Life In Light Country
The Troubadour, His Magical Red Suit and A Tremendous New Album
The first thing you notice is the suit. It takes the center stage of your attention, as its wearer, its keeper, the creator of the album you’re holding in your hands, finds his head partially cut off at the top of the album sleeve.
Artfully accidental or accidentally artful, it forces you to focus on the suit.
There’s no doubt it used to be bright, a flaming red, maybe when it came off the racks three decades or so ago in Nashville or Franklin or Lebanon or Jackson or Pinewood. But now after a hundred million runs through the wash it’s resigned to something closer to a deep pink, like the walls of a shitbag seaside motel in Jacksonville. The suit has miles on it. The suit has stories. The suit knows the Opry.
And when The Kernal first pulled the suit over his slender shoulders he felt the spirit of the Opry, and more importantly, that of history imbue him.
The suit belonged to his father, a quite successful Nashville bassman during what many consider the city’s golden era. It was his Opry suit — as in, the suit he wore when playing on one of the most hallowed stages on Earth — and fit perfectly when The Kernal dug it from the attic of his childhood home a few years following his father’s death.
It was a magic suit. A suit that carried his father’s spirit, his mojo, and once The Kernal took it as his own, the suit was the impetus, the kickstart that began his songwriting career.
In person — as on record — The Kernal is at once an unassuming yet commanding presence. He’s tall with the sturdy build of a small forward and arrow-straight posture and often he speaks out of the side of his mouth, his tone hushed and honey-like as it beckons you closer.
He asks more than he declares and he listens intently when you speak, making him sadly a rarity among artists.
Calling the off-off-off broadway town of Jackson, Tennessee home, The Kernal is close enough to Nashville to dip in and out yet far enough to not be encumbered by the expectations of scene-dom. The breathing room that distance provides stretches its legs as it manifests in his music. He seems to carefully pick and choose which elements of Nashville with which to imbue his music which — when viewed in the scope of his new album LIGHT COUNTRY — begs the question, “Is this even country?” Which of course begets, “What is country?”
It’s a notion that has been simmering for years now and as popular country music falls in step with each passing chart topper to bearing a closer resemblance to Mariah Carey than Merle Haggard.
There has been no singer who challenges the staid foundations of country on a grander scale than mega-star Sturgill Simpson (whom I recently wrote a very personal story about), as he is a constant threat to country’s boundaries. In many ways he is more akin to an R&B artist than he is country and because of that, or perhaps in spite of it, for Sturgill country is a fluid concept.
The Kernal, in many ways, is an artist in the same mold as you hear the DNA of Nilsson, McCartney and Rundgren running through his veins far more readily than you do anything resembling Johnny, Willie or Waylon.
Whereas the newest guard of Music Row megas are plying a recycled trade of dusty old Nashvillian haunts, masquerading as something fresh an unique, The Kernal is, in his own remote way, redefining what country music is, and more importantly can be.
If anything about The Kernal is decidedly Country, however, it’s his subjects here, the citizens of LIGHT COUNTRY. Throughout the album, he spins yarns of the marginal, the white trash, the broken, the downtrodden and he draws us deeper and deeper into a world that is fantastically broken yet somehow hopeful.
The album opens slowly, lilting through a gentle waltz called “Where We’re Standing” that feels like waking up. It’s a new morning in Light Country and you can hear the warm Jackson wind shuffle through the trees outside and the birds on their branches. The song crescendos to a drunken barroom singalong. The song comes crashing back down.
From there we meet the imperfect residents of LIGHT COUNTRY. The sprightly loser whose night out is at “The Old Taco Bell,” the Section 8 drifter in search of his “Knock-Kneed Ballerina” as he tours through the rust-covered American South, the dreamer underneath the “Tennessee Sun” who knows there’s something deeper that exists beyond the county lines.
The album moves fluidly, feeling simultaneously longer and shorter than its eight songs.
“Try Again,” ostensibly the album’s penultimate song (save a closing gospel refrain), builds on a decidedly Nilssonian piano plink that evolves somehow into something that might easily fit on a side of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, while album closer “I Understand” bounces like a tumbleweed across a checkerboard sock hop floor, meeting somewhere at the only-in-a-dream crossroads of Deadwood and Grease’s Rydell High until it downshifts drastically and seems to fall into a bed of its own, proving the perfect bookend to “Where We’re Standing’s” opener.
And just like that the day is through, the sun is down and you crawl beneath the blankets, wondering if tomorrow’s dead end will be as exciting as today’s.
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