Drew Kennedy’s double-disc Sad Songs Happily Played offers equal measures insight (“Rose of Jericho”) and introspection (“The Last Waltz”). CMT Edge spoke with the Central Texas-based songwriter about his elegant new concert collection.
“After the second time I played this great listening series at an old post office outside of Houston, the sound guy asked if I had any suggestions,” Kennedy recalls. “I said, ‘My only suggestion is that we record it next time because this place is perfect.’ Well, I found out he actually just recorded the show.”
Sad Songs Happily Played collects material from Kennedy’s entire catalog — six albums including high watermarks Wide Listener (2013) and Fresh Water in the Salton Sea (2011) — and deftly spotlights his vibrant, between-song storytelling.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Kennedy: I started thinking … the value of making a live record when you didn’t know you were making one might be pretty substantial. I grew up in the time when bootleg trading was pretty popular, and you’d get these great shows where the band didn’t know they were recording. They were just turning in their show. So I thought it was more of an honest representation of me as a musician, and I decided to go for it. I think it represents me both as I like people to hear but also in the way I approach playing a show. I get the most energy when the crowd is listening.
Explain how this collection represents your evolution as a songwriter.
I really skewed toward the stuff I’ve done in the last five years, but I played a song off every one of my releases on this record. That’s just how the show went. I drew from old stuff like “The Last Waltz,” which was on my first record 10 years ago, because someone had asked me to play that before the show started. I had totally forgotten until there was an encore. I thought that would be a good song to close out the night. It has that vibe.
You can come up with some great stuff when you’re too young to know how hard writing is.
Yeah. Totally true. Sometimes we’re looking at the quality as far as the craft goes, but there are people who have a genuine emotional connection to something that you or I may have written that’s 10 years old. Just because you think you can do it more proficiently now doesn’t mean you should always turn your back on stuff. Having “The Last Waltz” end that is a pretty good reminder. People do connect to the old stuff.
Has storytelling always been essential to your live show?
No, it evolved over the last five years or so. When the economy took a downturn around ’08, I would get offers saying, “You know, we like the band shows, but how about we pay you less for you to come play an acoustic show?” Well, that “less” figure was actually more than I’d walk away with when I was operating the band and paying for hotel rooms and players, so I started taking more acoustic shows.
You know, songwriters by extension are storytellers. We just follow a different format. I guess there’s a part of me, especially in those earlier songs, where I felt like they could use some explaining to make total sense. I guess that’s an indictment of me as a songwriter early on, but I found that I looked forward to making up the stories around the songs as much as I like playing them.
Tell the story behind writing “Rose of Jericho.”
My wife and I bought this plant at the farmer’s market in Marfa a couple of years ago after playing the Viva Big Bend festival the first year they had it. The example plant was green and lush-looking. We bought one for five bucks, and the guy pulled out of the bag a totally dead, balled-up, brown plant. We thought we’d just been taken for our $5, but it turns out that it was the same plant. You just have to put it in water and it’ll turn green. I loved the idea that this plant could be wandering around the desert for decades before touching water, and then when it can get its roots around some water, it can open up and turn green.
Did you write the song that day?
I thought there was a song there, and I tried for about six or eight months to write something around what that plant is. Then I was in Boston writing with one of my favorite songwriters, Lori McKenna, and I told her the story and said, “I’ve been trying to write a song about this plant, and I’m thinking it’s maybe impossible. If anybody can get it, it’d be you.”
She put her cup of coffee down and slid a notepad over. She said, “I think I wrote the first verse to that song as you were on your way over here from the hotel this morning.” That’s the first verse in the song. Then the song worked itself out.
Describe Lori McKenna’s greatest strength as a songwriter.
Oh, man. I have friends that have their different strengths as songwriters. She’s one of those people that can make the most mundane thing sound completely beautiful and poetic, and she does it without even thinking about it. It’s like her second language is English. Her first language is songwriting. I think Walt Wilkins is like that, as well, but I think people like that are few and far between. There are people who, just by being around them, can draw stuff out. She’s tuned into something that the rest of us aren’t.
Explain what drew you to the Walt and Josh Grider song “Here with Me” on the new album.
Yeah, that’s actually the first song I’ve ever recorded that I didn’t write. I was thinking about recording it for my last studio record, Wide Listener, because I was short on songs. I called Josh and said, “Hey, man, I’m thinking about recording that because I need something that’s a little more up-tempo for the record.” He said, “If you need something up-tempo, you really do need something up-tempo. That song is not happy at all.” (laughs) It’s a really sad and lonely song.
Why haven’t you covered anyone else before?
I don’t spend time learning someone else’s song. If I’m gonna spend time with music, I’m gonna try to write something or improve on something that I’ve written. Any cover that I play at the shows has kind of organically seeped its way into my brain. “Well, I know the chords and the words, so I’ll try playing it at soundcheck.” You get through it, and the next night you try playing it at the show and it just becomes a song you can lean on when you’re tired of hearing yourself. That was one of those songs.