By Mark A. Leon
The essence of music is found in the soul of the songwriter. The ability to harness emotion, derive an engaging composition and share that vulnerability to an audience is the true spirit of lyrical and musical poetry. Artists enter into this world for various reasons; fame, fortune, girls, boys, but a rare few are born with a spirit to sore beyond the material images behind musicians and expose us to the human side of existence where life, music, art and emotion come together as one. A little band from Aiken possess just those rare traits, Kenny George Band.
I had an opportunity to sit with lead singer Kenny George last weekend, ahead of their appearance at The Royal American on April 29th, and what he shared reinforced my own personal passion for music.
Now 31, Kenny began playing his first instrument at age 8. Taking up the violin, because it was one of only two instrument taught in his small Southern school. Now, 24 years later, Kenny and his band are playing 180 shows a year, about to release a new album and on the cusp of a breakout.
Along with Kenny, Bucky Brown, Center Ely, Brooks Andrews and Scott Rankin comprise this Southern rock and acoustic band who has been winning audiences over for years and we are excited to join the fan base and fortunate enough to learn more about Kenny and the band.
Inspired by the Americana sound and Southern California music scene, Kenny has been influenced by some of the greatest artists of our generation including Whiskeytown, Wilco, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne and The Eagles. This fusion of influences coupled by a band who combines acoustic and rock, makes for a symphony of music and lyrics that derive a memorable live music experience.
In my research, I found the tune “Hard to Think About”, a moving song of heartbreak with a message of hope. I asked Kenny about this tune. “It is written about an ex that I had back home in Aiken. I wrote it very hung over on my couch after we broke up. It is one of those ones that came out easily and quickly. We have been working to bring it back into the shows. The steel part is so pretty.”
This started to paint a picture of my head. Often-times, we romanticize a song expecting a grand fantasy of a story to compliment the lyrics, but when we learn the story behind the song, we soon realize, musicians are human like each of us, but they use music as their outlet. It was this realism that shows the raw courage of this band.
When we sat down and got comfortable, Kenny got candid and here is a little of our conversation:
CD: “How do you mentally prepare for such a physically rigorous tour schedule each year given that you have done over 240 shows in the last two years.”
KG: “In honesty, we fell into it. I don’t think too much about it. We try to buckle down. The more we get to know the venues, the easier it gets. We want to make sure we are well rehearsed. It soon becomes second nature. The hard part is missing home. It can be emotionally exhausting. Sometimes, when you finally get a weekend off you don’t know what to do because you are so accustomed to performing every night.”
CD: “What will fans expect from the new album ‘Borrowed Trouble’ that they may not have heard in Gunshy?”
KG: “There are a lot of changes to the new album. This record is more like a rock record with a country sound to it (instrumentation). Gunshy was written over a period of 5 or 6 years. These songs, I wrote all together. It is a road record with love songs written into it. Gunshy was more acoustic based.
We also worked with Shawn Gess (producer) to make a more-beefy sounding record. We wanted a more united and cohesive sound. Tried more rhythm to create a more live sound.
We use Studio DigitalHalo in Aiken. I’ve been working with Shawn almost 15 years. We are so well connected at this point. Shawn worked on my very first single. The current band members have been together for almost 10 years now. The band glues together well on stage now and they have a strong tight sound.”
CD: “Do you feel the Southeast is enough to draw inspiration or is there more of the world you need to see to harness your sound?”
KG: “I think where we live in the Southeast you could live for 80 years and be able to write something new, even live here forever and be inspired. Though, I really want to grow the band and its market and range and experiences. I haven’t done a lot of major traveling outside of the band. We have gone to St Louis and Jersey and seen a lot of cool stuff, but I would like to get out more and grow the fan base. This last album is influenced heavily by the road and our experiences over the last few years.”
CD: “Much like the iconic Bruce Springsteen, you are using your live performances to connect with your fans. What do you want your fans to take away from your shows?”
KG: “Running on Empty album was a huge influence. I probably have 3 copies next to me. That entire album is about life and how the road treats you. I want everyone to have a really good time listening to something they can connect to. I am bad at talking about this stuff. I want to make an emotional connection through the lyrics, tone and performance. I want them to feel better after a live show. When you talk to them and get to know them from town to town, you hear personal stories. Little things like that mean a lot to me.
We got an email last week from a girl and her boyfriend who saw us five years ago when they first developed feelings for each other. and now five years later, they are coming again and wanted a signed copy of the album. Personal stories like that are so important to us.”
CD: “Tell me about the roots of the band. How did you all come to be?”
KG: “My father was a really talented dude. One of his buddies played music. When I started playing electric guitar, his buddy asked if they could sit in during the practice space. That was the first time with Bucky Brown (drummer). I sat in on a couple of shows. It was sweet they let me watch. They did covers and had fun with me being the 16-year old kid on stage. That was 17 years ago. I started a few high school and college bands with different folks. When I moved home at 22, I knew I wanted to do my own project, so I called Bucky. He brought in a petal steel guitar player. Center Ely. We also brought in a bass player named Charles, but we couldn’t buckle down on a bass player. In fact, went through 6 or 7 bass players for the first 3 or 4 years.
I found my drummer, while buying drum heads at a shop in Augusta. Brooks Andrews was the little brother of the cashier at the music store. We got introduced and the rest is history. Now, he is the best guitar player in the band.
Scott came in a year and a half later. He called me to fill in for his band. We had met, but never played together. It seemed seamless when we played this 4-hour gig. We just clicked.
We started doing acoustic shows together and then added Scott permanently to the band. Scott brought in a full sound on vocals and extra meat on rhythm guitar.
I love acoustic, so getting into electric was a big transition for me.
We all had various experiences on the road so had a lot to share as we came together.
Scott brought the business side together. He has brought a lot out of us.”
As the interview started to wind down, we got into a discussion about the upcoming tour.
“I am excited about the entire tour coming up.” Kenny exclaimed. They are opening with a big alley show in their hometown of Aiken, supported by the mayor who is also a bass player. As Kenny put it, “we want to put on a big show for the hometown fans.” What a way to motivate a big tour on the road.
“Royal American show will be amazing. We have played there twice and excited to get back there. It was a blast with a great crowd.”
“For the first leg, we wanted to pick places we knew we would get the crowd we wanted. We want to create an atmosphere. We have rehearsals in the next few weeks to make sure we are tight. I have new songs I am working on we will perform.”
On April 29th, you can catch the Kenny George Band bring rock, Americana and a steel guitar to the stage as they belt out new tunes and old favorites.