Love and Luck
The glory of good fate surrounds Pete and Maura Kennedy’s union. In fact, their relationship has been a series of charmed coincidences from the start. The couple has made the best of their ongoing encounters with serendipity, as they prove with the jangle of sweet, guitar-driven pop-rock on their second album, Life Is Large.
*J*h"text"*p(0,10.008,0,10.5,0,0,G,"U.S. English")$t-3z9.5f"SceneTextPlain">The two met in Austin when Pete Kennedy performed with his band at the Continental Club. “There was a velvet Elvis painting on the wall,” he recalls. “It was a good sign.” Mutual friends of the two had dragged Maura to the concert, telling her how much she had in common with the guitarist-singer from Washington, D.C. They both wound up at a guitar pull afterward, and each was taken in by the other’s songs and talentsso much so that they met the next day to write together. They talked about their shared musical influences and talked of their love for the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and Buddy Holly. They wrote a song and were smitten.
Asked what developed first, their songwriting partnership or their relationship, the Kennedys say simultaneously, “Both.” Adds Maura, “It really was both at the same time. Things just cemented. Both locked in right away.”
Two days after the couple met, Pete had to leave for a performance in Telluride, Colo. He called Maura after the show, and the two decided to get together again before he returned to D.C. They realized the halfway point between Telluride and Austin was Lubbock, Texas, home of Buddy Holly. That was all the encouragement they needed, and they made a date to meet at Holly’s grave. “We felt we got Buddy’s blessing that day,” Pete says.
For a while, the relationship grew despite the distance between the two musicians. “We ran up some incredible phone bills,” Maura laughs. Pete, who had previously performed with Mary Chapin Carpenter, was a member of Nanci Griffith’s band at the time. He performed on her Other Voices, Other Rooms album and toured as her guitarist for two years. Iris DeMent was opening for Griffith at the beginning of the Other Voices tour, but when her career took off, Griffith needed a new touring partner. Kennedy convinced the singer to let Maura and him take the slot.
“Being on tour together, being together every day, that’s when we really got things together,” Maura says. Nightly sound checks usually ended around 4:30 p.m. Between then and the 8 o’clock show time, the couple diligently wrote songs. In Dublin, where Griffith enjoyed a lengthy run of shows, the couple was given a room on the third floor of the city’s ancient Opera House; it had a beautiful view of the city.
That room is where several songs from the Kennedys’ 1995 debut, River of Fallen Stars, were conceived. “That’s probably why a lot of the first album had a strong Celtic flavor,” Pete says of the debut, which is more acoustic-based than the new, electrically charged Life Is Large. As a result, the group was mistakenly pegged as an Irish-based Celtic pop group by some observers. “We could understand why,” Pete says. “Our name is The Kennedys. We record for Green Linnet [a label that specializes in Irish music]. It was kind of a natural mistake.”
That won’t be a problem with Life Is Large. Although the melodic gleam of the Beatles is certainly present, the album’s primary influences consist of the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, and the blessed saint of the Kennedys’ union, Buddy Holly. “It’s a much more rootsy, American-sounding album,” Pete explains. “We wanted it to be melodic and organic, to not use any reverb or studio effects.”
It’s also a refreshingly cheerful work. Although a couple of songs deal with anger and darkness, most of the album focuses on upbeat themes about relationships and enjoying day-to-day life. “We’re real positive and very happy,” Maura says. “I guess that’s against the trends today, but we wanted to be true to ourselves. It came about real naturally. We didn’t think about it or plan it. That’s just who we are.” Chimes in Pete, “We could have tried to be more trendy and be real angst-ridden and angry. We could have adopted a pose to try to fit in with the style now. But we’re not cynical about life.”
“Velvet Glove,” which is currently receiving heavy airplay on WRLT-FM and other adult-alternative radio stations across the country, is a case in point. The song addresses a friend who’s going through a difficult time after a busted love affair, and it quickly turns into a tough-minded pep talk. “Love ain’t always fun,” Maura sings in her clear, resonant voice. “It leaves you way out where the buses don’t always run.” It’s an old story, she tells her friend, one “that’s happened lots of times, and it’s happening again.” By song’s end, the message is clear: Pick yourself up and keep going, for surviving a painful episode is one of the truest measures of a person’s strength.
The Kennedys recorded a large portion of Life Is Large on the road. On tour with Griffith, they met up with musical friends along the way and recorded most of the guest parts in studios where their friends usually worked. “We knew from our session work about having to go into a strange studio and adapt quickly,” Pete says. “I do better work in studios that I’m familiar with, where I’m comfortable. It’s a different feel. So we cut everybody at their favorite studio.”
That included recording a Steve Earle mandolin part at Nashville’s Room and Board studio, Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacher guitar solo in Florida, Nils Lofgren’s accordion contribution in Washington, D.C., and Charlie Sexton, Monte Warden and Kelly Willis in Austin. Other guests included Eric Ambel, Peter Holsapple, John Gorka, Susan Cowsill and the Dixie Hummingbirds. The rhythm section featured drummer Vince Santoro (Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash) and Wade Matthews (Mary Chapin Carpenter).
So far, the just-released Life Is Large is enjoying a fate nearly as blessed as that of its creators. National airplay for an album released on an independent label is rare in the corporate-driven music atmosphere of the ’90s. “If you look at the record charts, there’s very few indie labels there,” Pete says. “We’re lucky to have one of those spots.” He pauses, then adds, “We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways, it seems.”
The Kennedys play Dancin’ in the District Wednesday, May 29.
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