For Kevin Welch, it seems like a lifetime ago that he rolled into Nashville in the late 70s, one of the countless budding songwriters seeking fame and/or fortune. In the cut-throat country music capital it’s usually the best that survive and it wasn’t long before Welch became recognised for his songwriting and gained respect from his peers.
Forty years later he now splits home-life between Australia and the USA, has recently become a father again and across the ensuing decades he’s built a reputation both as a prolific touring musician and an acclaimed songwriter, solo artist and collaborator. The latest addition to his catalogue of songs is Dust Devil and though it has been eight years since his last album, Welch felt no need to rush or pressure his muse.
“For me, I kind of kept thinking that the bag of songs I had were pretty quiet and I felt a little funny about that and thought I needed to wait until a few more rockers showed up, to balance it out. Then I realised that was nonsense. The moment I got it was when I thought “what would Leonard [Cohen] do?” As soon as I thought that I just went and made a record with these songs. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any hysterical electric bluegrass stompers on it!” stresses Welch.
Once he decided that he had the right songs, Welch set about surrounding himself with friends and colleagues to add sonic colour and shape to his stories. “It was a really nice week’s worth of work with some great musicians and I had so much fun hearing what these guys were coming up with. It was like old-school get-together with these guys that I’ve been working with for 20, 25 years. Along with some ringers, several killers that I’ve been wanting to play with and known for a long time but just never gotten to make music with,” he recalls enthusiastically. “I learned a lot and got to employ a bunch of woodwinds, flutes and things I’ve wanted to use before but never been able to. Jim Hoke is a master multi-instrumentalist and having him in addition to Fats Kaplin, man we could just about do any damn thing we wanted to do!”
I ask Welch if, when he thinks back to his self-titled debut album in 1990, he can identify any ways in which his songwriting has evolved or changed. “I’m still really fascinated by the song form that we work in and I don’t think there’s an end to learning about it. I tried some things on my last record which I needed to try to see if they worked and in retrospect I don’t think that they did. That’s OK though because that’s a lesson to not do that again. For Dust Devil, I think everything I know how to do I did, so for better or for worse that’s what this record represents.”
Welch’s standing as a songwriter is widely recognised both in the USA and internationally, with Patty Loveless, Garth Brooks, Ricky Skaggs, Trisha Yearwood and many others re-interpreting his work. Most recently, Welch’s friend Chris Stapleton recorded a version of his song ‘Millionaire’ on his latest album. Two of the most interesting instances of his songs being covered are recalled with much laughter. “Once Waylon [Jennings] called me up laughing because The Highwaymen had just accidentally recorded one of my songs because they thought Roger Miller had written it. Miller had just died so they wanted to record a tribute to him and went to all this trouble and expense and then found out it was my song!” chuckles Welch. “Linda Ronstadt recorded a song called ‘Too Old To Die Young’. Emmylou Harris told me Linda had recorded it and she was laughing because Linda thought it was an old obscure Appalachian hymn and she had to tell her it was a Kevin Welch song.”
In recent years Welch has spent a lot of time touring and performing with his son Dustin and though there is an innate musical connection between the pair, it wasn’t initially a seamless partnership. ‘Dustin isn’t a mini-me, he has his own thing going on and a lot of what he does goes against what I teach but it works great. I’m pretty sure that there are blood harmonies that are built in and that show up in our groove and approach. That’s not going to happen with most other playing partnerships. We used to not be great at it but a few years ago we decided to do 30 European shows in a row and that was how we got that stuff solved and working really well. Now I think it’s pretty good.”
With a one year old son now also on the scene, will we one day see the Kevin, Dustin and Henry trio on stage? “They might have to wheel me out. I’ll be playing triangle or something, pooping my pants,” laughs Welch.