Taking a little bit of the funky country spirit from “The Snowman” Jerry Reed, mixing it with the poetic, yet unpretentious tongue-in-cheek attitude of Roger Miller, and infusing it all with an imaginative and untethered take on a retro style of 60’s and 70’s country, The Kernal presents something sure to stoke curiosity, and certainly capable of conveying ample entertainment value in his latest album, Listen To The Blood.
When it comes to performers from this generation playing older country, the question often turns to if what you’re experiencing is authenticity, or some sort of version of cosplay. When it comes to 2nd-generation performer Joe Garner and his alter ego, it presents an interesting test case where both of these things can be true simultaneously.
Joe Garner’s father was Charlie Garner, who played bass behind Del Reeves for some 30 years in Del’s backing band known as The Goodtime Charlies, including during countless performances on the Grand Ole Opry. Charlie was also a DJ for a time before passing away in 2008. After his father’s death, Joe went sifting through the attic of the family home looking for keepsakes, and found a blazing red Western polyester stage suit.
Putting the suit on, Garner felt like it conferred to him the spirit of his dad and Del Reeves, and an alter ego called “The Kernal” was born to both revitalize the music of his predecessors, and resolve unfinished business between himself and his deceased father. Listen To The Blood is actually the third and final installment of a trilogy of albums composed in this spirit, completing the circle started with 2011’s, Farewellhello, and continued on with 2017’s Light Country.
The Kernal’s album Light Country was a call to his own characterization of his music of not being heavy country. He says of this latest album that it’s like “diet country.” But this implies sort of a pastel, yacht rock version of country, like Collin Ray or or something. Listen To The Blood isn’t that at all. It may not be hard honky-tonk country, but it definitely has some kick and drive, with some Southern rock and Muscle Shoals inflections as well, instilled by recording the album in the famous Alabama town. And when the Telecaster and steel guitar get going, you get all the twang you could ask for.
What you also get with Listen To The Blood is ethereal interludes and other imaginative wrinkles in the production handled by The Kernal himself and Ben Tanner of The Alabama Shakes, making the album more of a song cycle project than just your standard country project. But the heart of most of these nine songs is as country as Roscoe P. Coltrane, borrowing just enough from established country styles to be familiar, while finding ways to pique the gray matter a bit more by veering off the country music script.
You hear this distinctly in songs like “U Do U,” “Green Green Sky,” and “The Limit,” which are not a stones throw away of what you might hear from Del Reeves, or Gary Stewart, while the story song “Wrong Turn to Tupelo” could have been turned in by Tom T. Hall or Roger Miller.
Only the song “Long, Cool Finger” throws you off completely, sounding more like a B-side from ZZ Top’s Afterburner phase, and the final song “Super (Marijuana) Wal-Mart” was probably super fun to record in the studio, but probably could have been left off the track list entirely. At only nine songs and a couple of fillers, Listen To The Blood does feel a little “light” on material, and it will give you those east Nashville hipster vibes. But it’s too interesting and entertaining to just ignore.
An excellent duet with the elusive Caitlin Rose also adorns this album, giving us the first taste of a country track from her in what feels like ages, and what might be the greatest steel guitar player of our generation in Zach Mouton of Mike and the Moonpies shows up to share some licks as well. Definitely weird, but still definitely country, and perhaps just the kind of country that will cater to your inclinations, Listen To The Blood finishes off The Kernals three album cross-generation seance with something that he should be proud of.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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