When Tom Kell formed a trio that grew into one of Seattle's most popular club and concert bands in the late 70's, it was all about the songs...
The Skyboys (a 7-piece alt-country outfit) became the most popular original country-rock band in the city's history, sharing the stage with Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Charlie Daniels, Pure Prairie League, Asleep at the Wheel and countless others.
When Tom Kell came to Los Angeles in 1983 to complete a development deal with A&M Records, it was all about the songs...
In 1985 when he signed a deal with Seattle–based Upper Level Records and subsequently released “Lonely Town” (a project spearheaded by John David Souther, and featuring background vocals by J.D. and Timothy B. Schmit, and a duet with J.D.) using Glenn Frey’s band, it was all about the songs…
In 1989, when he signed with Warner Brothers Records (by Jim Ed Norman himself!) and had songs covered by Kenny Rogers and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it was all about the songs… That album, “One Sad Night”, introduced us to “Lilly Butane, or some such fiery girl,”, as Tom regaled us with the story of “One Sad Night In Kerrville”. It was produced by Josh Leo and featured the likes of Harry Stinson, Michael Rhodes, Bernie Leadon, Dan Dugmore, Jeff Hanna, Bob Carpenter, and again Timothy B. Schmit and J.D. Souther.
In 1993, when legendary record label Vanguard Records was signing new artists for the first time in several decades, it was all about the songs… “Blue Telephone”, Thunder and Lightning”, “Drivin’ Alone” and “LA To Angeltown” continue in the Southern California songwriting tradition that Tom has so clearly defined through his own pen, establishing his own credential.
Once again, “Angeltown” featured stellar musicians including David Lindley, Kenny Edwards, Bob Glaub, Russell Kunkel, Karla Bonoff, Wendy Waldman and Bob Carpenter.
Tom had an opportunity in 1996 to work directly with Kenny as Producer in a more relaxed setting by seizing the offer of Tom’s good friend James A. Taylor. They worked in James’ home studio, and Kenny played virtually all of the instruments, backed by Bob Carpenter, Scott Babcock and Jill Dowell. Karla Bonoff laid down the harmony vocal on the song "Blamed on Me". This project "Complicated Luck" was released in 1997.
For Tom Kell it has always been about the songwriting. From his earliest days as a country-rock pioneer on club and concert stages in his native Seattle and throughout the Northwest, to singing duets with John David Souther, Timothy B. Schmit and Valerie Carter, he has always been lead through his career by his songs. He writes with a unique sense of time and place, and sings with a voice so full of character and heart, that you feel as though you’re standing next to him, seeing the same images, breathing the same moment. As Harry Stinson put it, “It sounds like Tom is sitting on his favorite couch, wearing his favorite shirt and singing straight at you.”
Now, after several years away from the studio and stage, Tom returns with “This Desert City”, an album so laden with hope and pain, rife with Los Angeles imagery, so full of talent and grace that the listener will wonder how he could have stayed away, even for a day.
This music is as timeless as it is unique and is delivered by a band of LA players so perfectly assembled, that it could easily be Tom’s finest hour. Tom is joined by Jeffrey Cox, his long-time production and engineering collaborator, in the Producer’s chair and returning studio mates Kenny Edwards (Karla Bonoff, Linda Ronstadt), Bob Glaub (Jackson Browne, John Fogerty and too many to name) and Greg Leisz (Eagles, Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, kd lang, Dave Alvin, Jackson Browne). Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, and Dave Alvin) is featured on drums while Jim Christie (Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams) plays drums for the stunning “Sometimes”. Mark Goldenberg (Jackson Browne) joined for two songs that personify Mark’s sound and feel. Valerie Carter (James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Little Feat) shines with that undeniable soul and grit that can’t be duplicated by any other vocalist. Jonathan McEuen (Hanna-McEuen) is stupendous in his vocal marriage with Tom’s plaintive delivery, throughout the project. David Jackson (J.D. Souther, New West) provides that alt-edge with his superb playing, once again proving why you don’t have to "Go To Jail" if you play an accordion.
Certainly, some of the finest guitar playing on this project is provided by Tom’s long time friend and stage mate Kenny Edwards. It is wildly apparent that Kenny has participated in many aspects of Tom’s career over the past fifteen years, in that his playing so clearly embraces and underscores the nuance in Tom’s writing and singing.
It is this kind of long-time-relationship union that brought all of the players to this project. “When I contacted these musicians for these sessions, everyone, to the man, was ecstatic about working with Tom and his songs.” noted Cox. “Tom has a long history with many of these guys, and their commitment is obvious from the first notes. This kind of playing and musicianship doesn’t just come off the shelf.” And those that were new to Tom’s songwriting were clear from the start, that this is the “…kind of stuff that just doesn’t come around very often. It’s such a pleasure to sing.” notes Valerie Carter.
Throughout This Desert City the feel, echoes and grit of Los Angeles permeate the songs. As a LA resident of thirty years, Tom’s muse frequently turns up pictures and conversations from those mind-numbing hours on the freeways and streets of the megalopolis. “The Way Of The World” opens with one of Kell’s quintessential lines “She was a French girl, she came to LA for the heat.”, and takes us on a sobering journey through the backstage doors and alleys of Los Angeles. “Sometimes”, a centerpiece to the project, details in full literary dress, characters and dreams in the hamlets and towns that populate and personify life in Southern California.
"Texas On The 4th of July” is a road trip out of LA to an unnamed West Texas town, and in a dusty, fevered voice Tom soul searches the wisdom of leaving LA and a sweetheart, while a “hotel just won’t leave me alone”, as it paws at his guilt and memories. “Texas On The 4th of July” is the last in the ‘Texas Trilogy’ that Tom has written over the years, starting with “Texas Has Nothin’ On Me” and “One Sad Night in Kerrville” from Tom’s earlier albums.” notes the project’s Producer, Jeffrey Cox. “Each of these three songs paints incredibly evocative pictures with a ‘Larry McMurtry/Lonesome Dove/Last Picture Show’ quality and essence that puts you right in the scene.”
“Dove” is a classic Tom Kell duet, dipped in Blues and Country and is masterfully and soulfully entwined with Valerie Carter’s aching and passion-soaked spirit and voice. Kenny Edwards slide guitar solo bleeds with droplets from the fountain in Echo Park, and echoes of Chavez Ravine.
“Sands Of Time” is a poke in the eye to LA for all its foibles and frequently misguided good intentions. “The weatherman’s tellin’ his daily lies, sun in the desert and rain on the coast. We can never decide what we need the most.” is pure Kell comic Cinema. This Desert City combines Tom’s skillful songwriting with two established songs from the past. “Baby’s In Black” is a Beatles gem that Tom and Jeffrey have wanted to do since the old Skyboys days. “When we were discussing the pieces to do, we both made “Baby’s In Black” a priority for this project.” states Kell. “It’s the Everly Brothers, written by Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
Cox notes that “’Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ came to me in the middle of the night. I knew Tom would nail it. I just wanted a smokier, thicker groove. When we laid it down, there were two takes that just didn’t find the feel. We took a break, went back out, and that’s the take we got. Truly one of those spine tingling moments that leave you stunned. It was the same thing with Kenny’s acoustic guitar solo. That’s the solo he played, straight through. No punches. Wow…”
But the body of this project is Tom’s undeniably lucid songwriting. There is so much “here and now” reality to his vision that you are swept into the scene, to observe and feel. Whether you’re standing unseen in a hot, ramshackle hotel room somewhere in West Texas listening to a Norte accordion from a far away radio drifting down the hall, as Tom’s character laments “Maybe drivin’ here was really not that smart” in “Texas On the 4th of July”, or knowing the guy whose “pride and joy is his El Camino” in “Sometimes”, Tom’s cast of characters and backdrop of sobering reality draws from our common literary or literal experience.
This is what defines "Tom Kell music", and why the imagery and feel of This Desert City so clearly personifies Tom Kell. It is all about the songs.
Thanks to Jeffrey Cox & Peter Holmstedt