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In this city, even a successful songwriter is hard-pressed to pursue a career as a solo artist. But Kendell Marvel, who has penned cuts for the likes of George Strait and Blake Shelton, had a more auspicious debut than most when his first album, Lowdown and Lonesome, dropped this fall.
Produced by hit-maker Keith Gattis, the confessional album includes songs co-written by country music stars Chris Stapleton, Randy Houser, and Charlie Daniels. Marvel, who co-wrote every song but one, has been career-long friends with many of country music’s biggest names, legitimizing each co-write as an honest collaboration with real-life stories behind them. More impressive than the names attached to it, however, is the accomplished blend of country and rock’n’roll to Lowdown.
“I didn’t want to make something that’s just hit-sounding songs,” Marvel says. “I wanted to make a concept record that’s got a tie-together, that’s got a theme. When I first moved to Nashville, and I was trying to be a solo artist, I was a big fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band. They had the country honesty, but they had the rock’n’roll swagger.”
Born and raised in Thomsonville, Illinois, Marvel was always bent toward music. His father, a coal miner, started taking him to play honkytonks when he turned 10, and, from then on, he honed his writing chops before an audience of loyal, local fans, until he moved to Music City in 1998.
Originally, he aspired to pursue the solo-artist path, but, upon immediately achieving tall heights as a songwriter, and with two kids at home, he chose the less hectic, but still “competitive,” seat behind the pen and paper. On his first day in town, he co-wrote Gary Allan’s No. 5 hit “Right Where I Need to Be” and continued to write enough hits to give any Music Row go-getter the confidence to go it alone.
“Right now, there are so many outlets for music lovers that you can really be creative,” Marvel says. “Nashville’s notorious for, ‘If something’s working, everybody do it,’ but this record isn’t in that box. It has honest lyrics, and it’s something different. I’m thankful for the songs I had on the radio, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
Inspired by the success of artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and his friend, Stapleton (with whom he wrote the star’s single “Either Way”), Marvel called up industry friends like Gattis, harmonica legend Mickey Raphael, The Black Crowes’ guitarist Audley Freed, and Daniels, and the crew recorded Lowdown from April 2016 to early 2017.
True to its name, each track on Lowdown tells a story of either too much drink, too much heartache—or both. With admirable candidness and seamlessly remitted love cries by the harmonica and steel guitar, Marvel warns a new lover of his romantic flakiness in “Watch Your Heart.” The less delicate, honkytonk swinger, “Closer To Hell,” recounts a history of hell-bound livin’ with no intention of changing. The upbeat title track, which Marvel wrote with Houser and Gattis years before, is perhaps the album’s darkest song, with the singer finding peace at rock bottom. Marvel’s powerhouse vocals carry the album, good as it is in its own right—with every hard-rock howl or downtempo, Waylon-Jennings croon, his performance is evidence of a talent that’s gone too long unappreciated. But the artist himself is only looking forward.
“If I’m ever gonna have a shot at being a touring artist, now is the time,” he says. “But I’m really excited because I don’t think I’ve written my best song. I really don’t.”