For half a year, I have met many musicians around Fort Worth. The area has solidified creative inertia, which allows inspiration to carry further and impact more folks. Musicians, like any other artists, learn from those that have come before them. They look out for each other and pass on wisdom gained from experience. My conversations often refer me to other folks that I will later interview, further illustrating the effective reach of the process.
Many roads led me to Guthrie Kennard, a man whose life in music has had its share of close calls. Toured the world as a bass player, Kennard has worked with folks like Buddy Miles, Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Rocky Athas. We talked away an afternoon recently and each of my questions gave way to Guthrie’s stories. His yarns swept us from our temporal moorings and cast us back to Virginia, where he and his friend, keyboard player Bernie Biedermeier escaped their hometown of Richmond back in the 60s. When I first ask him how he got to Texas he just smiles and says simply, “1968.” Chopping wood for cash, they eventually ran across a sociopath who had a problem with their working for black folks.
Guthrie gets a spark in his voice, “When you get shot at you tend to remember it, that was one cold February night.” The gunman gave the longhairs a head start before firing rounds past their ears as the two, “ran like rabbits through the woods.” When he sings, “Another day, better run for cover,” on the song Another Day, Another Dollar, he knows what he’s talking about. Though it was probably a more circuitous process, I visualize the two of them on the legs of jackalopes blazing a smoking trail across a cartoonish map that connects Chesterfield County, Virginia to El Paso. What my innocent imagination cannot fathom, Kennard fills in simply with, “So, we hitchhiked from Virginia to Texas. I’ll never do that again.”
Guthrie remains engaged as a player and storyteller, whether it is a packed house or a one-on-one conversation. His stories lead back to points about life, and between them he asks if I need food or a drink. There is no pretense with Guthrie, he cares deeply about musicians that follow in his footsteps. Perhaps it is the legacy of his name – a story in and of itself – a combination of New World and Old World influences. His great grandfather was a preacher in Oklahoma and family friends with Woody Guthrie’s people. This tribute to a name that would become American Royalty is conjoined with a surname evolving from the 7th Century, “Cyneweard,” meaning “royal protector.” When he shared a bill with Folk icon Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, “Jack asked, ‘are you kin to Woody?” Woody of course had been a mentor for the young Elliot. And the rings of history line up for an instance.
The godfather of American Folk music was a mentor to many younger musicians, one of whom was a young Bob Dylan. And Guthrie Kennard is clearly an extension of that continuum, artists passing on knowledge and watching out for each other. Knowing first hand how hard the life of a musician can be, Guthrie encourages them to be healthy and conduct themselves with professionalism, “You’ve got to show up to do the work, talent isn’t enough.” Throughout, whenever there was a chance to tell a story where somebody did him wrong, he’d pause and say something like, “There will always be folks who want to buy their way in, but those folks will never be real.” This would always return him to what I heard to be a tenet of being authentic, he never stops learning, “These have all been my teachers.”
One of the his biggest educators has been Ray Wylie Hubbard, who Guthrie looks to as an older brother. His spiritual sibling produced his 2009 album Matchbox, a record that bears Kennard’s blues roots out on a batch of songs masterfully recorded in the Hill Country. Last year he again brought together talented folks to make a new, yet untitled record, “The thing is all over the place but not out of character. The beauty of it comes from the players on it. I don’t know if the songs are any good, but those folks did a wonderful job.” Speaking softly with clear eyes, Kennard generously shared his stories with me.
His newest record is currently being mixed, hopefully we will be reporting soon on its imminent release. On stage he brings tunes to life that showcase his artistic journey. In person he is consistently engaged with the honesty inherent to the best music. True artists strive beyond financial gain and popular success to find the potency of their craft – by this, I mean they represent a true voice. This is what I hear when Guthrie speaks, “Now I am where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes it takes a little longer to learn to be real, but you can’t put a dollar sign on it.”