A Night with Andrew Combs + Special Guests

Andrew Combs, a Dallas native now living near the same Nashville airport immortalized in the opening sequence of Robert Altman’s country music odyssey, is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and heir to that 1975 film’s idea of the Nashville troubadour as a kind of musical monk. Here in the twenty-first century whorl of digital narcissism, where identity can feel like a 24/7 social media soft-shoe performance, Combs makes music that does battle with the unsubtle. Like the pioneering color photographer William Eggleston, he sees the everyday and the commonplace as the surest paths to transcendence, and he understands intuitively that what is most obvious is often studded with the sacred.

On his EP, 5 Covers & A Song (New West Records), Combs showcases songs that have had an impact on him at different points in his life. Songs by The Strokes and Radiohead are a nostalgic look back at teenage self discovery, while Loudon Wainwright III’s “4 x 10” represents a more current perspective, reflecting on his life now as a husband and father.

“4 x 10 sparked the initial idea to record a collection of covers,” says Combs. “Jordan Lehning (producer) and I had a bonding moment over this tune and how perfect we thought it was. In fact, we even thought of doing the whole EP of just Loudon songs. In my opinion he is one of the few writers who can cover the territory of familial relationships in such a shrewd and comfortable manner.

“I wanted at least a couple of these tunes on the EP to be nostalgic for me,” Combs continues. “I was a huge fan of The Strokes’ two first records when I was in high school. My friends and I used to dress like them — I had a white belt and white chucks I’d rock every day! I actually have Radiohead to thank for getting me into music. I remember the exact moment when my friend passed me a burned CD of Amnesiac in history class one day. I was probably 14. It was my first Radiohead record, and I worked back in their catalog from there, loving everything I heard. They still mean a lot to me as a band. Everything they do pushes into new territory — music, lyrics, artwork, etc… “

The idea for the EP evolved as a setting to recognize some of his favorite songwriters. “We all know that Blake Mills is a tremendous guitar player, but it’s his knack for songwriting and arranging that keeps me coming back to his records. Lucinda is the queen of songwriting in my book. No one else can portray a picture like her. She’s up there with Tom Waits, Townes and Guy Clark when it comes to words. I wanted a love song on the EP — something that came from a feeling of adoration. It’s a simple bed of music that her words dance on, but the build of the tune helps portray the yearning for someone. I couldn’t be happier with this version. I’d like to think Lucinda would enjoy it as well.”

The final track on the album, “Expectations,” is the sole original song on the EP. “This is a tune Sarah Siskind and I came up with on a rainy afternoon here in Nashville. We got to talking about relationships. I remember repeating a quote from a friend, saying, “you only get what you expect,” meaning that if you have expectations about someone close to you, positive or negative, they most likely will come true in your mind.”

Based in the halfway point between two Tennessee music meccas, The Kernal is apart yet plugged into the fertile East Nashville music scene. A Southern gentleman with an old soul who is tied deeply to the legacy and showmanship of the wandering musician and the historic Grand Ole Opry, the Kernal will release his upcoming album, LIGHT COUNTRY, on March 3, 2017 on Alabama label Single Lock Records (John Paul White). Along with his band, the New Strangers, the Kernal tours the country with his home-grown brand of Southern mystique, including recent tours with friend and fan John Paul White.

You may have seen or heard The Kernal in his other incarnation as a bass player with such artists as Andrew Combs and Jonny Fritz. But LIGHT COUNTRY introduces us to a funny, whip-smart songwriter and musical stylist on these original tracks. The album opens with the sweeping gospel number, “Where We’re Standing,” which builds to a swirling electric guitar outro. He describes “Knock Kneed Ballerina” as a “shoulder-dance country song and a sort of personal, band-mission statement;” it’s also a knowing nod to the classic sound of ‘70s Nashville Countrypolitan hits and a poignant ode to musical also-rans everywhere. “At the Old Taco Bell” was inspired by a photo of a boarded up, derelict Taco Bell. “It’s about me moving into an abandoned, and therefore affordable, Taco Bell at some point in the future,” he deadpans. Elsewhere he tackles modern domesticity (the Harry Nilsson-esque “Cold Shoulder”), and ends on an apology of sorts for his choice of lifestyle, “I earned my degree but I would rather rake some leaves … Barely eatin’ and meetin’ my rent.”

LIGHT COUNTRY is a family affair, but the family at this point is the family of memory; it was 2010 when the Kernal went into the attic of his childhood home in Pinewood, TN and found his

late father’s red Opry suit (it’s the suit he’s wearing on the album cover). An English major who’s as likely to reference Bela Bartok and Terry Allen as a country music legend, the Kernal was inspired to write his own songs after donning his late father’s red Opry suit. He discovered that it fit and began to feel its mojo. “It was a magic suit,” he confides. “It’s all about old fabrics on new skin, and seeing how they get along.”

“My dad,” the Kernal explains, “met Sleepy LaBeef at Linebaugh’s Restaurant in Nashville. Lonzo & Oscar were looking for a drummer and he asked my dad if he could play a shuffle beat on the table. He did and he left for a 10-day run the next day. It worked out because soon he was playing with Sleepy.” From there, his father found his way to The Kendalls, and eventually to the legendary Del Reeves, with whom he would play until Reeves’ death in 2007. His father died in September of the same year. These memories — this legacy of the old country music way, of rock and roll on the fly — was not lost on the Kernal, and he took it as starting point from which to build his own contribution to Southern music while celebrating its past.

LIGHT COUNTRY also features a snippet of the Kernal’s long-passed relatives singing gospel. He found old reel-to-reel tapes of his family’s gospel singing and was able to transfer the recordings and include snippets of their singing on the album. “They all came from the Rome, Georgia area and go back generations, back to the shape-note singing gospel books of the early Southern churches.”

This sense of place and history makes this an homage to family and the South, filtered through the Kernal’s literate, offbeat humor and sense of what makes a “good” country song. The Kernal inherited more than just a snappy red suit from his late Dad, he inherited his love of music and generations of musical history, as well as a dose of realism about “living the dream.”

This all gives LIGHT COUNTRY a color and depth you don’t often hear with a “young” artist. These songs have their own powerful energy, the chemistry of tension with the old guard and the young gun but with, according to the Kernal, “the respect and love that comes from the South itself.

Charlie Whitten grew up during the last gasp of the 20th century, a time when grungy rock bands and teen idols ruled the airwaves. You can’t blame the guy for looking back a bit, for rustling through his Dad’s collection of vintage records and finding some better music to soundtrack his life. Years later, the Nashville-based songwriter is rolling those influences into his own sound, a mellow brand of folk-rock that tips its hat to Pink Floyd’s psychedelic swirl one minute and Simon and Garfunkel’s acoustic wistfulness the next.

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