When you think Illinois, the first thing that usually appears in people’s minds is “The Windy City” of Chicago. But, there’s a lot more to the Land of Lincoln than simply the third-largest city in the United States. Just ask singer-songwriter Kendell Marvel, who hails from the southeastern portion of the state — where there is nary a skyscraper in sight.
“It’s interesting,” Marvel admitted to Billboard. “When I say Illinois, people think Chicago. I grew up about 30 miles from Paducah, Kentucky — about three hours from Nashville. It’s pretty country up there, very much agricultural-based and a lot of coal mines. It’s a hotspot for country music lovers up there.” And, there was certainly plenty that influenced him — from Waylon and Willie to Southern rock sounds such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band.
All of those sounds come to light in his songwriting, which got a huge boost in the fall of 2000 when Gary Allan released his “Right Where I Need To Be” composition, taking it to No. 5 on the Country Songs chart. “I wrote that the day that I moved to Nashville,” he recalled. “It was a good first day. I remember thinking, if it’s going to be this easy, I’m going to be rich. But, the next one was a little harder to get.” While he had to wait for other cuts, they came, thanks to artists such as Jake Owen (“Don’t Think I Can’t Love You“) and George Strait (“Twang”). Though, when it came for his own musical approach as an artist, he found that a more traditional sound was a natural fit. “With me being a songwriter around here for so many years, I thought it was time to do something a little different. I’ve made a living on Top-40 radio for several years, so I’m glad for that. But, as an artist, I can’t do what a lot of these guys are doing and sell it like they can.”
Marvel proves to be the perfect salesman for his own sound, as reflected by his new critically acclaimed disc, Lowdown & Lonesome. One of the highlights from the album is the pain-drenched “Hurtin’ Gets Hard,” of which he said, “That is probably my favorite — and my wife’s favorite song on the record. It’s very old school sounding. People ask me if I live all my songs, and I tell them [if] I did, I’d be dead or in jail. But, that one is one that I think everyone can relate to. If you’re hurting, for whatever reason, it’s easy to put up a front when you’re out in front of people. It’s when you are at home is when it hits you.”
Thankfully, the lyric is something that the singer isn’t going through — since his marriage is doing just fine, thank you. But, where does a wordsmith go emotionally to write such a track? “I don’t know if it’s where the talent comes into play or not,” he says. “I think that songwriting is like golf. You’ve got to do it a lot to get good at it. When I moved here, I thought I had some songs that were really good, but looking back, they were not that good. I think there’s something that you can tap into. When we wrote that, we were looking for that kind of song. We wanted to write something like ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,’ which was missing on the record. So, we sat down and channeled something like that.”
Three of the cuts from Lowdown & Lonesome are co-written by reigning Country Music Association Awards Male Vocalist of the Year, Chris Stapleton, with whom Marvel has enjoyed a long friendship. “Chris and I go way back,” Marvel says. “We’ve probably written about 60 songs together. We had a lot of cuts together when he was just a songwriter. I’ve got two on his upcoming album. It’s great to see him blow up into the star that he is right now, and even cooler to know that he’s still the same guy he always was.”
But Marvel knew early on just how special his collaborator’s talent was. “I always called him a freak,” Marvel says. “He’s a freak of nature with his voice and his writing ability. He was really young when he moved here. I heard some songs he wrote when he was a teenager, and I thought he had to be at least 50. He’s just a natural talent.”
In addition to his records, Kendell Marvel is developing quite the reputation around Music City for his live performances, which can be seen each month at the Exit/In. They have become can’t-miss musical moments, as one never knows who might show up. “We have this thing we do called The Kendell Marvel Honky Tonk Experience, and we wanted to draw attention to this record, and have people look at me as something more than a songwriter,” he says. “Keith Gattis, my producer, and Waylon Payne used to do something like this out in Los Angeles, where they would just have people come out and sit in. I would play most of the record every night, sing a few cover songs, and have some of my friends come out and sing their favorite cover songs. Nobody has ever done their own songs. They do some of somebody else’s. We’ve had a wide range of people come out — Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Brothers Osborne and Jake Owen, as well as some of the Foo Fighters and The Black Crowes on the last one we did. It was pretty amazing, some of the people we have coming out.”
Needless to say, between the monthly gig and the new album, the name of Kendell Marvel is being spoken on plenty of lips — and that’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “That was the plan,” he says. “It could have gone either way. It could have gone really good or really bad, so I’m definitely pleased with how it came out.”