|Featured Altco Recordings artist - Kern Richards|
“I did one-night stands in old motels; I did overnights for vagrancy; a trespasser on common ground; an exile searching for a vacancy.
“From L.A. streets to Illinois roads he was leaving constantly to find the road his heart could feel but his eyes just couldn’t see. He left a trail of notes behind, they all said ten more miles and you’ll be fine. Man, you can leave your past behind, just ten more miles and you’ll be fine.” – verses from Kern Richards’ song, “10 More Miles,” re-released in February by 2014 by the folks at ALTCO Recordings.
Ten more miles and you’ll be fine, you can’t leave your past behind. Those two thoughts set the tone for the music of Kern Richards and for many of our lives. It’s not just a concept for a song. It’s how we live and how we have to live, how humanity as a whole must think and act in order to keep wading through the decades. It’s just…the truth.
And truth makes the music that lasts, that echoes through the ages, and finding that vein of brutal reality is the lynchpin of real art in whatever form it may take. It rings especially true in America where the ethos of the road forms so much of our cultural fabric. That’s why Richards’ music hits especially hard for those who call the road home, be they truckers, bikers, musicians and those of us who don’t seem able to just settle in one space and call it home.
Under The Piano To Those West Coast Highways
Richards grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., in Orange County right up against Long Beach. Like so many of us who love Americana/Muddy Roots music, his childhood was a protracted period of varied musical influences. His early listening was sandwiched between sitting under a piano while his concert-level pianist mother played classical music and hearing Johnny Cash on the radio controlled by his father.
“Dad grew up in a town called Camp Six in Wyoming in the oil fields,” recalls Richards. “The oil companies would plant a town where they had wells but it was all wood frame houses they could put up and tear down quickly. He grew up listening to Hank Williams, Sr.
“I guess that’s how I developed, going back and forth between hearing classic country on the radio and listening to my mom practice. She was a highly talented pianist on track to go to Juilliard but stopped to have a family. I was drawn to her music. I would sit under the piano and ask her to play songs and I think that put music into my subconscious. My parents also had a collection of folk music albums that I’d play the hell out of, like The Clancy Brothers. I still have a lot of their stuff and I’m an amalgamation of all those kinds of music: classical, country and folk.”
He played his first show at a local old folks home with his brother and sister when he was nine years old, his pay a Coke bought for he and his siblings by the nuns who ran the place and it just grew from there. “I started playing in about 1980 with a hardcore Orange County punk band, Pig Children, and did that for several years,” says Richards. “I didn’t have a lot of creative input into that band and, when I left, I spent a few years processing what I was actually going to do and then I started playing at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, one of the regular stops for country players on the West Coast and just started branching out from there. I started writing shortly after that.”
From Doing It On His Own To Hearing What Others Had To Say
Richards released his most recent album, ‘Anywhere But Home,’ about two years ago and then ALTCO Recordings, an offshoot of Rusty Knuckles founded by Stevie Tombstone, re-released the album in February, 2014. That re-release was more than rehashing older material, it was the first time in his career that Richards relinquished some control over his songs and learned how to accept feedback from his producer and other musicians. “The new direction was getting other people involved,” says Richards. “For a long time, I didn’t have anybody else in on the process, so to have someone tell me to change things here and there, it wasn’t easy. For a long time I didn’t do well with other people and wasn’t very easy to work with. Finally, I realized I needed to have more people involved and, though I maintained most of the control, I had to learn to let go and listen to feedback. I ended up with 95 percent of what I wanted but a certain amount needed to change if I was going to play well with others.
“Before that, it was a completely closed circle and I spent about two months with them getting in my ear and they presented me with the bad news that I wasn’t playing in time and it really pissed me off. I wanted to punch somebody and couldn’t figure out who to punch. I was sure they were wrong and I listened to it over and over and over.
“It kept bugging me: why would three different guys all tell me I’m not playing in time? Then, one day, it clicked,” says Richards. “I had been sleeping with a metronome under my pillow to get a sense of solid timing. I kept listening and listening and then, one day, I realized I’m not playing in time. I’m playing all over the fucking place. And then my playing got a lot better, including my ability to hear and play with other people. I was doing something so singular that if I was playing solo and needed to speed up I would just speed up for effect or to get a point across.
“I realized I could still do that playing solo but I had to tighten the reins and, eventually, I went in and re-recorded my guitar tracks,” he says, looking back and realizing he surrendered to that process and chose those specific people to give him a hard time for a reason. “I deliberately chose all people who were better than me in hopes that I would get better and it’s made me work a lot harder.” Still, his inner musician was there from the start. “You can fix the technical stuff, you can’t fix boring,” he says, rightly so.
As far as classifying his music, Richards defaults to calling it Americana, “which is kinda tough because all genres end up getting consumed within that. I always thought of it as folk music but Stevie [Tombstone] calls it country. It really is a mix of everything I’ve listened to: classical, folk, country and blues. I was telling somebody not too long ago that I do folk music and they asked if I know anything by Peter, Paul and Mary, but that’s not what I do. Nowadays, everything is so fractured it’s hard to come up with a definition of what I do so I kinda like to default to Americana but I got punk in what I do,” says Richards, who has stayed true to his inner voices (and demons), and garnered a loyal following for that reason. “People that listen to me seem to hang on, I see them again and again. People that come in and don’t listen, I don’t have that much luck with those people,” says Richards. “I’ve had a lot of support building slowly. Like I said, the people that take the time to listen seem to stay interested and I appreciate the hell out of that.”
Next Step: More Collaboration & The Road
Those pivotal steps in his musical evolution completed, Richards now plans to play around the country as much as possible and to start working on new material, including possibly collaborating with Tombstone. “I don’t cover a lot of people but I cover ‘Kevlar Heart’ and started that before I knew who Stevie was and somehow got a copy of his album, ‘7:30 A.M.’ I had, maybe five years ago, went to Stevie’s show and had gotten a copy of a demo from Tex of Tex and the Horse Heads. It had become one of my favorite albums to listen to and I started talking to Stevie about it and it turned out he had produced the album.
“We didn’t see each other for a while after that, then he came out and did a California tour and I set up one of his shows, then didn’t hear from him again for several months. He hits me up in November of 2013 and says, ‘Hey, I got this new record company I’m putting together and I want you on it.’ So, after all the bashing my head against the wall, this turned out to be really easy. It just came about because he liked what he heard at the show and I guess he was scouting out people for his new label, so pretty much he called and that was it.”
As far as touring, Richards is working on a bottom-to-top West Coast tour from L.A. to Canada. “I’m not stopping, I’m not going to quit. I’m not worried about filling a space. It’s just something I do and have always done.” And here’s hoping he keeps on doing just that for a long time to come.
|Kern Richards featured on MoonRunners|