When singer-songwriter Kendell Marvel went into the studio with Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson to start recording tracks for his second album, the producers offered him a key piece of advice: sing softer. The Illinois native, known to many as the songwriter behind cuts by Chris Stapleton and Gary Allan, had gotten used to playing rowdy live shows like his recurring Honky Tonk Experience, and having to practically shout to command the crowds. In the studio, however, singing at high volume was a limitation.
“That’s the way I used to sing when I was young,” says Marvel, his tall frame wedged into one end of a small couch next to Ferguson in the cozy control room at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville. “When I was a kid playing solo gigs, Randy Travis had just come out — that was really a baritone, singing way easy.”
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“When you’re onstage and you’re trying to project, you can get into the habit of, not over-singing, but you sing harder,” says Auerbach, seated on a stool behind the mixing console. “When you’re in the studio, you don’t want to do that. Sometimes the softer you sing, the louder you can get your voice to be.”
Marvel’s new album, Solid Gold Sounds, is out today and lives up to its name by capturing the richness of Marvel’s voice in surroundings that wouldn’t be out of place on a classic country record. But the bulk of these songs, save for one notable exception, were all freshly written and then recorded by Auerbach’s go-to players, including veteran studio aces Gene “Bubba” Chrisman and Bobby Wood. It’s a pretty far cry from the amped-up Hank Jr. tendencies of Marvel’s 2017 debut Lowdown & Lonesome, and nods to the velvety soulfulness of Charlie Rich in places and the quiet menace of Waylon Jennings in others.
“When I think ‘solid gold country,’ I think ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,'” says Marvel. “And who played on ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues?’ Who played on Charlie Rich’s stuff?”
“Bobby and Bubba,” answers Auerbach. “The guys down at Chips Moman’s.”
Auerbach and Marvel were introduced through Ferguson, who’d been approached by Marvel’s manager, Clay Bradley.
“When they came to me, Clay was talking about cutting a bunch of demos at first,” says Ferguson.
“And Fergie says, ‘I don’t cut demos,'” interjects Auerbach, laughing.
“I don’t do demos no more!” echoes Ferguson. “And I really don’t do anything without running it by Dan anymore either. I don’t take a shit without his say-so.”
Auerbach oversaw writing sessions for Solid Gold Sounds (they derived the title from a line in the song “Cadillac’N”), booking Marvel for appointments and then usually surprising him with a third co-writer. Some of them, like Pat McLaughlin and Al Anderson, he already knew from writing circles in town. Others, like Bobby Wood and the country vocalist John Anderson, were new collaborators for Marvel. With Wood, Marvel and Auerbach wrote “Let It Go,” which in finished form mines Don Williams’ gentle touch and a jangling arrangement of guitars and steel for its message of purging a final bit of heartbreak from one’s system.
With the beloved country crooner Anderson, they wrote the ominous “Hard Time With the Truth,” which finds Marvel tapping into his restless side — always leaving, always on the run — amid a blast of gospel harmonies and fiery electric guitar. He’s in a similar headspace on “Blood in the Water,” rising from low, chant-like verses to funky, strutting choruses as he sings about a woman who senses his weakness and is “about to come in for the kill.” It’s all fiction, of course, but it sounds great and fits nicely with Marvel’s outlaw persona.
“I’ve always said if I lived the songs I wrote — if any of us did — I’d be in prison, dead, or married multiple times,” says Marvel. “Which, none of the above have happened yet.”
“Blood in the Water” gets an extra boost from the thrilling guitar work of John Osborne from the duo Brothers Osborne, with whom Marvel has written several songs including “Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive).”
“John’s just a great guitar player,” says Auerbach. “Whenever we need a B-bender I like to call John. And he’s always game.”
“He’ll come up and say, can I play your Honky Tonk show?” says Marvel. “I’ll say, ‘You want to play a song?’ And he’ll say, ‘I want to play all night.’ He just stands in the back with his guitar. He just loves to play.”
Not everything on Solid Gold Sounds fell right into Marvel’s comfort zone. They wrote several songs that didn’t make the final cut, opting instead for more left-field choices like the album closer “Roots of My Raisin’.” Marvel learned to trust Auerbach and Ferguson’s production instincts for bringing out his best and selecting the best songs.
“If I could produce my own records, I’d be producing my own records,” says Marvel.
“That’ll be the end,” says Ferguson, interrupting. Auerbach cracks up with laughter.
“That’s what I’m saying,” replies Marvel. “You gotta let experienced people do their gig.”
“When you’re ready to be done, go on and start producing your own shit, son,” says Ferguson, letting out a raspy laugh. “That’s what happens to everybody.”
The album’s lone cover, a lush, almost-orchestral reading of the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” seems like an odd choice for Marvel, and he admits he wasn’t initially familiar with the song.
“Dan suckered me into that,” he says. “He played me a blues version of it. He knew what he was doing. Who was the guy?”
“Swamp Dogg,” replies Auerbach.
“The melody of it was infectious, just a cool melody,” Marvel continues. “And after it was done, he was like, ‘That’s a Bee Gees song.’ I guess he was afraid he was gonna scare me off.”
“Gotcha, bitch!” says Auerbach, laughing.
For Marvel, recording Solid Gold Sounds was an invigorating experience, despite the fact that they tracked it all at a breakneck pace over three days. Seeing the Easy Eye players bring the songs to life and having fun in the process, fired him up again about creating music.
“I [usually] don’t want to stand on concrete in damn boots all day long, for 12 hours a day,” says Marvel. “My wife was like, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ I’d leave at 8 o’clock in the morning and get home at 9 o’clock at night and I’d be in a good mood. She was like, ‘Are there women at the studio? What’s going on with you?'”
“Every time we’re here, we have a whole room full of people I consider geniuses, all trying to come up with something fresh that they haven’t done before,” says Auerbach. “Nobody’s trying to pull out stock licks.”
That’s a good summation of Solid Gold Sounds, a clear descendant of the Waylon Jennings and Charlie Rich albums loved by Marvel, and one that is able to stand on its own in the
It also aligns Marvel with contemporary singer-songwriters like Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers who make complete, cinematic albums, but who have had to largely forego mainstream radio airplay of their music.
“I’ve never heard a Tyler Childers song on the radio,” says Marvel. “The only way I’ve heard it is I bought the record, downloaded it, and listened to it. The proof’s in the pudding. [There are] these guys who have Number One hits and they can’t sell out [small Nashville venue] Douglas Corner.
“There you go,” says Auerbach. “That’s a big thing: reality versus Instagram. People still really appreciate a great record.”
“Back when I was a kid learning music, people made albums,” continues Marvel. “Sure, there was some one-hit wonders come through, but the stuff I listened to — the Hank Jrs, the Charlie Riches, Willie and Waylon — they made albums. Every song on it served a purpose. I didn’t skip anything. You drop the needle, you could go burn one down and drink a little whiskey and you’d never pick the needle up until it’s the end of the record and you turn it over. That’s the kind of record I want to make.”
Without missing a beat, Ferguson chimes in.
“Well, you’ve done it.”
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