Up to Scratch
Guthrie Kennard, Rick Babb, and James Michael Taylor are local singer-songwriters who sometimes perform as a trio called Buddies. Mostly, though, they blaze individual musical trails. Taylor has received plenty of ink in the Weekly’s music section over the years for his steady output of sometimes strange and uneven but often breathtaking albums. Kennard has achieved the highest public profile, earning TV airtime on Texas Troubadour, playing shows all over town, recording several well-produced studio albums, and getting frequent airplay on regional radio.
Texas Music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard produced Kennard’s latest album, Cross Your Heart, which features Marian Brackney on violin. Like adding honey to whiskey, Brackney’s strings sweeten and soften Kennard’s raspy vibe to nice effect. Kennard has carved out an authentic, bluesy sound over the years, and he rarely strays from it. Kennard wrote or co-wrote all the songs, but many sound as if Lead Belly or W.C. Handy might have penned them many decades ago. While it’s impressive to write something reminiscent of a folk-blues standard, it also speaks of a retro rut. The album comes alive most toward the end, when Kennard strays from the familiar and goes rogue on “Poet’s Lament” and “The Poet,” a two-song, eight-and-a-half minute adventure that hints at new territories for this seasoned artist. I’m hoping his next album keeps to that path.
The trio member with the lowest profile is the quiet and reserved Babb. His debut album, Startin’ From Scratch, is a remarkable collection of songs that veer effortlessly from country to pop, blues to bluegrass, jazz to gospel. Any talented songwriter in his 60s has had a lifetime to hone his craft and compile a notebook of good songs. Babb trots out his best efforts, mostly leaning toward the country genre. His songs describe everyday people and their lives and often come across like parables set to music. Babb’s soft but appealing voice won’t land him a spot in any opera troupes, but it fits perfectly here. His chord progressions often zig when you think they’ll zag, but they’re never random. Everything fits together just right, and it’s a pleasure to drift along on his musical trip. Meanwhile, the studio production and eclectic instrumentation by Milo Deering provide the perfect pillow on which to nestle these songs, and Becky Middleton offers up amazing background vocals.
Whether Babb is pining away in a gorgeous tearjerker like “Willin’ To Go,” cutting up in funny songs like “Picky Picky” and “Roly Poly,” or getting jiggy in “Lucky In Love,” he owns this album. You should too. In the meantime, catch him at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Sons of Hermann Hall, 3414 Elm St., Dallas. –– Jeff Prince
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