Drew Kennedy Talks Inspiration for Cinematic New Album “Marathon”

photo: Carly duMenil-Martinez

Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by country music writer Ken Morton Jr. You can find more of his work at That Nashville Sound. Drew Kennedy’s new concept album Marathon is drawing high praise from the songwriter community, so Ken Morton Jr. talked with Kenndy in-dept about the project. Kennedy is the reigning Saving Country Music Song of the Year writer with Jason Eady for “French Summer Sun.”

What if you could see inspiration? What if you could physically see, hear and touch something that was genuinely a feeling? What if it was a living, breathing thing with soul and heart? Can it be spiritual?

For Pennsylvania-native-now-longtime-Texan-transplant Drew Kennedy, it was a place. West Texas was the place that he found himself as a songwriter and was the inspiration behind his recently-released album, Marathon. Like the critically-acclaimed Marfa Tapes collaboration with Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall, Drew Kennedy set-up shop in the middle of that inspiration and with open doors and windows, and recorded a project that allowed that West Texas breeze to literally imprint on the project.

Kennedy and producer Davis Naish brought in a sparse selection of instruments and a beautiful tribute ode to a corner of the world that the singer-songwriter has fallen in love with over the years. The two musicians and producers spent a week in a small adobe house in the tiny Far West Texas town after which the album is named.

He drew on songs written with the likes of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Matraca Berg. He has a couple songs written with his frequent Topo Chico Cowboys collaborator Josh Grider, and pulled out a song from the catalog of his hero Walt Wilkins.

Kennedy was kind enough to sit down with Saving Country Music and talk about the new project and wax philosophically about the tangibility of inspiration and how you honor it in a meaningful way.

Ken Morton, Jr.: With this new project you went about and recorded it very differently than how you’ve previously recorded and even how most people go about recording an album. So maybe let’s start there.

Drew Kennedy: Well, for all of the detractors, there seem to be less of modern recording equipment ones versus analog ones. I will say one benefit of digital recording is that the things that you need in order to get a quality recording are a lot smaller than the things that you need to get a quality analog recording. So, using that to our advantage, we were able to very reasonably turn a house into a makeshift studio whereas like 50 years ago you would have to roll in an entire semi-truck full of equipment and pack it into a place if you wanted to make it.

You know, like the line of recording rigs that like Jerry Jeff Walker used to make his record that was in the back of a big box truck. They just needed that much stuff. And now two guys can put all of their instruments and all of their microphones and all of their recording gear into a car into a truck and drive somewhere and setup shop and capture something that I think sounds pretty damn good. Davis (Naish) is an insane person and also my brother for agreeing that I wanted to make this record as often as we could with the doors and windows open so that the area got to imprint itself on whatever we were capturing the whole time.

The rain that you hear at the beginning of “Peace and Quiet,” that’s the rain that’s coming through the stereo mics that we have in front of my acoustic guitar. And the doors are open and I’m sitting right by the door so you can hear it. And that’s exactly what I wanted. The thunder at the end that was a separate field recording that we placed there specifically but that rain at a beginning and as I’m playing it you can hear the birds, you can hear the rain, that’s it, that’s what was happening at that very moment.

And that’s what I wanted to do and we were able to do it with equipment that was so small. We got two monitors that we got at a Guitar Center in San Antonio after I picked Davis up from the airport and we propped them up on two like boxes of wine. I mean I love making a record at Sound Emporium or any of the great studios in Nashville that I’ve gotten to work in. But if you could turn a great house into a great studio and capture a feeling rather than try and bringing that feeling to the studio with you in Nashville or Los Angeles or wherever, gosh, why wouldn’t you do it?

There’s got to be a level of intimacy and authenticity going with that process that you might not have in a studio, right?

Yeah, it’s true. One of my friends told me the very first day that we met that your style comes from your limitations, and I thought that is brilliant. Whether that’s an original quote or not, I have no idea. But I loved that idea and that idea is kind of what informed our choices on the record. Like the intimacy is there because we don’t have the ability to make it this big, huge production, we chose to try and draw you in rather than blow you away.

The style that infuses this record is Davis as a piano player and I’m a rhythm acoustic guitar player. And so we ended up playing all of the record except for one bass track on one song that a friend of mine played on. We played all the stuff and I think because there’s just two of us, because of the setting, because of our limitations, it works together.

When I’m writing, even though I play the acoustic most of the time when I’m writing a song, or if I’m listening to a song that I’d just written, I hear the whole thing in my head. And nobody else hears it like that because they’re not in my head. And so there we are. I hear this thing in my head but I don’t play pedal steel, we don’t have a pedal steel guitar there with us, how do you do it? Well, it’s usually going to be three or four notes with some movement in there, I can layer three or four whistles and we can put some reverb on it and mix it so it’ll be kind of the same path that a pedal steel guitar will be doing.

So you come up with that and I think just the fact there are so few souls on the recording playing the instruments, it creates another level of intimacy. It’s another thing that invites you in. And I didn’t know that it would be like that when we started but by the time we finished, I certainly had a sense that just having two people basically make the whole thing adds to that sonic landscape that I was trying to create.

That’s a good lead to my next question for you. You recorded in a house in far West Texas. The album’s named on a town in West Texas. And then there’s common themes throughout the album of this Texas landscape. I’ll ask the question, how does a locale kind of evolve into all of this really highly personal intimacy as well?

I think it happens because you’re the listener. I hope the listener is experiencing it through one person’s lens. I mean that’s what makes songwriting so powerful. That’s what music is, you’re listening to something to see what someone makes of this thing that everybody is going through independently. Yet because this person is a songwriter you get to hear how he or she perceives the world around them and they’re brave enough to share it with you. Or maybe stupid enough to share with you or whatever.

The thing that all of this ends up being is the way I, as an outsider, see this part of the world that is so important to me. It’s so important that I just want to share it with everybody. About four years ago, my parents came from Pennsylvania and we took them out there over Thanksgiving and we had our Thanksgiving a day early here in New Braunfels and then we took them five and a half hours west to Marathon. And they didn’t get it.

I felt it was so strange. I love this place so much. It feels so right to me and I don’t think my parents got it the way I get it. I didn’t understand how anybody that would see this place wouldn’t immediately fall in love with it. So maybe I need to do something that shows the many levels of this place that I love so much. I thought about that when I first started thinking about making a record. I have so many songs that I’ve written out there or about out there. I just felt like I owed it to that part of the world that inspires me so much. And I decided I was going to do that and try and show why it inspires me so much. And that’s kind of the heart of what I was trying to do with this album.

It’s weird to talk about inspiration as like a physical thing even though I believe that it’s a living thing. I didn’t want to take from the area in the way that like a coal miner might mine a vein of coal and then leave a mountain in central Pennsylvania hollow to eventually collapse in on itself. I know that writing songs and taking inspiration or maybe painting or taking a picture is a two-way street. I know that doesn’t take away from the physical being of the place, but I also didn’t want to go without showing my reverence for this area.

Last summer I donated a good guitar to the Marathon Public Library and I’m not saying that to pat myself on the back. We sent it in with the case and the tuner and strings and picks and stuff. I do that because if there’s somebody else out there that lives there that feels the same way I do about it I want—if they don’t have the means to express themselves some way I wanted them to be able to do it—to be able to go to the library and borrow that guitar for a week or for a month or whatever and see if they can work out why it’s special to them.

And again, I’m not saying that to be self-congratulatory. I’m saying that to say like I don’t want to just take from the area and never give anything back to it because I don’t want the hollow mountain to crash in on itself. I don’t want to have to feel like a crazy analogy to Centralia, Pennsylvania. They packed the empty mines full of trash and then it caught on fire and it’s going to burn forever. The town is a ghost town now. I don’t ever want to pull inspiration out of something and not make sure that I’m not giving it back. Inspiration is tangible. It’s real.

You’re paying it forward a bit.

Yeah, responsibly foresting it, you know, what I mean, I want to give it back.

That’s such a physical way to look at inspiration, I’ve never thought about it that way.

I totally believe that inspiration is alive, it’s looking for people that are looking for it. What’s the Rumi quote, “What you seek is seeking you?” I totally believe that. I don’t know why I get lucky enough to play on the inside of venues when there are people that must play on the corner outside the venue. I don’t know who makes those decisions in the cognizance of things, I just don’t want to upset the force because I feel very lucky to do what I do and that’s just another way of me saying hey, whatever force you are, for whatever reason why you made me a songwriter, why you drew me to this place, I want you to know that I appreciate it and I will do anything I can to let you know that I appreciate it. It includes me making this record and giving the guitar and whatever. It’s important to me to give back even if we don’t understand why I’m receiving it.

On your last album, you had this brilliant song and music video called “Open Road” and it’s very, very cinematic. It’s about as dramatic as anything you’ve ever seen before.

But what I loved about this album is I thought it took that singular song and expanded it into—again I used that word cinematic—it exploded a singular song on that project into a whole album. I wonder if you kind of see the process or see the musical album process as one that’s maybe makes an analogy to cinema. It’s like watching a movie but all in your ears.

One hundred percent. “Open Road” is a wide angle look at that part of the world and each song on this record including the field recordings and everything is a closeup shot of this part of the world. It’s different segments of the part of this world. On the last record we talked “When I Miss You Most” as the song that plays in the movie during the opening credits. And then the actual movie gets started with the second song, “Sing This Town to Sleep.” That’s when the record really starts.

So “When I Miss You Most” is like the preamble. It’s like the opening credit shot. And the same thing with this record. “Marathon,” the title track is the last song I wrote because I had this whole idea that it was coming together. I thought the record needed an introduction. So this is my opening credit song. That’s the way we referred to it the whole time we were making the record. That song gets you out of my front door in New Braunfels through San Antonio on the Highway 90 heading west. You’re going right along the border until it gets you to Marathon. And then it tells you why Marathon even exists and asks where Marathon might even be going.

And then the record starts. The story line of this record starts with “Peace and Quiet.” It’s about somebody that has just gone through a breakup trying to figure out what they’re going to do with themselves and what they can take from it. It’s about what they have to leave behind, whatever. But “Marathon” is my opening credits song for this record, just like “So Far To Go” is my closing credit song for this record. Since this is mostly a concept record, I think it works as a collection of songs. But for those of us that are lyric nerds, if you really dig into it, you can hopefully see that there’s a story arch that goes through this whole thing.

The first song and the last song fall outside of it, but that was intentional just like the credits at the beginning and the end. On “So Far To Go,” I took the liberty to have it fall completely out of this story line just because it’s an important song for me that I needed to record. So I think about it in the sense of filmmaking like that constantly.

Since you mentioned credits, it’s probably worthwhile mentioning that you have some key songwriter credits on here that you have not had before with people like any of your either records. I see Jeff Hanna and Matraca Berg and even a Walt Wilkins song on there. Talk to me about some of the new pens on some of these songs.

Jeff and Matraca are husband and wife. Matraca wrote “Strawberry Wine” and it’s one of the greatest country songs ever written. She’s in the National Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Jeff is the singer of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And that’s the first compact disc I ever purchased with my own money. I bought the Will the Circle be Unbroken album.

I met the both of them recording an episode of Mountain Stage, the NPR show. It’s such a beautiful place. This guy who was just Matraca’s guitar player was so nice. He was so familiar and I was up there on that show with my friend Lori McKenna. It was a really cool hang for me to meet all those people—to meet Matraca. And I couldn’t figure out why a guitar player was so familiar to me. We were having a meal together and he was like let’s talk about your music. He wanted to know my influences and how I got started. I told him that the first CD I ever bought with my money was this Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record, then he kind of smiled for a second and reached his hand out and he said, “Hi, I’m Jeff Hanna.” And then I figured it all out and I was like, “Oh, my God.”

So we did something until the pandemic ruined it. I would go over to their house probably every six months or so and the three of us would sit down together and write a song. And then we would go to dinner and it was just like it was just an amazing thing that I was getting to do. If I could go back in time and talk to the kid that just picked up the guitar for the first time when I was 20 years old, I’d say, “Dude, you will not believe what this decision that you’re making right now will do. You will not believe what is going to happen.” I got a Walt Wilkins record within one month of me starting to play a guitar in college in Virginia. It was the Fire, Honey and Angels record. And if I could tell that guy back then that I would become friends with Walt Wilkins and Walt would record one of my songs. I think he’s recorded 4 or 5 songs on his records that we’ve written together. I get to tour with him a lot. Like if I could tell that guy back then, he would have thought that he was being setup. There’s no way that this is real.

And I wouldn’t blame him for thinking that because I often have to remind myself, wait, is this actually happening? Yes, this is actually happening. But starting with the At Home In the Big Lonesome album, I decided I was going to record a Walt Wilkins song on every record I make from here on out. Because not only is he a great friend, he’s one of the best songwriters that have ever breathed air. He’s got this incredible catalog and why wouldn’t I choose to honor a friend’s great art who’s criminally underrated and overlooked. Why wouldn’t I do that? If there’s all these songs that maybe if ten more people get to hear “Walnut Street” from the last one or “Watch It Shine” on this one, then ten more people will get to experience the greatness of Walt Wilkins.

And I feel lucky that he’s completely flying with me doing it, and thinks it’s cool and still gets a kick out of it. And he’s been one of my loudest champions. The greats like him all come from this place of complete and utter reverence and magic. I don’t understand how any of this happened.

I have no idea why I write songs. I have no idea where it comes from. I was a History major. I wanted to play baseball. I don’t know where this came from but it found me and here I am. It’s like all writers of all forms. It finds you one day and then you’re like oh, shit, this is what I do. Oh, my God, this is what I’m going to do. And nobody was looking for it, everybody wants to do something else but then it finds you. Songwriters, specifically. It finds you and you’re like oh, God, this is what I’m going to do. And I can’t even think of my life in any other frame at all. It’s crazy. It’s the most illogical thing I can imagine and here I am doing it for a living.

It’s clearly rooted in Philadelphia Phillies fandom there somewhere, my friend.

(laughter) Yeah, that inability to give up on something that is truly terrible.

Yeah, from a Pirates fan to a Phillies fan, that might be the most apropos analogy ever. I end all interviews with the same question and its meant open-ended, so take it wherever you want to go. But what is country music to Drew Kennedy?

Country music is the last bastion of storytelling in popular music. Even though I labor within commercial country music writing for other artists, I do not appreciate that we have entered a room where the male singer always has to get the girl, where everything always goes right for these guys singing these songs. That is not real life. And I understand that you don’t want to bring anybody down or bum anybody out but country music is about telling the story of everyday people and everyday people struggle with shit.

And that is why when songs like “The House that Built Me” or “Humble and Kind” come around, you hear them, and you think that it’s going to be with me for the rest of my life. And then when you hear the Spring Break party anthem, you think that is somebody’s soundtrack to a spring break trip and when they hear it they might think of themselves doing that, but it will not resonate in a meaningful way other than nostalgia for the rest of their life. And I’m not taking shots at anybody at this at all. But there’s just a lack of the truth in relating everyday experiences. We must take the time to share the good and the bad. We’ve gotten away from painting the good and the bad and I don’t understand why we can’t be doing both.

That’s what country music is to me. It is the story of everyday people in everyday life. And I wish we told the truth instead of painting this overly optimistic picture every time. It’s always the-hero-always-wins version of it. I miss the drinking songs and the cheating songs and the—you know, like the George Jones stuff. Every George Jones record said it should be sold with a six pack and a handgun. Like I’m not encouraging suicide, but I do miss when we told the truth about life and all its ups and downs and pain and beauty and love and heartbreak. And so I might write songs in Nashville where I’m trying to sell them in a way what they’re buying. But at least as an artist, I get to make country music as it appears to me. And it feels important to me and I will continue to do that as long as people want to listen to it.

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