When Kendell Marvel moved to Nashville in 1998, his intention was to be an artist. “99% of songwriters want to be singers,” he tells Billboard.
However, on his first day in Music City, Marvel wrote what would become a top 5 hit for Gary Allan on Billboard‘s Country Songs chart, “Right Where I Need to Be,” and it was fast apparent that he indeed possessed the writing chops to be hit songwriter. He earned hits for George Strait (“Twang”) and Jake Owen (“Don’t Think I Can’t Love You”) and singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton became a steady collaborator. A father to young kids at the time, Marvel wrote off his artist ambitions.
“I was done with trying to be an artist,” Marvel tells Billboard. “I got to stay home and raise my kids, watch them play sports, all the things that if I had been an artist, I wouldn’t get to do as much.”
Illinois native Kendell grew up soaking in the ‘70s country sounds of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings alongside the hard-hitting Southern rock of The Allman Brothers Band, and those influences bled into the style of songs he wanted to craft.
But as country music tred deeper into the hip-hop and pop-infused “bro country” in the 2010s, Marvel says, “As a staff songwriter, your job is to get songs on the radio and make money for everybody. Personally, I just couldn’t write those songs and walk into the [acclaimed songwriter watering hole] Bluebird Café and play them for people.”
Then, in 2015, Marvel watched as his friend and collaborator Stapleton performed on the CMA Awards, singing the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove-penned classic “Tennessee Whiskey” alongside Justin Timberlake, followed by Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”—and saw Stapleton ascend from an ace songwriter with a gold-dusted voice largely lauded only in Nashville’s industry circles, to an arena-level touring artist.
“I told my wife that night, ‘I’m gonna go make a record.’ I called [producer] Keith Gattis the next day, and we cut a record a few months later.”
That record was Marvel’s 2017 debut Lowdown & Lonesome, which was followed by the Dan Auerbach-produced Solid Gold Sounds in 2019. Aligned with Red Light Management and with Concord Music Publishing, Marvel will issue his third studio album, Come On Sunshine, on Friday (Sept. 23).
In June 2021, Marvel decamped to Dallas to record at Modern Electric Sound Recorders (MESR), a studio with origins dating back to the 1960s. Producer Beau Bedford and engineer/guitarist/MESR owner Jeffrey Saenz helped craft the 10-song album, expanding upon Marvel’s previous rough-hewn, tell-it-like-it-is brand of 1970s country-tinged music. Marvel also worked with an eclectic group of writing collaborators including Stapleton, Devon Gilfillian, Waylon Payne, Dee White, Kolby Cooper and Auerbach.
For Kendell, the studio’s historic and artistic vibe, mix of vintage and cutting-edge gear, and walls filled with vintage posters and vibrant art (“A lot of studios are so hospital-like, white walls,” Marvel says), enhanced the recording process, as did the fact that the musicians at Electric Studios were also road-tested musicians.
Bedford also contributed acoustic guitar to the record. According to Marvel, the only acoustic guitar used on the record was a L-OO Gibson, which Marvel was told belonged to Tom Petty: “Supposedly, it’s the guitar they played ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ on and it sounded so good that I went out after and found a vintage L-OO and bought one.”
However, a tragedy that occurred after the first day of recording nearly derailed the entire project. After the sessions, Saenz went home and suffered a serious electrical accident.
“He got caught up in an electrical wire that had fallen from a telephone pole in his yard. It electrocuted him, and they had to take both of his arms. This was the last record that he turned knobs on with his actual hands,” Marvel recalls. “He’s recovered and back to work. He rode motorcycles and was a great guitar player, too. They got him the prosthetics he needed to be able to go back to work. He’s one tough son of a bi—h, is all I can say.”
The morning after the accident, Marvel gathered with the rest of the album’s musicians and recording team.
“Everyone is really close with him. It was like, ‘Do we need to go home? Should we reschedule?'” he recalls. “But they played, and it changed everything about the way they played. There was even more passion, like it was something they just needed to get out. I think that made the record magical.”
The album launches with a double-shot of defiance in the songs “Don’t Tell Me How to Drink” and “Keep Doing Your Thing.” The former, which Marvel wrote with Stapleton, also features Stapleton’s burly vocals. He also reaches deep into his song catalog for “Never Lovin’ You,” another Stapleton co-write, which was created over a decade ago and previously recorded on Blake Shelton’s 2008 album Startin’ Fires.
In the video “Don’t Tell Me How to Drink,” helmed by Jace Kartye, and filmed in one take at Fran’s East Side bar in Nashville, Marvel is saddled up to the bar’s edge, singing directly into the camera as he downs libation after libation. Though the finished product features a lightning-fast footage, it took slowing the song considerably to get the effect.
“We filmed that at 9 in the morning and Jace slowed everything down to where it took like 14 minutes for me to sing the song,” Marvel says. “So that was kind of difficult to do, and the obviously there was a lot of drinking filmed for the video. People ask me what I was drinking, but I just leave that up to them,” estimating that he downed about two gallons of liquid during the shoot.
Another standout on the album is “Fool Like Me,” written with Payne. “I’m proud of the whole album, but that song and the way we tracked it was great,” he raves. “Beau had a Wurlitzer there and he plays all the acoustic parts. I said, ‘Let’s go through it on a Wurly and see what it sounds like.’ So we didn’t end up putting any acoustics on it and it just sounded so good, like an old Willie Nelson song.”
Currently, Marvel is balancing releasing his own music and touring (he’s currently out on his Don’t Tell Me How to Drink Tour) with his continued success as a songwriter (his co-written songs have contributed to Grammy wins for Stapleton and Brothers Osborne in recent years). Since 2017, he’s also spearheaded his monthly Honky Tonk Experience at celebrated Nashville rock club Exit/In, which turned 50 years old last year. The freewheeling shows have featured Stapleton, Alison Krauss, Ashley McBryde and Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett.
Marvel says it’s the unpretentious, off-the-clock atmosphere that keeps artists coming back: “They are so used to having to go out and do their own songs — so for many of them, it’s chance to come out and do a Haggard song or a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. That’s why we call it the ‘experience’ — it’s rock, it’s bone-a— country, whatever it is — and people have really supported it.”
Marvel previously opened shows on Stapleton’s All-American Road Show tour, and says he’s hopeful to rejoin Stapleton on tour again soon.
“I always hope so. I mean, that’s the tour everybody wants, and they have been so super supportive of me and other artists. It’s like a big family out there. I will drop anything I’m doing at any time to go on the road with them, because they are just salt of the earth people.”