Interview: Kevin Welch ~

by Lee Nichols

Despite Kevin Welch's continued residency in the Evil Empire (that being Nashville), fans of real country music have always sensed that he was the exception to the rule -- no matter where he may live, he is a country music maverick, a square peg in the round commercial world.

So Welch's sizable fanclub among the Twangin' readership will be pleased to know that he's gone one step further and finally made a solid break from the establishment -- he's formed his own record label. Welch has joined fellow "alternative country"-types Harry Stinson, Kieran Kane, (formerly of the O'Kanes), Tammy Rogers and Mike Henderson (formerly of Welch's Overtones) to form the cooperatively-run Dead Reckoning label which, according to Welch, has had everything go right since its inception earlier this year.

"January 1 was the downbeat for the label," says Welch, "and as soon as we all said yes collectively, it was just like magic stuff started happening. One of us would say 'Boy, I wish we had a such-and-such,' and right then the phone would ring, and there'd be somebody on there going 'Hey man, I've got one of these such-and-suches that I don't really need, do you guys have any use for it?' It just got to the point where these things were happening so often that it got be almost a running joke. We'd wish for something and the doorbell would ring.

"It's pretty much been like that ever since," Welch continues. "We've been hard at it and it's been going a lot faster than we dreamed it would. Kieran right now has the number one country record in the U.K., and my record's number three on [the Gavin Report's] Americana charts. The Americana chart [aimed at those hard-to-classify rootsy types] is a small and relatively new format, but one I love."

"My record" is Welch's new Life Down Here On Earth, his third album, and the first since leaving the corporate giant Warner Bros./Reprise. Despite his newfound label independence, this new disc doesn't really offer any changes from previous works -- meaning, it's his usual great collection of well-written songs, surrounded by extremely skilled sidemen. As always, Welch takes country onto an intellectual plane, exhibiting a Joe Ely-ish zest for life and Gram Parsons-like high and lonesome. It's an impressive first American release for the fledgling label, and it will probably satisfy Welch's goal, which is to just make a decent living writing and singing songs.

"The initial idea [for Dead Reckoning] came from a trip that Kieran Kane and I made to Norway," says Welch. "I had already played in Norway a couple of times and had a pretty good idea of what was going on over there for people like us. Kieran hadn't been to Norway for a long time, and it was a real eye-opener for him. When you operate in a Top 40 world, in Nashville or anywhere else, if your records don't meet commercial needs right at that moment, you're sort of encouraged to feel like it's not a good record and people don't like it, when in fact there could be any number of industrial aspects that actually slowed the record down.

"He had just been dropped by Atlantic after a short time, and he had a really cool record that they couldn't get happening on country radio. I think he got over there and saw he had fans all over Europe and realized he could just come home and make a simple little record, and, if nothing else, just sell it in Norway. You know, not with the idea of making a lot of dough, but just to kind of keep on making music."

So far, Dead Reckoning is living up to its press-release billing as a "cooperative" label. All five partners played on Life Down Here On Earth, and Welch co-produced it with Stinson [since this interview, they have also teamed up to record Kane's Dead Reckoning and Rogers & Don Heffington's In the Red, both highly recommended]; and lately, the label has been touring with something they call "A Night of Reckoning," a label showcase featuring them all as a complete band -- Henderson plays guitar, Rogers fiddle, Kane mandolin and Stinson on drums, augmented by bassist Glenn Worf. Not many labels can put their entire roster on stage and have them play as a unit.

"People never understand what this is we do until we get down there and set up," Welch says. "It rocks. It's not like a sit-down, singer-songwriter pass-the-guitar-around night at all. It's a show; we feature each other throughout the night."

Welch has been cooperating with some other people lately, as well -- Jimmy Lafave fans will notice a most unusual "co-writing" effort between the two fellow Okies on Lafave's new Buffalo Return to the Plains (on Bohemia Beat). Welch originally wrote a new tune titled "Kicking Back in Amsterdam" for Life Down Here On Earth, which Lafave covers on his own album -- sort of. The first four lines are roughly the same, but then Lafave completely rewrites the rest of the song and much of the music and changes the title to just "Amsterdam." It was an extreme artistic license taken with Welch's blessing.

"Lafave was really liking the song, but he wanted to try to find a different feel for it. I suggested that he customize the lyrics to suit him, because there's talk in the song about coming back home to Tennessee and stuff like that in there that just doesn't apply to him [Lafave lives in Austin]. So I said, look, I'll have my version and you go re-write it and yours will be our Welch/Lafave cowrite." (As for the vacation to the notoriously liberal city that inspired the song, Welch commented, "Man, that town completely rocks.")

Despite Welch's decision to leave the majors behind, his experience with Warner/Reprise was much more pleasant than most artists of his ilk can claim.

"I think I experienced both extremes," he says. "Warner Brothers Nashville is actually a good collection of people, a lot of musicians work there. For better or for worse, I can stand by those records (1990's Kevin Welch and 1992's Western Beat); those are the records I wanted to make. I had no interference." As for promotion, "It was like trying to tighten bolts with a screwdriver. They did the best they could with what they had to work with.

"On the other hand, there were moments of supreme frustration. I was scheduled to go on the Tonight Show one time, and they [Warner Bros.] didn't want me to go on. They said they saw no reason for me to go on, because I had no singles on the country charts at that time. So I wound up paying out of my own pocket, airfares for everybody to go out and do this. We got out there and we're leaving the hotel to go to down to the studio and one of the guys from Warner Bros. Nashville comes walking through the hotel lobby and says, "Oh, what are you guys doing here?" We said, "Well, we're here to do the Tonight Show." There were moments of madness, times when I said well, if these people don't want to help, that's fine, but I don't want them to slow me down.

"But generally speaking, except for those kind of extreme times, there was a lot of support down there, and I left there feeling real good about them. When [Warner president] Jim Ed Norman cut me loose, he was doing me a favor, and he knew that, and I knew that, and he didn't have to do it. They had already picked up an option for a third record. Had I done that third record, he said that they were going to have to 'get involved.' But when he finally called me up he said he felt it would be 'dishonorable' for them to hold me to that. So when I left there, I left feeling pretty proud of what he had done."

Would Welch consider returning to the majors?

"I don't know," he says. "I'm having so much fun right now it's the last thing on my mind."

Copyright 1995 by Lee Nichols

This article previously appeared in slightly different form in The Austin Chronicle.

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