Tom Kell’s “This Desert City:” Where True Hearts Fall Apart, Then Hold On with all They Got
Got the email from a musician you know who’s played and recorded with everyone you love. Known him so long I don’t remember when I didn’t. He was always there, always tasty, always someone whose taste was incomparable. Somewhere in the folds and wrinkles of all that life and music, intersections and overlaps happen. He had a friend who produced a record on a songwriter who was good.
Yeah, who didn’t? But Kevin McCormick plays with the very best songwriters. Jackson Browne, Melissa Etheridge, Crosby Stills & Nash, Keb’ Mo’, Don Henley, Perla Batalla, Nils Lofgren, John Mayall, Julia Fordham… He knows the difference. I know he knows – and I knew the name he bandied.
See, you mighta missed Tom Kell. There was a nano-second in the mid-80s… if you were paying attention… and didn’t blink… and opened your own mail… when he’d’ve hit your radar. If you were like me, the kind who read credits, you’d’ve known J.D. Souther sang on Kell’s Warner Nashville debut, a debut that landed when it seemed Southern California’s country-rock might truly migrate to the Music City homebase it once decried. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were having hits.
Nicolette Larson, Jimmy Buffett and Kim Carnes were all in some stage of consort with Elvis sideman/MCA Nashville A&R progressive Tony Brown. And Emmylou Harris , the very traditional queen of hippie country, had relocated to Nashville from her Canyon country home.
Indeed Doobie Brothers John McFee and Keith Knudsen had put together Southern Pacific with Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater Revival – and recorded a duet with Harris on Tom Petty’s raucous “Thing About You,” that the gathering of rock/country tribes performed as night fell upon the first Farm Aid concert in 1985. Tom Kell was one of them. A great writer, singer, man with a sense of arrangement. But Tom Kell didn’t happen. Didn’t get close. Didn’t footnote. Didn’t even get listened to most likely. Just went straight to the used record store. Had people listened, This Lonely Town would’ve struck them with its delicate detail, desolate hearts and sweet voiced confessions of vulnerability and need.
And not just the need for someone else, but the recognition of one’s need to be alone. Well, not alone, but solitary with one’s memories, heartaches and ghosts. Then you blinked. And then you never thought of Tom Kell in the rush of Lyle Lovetts, Mary Chapin Carpenters, Shawn Colvins, Nanci Griffith, Todd Sniders and Marc Cohns again. Cruel business. Shatters hearts, smashes dreams. Another talented sucker, though, happens along daily. Discard the ones that didn’t happen like they never were at all.
Step right up! Take your chances! Fame! Glory! Riches! Girls! Sports cars! Gilded dreams! Hang your heart out on your sleeve for everyone to see, for everyone to marvel…Ride the Tilt-A-Whirl! Kiss a pretty girl! Throw your hands in the air! Just… don’t… stare! Or blink on your way down. Cause it IS… over… THAT fast.
Thanks for playing; now… move on. Have the producer call, I emailed. Here’s where to send the music. Seemed like I hit send, and the phone rang; turned around and the Fed Ex was here. Everybody’s desperate. Everybody’s hustling. Not trying to get by, but trying to survive. Vanity and bloated ego have replaced what was once heartfelt. The once wases can’t go home; the never weres also must – to believe it wasn’t all in vain.
And Tom Kell? Well, it was like time stood still. All those Southern California names rippling like the Canyons were still the place to be: Don Heffington, Bob Glaub, Greg Leisz, Valerie Carter and the late, beloved Kenny Edwards. But it’s not nostalgia. All those players and vocalists are still in peak condition, criminally suited for the dusty kind of yearning that tempers an album about the flickering light of what was, what can’t be and what one needs to get by.
That’s the irony of Tom Kell, 2012, who never was: that once upon a time keeps his characters alive. Not that that’s the deal. No, the filigreed details, ease of rhyming “Encino” and “El Camino” — without seeming like bad over-articulated for effect country schlock — is what draws you in. What keeps you is the worn sweetness of his voice. Somehow in all the disappointment, Tom Kell never grew callous, hard or bitter. Somehow his hope glowed bright enough to illuminate the softer places where knowing what could be was enough.
This is adult music, clear-eyed about the tolls life exacts. There are not a lot of happy-ever-afters, but a clear-eyed truth about how life wears without wearing you out that makes the human condition honorable. It’s not about being supersonic, beyond perfection, but beautiful for the flaws, the ragged spot, the limps and ticks and faltering places. Things in these songs are not easy – indeed from This Desert City’s opening “Which Road,” which finds the protagonist and his inamorata in emotional gridlock to where they can’t completely severe, yet cannot find a means to truly merge through the pensive retreat from the City of Angels “I Wouldn’t Trust The Moon,” Kell considers the betrayals, wreckage and cost of chasing impossible dreams.
Leaving or being left is a theme for sure, escape in the romantic/carnal sense as well as freedom from what entangles us just as pervasive. Yet this is not an album of bemoaning and jettisoning what plagues us. It is stoic, a testament to forbearance and shoring up in the face of the pain. It is about enduring and making do, finding those things that get you through.
With a sweeping sense, there is the woman coping and praying and knowing that there is more to life than being trapped on Ventura Boulevard: there is the notion that love can happen, the radio played to loud, a bungalow where she can let go of the grind that makes “Hold On” more hopeful than dutiful. That same eternal optimism informs “Dove,” a song about a man who’s never met a love he wouldn’t fall for. Even knowing the inevitable is most likely heartbreak, the pleasure of the fall is worth it for the memory. That same man wobbles between the dream he wants and the place he loves, the woman who abides and the aspirations that will never be. It is those impossible choices and never enoughs that bring that deceptive winsomeness of life’s truest challenges. Is it the promise Texas holds? Or the linger of what was left behind?
Echoing a chorus of “Texas keeps tearing me apart,” it is a lament on “Texas On The 4th of July,” but one that can be resolved with a phone call and relocation. Tragically, the characters who populate “Sands of Time,” “The Way of the World” and even the looking backwards balm of “Sometimes” can’t escape their fate. Some die, some are killed, some just erode with the inevitable passage of days.
These are folks who – like these songs’ creator and singer — gave better than they got, making the best of what isn’t… and looking for the smallest pleasures to get them through. Like Warren Zevon, who balanced details and romantic notions of the tenderest sort, Tom Kell conjures the essence of small, forgotten lives. He gives them dignity and the courage to face the endless stream of invisibility. And like Zevon, he has compassion for the ones who bought in, then lost touch of whatever shininess suggested there might be more.
But like Souther, who works an elegant manliness, there is also a bucking up to the truth. Memories can sustain you; the radio save you. In the dusty details, perhaps some pathos emerges – and that will give you something to shield yourself from how sad it really is. No one here has a “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” They’re not refugees from some Eagles song.
But they never quite become victims, and that’s the good news. Most of us will lead lives just like the people Tom Kell sings about: disappointed by love, struggling to get by, awake too late at night thinking about someone who’s probably not thinking of us… And yet, we’re okay.
Give us a little grace and we’ll make due. Or maybe even find a reason to smile. Certainly an album with spare playing, often with hints of Latin undercurrents, is enough to catch our ear, to draw us in. If there are no answers, there’s the balm of being seen, the comfort of knowing we’re not the only one. In a world of growing isolation and alienation, it is the community of those we never see, but who live just like we do who can make us all feel more at ease at how life is now.