I met Ted at Johnny’s Bar in Highland Park – one of those ultra hip neighborhoods of Los Angeles that just a few years ago was a duck and cover scene. The Dodger game was blaring but the Green Flash IPA was cold and cheap. We took a corner booth and spent the better part of an hour talking about music and his journey.
Ted’s one of those guys I’ve known a tiny bit for years – always a friendly hello and a hearty handshake. In recent months I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him sit in with 29 Mules in North Hollywood, and play a set at the Grand Ole Echo in Echo Park. He’s probably best known as the bassist in Shooter Jennings breakout band, but his dedication to building his own career, is nothing short of admirable. His tour schedule will often have him in Stockholm one day, New Jersey the next, and Los Angeles the next.
It’s worth mentioning that Ted handed me a pre-release copy of his new album, Night Owl, (which is coming out in November)and I’ve been blown away by it. It’s been a staple in my truck on touring weekends, and I’m confident it’s going to do great things for him.
You can hear music and pick up tour dates at tedrussellkamp.com
You make music in the very broad Americana genre. How would you describe your music to someone?
It changes from year to year, and from month to month. I usually say my music is rootsy rock — rootsy rock and roll. To a stranger who doesn’t know much about music I’ll say there’s a little bit of Tom Petty, little Sheryl Crow, little Dwight Yoakam, little bit of Bonnie Raitt, maybe even some Dr. John. Those are iconic figures who represent genres.
People who don’t know much about Bonnie Raitt will know that she’s a groovy soulful and blues-inflected singer who is also pop. People that know Tom Petty know him as a great songwriter, maybe not in the ultra personal way that Jackson Browne is, but people can get a vague understanding when I use his name.
When I’m talking to someone that really knows music I can say, The Band, Levon Helm. I love almost everything The Band has ever done. Almost every single record of mine has a song that sounds vaguely like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or The Weight. That’s one of my favorite tempos and feels ever.
I love Emmylou Harris and all the stuff she’s done in the last 15 years. Dwight Yoakam is not a random reference for me. I love the Bakersfield sound. I go to Nashville regularly. I have a publishing deal there. I don’t really relate to the mainstream market that much, but I definitely appreciate the craft.
You say you appreciate the craft of the Nashville songwriting. Do you feel that you could create that music and be satisfied by it? Do you think you could do it in a way that is less…how do I say…over the top?
Now that I’ve been there a bunch I’ve co-written with people that are writing for the bigger artists in country music. When I’m there too long I feel, maybe, like a fish out of water. I think, If I’m going to truly embrace the Nashville culture I need to move there. I’ve learned a lot and I have many great friends there, but it’s not my place. It’s a community of people that have worked and created together and have a long history.
I understand what you’re saying. I know I could write like that in a way that I feel better about. That is, to an extent, what my records are. I record mostly in LA or on the road, but many of the songs on my records are written in Nashville. Some of the recordings on my records are demos that were created to pitch to other artists. I, literally, re-sing them, put new bass on them and mute a bunch of tracks. There is a part of that sound that I relate to. I don’t know if I could write that music really well and be one of the greats. It’s a very different world.
I do have a barometer that tells me if something suits me. A pop country guy may be able to sing the hell out of that line, but I couldn’t stand in public and sing that line.
There is a reason that I moved to Seattle after college. I wasn’t a grunge guy, but I learned how to be a professional musician in Seattle. I played seven nights a week. I was a student of American music – rock, jazz, ska, blues, country. I was loving being eclectic.
After I played in every bar in town I thought, “Where do I move next?” I’m tired of making one hundred dollars a night. I’ve played with every single person in this city that isn’t already famous. I’m not so country that I wanted to move to Nashville or Austin. I had been down to L.A. a handful of times to play with a couple bands, and I said, L.A. is the place. I had been a sideman for many years and I knew I could get in the network with larger acts and see the world. I felt I could have a bigger shot at a music career in L.A. than I would have had in Nashville.
Did the Shooter Jennings connection happen here in L.A.? I remember when he played around in L.A., but then he moved to Nashville?
No, I met him in L.A. Do you remember High or Hellwater? I auditioned with them and they asked me to go on the road and join. They are great guys and it was good music, but they were five or six guys driving around in a van and sleeping on couches. They were like, “Maybe we could get you a few bucks at the end of a six week tour.” I was like, “I love you guys, but I can’t do that. I’m already gigging regularly. I’m married.” I remained good friends with them.
Around 2000 I was doing lots of pop and rock gigs. These acts wanted to be the next Matchbox 20 or Jewel or Fiona Apple. I was playing very eclectic gigs. I was happy with that for the first two years here. But slowly I came to realize that what I really loved was Americana music. I was on the road with a band and one of the guys pulled out a VHS tape of The Last Waltz, and it totally changed my life.
A few weeks later I saw Whiskeytown and The Old 97’s on Austin City Limits. I said, “This is exactly what I want to do.” Piece by piece I started finding these things. The Band was a band that married pop and gospel and country. The more I got into these bands the more I understood what my identity needed to be.
I played with several bands and one of these guys ended up being Shooter’s guitarist, Leroy. Through him and Matt from Hell or HighWater, Shooter put his band together.
Shooter called me and I went to his rehearsal space in Hollywood. I just immediately liked him and the music. I hadn’t heard the music before, but I could tell exactly where they needed to go. He wanted to form a larger band, but after that rehearsal I told him. “We’re the Led Zeppelin of country music. This has to be a four piece.” Every player can have more identity. I love being in bigger band but when you have that, the bass playing has to step back and becomes a meat-and-potatoes thing. You play very simply and stay out of the way. I said, “Let me do my melodic thing because I love James Jamerson and John Paul Jones. And Carl Radle is one of my favorite bassist. He had a real American approach similar to the John Paul Jones thing. Very gospel and groovy.
Was there pressure to make that act a mainstream Nashville country band?
In a way. Shooter really knew who his parents were and was proud of that. He wanted to show up in Nashville with a completed album. He knew if he came there alone they would fire his band, make him write with Nashville writers and put him into that machine. His goal was to push the edge of country music and be like the interesting cousin. More poetic and soulful, but would still fit in the mainstream. Finding the guys like he did, we could rock it up and make it our own with blues and southern rock.
Sounds like a band. A rare beast in Nashville.
I remember the day we had a rehearsal and he came in and said, “I was in Nashville a couple weeks and got a record deal.” We were like ALRIGHT. He said, “That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re called ‘Shooter Jennings’.” I said, okay. It woulda been great to be a band name, but I immediately understood why.
They even talked about calling him Waylon Jennings Jr. His real name is Waylon. He is Waylon Jennings Jr, but that was too much for him. The influence is there. Shooter has a lot of heart.
When you were doing that gig we’re you writing a lot for yourself and looking for daylight to get your own thing going, or were you happy just being a sideguy?
I was kind of in between. When I met Shooter it was late 2003, and I had already formed a band of my own that was playing Molly Malone’s and King King. We weren’t a cool popular band, but we were definitely in the L.A. country rock community.
I wanted to get my records out, but I wasn’t stressed about it. With Shooter we would work eight months a year. We would take the winters off with little breaks in other places.
So, I would still book my own shows in between our larger things. One of the things that really saved my life on the road was that I got a little pro-tools rig. I would go back to the hotel rooms and write and record. Every time I would come back to LA I would go into the studio. I had just gotten my publishing deal in Nashville, so I was going there for three or four days at a time between our weekend shows. I had a ton of songs that i was proud of. Every time I would come back to L.A. I would take my band in the studio, record ten songs. Then when I went back on the road I would overdub in the hotel room and see what they needed.
I got a bouzouki in Bloomington, Indiana and I got really into The Waterboys thing. Then I got a mandolin because my acoustic was too big for the bus. So I got my Levon Helm happening. I ended up doing a record called, NorthSouth. The band with Shooter was getting bigger and more rocking and so I decided to make a record that went the opposite way. More intimate – accordion, mandolin, acoustic guitar. I didn’t want it to become a loud rock thing.
That’s a theme I want to touch on. You are one of the hardest working guys I know. Your tour schedule is brutal, and you cover a lot of ground. You have a hard work ethic. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. When I was a kid I was really good at puzzles. I loved legos. Staying inspired keeps me happy and motion keeps me happy. I don’t need to tour 365 days a year to be happy, but I like keeping new stimulus coming in.
We had a couple years on the road where I became a crazy reader. We were in the South a lot, and I started reading lots of Southern writers. I fell in love with Carson McCullers. My kid is named for Carson McCullers. I just absorb and try to be creative. I had a lot to do with the sound we had with Shooter. I was a big part of the arrangements, and I typically had a song per record, but it really was Shooter’s band and rightfully so. I wanted a creative outlet. I just didn’t want to be the stoner bass player for someone else.
Also, the more I did my own thing the less ego I brought to his band. One year I was getting into soul music. I’m getting into Carla Thomas and Otis Redding. Rather than start forcing that into the Shooter Jennings Band I just started doing it on my own record. Something to keep me inspired.
You grew up in New York. Upstate?
Near White Plains?
Yes. Due north of Manhattan. 35 minutes by train.
Was your family musical?
My dad was musical when he was in college. He had a trumpet at home. He saw himself has having music in his life, but it sorta wasn’t – definitely not an every day thing. Once a month he would do a Louis Armstrong impression playing the one melody he knew. My parents were supportive of the arts, but they were not happy when I decided to play music for a living. “We meant as an extracurricular. We meant until college. You’re gonna be broke and miserable.”
So, why do I work so hard? In order to make a living as a musician these days you have to work really hard. There are some people who are so gifted that they can get discovered at 20 and have millions of people love and adore their music. I was not that person. I am much more of a craftsman. And I want to keep doing it. I love making music. I’ve done nothing but play music since I finished college. Being creative is what keeps me going.
How do you see progression from your last record, Get Back to the Land, to your new record?
I don’t know if it is progressing.
It is regressing?
Well, there is feces all over it.
I’m really happy with how my records are coming along. I feel like the songwriting is getting better. I told you I love puzzles and trying to stay inspired. With all my records I am very involved with the recording and the arranging. I’ve produced them all myself.
Ever been tempted to use someone else as a producer, or is that part of the fun for you?
I have been tempted, but yes, it is part of the fun. I have produced a handful of records for other people and I feel like finding the right producer is really important. I haven’t found a person that is right for me that I can afford. There are definitely people on a wish list, but I don’t have a major label or even a large indie label budget. I can’t hire someone for 40 or 50 thousand dollars.
I also really enjoy producing my records. I enjoy putting together a vision for what the record will feel like as a whole and seeing what the record is missing. “I’m missing this kind of song.” then I can go off for a couple of months and write that song or take an older song and rearranging it. I like handling the overdubs, figuring out if I’m going to do them or if I’d like to bring in someone else to do it.
Like with the pedal steel, sometimes I’ll get Eric Heywood to play and record with me. His sound is moody and dreamy, almost more of a sound effect than traditional pedal steel. He sculpts these wonderful moods. He simply makes the music deeper and better. Should I call him? Should I call someone else for more of a lap steel feel? Should I wait until I go back to Nashville and have a buddy there play a traditional feel?
It is a soulful puzzle, and it has to do with story telling and feel of the music. I don’t want to think too much. You have to think a lot, but music is ultimately about feeling. How many times have you loved a song? You didn’t understand the words, but you loved it anyway. It’s about the sound and the energy. So I’ve been trying to think less and feel it more when I make my records. Sometimes when I’m on the bandstand or in the studio I just try to close my eyes and listen and enjoy.
When you’re editing in ProTools you can see the wave files on the screen. Sometimes you end up editing with your eyes. “Oh, the bass drum is early.” Wait, did it sound right? If it sounded right, it wasn’t early. It doesn’t matter if you can see that the sound wave happened a little early.
Each record is a chance for me to learn and grow, write better songs, mix better, and get better sounds.
So, you don’t start off with a concept. “This will be the bluegrass records”
This album, Night Owl is the first one with a concept. My first album was what I was doing in L.A. before we started touring with Shooter. My second record was kind of a reaction to the Shooter thing. It was called Nashville Fineline, which is a collection of songs I wrote mostly with other Nashville performers in mind. Those songs are a little more sentimental or charming. Around that time I also made a record Divisadero which was more about my more personal singer/songwriter songs.
Since then I did Poor Man’s Paradise and Get Back To The Land, and I’m very proud of them. They are about making good records that have a little bit of all the things I love. Some soul. Each of them also has a short story kind of song. I love Guy Clark and Katy Moffatt. Trumpet was my first instrument and I still play the horns, so I’ll have some trumpet and trombones on there and perform them myself.
This new record is a vibe album. It’s a more mellow album. I usually have two or three ballads on a record, but for this one the majority are different kinds of mellow or moody songs. I wanted to have a whole album that you play late at night. It is still my singing and my style, whatever it is, but it’s a softer setting.
I like the Frank Sinatra model of a record being a single mood, like In the Wee Small Hours. The entire album is one kind of feel and you listen to it in a particular setting, like Night Owl.
It’s hard to get people’s attention and this kind of approach gives them an easier way to get a handle on you.
It is hard to get people’s attention. There’s so much going on out there.
I recently asked a few people about you. Most everyone said, “Oh, that guy is a great songwriter.” Are you a diligent songwriter? Someone who sets aside an hour a day? Do you have to have your special blanket? Can you write in the back of a pick-up truck going down the freeway? How do you do it?
Being home helps. Being alone. Turning off the phone. I do a lot of writing in Nashville in co-writing sessions. At this point, they are mostly with friends of mine. It is usually one person’s song and the other person is helping – pointing out ways to improve and edit. The best songs come when a person has something they really want to say. Writing in Nashville for the market, you’re typically writing for a particular artist. So you listen to Alan Jackson’s best songs and you try and think up something up that fits with him. You come up with something that usually has a cool punch line and you write to the punch line. Every once in a while those songs are great. But that’s the kind of thing that can make a song feel corny to me. It’s a one dimensional picture of love or life or being a guy, whatever it is. I want more depth in a song.
Do you throw a lot of stuff away?
I have a laptop with hundreds of files of partially written songs. Rather than throw them away I keep them and periodically I scroll through them and try to find a good line or idea that was lost in the mire. Usually, when I get an idea I really like, I remember it and keep coming back to it. I have three or four that I’m in the middle of right now.
I’m not a “write an hour a day” kind of person. I’m not complaining, but one of the things that is necessary in the life of a musician is that I spend a lot of time booking and planning and driving and all this other stuff. I wish I had an hour a day to sit down and write music. I don’t. But when I have an idea that is really bugging me, I chase it down.
You live in Southern California. You play music here. What are your thoughts about the SoCal Americana scene?
I like it. There’s a lot of bullshit everywhere. When we started touring with Shooter, we started doing best in smaller cities in the South and Texas. People would say, “Where are you from?” and I’d say, “L.A.,” and they would say, “UGH!” and I would say, “No, man you’re thinking of Paris Hilton. You’re thinking of all this scenester and surface stuff, and that’s not the L.A. I live in.” Sure, that’s there, but I don’t gravitate towards that. I gravitate towards people who are honest and real and earthy. I think in terms of roots music, it’s earthy people who like honesty that make that music.
Every now and then I end up on a gig with hip hop guys or more modern rock guys. The players are all very accomplished pros. Often they have very different values. I’ve never talked about this before in an interview, but I turned down the opportunity to audition for Kelly Osbourne. I wanted to get onto the list of players that are used for big acts like Kelly. I aspired to achieve that. Then one day, I was called for the Kelly audition. I told the guy, “I think you should call someone else.” He said, “How can you say that? You haven’t even heard the music.” I said to myself, okay, he’s never going to call me again after I have this conversation with him but I was really deciding in my soul I was a roots music guy. I said, “I’ve seen the Osbourne show. I know what her music is going to be — kinda Green Day, kinda Techno, Kinda punk. I could go to Melrose and buy the right clothes, but there’s going to be some other bass player who already likes that music and will be great for her. I know I won’t be happy making that music and doing that gig. Here’s what I like, If you have anyone who needs that, let me know.”
When people think of L.A. they think of people who have nothing inside, so they keep changing their appearance and style to be trendy. “Oh, I’ll make a hip hop record this year.” The roots scene people here aren’t into that. They want to write there own songs. They go to each other’s shows. The Grand Ole Echo is wonderful. What Kim Grant does. We run into each other night after night. You, me, John Ramey, Kip Boardman, Dan Janisch, David Serby, Justin and Ole Californio. It’s a real scene of supportive people. There’s so much talent here. and it’s nice that it is happening outside of the pop music thing, and the pop country music thing. It’s people making music they want to make. There’s an honesty to it.