Kendell Marvel readily admits that he was the beneficiary of some exceedingly good fortune. After all, few people write a song on the very day they arrive in Nashville and then quickly find it recorded by a major star (in this case, Gary Allan) who takes it to the Top 5 on the country charts.
“I thought it was easy after that,” Marvel said, his dry Southern drawl reflecting a decidedly down-home disposition. “It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, so the next one took a little longer. I guess it was the way it was meant to be.”
While his surname might imply otherwise, Marvel was clearly blessed with more than beginner’s luck. Although it took a couple of years to match that initial feat, his string of subsequent successes affirmed the fact it wasn’t a fluke. Over the years his material has been recorded by such superstars as George Strait, Jake Owen, Darius Rucker, Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton, with whom he’s written well more than 60 songs and with whom he has toured as Stapleton’s opening act.
Some might think — and rightly so — that Marvel’s achievements amounted to overnight success, but in fact they’re simply the result of a career spent pursuing an honest, heart-felt sound seeped in a vintage country tradition.
“I don’t know if things would have turned out the way they did if that hadn’t happened,” Marvel said in reference to his first big break. “I was ready to get a day job so I could feed the kids. That’s a tough thing. When people move here and try to work a couple of jobs and then try to find time to write songs, it can be pretty rough. I’m not sure I could have done that.”
Still, as Marvel also admits, the odds of making a living as a successful songwriter are sketchy at best.
“I read something one time that said you’re more likely to become a Major League baseball player than write a hit song,” he said. “That’s some pretty big odds. I never had thought of it that way.”
While he clearly was able to launch his career writing for others, Marvel said his true intention was to be an artist himself. While growing up three hours northwest of Nashville in southern Illinois, he had a couple of tentative recording contracts when he was younger, but they never panned out. Instead, he made inroads into the music publishing business by making connections with other songwriters before he decided to permanently relocate to Nashville in 1998.
“I got kinda hot as a songwriter, having some hits and album cuts on other people’s albums,” he recalled. “My kids were little, so I thought, ‘Man, this is my bag — writing songs!’ It ain’t a bad gig. I get to go home, have dinner, put my kids to bed and then get up in the morning and write more songs with these guys.”
Even now, Marvel seems to, uh, marvel, at the fact that he did as well as he did, especially when it came to his connection with Stapleton, who’s recorded three of Marvel’s songs so far.
“Some of those songs we did were a little too cool for school,” he said. “It’s hard to land material with a guy like that. He’s got so many great songs. Your odds go way down.”
That said, he, Stapleton and Jamey Johnson all started as songwriters and came up through the business together.
“I knew those guys when they both moved to town,” he said. “I was one of the first guys to write with them.”
Still, Marvel said some of the songs he was writing weren’t necessarily things he wanted to record himself. He said he leans more towards a sound inspired by his early influences — Hank Williams Jr., Doc Watson, Waylon and Willie, and Commander Cody — all of whom formed an integral part of his parent’s record collection. AC/DC, Alice Cooper and the sound of Southern rock also were in his early listening library.
Although he insists that he’s a country singer (“I’m all about love songs, pedal steel, stuff that’s pretty twangy”), he dismisses the sounds that permeate the playlists of most modern country radio stations.
“I don’t like the way music is going these days, with that ‘bro country’ sound,” Marvel said. “I’m not going to record those kinds of songs. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and then go play them at the Bluebird Cafe. I’m too old for that stuff. Plus, I’m not good at being something that I ain’t.”
As a result, he opted to record an album of his own, “Lowdown and Lonesome,” and put it out himself.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he said. “You don’t just put songs up on iTunes and that’s it. I learned that. But still, that first album positioned me as a performer and not just a songwriter.”
Marvel’s sophomore album, the aptly titled “Solid Gold Sounds,” was released Oct. 11 on Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s record label, Easy Eye Sound, and it features Auerbach himself sitting behind the boards. David Ferguson, the man responsible for albums by Margo Price and Tyler Childers, among others, co-produced.
“Yeah, that was a no-brainer,” Marvel said. “David was the man who introduced me to Dan. It’s a PR dream and really something to talk about. The rock ‘n’ roll world meets a stone cold country dude and they hit it off.”
So far Marvel’s found his market mainly on Americana radio, satellite radio and Spotify. He’s also toured extensively. “Obviously that exposed me to a lot of folks. Word of mouth and the internet are amazing things these days for guys who are almost 50 years old and making music.”
He’s also looking forward to making his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in early December. He said that early next year, he’ll undertake a massive stateside trek that will take him from the Southeast up to Alaska.
“I just want to give folks good songs,” he said. “They know what they want to hear and I know what they want to hear. Not a lot of fluffy BS.”
His upcoming appearance at The Shed will mark his fourth visit to that venue.
Marvel continues to write songs and collaborate with others, but these days his output isn’t necessarily intended with any other artists in mind.
“I’m not chasing it,” he said. “They’re all up for grabs. I just try to write good songs, and if it lands somewhere, fantastic.”