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 released his album, LIGHT COUNTRY, on March 3, 2017 via 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.