It’s not likely that anyone would challenge the talent of Keith Sewell. As a picker and singer, he’s worked with Ricky Skaggs, James Taylor, Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas and The Dixie Chicks.
His songs have been cut by Skaggs, Montgomery Gentry and Sonya Isaacs, and Love Is A Journey, his debut solo project, was released on Skaggs Family Records in 2005.
He is also a gifted songwriter, an impressive multi-instrumentalist and a persuasive vocalist, yet large-scale success in the business has so far eluded his grasp.
Keith’s latest CD, The Way Of A Wanderer, is just out and if there is any justice in the music world (I know…), 2010 should be a breakout year for Sewell. It’s a fabulous project that showcases his varied abilities, tied together thematically, and recorded/mixed to take full advantage of the blended bluegrass and progressive country genres where he has plied his trade.
The new album includes 11 new songs, all written by Sewell, 4 as co-writes with Niall Toner. Keith produced, provided the vocals and played the bulk of the instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass and minimalist keyboards). Rob Ickes guests on resonator guitar and Luke Bulla provides fiddle on 2 tracks.
Sewell grew up in a Texas bluegrass family, and learned to play as a boy, trailing his grandfather Kenny Sewell to festivals all over the US where he performed with The Shady Grove Ramblers. Young Keith showed an interest in all of the bluegrass instruments, becoming proficient on banjo, madnolin, fiddle and guitar while still in school. At age 19, he went to work for Ricky Skaggs in his country band, which brought him to the attention of the Nashville acoustic scene as well.
The Way Of A Wanderer struck me as being more relaxed and coherent than his first CD, an observation that caught Keith off guard.
“I haven’t really thought about this record as having a bit more relaxed feel but that’s an interesting observation. I do think the songs are more personal and retrospective this time. I will say that I rarely set out to write a song with a title or a ‘hook’ in mind. For me, It’s always a riff or a melody that sets the mood for what I wanna say. ( Then I have to figure out what I wanna say- a chore sometimes).
I also didn’t intend to play most of the instruments starting out. I was really laying things down in a ‘pre-production’ mindset, but the further I got into the project, I couldn’t hear the parts being replaced. I think I understood the songs and where they where going, so the parts I played really became signatures to the outcome. My wife was encouraging me also. She was like, ‘why wouldn’t you just play the instruments that you can play?
I feel like my Grandfather would have wanted me to play fiddle on a few tunes anyway.”
Perhaps most notable about this album is how Sewell uses the familiar, acoustic bluegrass instruments the way a pop or modern country producer might employ electric guitars and keyboards to provide a bed for the songs. You hear the guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo in the mix, but they aren’t always in their traditional roles in the rhythm section. The songs are all catchy, and this sonic approach gives the whole record a fresh sound.
Though I found every song delightful, a number of the tracks really jumped out at me. Imogene, especially, grabbed my ear – it is becoming my new favorite song. It’s a kicky, driving grasser, and when Keith told me he had written it about his grandmother, I had to have a more detailed explanation.
Listen to the sample before reading his comments…
Imogene – Listen Now
“I realize that some things aren’t meant to be taken literally in songwriting, and sometimes it’s like uncovering a treasure when you do discover what a writer was really trying to say, but that song is pretty much coming right out of my mouth verbatim!
To be more specific, my grandmother Imogene and I were very close. She was a very strong Christian lady. Unlike my other grandparents who died very slowly in nursing situations, Imogene died suddenly when I was 13 and it was very shocking and difficult. I know this might sound ‘out there’ but I always felt like, and still feel like she is very near. Almost like a Guardian Angel of sorts.
The song was born out of those times in my life where I wasn’t necessarily making her proud.’ ‘You know better than that son,’ she might say!
My adolescence wasn’t anything abnormal but I thought it was a good premise from which to write how I felt about her. It took a while before I could sing that without choking up, not very common for an uptempo bluegrass song!”
Another track that grabbed my attention was Abigail, a quirky number that demonstrates how much some of his previous employers’ music has rubbed off on him.
Abigail – Listen Now
“I had been foolin’ around with this 5/4 melody for a while. I will say that the time I spent touring in Jerry Douglas’ band and certainly Sam Bush’s band surely has inspired me to be a little LESS Orthodox in my writing.”
Josie’s Reel is a tribute to Keith’s other grandmother, which combines old time and bluegrass inluences in a very appealing way.
“Niall Toner and I wrote this tune in 04′ and my friends Special Consensus cut it on their Trail Of Aching Hearts record. I’ve always loved this tune, imagining what it must have been like to see my grandmother Josie in her teens. I wrote the reel first and then the lyrics came.”
Lastly, Muscadine Wine is a song that I thought must surely be autobiographical, but Keith said “no.”
Muscadine Wine – Listen Now
“This one is not really a true story – just an example of how a riff can materialize into a tune. I love Doc Watson and George Shuffler’s crosspicking style, and I suppose of was thinking of them when I came up with teh opening signature lick.”
Do yourself a favor and check out Keith Sewell and The Way Of A Wanderer. It’s great music.
I’m a fan.