Kendell Marvel spent plenty of time helping other artists find their sound. For nearly 20 years in Nashville, Marvel paved his own way as a songwriter and landed cuts with artists like George Strait, Jake Owen and buddy Chris Stapleton (including Stapleton's phenomenal tune "Either Way").
But on his debut album Lowdown & Lonesome, Marvel finally gets the chance to call the shots. In an earlier interview with Wide Open Country, Marvel talked about moving to Nashville to be an artist, only to realize how political that road can be.
But with the advent of streaming music, Marvel sees a huge opportunity for his own artistry. "Mainstream radio doesn't matter as much," he told The Tennessean. "The cream is rising to the top. You don't have to be having hit singles to reach people."
He again echoed that sentiment to Wide Open Country. "I decided to make [Lowdown & Lonesome] once credible music started coming out again," Marvel says. "Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Cody Jinks. Those kind of guys started getting traction. I'm way too old and way too bald for mainstream radio."
It's a good point. But it's also setting up pretty big expectations for his long-awaited debut. So how does it hold up?
Heartache Off His Back
Marvel recently performed some songs off the record for an industry event on the top floor of a slick downtown Nashville office building. The high-rise views and top-of-the-line performance rig felt undeniably at odds with Marvel's natural honky tonk vibe.
But as soon as the band of more than half a dozen kicked in, the music transported the crowd to one of those dingy, beer-soaked dives Marvel frequented in his first two decades in town, which really is the mark of a well-executed aesthetic.
On the album's third track, Marvel sings, "I think it's time to get this old heartache off my back." It's a reference to a scorned lover, but it could just as easily apply to Marvel's artist career. And when you see Marvel and company cut loose, even hundreds of feet high, you understand why nobody but Marvel could really do these tunes justice.
That's not to say others haven't tried -- album opener and namesake "Lowdown & Lonesome" appeared on a 2010 Randy Houser album (they co-wrote the tune). But when Marvel opens his mouth and that guttural country gentleman vocal rolls out, the songs just make so much more sense. And hey, Houser still makes an appearance with guest vocals (along with Jamey Johnson).
But hearing Kendell Marvel sing these songs is like the difference between watching a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman and a movie narrated by Chris Rock.
Country Ballads With The Best Of 'Em
Though Lowdown & Lonesome does just fine with the raucous rock n' roll undertones, the real strength of the record lies in its ballads.
"Hurtin' Gets Hard" is a gorgeous country waltz, providing a welcome change of tempo and sway two-thirds through the record. "That Seat's Saved" kind of feels like the spiritual sister to George Strait's classic song "The Chair."
But "Watch Your Heart" makes a strong case for the best song on the record. Accentuated by lonesome harmonica and dobro, Marvel marries a bulletproof melody (that could easily work in the pop world) with cautionary lyrics and music that swells to an all-out jam session by the end. Producer Keith Gattis cuts the band loose on a few moments, and this one really pays off.
The Honky Tonk Experience
Kendell Marvel spent 2017 hosting a residency at the famous rock club Exit/In called "Kendell Marvel's Honky Tonk Experience." The show often featured tons of special guests, from Houser, to Cody Jinks, Brothers Osborne and newcomer Ashley McBryde.
Though Lowdown & Lonesome doesn't feature as many of Marvel's friends, it's every bit the "honky tonk experience" he advertises. Whereas Chris Stapleton finds his sweet spot in combining rock n' roll with blues and country, Marvel channels more of the traditional honky tonk hat acts. The result is close enough to his buddy to call them cousins, but different enough to note the distinction.
However you want to segment it, just give it a chance. Especially if you're the kind who may lament the lack of well written, well produced traditionally-tinged country music. You may not find him on your radio dial, but once you do find him, you'll soon find him on repeat.