The Case for Stephen Kellogg: 1500 Words on the Best Songwriter You’re Not Listening To
For Christmas, my sisters got me a record. And a record player. To play the record. Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, to be precise.
It’s the first record in what will hopefully be an ever-growing collection of records, all part of a lifelong hunt through musty bins in dimly-lit stores with burnt-out clerks.
Currently, I don’t have much of a budget to dedicate towards that hunt since I’m an English teacher with near-crippling student debt that overspent during the holiday season. Thus, in the infancy of my record collecting, I’ve decided to limit myself to 1.) anything that is free (big shout to Aunt Pat), and 2.) “the essentials” — the records I need to have, the records that I can’t live without, not luxury records that would simply be nice to have.
Two days after Christmas, I went to a local music store with a limited and beat-up supply of vinyls, hoping hidden treasures lay below the surface.
I rifled through the stacks to find a lot of Alabama, a lot of Bing Crosby, and a lot of Earth, Wind, and Fire. There wasn’t any Petty (I would’ve bought Full Moon Fever or Damn the Torpedos), and not nearly enough Dylan (too much new stuff, when I need to start with Blood on the Tracks or The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan). There was some James Taylor, which I begrudgingly passed on, but I can’t justify buying Gorilla before Sweet Baby James. After 20 minutes, I left with an unopened copy of “Born in the USA” for $4, a great deal for the second best Springsteen album to start with the word “Born.”
Two days after that, at a merch table tucked to the side of a stage in Somerville, MA, I bought my third record: Stephen Kellogg’s The Bear.
So, for those of you keeping track at home, I now (in the literary present) have three records: Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town (free), Born in the USA (4$), and Stephen Kellogg’s The Bear ($10, after a 50% off coupon). Just the essentials. It’s where Stephen Kellogg belongs.
The only way I can properly contextualize Stephen Kellogg’s work is to say that he is among the handful of artists I refer to on a first name basis. Bruce, Dave, Jack, Bob, Stephen (though, lately, I’ve taken to calling him “SK,” in the same way I use “JT,” in reference to James Taylor, not Justin Timberlake). I’ve often said, to whoever will listen, that Stephen Kellogg is one of the best singer-songwriters of his generation, if not the best. At the very least, he is my favorite, trumping acts of more repute whose albums have burnt up in my car’s ill-fated CD player. They’ll need to be replaced on vinyl, and they will be, after the essentials. I don’t actually know how large that group is, but I figure you know an essential when you see it. Later, I’ll buy the Lumineers, Vampire Weekend, some Head & the Heart, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow, Will Hoge, maybe. But, for now, it’s appropriate to have The Bear before any of the aforementioned. In my life, SK’s songs are more familiar, more longstanding, more storied—they’ve been around longer. Along with Springsteen and Jack Johson, maybe John Mayer, it’s the musical catalog I know the best.
Certainly, Stephen Kellogg is too talented to need my validation, and I don’t write this to validate, nor to flatter. Rather, I write it out of my own amazement, which has built over years. Time after time, I walk into to a venue with 500 people (but as a few as 100), and I’m amazed that there aren’t more people in the crowd; I see SK retweet my little sister, and I’m amazed that he only has a hair over 5,000 Twitter followers; I hear Matt Nathanson or Gavin Degraw on the radio, and I’m amazed that SK has never had a crossover hit in the same way; 15 or so fans huddle in a room back stage in Somerville, and I’m amazed that SK plays a couple songs for just them, despite his pre-show vocal rest. Everyone seems more like friends than fans. My mom even said it the first time my little sister and I put together a few bucks to go to one of his shows: “It’s like seeing Springsteen for you guys.”
I’m amazed that the secret of SK isn’t out, since, for me, there are only a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and Stephen Kellogg writing great songs.
More quickly than I would have liked, this argument has descended into a platonic, heterosexual love letter, so here are specifics: stop reading, and listen to “Gravity.” If you approve, put on “Father’s Day.” If you like that, “Fourth of July.” Then move on to “Lonely in Columbus.” Finish with “Oh Adeline.” Or maybe “Shady Esperanto & The Young Hearts.” I can’t decide; you choose.
Now start reading again (and share with a friend!).
Stephen Kellogg’s music is quintessentially American, which is not to say it is Americana. I often have trouble picking a genre for it, and that’s not because it’s genre-bending or so multi-dimensional; rather, it’s music. American music. Straight forward music, shot from the hip, sung without accent or twang. It doesn’t play to fit the new-ish neo-folk trend, nor does it lean on the whimsical, space agey indie production. It is simply a man, his words, and a guitar, which is what I’ve always believed music to be. It can be dressed up, accented, and colored in, but at its core, it can be locked in a guitar case and taken anywhere to be reproduced again in its most noteworthy form.
In ways, I’ve found SK’s music hard to sing along to, or hard to reproduce, and that’s not because he overpowers with his vocal range. His range is fairly limited actually, but he sings with a certain sincerity that makes his verses unique, with a cadence that can practically slip into talking. There is a distinct warmth and subtly to his voice that is uniquely SK, and my favorite notes are not the ones that get stuck in my head, but the near silent runs that come along when his voice trails off at the end of a line. I’ve often wondered if this is something he tries to do or that he has practiced because it seems so natural. I don’t know quite how to put this in words, so just wait for the bridge of “Father’s Day,” when he sings: Just tell ’em you got it from your dad.
SK let’s listeners in, which I credit to work that’s stripped down for practicality, not effect. It’s words and music, open chords played with a capo, lyrics taking the place of stadium-rock guitar licks. There is nothing—from words to structure to sets to recordings—that feels so big or complicated that it becomes inaccessible. He maintains a garage band ethos with a thoughtful, acoustic awareness, like if the Ramones were raised on Cat Stevens and read Vladimir Nabokov. On this tour, SK took the stage with two guitars and a drummer, no one else. An egg shaker often replaced the second drumstick, while a bandana was laid across the snare drum.
SK’s stages are usually sparsely filled, then paired with lyrics earnest in their simplicity. It results in songs with doors for listeners to enter through: “Fourth of July” couldn’t be less done up, nor more hard-hitting. It’s a stiff, late-night drink with one’s closest confidant that we happen to eavesdrop on. It ends with an intimate understanding of our narrator. It’s not uncommon; there is rarely an SK song that keeps you at arm’s distance because of heavy-handed metaphors or an intangible search for meaning. SK has Gregory Alan Isakov’s sensibilities with Petty or Springsteen’s everyman perspective. The result is a vulnerable shout from a van in a midwestern parking lot (see: “Lonely in Columbus”). “Gravity” is profound in its simplicity, a celebration of the everyday; put on “Shady” and try not to dance, or put on “Father’s Day” and try not to cry. His music is the honest reality of his life, offered to an audience to see if they agree. He tells stories that we’ve lived, but put in a way that most of us couldn’t say.
I’ve never been drawn to songs that make me feel like I need a Ph.,D. in English literature or music theory to understand them. Gensis is the dense textbook I will never read. SK is the well-worn paperback in my back pocket.
If you’ve read this far, listen to “A (With Love)” or “Mabeline.” You’ll see what I mean.
Beyond being catchy or well written, SK’s songs are candid, and it’s that candor that challenges listeners. It might scare some away, but it’s the reason that fans refer to him on a first name basis, like he’s the kid from a few houses down.
The essentials—that’s where I put SK. Elbow-to-elbow at the table with my pantheon of songwriters. Like theirs, Stephen Kellogg’s songs hold up, and that’s why I bought his record. But I only own three records (plus the box Aunt Pat just dropped off), so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. But do yourself a favor: listen to him.