This interview was originally planned for one of my musician profiles in PINUP AMERICA magazine. But, shortly after the interview I fell ill for a very long time and once I got back on my feet, PINUP AMERICA was out of business. So it’s taken me until 2017 to realize, “Hey, I can put it on my website.”
So here it is, way overdue. Thanks to Kevin for his patience, and I hope you enjoy the read.
AMERICAN ROOTS MUSICIAN
~ from Rockabilly to Willie ~
Folks around the world became acquainted with Kevin through his current gig - playing bass for Willie (Nelson) and Family. What legions of Willie’s fans may not know is that Kevin’s roots are in rockabilly - and much like a tree, he’s branched off from there.
Kevin’s resume reads like a “who’s who” of American Roots Music. He’s played with the legendary Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Dwight Yoakam, Brian Setzer, Kris Kristofferson, Dan Hicks, Dale Watson, Heybale!, 8-1/2 Souvenirs, Pam Tillis, James Hand, Dale Watson, Kinky Friedman, Marti Brom, the Ridgetop Westernaires (with Wayne “The Train” Hancock), Ronnie Dawson and of course, High Noon… and that’s just scratching the surface. In those bands, Kevin has explored country, jazz, Tex Mex, blues, swing and rockabilly.
If there were such a thing, Kevin would hold a Doctorate Degree in American Roots Music, and he would have graduated Summa Cum Laude.
WHAT OR WHO INSPIRED YOUR INTEREST IN MUSIC?
I’ve always loved music. My mom had Elvis 45’s and stuff like that. When I was about 12 years old, I was walking home from school one day, someone had taken their parents 45’s and just thrown them all over the neighborhood.
So I was walking home picking up records. Two of the records I got that day was a Beatles record and a Buddy Holly record. “She Loves You” and “Oh Boy!” So those two records really set me off. I’m a huge Beatles fan.
Those 45’s… I still have them. I’m a big record collector. That’s how I’m studying Texas music, for the past 25-plus years since I moved to Texas in 1988. I’m trying to absorb as much of it as I can. Texas has such a broad spread of cultures and musical styles. I didn’t know it at the time but, when I moved there, it was the perfect place to go.
WHAT GOT YOU FROM ARVADA TO AUSTIN?
We used to hang out in Denver. There was a band called The Gins. Before that they were this band called The Bop Street - playing roots rock. I was about 16, 17 years old. I started getting into music, this was pre-internet you know, so you had to find the right record store.
Record stores in Arvada didn’t have much old stuff. I went down to a record store called Wax Tracks in Denver. There was a guy named Pete working there and he said, “Hey, I’m in this band. Come check out my band.”
Through that, I met Shawn and Todd, who were both in The Shifters later. I could go to Wax Tracks and talk to Pete. I didn’t know anything about blues at all. I heard a lot of blues on the radio and I just didn’t “get it,” you know? I could go into Wax Tracks and say, “Pete, where should I start to learn about some blues stuff?” He’d hand me a Howlin’ Wolf record and I’d go home and just be blown away.
A while later, I walked in and asked Pete, “What’s good?” He said, “You just gotta get this new Ronnie Dawson record.”
That first reissue of Rockin’ Bones led me to working with Ronnie Dawson
That first band, The Shifters, started playing in Denver. We played one gig in Denver before we were booked in Austin for a weekend.
After that first weekend, we went back to Denver and decided two weeks later just to move down to Austin. Being a rockabilly guy in Denver was not cool in the late 80’s but in Austin… it was really happening.
SO YOU JUST PACKED UP THE VAN AND HIT THE ROAD?
Yes… just cold!
My game plan was “work avoidance” - and I’ve been very successful at that!
DID YOU EVER HAVE A DAY JOB BEFORE BEING A MUSICIAN?
Yeah, I worked at Pizza Hut a couple of years, I did landscaping, that kind of stuff, but I haven't had a "real job" in a really long time.
HIGH NOON WAS PERHAPS THE LAST TRADITIONAL ROCKABILLY BAND DOING IT THE TRADITIONAL WAY… JUST BEFORE THE INTERNET WHERE YOU CAN INSTANTLY CONNECT TO THE WORLD WITH THE CLICK OF A MOUSE. IN SPITE OF THAT HIGH NOON WENT FROM PLAYING HOUSE PARTIES TO PLAYING THE WORLD. HOW DID IT CATCH ON? HOW DID IT GROW?
Our guitar player Sean Mencher and his wife worked tirelessly to promote and book the band. They worked really hard… hitting the phone, writing letters, booking us gigs, doing stuff like that.
The second thing is that we were rehearsing five nights a week. We rehearsed at our guitar player’s house. One of the years, if not the first year, of the SXSW Music Festival and this guy comes over from next door. He’s from Helsinki Finland, the drummer from Laika and the Cosmonauts. They are an instrumental band, and they had come to play SXSW. He was staying next door. At the time, rockabilly had just crested a huge hill in Finland. Ray Campi was having hits there in the 80’s. There was a good solid scene there.
He heard us rehearsing and asked if we had a record. We told him no, and he said, “Well, I can produce a record on you. Let’s go into a studio and we’ll make a record. I’ll take it over there and get it put out.”
So that’s what we did. The first High Noon Show and Dance record. We made it in three hours. They booked us in Finland. Once we got into the rockabilly scene in Finland we got into the Hemsby Rock and Roll Weekender which is really an all European festival. We got into Hemsby and made connections there to go pretty much anywhere.
Sean Mencher and his wife as well as Pete from Goofin’ Records did a lot of work. There were a lot of people that really helped us out.
Yes we did. Those are tough to find.
WE TALKED ABOUT HIGH NOON COMING OUT OF AUSTIN. COULD THE BAND HAVE ACCOMPLISHED WHAT THEY DID HAD THE BAND COME FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE?
I don't think so. We were a drummer-less band so Shawn Young and I had to really handle all the rhythm. We were playing Texas dance halls and honky tonks, playing four-hour nights with no drums, so we really had to physically build up to this task. Because, you know, you’re playing Texas dance halls you have to be really able to play old honky tonk stuff so people could dance. We really loved that stuff, but that really brought it into our style to where we couldn’t ignore it. We incorporated that stuff into our thing. High Noon was definitely a product of Texas.
THE BAND’S NAME HIGH NOON CAME FROM THE MOVIE?
IF YOU WEREN’T PLAYING MUSIC WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING NOW?
I’m not sure what I would be doing. If I could pick, I would be a photographer. I love photography and I shoot film.
HAVE YOU DOCUMENTED YOUR BANDS, MUSIC, AND TOURS FROM DAY ONE?
Not really, because I couldn’t afford the gear. I have a son who is 13, and once we had our son I bought a good digital camera. I’ve really only had money to spend on that kind of thing in the last few years.
WOULD YOU CONSIDER A BOOK PROJECT OF YOUR WORK SOMETIME DOWN THE ROAD?
Possibly. It might happen. I’m “accumulating content.”
HOW MANY COUNTRIES DID HIGH NOON TOUR?
I think we did fourteen. We played in St. Petersburg Russia, the Canary Islands…
YOU’VE PLAYED EVERYTHING FROM HOUSE PARTIES, TOURED THE WORLD, CONAN O’BRIEN AND CARNEGIE HALL WITH RONNIE DAWSON TO YOUR SPOT WITH WILLIE NELSON. IS THERE ANY GIG OR CROWD THAT STANDS OUT ABOVE THE REST?
I think my most memorable gig at this point is my first gig with Willie, for sure. Willie is a world wide icon and in Texas it’s even more prevalent.
I’d worked with Willie with Asleep at the Wheel with the Willie and the Wheel record. When Bee (Spears) passed and I got the phone call (I’d got the phone call at 8 in the morning) I threw my stuff in the car and drove out east of Houston. They’d eMailed me an audio of a full-on Willie show, and I’d known a bunch of the show from the Willie and the Wheel tour.
That’s always the “golden moment” because there can’t really be any expectations. As long as you don’t completely fail, you’re either going to go, “Yeah, I did OK” or, because I worked so hard on the Willie and the Wheel stuff the first time, Willie walked past me on the stage, patted me on the shoulder and said, “way to go” on his way off stage. So that was a pretty big moment. That was pretty huge!
SO YOU HAD NO REHEARSAL… NOTHING… JUST ‘TRIAL BY FIRE?’
“Trial by fire,” yeah! Like I said, I’d done some of their show a couple years earlier.
WHEN YOU PLAYED THAT FIRST GIG… FROM THAT POINT WERE YOU “IN LIKE FLYNN” OR WAS THAT YOUR AUDITION?
They said to come down and finish the run. There were 7 or 8 shows left. I practiced all day, every day for the first couple months because I wanted to really do it, you know? After 3 days or so, Paul (who’s been Willie’s drummer since the late 50’s) I was in the back room and Paul came in and said “this is the rate and this is where you’re at.”
Two days later he came in and said “You’re on the payroll, here’s your new rate.”
DID YOU GET HAZED AT ALL? BECAUSE THESE GUYS (WILLIE’S BAND AND ENTOURAGE) HAVE BEEN TOGETHER FOR DECADES.
IS THAT A YES?
Maybe I’m still getting hazed!
YOU HAVE A YOUNG BUCK COMING INTO A BAND THAT’S BEEN TOGETHER FOR AGES AND IS TIGHT AS A DRUM…
Everybody has been really great. The first night, I walked in the tour bus after the show, my suitcase was still in my car.
I came into the bus and said, “Which bunk is mine?” Flacco, the front house guy, pointed at the one down in the back and said, “That one’s yours. The last two people that slept there are dead!”
You know, we’d been out here 30 years. It’s kind of refreshing actually, to see somebody that was listening to all these songs. We’re saying, “Don’t listen to that version, it’s 30 years old. Listen to THIS version, ‘cause this is the one he’s gonna do on stage.”
We had to help him with a few shortcuts, but Kevin has practiced more than anybody I’ve ever been around.
I UNDERSTAND THAT WILLIE DOESN’T HAVE A SET LIST, YOU JUST GET OUT THERE EVERY NIGHT AND WING IT.
Pretty much, yeah. There’s a certain rhythm to the set where you kinda feel what’s coming on, but yet you never know.
Willie feels the audience really well so you can tell where the crests are coming. He’s up front and you hear him playing a D chord, you know what’s next, pretty much.
Right now I’m at a place I’d have never dreamed of being. I love this job. I love this gig, I love the music. All the people are great. It’s tremendous. Really, really great.
HAS YOUR ROCKABILLY BACKGROUND INFLUENCED ANY OF THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE BAND IN ANY WAY?
I don’t know. I think I play some of this stuff a little more aggressively than might have been played before. My default is fairly heavy handed. I started out learning to play really, really hard, and as I’ve gone on, I’m learning to play quieter and quieter.
ARE YOU PLAYING UPRIGHT BASS OR ELECTRIC BASS WITH WILLIE?
I’m doing both. I come out and play electric for about a half hour. Because with the early stuff, I’m coming out with an electric bass - the attack is so immediate - and I hit it hard on the first half hour or so. Whenever there is a chance to switch to the upright, I switch to the upright. I can’t plan “I want to play upright on Georgia and switch” because I never know where Willie is going. So I have one switch point and when I feel like it’s a good switch point, I switch.
DO YOU SEE MORE UPRIGHT OR ELECTRIC DOWN THE ROAD?
I’m doing a little more upright now and it’s kinda how I like it. I think I’m better at upright. I have more fun playing upright. They are both fun, but I think the upright with this band sounds really great. It’s an acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, harmonica and a snare drum. An upright sounds great with them.
DO YOU HAVE ANY NEW MUSIC OR RECORDS COMING OUT?
I’m working on a record with Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel. I’ll play you a track (it’s a great Western Swing version of BYE BYE BLACKBIRD). Talking about being a Texas musician… To me Texas music all works into Western Swing. The guitar player is Rick McRae who plays with George Strait. The drummer is Butch Miles who played with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Count Basie for 15 years I think. The release date is to be determined.
I’m also recording some gospel stuff with James Hand, a country / hillbilly singer out of Austin. I do studio work all the time. Tons and tons of stuff I’ve played on. Mostly Texas projects.
I hope so. It’s really dictated by our schedules. We all have commitments. (Since the time of this interview, Kevin reunited with High Noon in Helsinki in 2014, and again in 2015 to receive the “Keeper of the Key” award at the Second Annual Ameripolitan Awards. Most recently, the band did a one-off gig in 2016 at the New England Shake-Up Rockabilly Weekender.)
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR ONE “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING” MOMENT AS A PERFORMER?
That’s hard to say. I got to meet Pete Seeger at Farm Aid last year. I didn’t know he was there and I opened the stage door and he was standing there with his band. So that was incredible, talk about “well known”… “Nice to meet you” - what else can you say?
Playing rockabilly at Carnegie Hall was a huge deal. Tattoos and hair and all that stuff is fine, but High Noon wasn’t about any of that stuff. We played our instruments. That was the deal. We wanted to take it seriously.
HIGH NOON WAS BRINGING TRADITIONAL ROCKABILLY - BONE STOCK - EVERYWHERE. AND YOU’RE RIGHT, IT WASN’T THE FLASHY, MTV VIDEO STYLE AND I THOUGHT THAT WAS GREAT.
Exactly. That was our take on it.
YOU’RE HERE WITH WILLIE AND FAMILY, YOU’VE BEEN IN HIGH NOON - WHAT’S THE GOOD PARTS OF EACH?
Playing good music with people you like is a blessing. I did a tour one summer - 2008 I think. I did one summer in Mexico to play with Jesse Dayton for a few days. I came home and slept one night at the airport, then went and did another tour with the Stone River Boys. We were on that tour in a 95 Cadillac, five guys and a trailer. That same summer I did some gigs with Dwight where we were on a Lear Jet or bus - so it was the whole spectrum.
If I’m playing good music with good people, that’s huge.
DOES THE BEST MUSIC COME FROM GOOD TIMES OR BAD TIMES?
It’s a mirror. It’s everything. It’s art.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED?
“Be on time” is a good one.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF 20 YEARS FROM NOW?
Playing bass, I hope. Taking pictures.
ANY WORDS OF WISDOM FOR AN UP AND COMING MUSICIAN?
It’s about being on your path. Anything you can play that’s good… play it!
I got to see Kevin play after the conclusion of this interview at a gig with Willie and Family. I saw Willie once prior to Kevin joining, and I have to say, Kevin adds a rootsy feel to Willie’s band. At this gig, the band was all acoustic - Willie’s sister Bobbie on piano, Paul English on a snare, Willie on Trigger, and Kevin. He switched to upright after the second song and played it the rest of the set.
It was almost as if I witnessed Willie and Family at the very beginning, playing the music they love, in an old honky tonk. After the gig, I half expected, half imagined Willie to be in the back room collecting the door from the club owner, while the rest of the band loaded up the trailer, ready to hop into an old Lincoln and head off to parts unknown.
If you get a chance to see Kevin, do so! He’s always on tour with Willie and Family, as well as keeping busy in the music world in and around Austin.
Before you go, take a look at Kevin’s discography, check out Kevin’s Facebook page and follow Kevin’s Instagram feed.
High Noon and Ronnie Dawson on Conan
High Noon on Art Fein’s Poker Party
Willie and Family - Roll Me Up
Heybale! at the Broken Spoke
Willie and the Wheel