Kendell Marvel has grand plans that could make him the next big thing in country music before the year is over.
The inconspicuous opening salvo was lopped in February from the Exit/In, an iconic little venue in Nashville. Backed by a hand-picked band of top-shelf musicians, he debuted Kendell Marvel's Honky-tonk Experience in front of 150 fans, who had no idea that Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Alison Krauss would be making special guest appearances.
Last month, the crowd increased to 270 to see Marvel plow through a night full of original songs and Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings covers, plus tunes by surprise vocalists Jon Pardi and Brother Osborne.
“I never know for sure who is going to show up until the day of the show, because the scheduling down here is so chaotic,” he says. “I'm trying to build a little fan base. I'll play some new songs, tunes I've written through the years for other people and the great outlaw stuff that never gets old.”
Marvel's next Exit/In performance is scheduled for April 25.
The 46-year-old Thompsonville native has kept his finger on the pulse of country music since moving to town in 1998.
He earned immediate industry respect his first day in town by writing “Right Where I Need To Be” for Gary Allan, then practically single-handily propelled Jake Owen to stardom by inking “Yee Haw,” “Startin' With Me” and “Don't Think I Can't Love You.” Other notable creations include Joe Diffie's “Tougher Than Nails” and “Twang” by George Strait.
Despite nearly two decades of priceless experience, he has been forced in recent years to helplessly watch the systematic erosion of the once vibrant country music landscape.
“People are not getting what they want,” Marvel says. “They are disgusted by what they are being fed by radio. Oh, the fans are still out there. They just want quality music they can sink their teeth into.”
Last April, Marvel started recording the album he has dreamed about since he moved to Music City. It is loaded with addictive stories of bad habits and toxic relationships, themes too deep for today's mainstream country stations. Produced by Keith Gattis, "Lowdown and Lonesome" is expected to be released in September.
Marvel composed every song for the project, except a cover of Charlie Daniels classic “Drinking My Baby Goodbye.” He is hoping the unique vocal style developed playing in Southern Illinois clubs in the early 1990s resonates with the same audience that has embraced Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell.
“I'm done chasing down what the radio is playing,” he says. “I did that for years, and this is something different. The songs are real. It's a cool, vibey record. We are not afraid of a little progressive instrumentation. It sounds like ZZ Top meets Merle Haggard.”
Marvel said patience is the most important element in the recording process.
“Mixing taking forever. There are basically three people in the room; the producer, the engineer and me. We are all on the same page, but getting everyone to agree on the smallest detail is sometimes a challenge,” Marvel says. “We got all the tracks down early. Recording vocals over and over until it is perfect is harder than it seems.”
Houser and Johnson both provide guest vocals for the album.
Two songs will be released through various social media outlets every two months to build fan interest in the album, starting around May 1 with “Gypsy Woman” and title cut “Lowdown and Lonesome.”
He plans to build additional momentum by signing on as an opening act for a major tour this fall.
Marvel will play maybe the biggest show of his career on June 17 as he joins Toby Keith, David Lee Murphy, of Herrin, and Waterloo Revival for a concert at Black Diamond Harley-Davidson in Marion. The two-day festival kicks off June 16 with headliners Colt Ford and LoCash.
Gates open at 5 p.m. each day and music start at 6 p.m.
Ticket prices for Ford and LoCash range from $18 to $38. Prices jump to $48-$88 on day two. For more information, call the dealership at 618-997-4577.
“David Lee and I have been good friends for a long time. We have never played on the same stage on the same day with a full band. This will be a special show,” Marvel said.
Marvel has been one of the elite songwriters in Nashville for a long time. In a partnership with The Bluebird Cafe, he conducts annual workshops in Alaska and the Virgin Islands, in addition to numerous weekly writing sessions in Nashville with individuals on different levels of the songwriting pecking order.
He admits the stress level gets high at time and “I just wanna go to the beach.”
To solve this problem, the man who was a 10-year-old boy paid in pickled eggs and beef jerky when he first started singing in Franklin County bars just bought a second home in Mexico Beach, a tiny spot 20 minutes east of Panama City.