When session star Pete Kennedy met Austin muso Maura, a musical romance led to a folk-rock marriage. Rik Flynn follows the path that led to their new album
Having thumbed the many volumes of musical folklore, we’ve struggled to find a more romantic courtship than that of US folk-rock husband/wife duo the Kennedys.
Their love affair began when Cupid aimed a serendipitous arrow directly at a local guitar-pull in Austin, Texas. ‘Pete was in Nanci Griffith’s band doing a gig in Austin, and I was living there playing in my own band,’ says Maura. ‘They’d all done a show, and Pete stayed to do a few solo shows. I’d never seen anyone play guitar like him. The next day a mutual friend was having a pickin’ party at her house. I got to hear some more of his songs and he heard some of mine, and we connected musically right away. When everybody went home, we stayed in the backyard of that house and wrote our first song together. We’d only known each other for less than a day.’
Although Pete was off to the Rocky Mountains the next morning to continue the Griffith tour, distance wasn’t going to get in the way of these musical lovebirds; their first ‘date’ was like something out of a cult teen flick. ‘A little later I called Maura,’ Pete recalls. ‘We were a thousand miles apart, so we looked at a map and the equidistant point was Lubbock, Texas, the town where Buddy Holly was born. We both loved Buddy, and we agreed we’d each drive 500 miles and meet at his grave!’ ‘I tell people who aren’t musically inclined, and it’s like “You had your first date at a grave?” laughs Maura. ‘But rock’n’rollers get it!’ ‘And since we both thought it was a cool idea,’ adds Pete, ‘we knew we were compatible!’
Before long Maura had joined Griffith’s band as a backing singer, and the touring continued. As well as having opened for Nanci many times and co-producing her album Intersections, together the duo have played all over the States as the Kennedys and as part of folk collective the Strangelings, and were even invited to perform at President Clinton’s first and second inaugurations. Now they’re bringing their Byrds-inspired jangle to these shores once more, and the luscious folk-laced tapestry of their latest offering Closer Than You Know will doubtless charm the pants off us Brits.
Pete Kennedy is an old hand and has played in almost every conceivable scenario, including flying solo in various guises (including on his guitar extravaganza Guitarslinger) and playing in pit orchestras and behind the scenes at jingle houses. One of his more enviable collaborations stemmed from a meeting with jazz guitar legend Charlie Byrd. ‘I was living in Washington DC and played a clinic at a local college, and Charlie was teaching there too. We jammed on a few Duke Ellington tunes, and a week later I got a call that he wanted to start a band. Although he’s known for bossa novas and nylon-string jazz, he was born and raised in the South and he wanted to reconnect with his roots in blues and country. So for three or four years we did it several times a month; old Louis Jordan tunes and that type of stuff – really fun material.’
Kennedy picked up a lot from Byrd aside from the Piedmont style they were playing together. ‘I learned some bossa nova from him too,’ he states. ‘Brazilian guitarists set up a percussive right hand groove before they do any chording. Once that groove is flowing, you can plug in any song with the left hand and it will come out as a bossa nova.
‘I also met Barney Kessel, and took lessons from Joe Pass. He was a very inspiring guy. Internal hearing was his main lesson. He said, “Before you play, hear a melody in your head and heart, and then play that.” It turned my idea of guitar around. It’s not about playing fast finger-patterns, it’s about hearing music inside, then playing it. Then it all becomes limitless.’
Pete also crossed paths with jazz guitarist Johnny Smith. ‘He’s a fantastic player,’ enthuses Kennedy. ‘His idea was that, by learning every note on the neck just as we know every letter in the alphabet, chords and melodies can be played with a natural flow. The emotive content of music comes closer to the surface when you can play a note as soon as you hear it internally.’
Kennedy continued his education via get-togethers with the likes of Doc Watson and Dr John, and a panic moment diving in at the deep end as a repairman led to a meeting with Tele-totin’ legend Danny Gatton.
‘I was working at a local music shop and a Gretsch came in for a full refret. I’d never done one! I went into panic mode. Someone gave me Danny’s number, I rang him up, and two hours later it was not only done, it was smoother and cleaner than the original factory job!’
Kennedy had no idea that Gatton even played until he dropped off a repair job at a tough bar in Virginia where Danny was gigging. ‘I gave him the guitar and figured I would stay for one song. Since the band looked nothing like cool rock stars, I thought it might be good for a laugh. They launched straight into Mystery Train, and three minutes later, I wasn’t laughing! I couldn’t get my mind around the fact that this repair guy, a friend of mine, was blowing away every guitarist on the planet. He started becoming known in the years after that and I spent many hours in his garage, soaking up everything I could. Eventually I played second guitar in his band. We played firehall dances, union halls and backyard barbecues.’ When Gatton locked himself in his garage and took his own life, he left no note. Kennedy never saw it coming. ‘His death mystified me,’ he says sadly. ‘I didn’t know about his depressive side. I’m still processing the loss of my big brother on guitar.’
Kennedy’s also played in pit orchestras, doing everything from Cats the musical to performing with the legendary Burt Bacharach. ‘For me to sit there with 100 people with doctorate degrees in music and being thrust into the world of sight-reading charts, following a conductor, blending with cellos and bassoons… it was very humbling. Sometimes they’re thought of as robotic players, but they can really play with a lot of emotion. If you grew up playing rock songs in a basement, it’s a very foreign environment. I loved being the worst person on the gig – that’s when you’re gonna learn.’
‘I still love being the worst person!’ laughs Maura. Hers was a different journey, focussing her attention on her own band in the early days and grafting to do her own thing. ‘I wanted to be a working musician without the day job, and thought a town like Austin would give a better opportunity,’ she explains. ‘There’s 300 clubs and 1000 musicians, so clubs don’t pay much… usually you put the tip jar out. I averaged nine gigs a week until I had the rent. It sounds hard, but it was the best preparation for playing in front of an audience.’
For Maura, a career highlight was performing at the Beacon Theater in 2010. ‘I played a John Lennon benefit and I got to share a microphone with Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper and Joan Osbourne,’ she tells us. ‘I was the unknown on stage, but it was huge for me!’
These two very different musicians have pooled their resources to forge a distinct and addictive sound. Whether it’s music or romance, the Kennedys are in full bloom… and Buddy Holly would have been proud to have brought them together.