Kendell Marvel on the Triumph and Tragedy of His ’70s Country-Soaked New Album: ‘There Was Even More Passion’

When Kendell Marvel moved to Nashville in 1998, his intention was to become an artist. “99% of songwriters want to be singers,” he says Billboard.

But on his first day in Music City, Marvel scored what would become a top 5 hit for Gary Allan Billboard‘s Country The song list, “Right Where I Need to Be,” and it quickly became apparent that he did indeed possess the writing chops to become a hit songwriter. He scored hits for George Strait (“Twang”) and Jake Owen (“Don’t Think I Can’t Love You”), and singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton became a regular collaborator. A father of young children at the time, Marvel wrote off his artistic ambitions.

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“I was done trying to be an artist,” Marvel says Billboard. “I had to stay at home and raise my kids, watch them play sports, all the things that if I had been an artist I wouldn’t get to do as much.”

Kendell, from Illinois, grew up enjoying the ’70s country sounds of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings along with the hard-hitting southern rock of The Allman Brothers Band, and these influences bled into the style of songs he wanted to make.

But as country music moved deeper into hip-hop and pop-infused “bro country” in the 2010s, Marvel says, “As a staff songwriter, your job is to get songs on the radio and make money for everybody. Personally, I just couldn’t write those songs and go into them [acclaimed songwriter watering hole] Bluebird Café and play them for people.”

Then, in 2015, Marvel saw his friend and collaborator Stapleton perform at the CMA Awards, singing the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove-penned classic “Tennessee Whiskey” with Justin Timberlake, followed by Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” — and saw Stapleton ascend from an excellent songwriter with a gold-dusted voice, largely praised only in Nashville industry circles, to an arena-level touring artist.

“I told my wife that night, ‘I’m going to make a record.’ I called [producer] Keith Gattis the next day and we broke a record a few months later.”

That record was Marvel’s 2017 debut Lowdown & Lonesomewhich was followed by the Dan Auerbach-produced Solid gold sounds in 2019. Along with Red Light Management and Concord Music Publishing, Marvel will release his third studio album, Come on sunshineFriday (Sept. 23).

In June 2021, Marvel traveled to Dallas to record at Modern Electric Sound Recorders (MESR), a studio with origins dating back to the 1960s. Producer Beau Bedford and engineer/guitarist/MESR owner Jeffrey Saenz helped craft the 10-song album, expanding on Marvel’s previously rough-hewn, tell-it-like brand of 1970s country music. Marvel also worked with an eclectic group of writers, including Stapleton, Devon Gilfillian, Waylon Payne, Dee White, Kolby Cooper and Auerbach.

For Kendell, the studio’s historic and artistic feel, mix of vintage and cutting-edge equipment and walls filled with vintage posters and live art (“A lot of studios are so hospital-like, white walls,” says Marvel), enhanced the recording process, as did the fact that the musicians of Electric Studios also were road-tested musicians.

Bedford also contributed acoustic guitar to the record. According to Marvel, the only acoustic guitar used on the record was an L-OO Gibson, which Marvel was told belonged to Tom Petty: “That’s supposedly the guitar they played ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ on, and it sounded so good that I went out and found a vintage L-OO and bought one.”

However, a tragedy that occurred after the first day of shooting almost derailed the entire project. After the sessions, Saenz went home and suffered a serious electrical accident.

“He got caught in an electrical wire that had fallen from a telephone pole in his yard. It electrocuted him and they had to take both of his arms. This was the last record he turned with his actual hands,” recalls Marvel. “He’s recovered and back to work. He rode a motorcycle and was also a great guitarist. They got him the prosthetics he needed to go back to work. He’s a rough son of a bi-h, is all I can say.”

The morning after the accident, Marvel gathered with the rest of the album’s musicians and recording crew.

“Everybody’s really close to him. It was like, ‘Do we have to go home? Do we have to reschedule?'” he recalls. “But they played, and it changed everything about the way they played. There was even more passion, like it was something they just had to get out. I think that made the record magical.”

The album launches with a double shot of defiance in the songs “Don’t Tell Me How to Drink” and “Keep Doing Your Thing.” The former, which Marvel wrote with Stapleton, also features Stapleton’s powerful vocals. He also reaches deep into his song catalog for “Never Lovin’ You,” another Stapleton co-write created over a decade ago and previously recorded on Blake Shelton’s 2008 album Starting fires.

In the “Don’t Tell Me How to Drink” video, directed by Jace Kartye and filmed in one take at Frans’s East Side bar in Nashville, Marvel sits up on the edge of the bar and sings directly into the camera as he downs a libation after libation. Although the finished product has a lightning fast recording, it required slowing down the song considerably to get the effect.

“We filmed it at 9 in the morning and Jace set everything down to where it took me about 14 minutes to sing the song,” says Marvel. “So it was a bit difficult to do, and of course a lot of drinking was filmed for the video. People ask me what I drank, but I just leave that up to them,” he estimates that he downed about two liters of liquid during the recording.

Another standout on the album is “Fool Like Me”, written with Payne. “I’m proud of the whole album, but that song and the way we tracked it was amazing,” he enthuses. “Beau had a Wurlitzer there, and he plays all the acoustic parts. I said, ‘Let’s go through it on a Wurly and see how it sounds.’ So we ended up not putting any acoustics on it, and it just sounded so good, like an old Willie Nelson song.”

Currently, Marvel balances releasing his own music and touring (he’s currently out on his Don’t Tell Me How to Drink tour) with his continued success as a songwriter (his co-written songs have contributed to Grammy wins for Stapleton and Brothers Osborne in recent years). Since 2017, he has also headlined his monthly Honky Tonk Experience at famed Nashville rock club Exit/In, which turned 50 last year. The freewheeling shows feature Stapleton, Alison Krauss, Ashley McBryde and Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett.

Marvel says it’s the casual, off-the-clock atmosphere that keeps the artists coming back: “They’re so used to having to go out and make their own songs – so for a lot of them it’s a chance to get out and do a Haggard song or a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. That’s why we call it ‘the experience’ — it’s rock, it’s bone country, whatever it is — and people have really supported it.”

The next Honky Tonk Experience is set for October. 18 at Exit/In. However, Marvel is unsure how long the beloved Experience will continue, given matches the venerable club has gone through the motions of trying to remain open and independent. Last year, hotel developer AJ Capital Partners bought the building that houses Exit/In, sparking backlash from Nashville musicians and politicians.

“We’re a little concerned,” says Marvel. “I really don’t want the Honky Tonk Experience anywhere else unless someone else takes over that place and we can continue to have it there or if we can find a really cool rock n’ roll vibe. But I just don’t see , that we’re moving it to another weekday club in Nashville.”

Marvel has previously opened shows on Stapleton’s All-American Road Show tour and says he hopes to tour with Stapleton again soon.

“I always hope so. I mean, it’s the tour everyone wants and they’ve been so super supportive of me and other artists. It’s like a big family out there. I’d drop anything I do at any time , to go on the road with them, because they are just salt-of-the-earth people.”


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