Last month I went to The Downtown Tavern on Original Music Wednesday to see The Kernal play and knew I had to include him in this series of posts about Jackson. Not only does listening to him ignite a sort of pride in local talent, but songs like “Mind Control” evoke a big ole smile and, for me at least, an uncontrollable urge to howl along with the chorus, despite what people around me may think. And then, suddenly, you’re aching to sweetly solemn songs like “Lay a New Rag (Upon My Head).” The Kernal (a.k.a. Joe Garner) was nice enough to sit down with me over a cup of coffee and share about his music and the band. Hope you guys enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And be sure to check out The Kernal’s music here. You won’t regret it.
Josh Garcia (JG): Let’s start out with the beginning. Tell me how you got into music.
The Kernal (KL): Well, I think like a lot of people, there are people in my family that played music . . . My brother and I, I have a twin brother, we played sports together a lot until we were in high school, and it was sort of one of those things where I just put all my focus on that. I liked music and all that but never touched an instrument until I was graduating high school. What did it for me was somehow I started listening to 50s music as a senior, which is really funny because it was the grunge 90s.
JG: Not the cool thing?
KL: Yeah, not at all, but I remember hearing the very well known Buddy Holly song “Peggy Sue,” and I was just like, man, this song is awesome. It felt more rock ‘n’ roll than Pearl Jam or Nirvana or something. For some reason it hit me in a way that I thought this is what music should make people feel like, you know? So anyway, I grabbed my dad’s guitar and said, “Could you teach me the chords to this song?” And it’s the easiest song ever. It’s three chords the whole time. . . . He sat me down and said, “A, D and E. Here it is. Just practice this.” So I learned it, and it was mesmerizing to be able to play a song that you really like, and I just kept playing from there. That’s kind of how it started. Of course there’s a big, whole, long story about different phases you go through and stuff, but that was the genesis of it. . . .
I actually had this dream last night which was really bizarre. . . . I was in Carl Perkins’s garage. He was an elderly man, and it didn’t look like him. I remember it didn’t look like him at all, but it was one of those things when you know it’s Carl Perkins. I’m standing in his little garage, and there’s a man messing with his push mower behind us there, and I held up this tape, which was the tape that had the Buddy Holly song on it. It had a Carl Perkins song on it, Gene Vincent, Marty Robbins, Wilbert Harrison . . . and so in this dream I am holding this tape up, and I said, “Mr. Perkins, this is the tape that made me wanna start playing music, and you’re on it.” I was just thanking him, you know, and he turns and looks at me to respond, and the guy starts the mower. I can’t hear anything Perkins is saying . . . and the guy starts pushing the mower, and as he starts pushing it out of the garage to where I can start hearing what Perkins is saying, I wake up. It was just one of the weirdest things, and it’s like what does that mean? But anyway, that tape — that tape made me wanna play music.
JG: I remember you released an EP as Joe Garner, and then a few years later The Kernal came about. So how did The Kernal originate?
KL: . . . The short answer is that when my dad died, which has actually been about four years ago, I sort of went through a different phase with music, and I said I didn’t want to play by myself anymore. . . . I didn’t consider myself a particularly above average song writer, to the extent that people were going to come around and listen to me play by myself or that kind of thing. So I said I wanted to start playing with a band . . . which I called it at that time the Tennessee Apology, and that was something I started doing just so I could play music and make a little bit of a bigger sound. A lot of that was sort of a grief project — a way for me to start dealing with, well, a way for me to deal with my dad dying and stuff. . . .
I remembered that my dad had this red suit in the attic. He had gotten it when he played at the Opry, the Grand Ole Opry in the 70’s, and it was just this really cool, I mean you’ve obviously seen it, it was this thing that was just in my attic for years. So I decided I was going to get it, and I went home to my mom’s house one day, and I grabbed it and brought it home with me. I didn’t know what to do with it really. I just thought, I would like to use this.
. . . I remember reading something about Aristotle and the theater and the cathartic mindset behind your art form. I was thinking about that in reference to music. That I was maybe getting less interested in confessional music and more interested in a stage-audience, more clearly defined — I said this was the short answer, but — more clearly defined stage and audience thing. So anyway, I remember I went on this solo tour with my friend Randolph and this guy from Nashville. We were doing a photo for a poster, and someone came over to the house to take the photo for us . . . and at the last second I said I wanna put this suit on. . . . It’s funny because the guys just got out and said, “What the hell are you doing?” Like, You’re making us look stupid. . . . I had the red suit on for the photo, and from that point on I said I’m going to start wearing this suit. I’m going to start writing songs about the suit, and write songs that the suit would write. I decided to let the suit be the engine behind the project, and I sort of started studying things and paying attention to things that, this sounds silly, but that the suit would have me listen to.
JG: I read somewhere that you describe your music as “imaginary country music.” Could you tell me about that?
KL: Yeah, that just comes from all the things that I’m influenced by. . . . You know Porter Wagoner or Buck Owens or someone says, “Yeah, we play country western music.” I just don’t consider myself someone who can say he plays the same music, but I’m influenced by it, and I like it, so I call it what I imagine country music to be with what I’m doing and my perspective in 2012 and all that stuff. So I just started calling it imaginary country music. And there’s another thing, I remember reading something about Béla Bartók, the composer. There was a guy that called his music imaginary folk music, because he was very influenced by the traditional gypsy music of his time, but he wasn’t just trying to duplicate it and keep it alive. He wanted to be influenced and take and do something new with it. So in some ways I hope that’s what I can do — point to it but not just where it’s like a gimmick or something. . . . I want it to be meaningful for here and now and it have pertinence to what we’re all doing.
JG: Would you like to talk about the guys you play with?
KL: Yeah, it’s sort of cool to think about how some of those things work out sometimes, because there aren’t a whole lot of musicians that are close to my age that are either versed in country music or the same stuff that I’m interested in or that are willing to learn it. . . . None of us really had ever played country music before, so we all just sort of started experimenting at the same time. Randolph, I have known him for a long time . . . we met at open mic and I played bass with him two or three years, four years maybe. . . . He was in the Tennessee Apology group as well as Jesse, the drummer. Jesse was really into jazz . . . so he was far off the radar as far as country goes, too, because in a lot of ways . . . country music seems very simple on the front end, but there’s these little tricks to it that make it difficult. It’s sort of like there are these esoteric things in the minutiae of upmost importance when you’re playing music. . . . There are tricks to it, so we’ve all kinda just learned together. . . . We started working together in the Tennessee Apology group, but that kinda got boring and fizzled out. And then Brandon had moved up here around that time from Louisiana . . . and was playing in a jam band called Rockamole. . . . I remember he had hair down to his butt and was just like a rocker, you know, blues, and was a killer guitar player. . . . One night Randolph and I were talking at The Tavern, and he asked, “Have you ever thought about getting Brandon to play guitar?” And I said, “No, let’s do it.” . . . That was about two years ago probably now. Now we’ve gotten a little more into a thing, and we’ve all stuck to it, and we’ve all committed to the band.
JG: Since this series of posts is a kind of ode to Jackson, tell me how Jackson has influenced The Kernal?
KL: You know, Jackson birthed the Kernal men. There’s a lot of good and bad things about it all, but the thing I like about Jackson is that if you’re going to make something, you’re not going to make it for any other reason other than to take what you have and try to push it forward. If you live in some place bigger, like Nashville even, there are all these other ulterior things that can influence what you’re doing, but when you go down and play at The Tavern, there’s not a whole lot of shine to it. It just kinda keeps you honest, you know? . . . And it’s been fun seeing it slowly build. We started the original music night on Wednesdays so that we could just play our own music, and it’s been cool, because the more we’ve gotten to go on tour we’ve brought some bands in that people wouldn’t have gotten to hear otherwise, which is really fulfilling, too — to feel like you’ve helped be a part of putting good music in the town. I hope that just keeps getting bigger. . . . But it’s difficult, too, sometimes. You know, I can’t just walk down the street and say, “Hey, man, help me out with this line,” or say, “Hey, is this any good?” So I wind up in my head a lot, which is not good. But everybody’s got the ups and the downs. That’s what makes a town a town.
JG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t already? Farwellhello, touring, or some kind of general things?
KL: We are starting to tour quite a bit more, which is exciting, because we’ve been doing everything ourselves for the last couple of years. We’ve finally got the attention of a booking agency, and we started working with them about a month ago, maybe, which is really great. I’ve been writing a lot more, and I want to make another album very soon, but it’s expensive to do that when you’re doing that by yourself. And I want to get out to tour a lot more. I think that’s one secret reason that I like doing this, because I like going to see other places and meeting weird weirdoes from the other towns. It always brings you back with a perspective on your own place. . . .
JG: The “Mind Control” video got some recognition in L.A., did it not?
KL: Yeah, it was the first year that they had a, it was the Los Angeles Music Video Festival . . . but it was the first year that they had a comedy category, and it took the gold, to use the Olympic language of the times, which was really exciting. I mean it was exciting for me for the sake of Dustin Lane and Marshall Burnette, because those guys worked so hard for such little pay on this. You like to think that there’s a return that people can see, because I know what that feels like to work your tail off on something and feel like it didn’t do anything. So it was great to have a little something to have to remind those guys that they were doing good work and that they can rest easy knowing they’re good at what they do. . . . You have to build a little unit around yourself and surround yourself with people that you love and that you respect. I think it’s a lot easier to make good works outside of a vacuum, and if you can track down some of those people that put you in the right space and challenge you and make you better, and hopefully you can add something to what they’re doing, then you can really go somewhere.
The cover of Grand Ole Opry: WSM Picture-History Book, featuring Garner’s dad in his red suit on stage.
The band: Brandon Clifton, Joe Garner, Randolph Robinson, and Jesse Hornbeak