Book Review: Tone, Twang, and Taste: A Guitar Memoir, by Pete Kennedy

I first heard the term "Americana music" about four years ago, and it's convenient, because it includes a lot of music I like: folk rock, folk, bluegrass, outlaw country, and Grateful Dead.

When I was first exposed to The Kennedys, I thought of them as a folk rock group, and specifically, a successor to The Byrds, a band that I liked a lot in my youth, and still do. However, "Americana music" appears quite a few times in this book, and during Pete Kennedy's long musical career, he has been in the thick of it. The long list of people he has worked or jammed with includes Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, David Bromberg, Charlie Byrd, Roger McGuinn, Dave Carter, Steve Earle, Danny Gatton, Doc Watson, Tom Paxton, and Eric Andersen.

I think that the most important lesson in this book is just how much hard work it takes to be a professional musician like Pete. In addition to the long hours of practice and jamming, he took lessons from Joe Pass and Johnny Smith.

If you've heard the phrase, "life begins at 40", that is about how old he was when he went on his first full-scale tour, with Mary Chapin Carpenter's band. That led to another gig with Nanci Griffith's band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, and ultimately meeting his wife, band mate, and songwriting partner Maura Kennedy.

I'm going to pass along two anecdotes from this book that I especially liked. When he was a teenager, his garage band chipped in and bought a copy of "Are You Experienced?", Jimi Hendrix' first album. After listening to it, they concluded, "this is what we're going to sound like from now on." The drummer said that he was going to have to quit, because he felt that there was no way that he would ever play that well. The rest of the band talked him out of it.

Pete and Maura are occasionally asked how they feel about not "making it big". Their initial response is, "Wait a minute, we're not big?" Pete continues with this: "having been around actual celebrities, their lives as corporate brands were not an ideal to which anyone serious about art would aspire... Staying under the radar was a decision I made long before when I traded my Herman's Hermits albums for 'The Best of Muddy Waters.' Go for the real stuff, and keep your freedom. That was 'making it big' to us."

The only criticism I have of this book is, I would have liked to read more about Maura's pre-Kennedy life. I learned that she is from Syracuse, NY, that she grew up playing punk rock and British folk rock, and that when Pete and Maura met, she had a working country-rock band in Austin, the Delta Rays, which had a fan base. I would like to know more about what inspired her to go for a career in music, what her influences were, and what sort of training she had. Maybe she's working on her own autobiography?

Epilogue: Since a significant part of this book is conversations Pete had with famous people, I'm going to tell you about the brief conversation I had with Pete Kennedy. It was during the intermission of a concert in Tacoma, WA in 2011. (I drove down from Vancouver for it.) Pete was selling their CD's in the lobby, so of course, I had to buy one of them. During the first set, I heard a lick that sounded like a 12-string, but I didn't see a 12-string on the stage, so I asked Pete where that came from. He told me that he used a Rickenbacker 12-string when the song was recorded in the studio, but what he did when he played it live was play a C chord in the first position, and pluck the octaves with his right hand.

The amusing thing about this is, I was standing five feet away from drop dead gorgeous Maura when this conversation took place. I probably didn't even say hello to her, because I was focused on getting a free guitar lesson from Pete. Shows you what kind of guy I am.

Purchase online here.

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