Known almost as much for his hits performed by Gary Allen, George Strait, Jamey Johnson and Brothers Obsorne as songs performed under his own name, Kendell Marvel has forged a reputation over the past 20 years as one of the most talented and revered songwriters in all of Nashville. He looks to continue that legacy with the release of his third full-length album Come On Sunshine out Sept. 23 via CmdShft.
Now 51, Marvel is a lifelong musician who began performing barroom gigs in his native Southern Illinois when he was only 10. The ample time to hone his craft has yielded a voice and songwriting perspective that sticks out like a sore thumb in Nashville's deluge of tunes about tailgates and beer, so much so that the artist began making his own work as a performer a top priority with the 2018 release of Lowdown & Lonesome.
"That's when I started making my own records, because there was no way I was doing that," Marvel tells Wide Open Country. "I could've probably made a lot of money doing it, but at this point in my life I don't want to write those songs and have to look myself in the mirror everyday."
For the third installment in his own catalog Marvel enlisted the impeccable Beau Bedford, bandleader for The Texas Gentlemen, to produce the record deep down in the Lone Sstar State. The two had previously met during one of Marvel's "Honky Tonk Experience" residency shows at Nashville's iconic EXIT/IN and re-connected after he discovered Leah Blevins' 2021 album First Time Feeling was also produced by Bedford.
"When I found out Beau had produced Leah's record I said that's who we need to call to work on ours," says Marvel. "I loved the sound, the mix, everything about that album was so different from anything else coming out of Nashville at the time. It turned out we were both fans of each other's work so we hit it off immediately and got to work."
The two convened at Modern Electric Sound Records in Dallas over five days in June 2021 with a group of session players assembled entirely by Bedford upon request from Marvel, who wanted to capture a similar sound to that of Blevins' project.
"Nashville has the best musicians in the world, but they play on everything," says Marvel. "These guys in Texas are so tasteful and wanted to do something unique. Beau reminds me a lot of Dan Auerbach with his vibe in the studio along with the sounds and tones he works with."
The lack of familiarity wasn't an issue for Marvel in the studio, as he thoroughly enjoys working with people he shares different life experiences with. That sentiment also overlaps into his songwriting as well. Nine of the ten songs on Come On Sunshine are co-writes and include everyone from longtime friend Chris Stapleton to Waylon Payne, Devon Gilfillian, Dee White, Dan Auerbach and Al Anderson, Dean Alexander, Kolby Cooper and Josh Morningstar.
"It's not that I don't think I can write anything good with people like myself, because I have, but I think you have the chance to write something great when you work with people who look and come from different backgrounds than yourself," says Marvel. "We are able to build off and learn from one another's experiences to create something extraordinary that we never would've accomplished on our own."
"The world, and this record, are full of change. If you only work with people who think and look like you then that's all you'll ever know, and that's the last thing I want."
Marvel's collaborations take many country tropes and turn them on their head in ways mainstream Nashville would never think to do. Take Come On Sunshine's lead track "Don't Tell Me How To Drink" is a prime example. The rollicking co-write with Chris Stapleton sees Marvel singing to partygoers far less experienced than he about not preaching to him about how to put back a beer because he can drink them under the table any night of the week.
However, its fierceness pales in comparison to "Put It In The Plate," a co-write with Dee White inspired in part by HBO's hit comedy The Righteous Gemstones and the commonplace hypocrisy of mega church sermons and the actions of their leaders behind closed doors.
One country trope that plays out somewhat conventionally on the album are stories of everlasting love and love lost with "Never Lovin' You" and "Fool Like Me," the first being another Stapleton co-write from the 2000's that Blake Shelton recorded on his 2008 album Startin' Fires about things that change and things that don't throughout a decades long marriage.
"Most of the time love songs are really cheesy and sappy," says Marvel. "I wanted to come up with a cool way to tell the woman you love that even though you're growing older, look different and can't do all the same things together that you used to, that one thing that will never change is the love I have for you."
On the flip side, Marvel partnered with Waylon Payne to write "Fool Like Me," a story about mistakes that caused a past love to leave you for someone who would treat her right.
"You let her get away and now it's too late to win her back," says Marvel. "It's about the regrets you can't take back that caused her to run off and find a man better than you to hold onto."
Whether through the dark of an ended relationship or a worldwide pandemic, the album's title track "Come On Sunshine" aims to lift people up from the issues that ail them. It was the latter for this tune, which Marvel co-wrote over Zoom with Devon Gilfillian during the summer of 2020 when shows were being canceled and livelihoods threatened and re-evaluated.
"It's a calling card to help urge the sun to shine a light of hope on the world to help us get out of this crap," says Marvel. "We made it the title track for that very reason, to help inspire people to pick themselves up out of the difficult times and circumstances they may find themselves in."
Now over 40 years into his musical journey, over half of which has come in Nashville, Marvel hopes that Come On Sunshine gives listeners a further glimpse into Marvel's own life with a new lesson or two for themselves to pick up along the way.
"I just want people to get a better idea of who I am as a person," says Marvel. "Some songs are about my life and others, like 'Put It In The Plate' are about the way I see things. I'm tired of crooks. I want good people to rise to the top. I'm tired of seeing bad people win. I want this record to bring them a little sunshine in their lives and help find what it is that makes them happy."
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