that certain people will cut them and when you’re the singer up front, they call you the artist, whether it’s Toby Keith, or Lee Ann Womack, or Brad Paisley, or Taylor Swift. Artist applies to all of them when some of them are really just singers. Photogenic singers who are easy to manipulate and really have little to do with the music they make. Someone shows up and says ‘you should sing this’ and they go ‘ok.’ And that’s not really an artist.”
Yet he gives credit where credit is due and points out that a lot of great music is still being made in Nashville, citing Jamey Johnson and Brad Paisley as specific examples. There are even a few songs on his new album- “Georgia Blue” and “Right as Rain”- which sound as if they could potentially be big hits for a mainstream country singer, something he says wasn’t totally unintentional.
Overall, Ted says he feels as if Get Back to the Land is his best record to date.
“I really think I hit my stride with Poor Man’s Paradise,” he says, “At the time, that was my best album and the one that was most fully realized with regards to songwriting and arranging, getting better at the studio, and learning how to produce my own recordings and making the sounds I like to hear. And Get Back to the Land is a different batch of songs, but I think it’s an even better record than Poor Man’s Paradise. Everything’s the same basic concept with different directions. Like there’s a song called “Time is a Joker” which is almost like a psychedelic rock jam like Cream or Pink Floyd. And it has “Don’t Look Down,” which is like this Isaac Hayes groove or Marvin Gaye thing.”
Despite his great string of solo albums and a sizable fan base both here and abroad, Ted is still best known as the bass player and occasional songwriter for Shooter Jennings.
“I’m averaging about one song on each Shooter record,” he explains, “but I write a lot that I think would be perfect for him. But I really respect the fact that he knows where the line is and when I write a song like “Steady at the Wheel,” he’s like ‘yeah, I can get behind that one. I love it. Let’s do it.’ And then when I write a song like “The Last Time I Let You Down,” he says the same thing. Then there’s other songs where he’s like ‘almost, but not quite’ and I get it. I’m glad that he has a vision. I wouldn’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have that vision.”
Although our conversation was mainly focused on Ted’s solo career, I couldn’t help but ask him about his contribution to Shooter’s last album, Black Ribbons, which is quite possibly the most atypical song of his career, both musically and lyrically.
“On the last record with Shooter, he had written most of the record and done most of it with Dave Cobb. They did 80% of the record just the two of them, then they booked a few more weeks in the studio for me and Bryan to come in and play our parts. So as the record was being done, and it’s very much a concept album and two-thirds of the the album is about society and where we’re headed and Shooter was still talking to Stephen King about being the DJ on the record or maybe it was going to be someone else if Stephen King didn’t want to do it. This DJ presenting Hierophant and his music on the last night of his show was a big part of the album, but there wasn’t really a song about him. So I said ‘Do you mind if I try to write a song about this DJ?” And Shooter was like, ‘Sure, man.’ So I went back and I wrote “When the Radio Goes Dead” in a couple of days. And I think that meant a lot to Shooter because I think he was worried about the big stylistic shift and what if the guys from the band don’t even like it. I got it immediately and Bryan loved it. The heavier it gets, the better for Bryan. So I think it meant a lot to Shooter because it symbolized that I was on board, that I believed in it, that I wanted to be a part of it.”
Ted says that he will be spending much of this year on the road in support of his new record, including a few dates this summer with Blackberry Smoke, and already has much of his next album completed.
“I’ve got most of a new record most of the way done,” he says, “I don’t know what it’s gonna be called or when it comes out yet, but it will be more of these little experiments between the different genres, but I also really like the fact that there were always a few acoustic songs on my records and that didn’t really happen on Get Back to the Land. So there are three or four songs that will just be acoustic guitar and vocals.”
Since his first non-jazz album in 2005, Ted has consistently been growing as a songwriter and slowly but surely gaining an audience for his work. As he says himself, Get Back to the Land may be his finest album yet and with a new deal with Dualtone Records, a growing reputation as a songwriter, and a renewed emphasis on playing solo dates, it feels like his time has come.
Photos by Jill Goulet