At 37, Drew Kennedy is far from an old-timer on the Red Dirt Circuit that gives life to so many exceptional songwriters based out of Texas and Oklahoma. Yet Kennedy sounds as if he’s an elder statesman on the soothing and beautifully realized At Home In the Big Lonesome.
Kennedy’s eighth album is by far his most laid back. There’s even a track with no other accompaniment than a grand piano. New listeners seem to be taking note; within a day of its release, Kennedy topped the iTunes singer-songwriter charts.
The best part of the album, to my mind, is the way Kennedy navigates through his verses. His lyrics are thoughtful and detailed, and his timber is above average even by the high standards of Texas Country music. But it’s those personal touches that have me most excited about this performance. Whether it’s the way his voice trails off wistfully around the middle of “House” or the way he leans into the word ‘California’ on “Open Road,” At Home In the Big Lonesome is at its best when Kennedy puts something into his performances that you’d never get by reading the sheet music. Luckily, that’s pretty often.
Only “Scratch And Dent” appears as a blemish, and mostly because of an unexpected change in verb tense between the verse and refrain. Motivational songs are more prone than most to become awkward, so this mistake finds a way to stand out.
The better songs on the album more than makeup for this.“House” is insightful and gorgeous. It’s a great example of how Kennedy often uses a cliché to ground a song that’s rich in less expected details. “Cream And Sugar” sounds like the type of song that could be a big hit in a world where commercial country radio wasn’t so closed off to playing non-label artists.
At Home In the Big Lonesome closes well too. One detail in “My Love Will Never Change,” based on a true story you can get straight from Kennedy in the interview below, makes a tragic twist in the song land more perfectly than I thought possible. And “Walnut Street,” a Walt Wilkins cover, is a wise choice to end an album that so often explores the longing and the glow experienced when wadding into old memories.
This album kind of took me aback, especially the opening track. It’s not that I’m not used to hearing a piano on a country album, but rarely does it come out so refined.
Yes that is definitely a grand piano, not an upright in that song. I don’t even know if this is a country record. It’s got its roots in that, but it’s also got its roots in a lot of other stuff. I don’t think there was a single second when we were doing this record where myself or my producer looked at one another and said: “well we can’t do that.” We just had the songs and we just wanted to make sure we gave the songs the best opportunities that they had to get out into the world and survive. I think is probably my most eclectic record that I’ve ever put out as far as influence goes.
I would have to agree with you on that. Was it at all intentional to start the album with a song that sounded so different? Your vocal styles which are pretty well developed at this point, but other than that it didn’t really sound that country.
The track listing for the record was more about the arc of the storyline throughout the record and the less about making a statement right from the beginning. What we decided after playing around with a couple of different sequences is that just a solo piano and vocal performance really almost feels like, to use a cinematic reference, it feels like the part of the movie where the opening credits are being displayed on the big screen right before the plot really starts to take off. And so you know the next track, “Sing This Town To Sleep,” is almost like where the album really starts going.
You put out this great idea in a song called “House” that almost runs counter to everything you see in the movies, to carry on that metaphor. On TV and in the movies, relationships fall apart because of someone doing something and you’re pointing out that it’s probably more realistic to say they fall apart by people not doing something.
Yeah I mean you always I mean you hear. So often somebody says something like “How can we rekindle the fire that we had at the beginning of our relationship?” Life gets in the way. I have two children and I’m busy traveling and my wife is a teacher and you find yourself having to work hard and be creative to just get some alone time just to spend some time together working on you and the relationship rather than working on the garden or working with the kids or all of that. And in my experience, I’m 37 and I’m just starting to get to the point in my life where I’m seeing couples that we’re friends with our breaking up here and there. Divorce was something that happened to our parents. I’m at the age group now where it’s starting to happen to us, and I don’t mean me and my wife, but in my age group. The overriding theme is that things just got stale and nobody wanted to work on it and it takes work every day.
The next track I want to talk about is “24 Hours In New York City” because I’m just stunned that someone was able to include an accurate line about how the New York City subway smells that was playable on an FCC regulated radio and was actually pretty tasteful. It was cheap cologne and ammonia.
That came up in conversation when we were right on the subway. My co-writer and I brought that up. I wrote this song with Sean McConnell. He grew up out of Boston and I grew up outside of Philadelphia. And we’ve all taken trips to New York City when you’re younger. And one of the distinctly memorable smells is that acrid smell that you might get every once in a while walking through New York subway station. I mean it’s something that sticks in your mind especially when you’re young and impressionable. And we had to work pretty hard to come up with a way to phrase that that wasn’t crude. We tried to make it poetic and it took a little bit but I think we kind of got it. We both went to school, Sean and I, we might as well flex those muscles every once in a while.
Next track I want to mention is “Cream and Sugar.” It actually sounds commercial radio friendly and I like it because you get the feeling of layers from the lyrics. There are some hints in the song that this guy isn’t just okay with the date because the woman is “a looker.” It actually seems as though he’s talking himself into giving love another shot.
Yeah completely. There’s that line referencing someone’s broken heart “maybe this time it’ll grow back bigger.” If you give it another shot, maybe it’ll work out. And that was definitely the premise of the song. I really wanted to mix that giving love another shot idea with that feeling of going on a blind date. But the looker line came to us completely out of desperation. I mean we knew for the song to have the lyrical impact it had to end with “gonna need more cream and sugar.” That’s got to be the last line of the chorus. And then we had already set up throughout the entire song the rhyme scheme being AABB. And so when you’re setting yourself up to rhyme with sugar, and you finally get to it, the words that cross your mind are not exactly words you want to put into a song. So it took quite some time to finally land with looker.
So you’re not going to go with “booger?”
No, no and we didn’t we didn’t feel like it would be a good thing to bring out “hooker” for a first date either.
I’ve never had a good first date where I mentioned hookers.
You know what, it really does sour the tone. I think we’ve all learned that.
One last track to talk about. I guess you had to break our heart with this album. Why did you do that to us with “My Love Will Never Change?”
My philosophy is that I didn’t ask to become a songwriter. It’s just something that I stumbled across. Inspiration is a tricky thing. I think that inspiration is a living breathing force and all living breathing forces want to stay alive. It’s kind of the whole point of being living and breathing. And while everybody around me all day I’m sure are super nice people and they might be creative in their own ways, I feel like inspiration looks for people who are open to receiving it. And as a songwriter, I’m always looking for a song. And it just happened that I was at a friend’s bar on opening day, sitting on the patio having a beer, and it was right down the street from the hospital. This old man came out of a side exit of the hospital and walked all the way down the street and walked down the sidewalk right in front of me and on his left arm was a men’s wristwatch and a woman’s wristwatch on his wrist. And as soon as I saw and saw it I thought ‘well that’s. inspiration sending me my assignment for today.’ I don’t know what the story is, but message received, I know what I’m going to write next. So I believe your heart was destined to be broken as soon as I saw the image, so I apologize.
I think there’s only one explanation I can think of for why he’d be wearing those two watches and it’s not a good one.
Not a good one is right. I mean, an 80-year-old guy could be a pickpocket who’s getting a little cocky at this age and he’s just showing off at this point by showing his wares for the day. But I think you and I both know that’s not it.