After working for decades solo, the tandem of Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch teamed up in 2000 to release "11/12/13: Live In Melbourne." The record showed how both seasoned stellar songwriters complemented each other almost perfectly. In 2004, they released their first studio album together, "You Can't Save Everybody," with fiddle player Fats Kaplin. Now, the trio has returned with "Lost John Dean," but Kane still can't figure out why the trio works so well together.
"We've been playing together for a long, long time, and we're good friends," Kane says. "We share some kind of musical...I was going to use the word vision, but that sounds a bit high handed. We're just looking for the same things in music."
The new album moves from the roots-blues boogie of the closing "Mellow Down Easy" to more poignant, reflective tracks like "Heaven Now." Welch says that early on, he felt Kane brought a bit more material to the table.
"Usually Kieran and I just pile up some songs in an afternoon, 'What have you got? This is what I've got,'" Welch says. "I had been traveling very, very hard for a long time, and my mother was ill right in the middle of the session. We had to stop recording for a little while.
"The main thing is that we really ended up with an interesting grouping of songs, and oddly enough, they seemed to be all over the map," he adds. "It didn't feel like a bunch of songs that went well together to us. But we just got really lucky on the sequencing, and we realized ultimately that, in fact, all of these songs do go together quite well."
"Lost John Dean" also seems to have a slightly rougher, livelier tone than the first album. Kane says it wasn't difficult at all to get that "off the floor" kind of feel.
"I think it's easier to capture a live feeling as long as everybody knows what they're doing," he says. "It's basically how records were made, even through the sixties. It was sort of the Sgt. Pepper era that people started getting into more overdubbing and that kind of stuff. You just get a good groove, and go from there. I don't see why more people don't do it actually."
That feeling also resulted in a string of consistently strong songs in their purest, minimalist form, without any sort of layering of sounds or instruments.
"We've gotten pretty used to not doing that," Welch says. "It's like taking a portrait photograph of someone. If there's just one person, then their face can take up the whole frame, and you can see them very well. If you add a person, you have to pull the camera back, and the more people you add, the farther away you get from each individual."
"We found that one or two guitars and somebody beating on something actually make a record. You don't have to have a bass. You don't have to do anything in particular. That's a pretty liberating concept to me."
Kane says he was listening to a lot of Little Walter around the time of recording "Lost John Dean." In fact, the title track was found on an old cassette containing several "old, archaic country bluesy tracks" that Paul Burch, a friend of Kaplin's and Kane's, gave them. As a result, some of that instantaneous boogie feeling seeps into a few songs, particularly "Mellow Down Easy."
"That was the first thing we did actually," Kane recalls. "It just kind of brought me back to an early stage with its Bo Diddley beats and those old Chess Records, which is what I sort of grew up on. I just really liked the feel of it, and it was intriguing to me to sort of do that Bo Diddley thing on a banjo."
Meanwhile, Welch brought some notable gems to the proceedings as well, including "Satan's Paradise," which he wrote with Claudia Scott.
"We weren't really sure where we were going with it or what the central subject was," he says. "We just knew it had something to do with somebody going wrong, making mistakes. After a few verses, we got to thinking what that was really about was a family of (crystal) meth addicts. You see so much of that here in Tennessee, these people just slipping into that quicksand, and it's a terrible thing. I've never been a big anti-drug guy, I'm an old hippie, but that stuff is really evil. We're losing a lot of people."
Welch also says that "Heaven Now," written with Chris Stapleton, came together basically out of the blue. The song also brings to mind in some respects "Not Dark Yet" off Bob Dylan's "Time Out Of Mind" record, the singer realizing that he's not as young in body as he is in spirit.
"It was decided that he (Stapleton) and I would try songwriting together, and we had never done that before," Welch says. "I thought I should do a little homework and try and get an idea together the day before. For some reason, that lyric just fell out of me, I didn't intend in writing this entire lyric at all. I wanted to have an idea that I could take to Chris."
"I'm not sure if I want to say if that's about me, but there's really no way I can deny that now that I think about it," he adds. "I walked in, 'Hi Chris, nice to see you, look at this lyric.' He stared at it for a second, and he played the whole song, the whole thing took about five minutes."
Kane says working in such close quarters with Kaplin and Welch led to everything being done in one shot. "We don't use headphones or anything," he says. "We're close enough that we can hear each other playing and can respond in kind. It makes it so that you can't fix anything on a record like that. If I sang or played a riff that was really out of whack, we'd have to do the whole thing over again. You couldn't just take my part out because it bled into every other microphone in the room."
The album cover "Lost John Dean" is also notable for the fact it's a painting done by Kane. He also created the cover art for the trio's debut. "You Can't Save Everybody." He says the cover wasn't inspired by the music, but ended up being a fortunate coincidence.
"The paintings don't really have anything to do with the record. They're paintings that I have and that I've done," Kane says. "I don't really like doing photo shoots so it's good in that regard. Honestly, with the 'You Can't Save Everybody' record, we were making it last summer. I said to Fats and Kevin, 'I got a painting that I think would work. If you guys don't like it, then that's fine.' They looked at it, and they loved it. So we used it. We did the exact same thing with this one."
Both musicians have been around for decades, with Kane getting his first inroads in country circles teaming up with Jamie O'Hara to form The O'Kanes. They had hits including the number 1 song "Can't Stop My Heart From Loving You," "Daddies Need To Grow Up Too" and "Just Lovin' You" in 1987.
Welch, who's had songs performed by Moe Bandy and Waylon Jennings, earned some major label success with tracks like "Something 'Bout You" and "Til I See You Again" with his 1989 self-titled album and 1990's "Western Beat." Welch says he's learned quite a bit from Kane over the years.
"One of the enjoyable things that I've watched Kieran do over the years, since all the way back to The O'Kanes, is he's kind of constantly paring things down, constantly getting more minimal without sacrificing anything," he says. "In fact, it makes things stronger. There's nothing I like better than a Kieran Kane song that has one chord and no rhymes and a groove. He's one of the grooving-est players I've ever played with in my life."
And like most musicians who are established now as quality performers and singer-songwriters, they make a living doing what they do best despite not having the huge machine of larger multinational record labels - at one point, Kane and Welch helped form their own label, dead reckoning, well before it became fashionable for artists to do it on their own - behind them. Both say that they're not sure if they were starting out in music today what would happen.
"I don't really know the answer to that," Kane says. "I presume I would be the same person, but from the business end of things in Nashville, the writing and the publishing end, things are a lot tougher now then when I first moved here and started out writing here. They were more open to different kinds of songs, and they weren't all eaten up with this idea that every record has to sound exactly the same."
"There wasn't as much money involved. When I moved here, to make a country record cost $50,000, and that was a lot of money. Now it's not unusual for it to cost $500,000 and spend half a million promoting it. That kind of money, it just wouldn't happen. I assume I would be playing music because that's the only other thing I can do."
Kane, Welch, Kaplin and Kane's drumming son Lucas will spend the summer on tour. When they're not on tour, Welch has some solo shows lined up. And while both are pleased with the response and feedback "Lost John Dean" is receiving, Welch says a third album is already in the works. "Kieran has been writing like crazy. He's got a ton of new songs," Welch says.
"This time I need to make sure I come in packing. We're going to go back and make a new record really soon here. We're just in the mood."