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Welch drives on

By Brian Baker, July 1999

While Kevin Welch is not one of Nashville's most prolific or best known or most successful songwriters, he is certainly one of its most gifted. As a writer, Welch placed a number of quality tracks on the albums of the great and near-great. As a performer, Welch recently released his fourth solo album, "Beneath My Wheels."

There is very little about Welch, either in his writing style or his career path or his biography, that could remotely be considered typical. He left his native Oklahoma at 17 and never looked back. He toured around the country on the roadhouse circuit with various bands for several years until his early 20's, when he married and chose to settle down.

Nashville was the logical choice for a place to raise a family and have a music career as well. Welch, 44 in August, quickly got a deal with a music publisher and began to churn out songs that he assumed were the daily vogue in Music City. Funny thing was none of them sold.

"I was a young guy, maybe 25, and I'd been here a couple of years," Welch remembers from his Nashville home. "I was trying to write stuff I thought my publisher wanted me to write, and I was no good at that. I was writing inane bullshit, really."

Despite his lack of success, Welch continued to write songs he thought would make the whole world sing. It wasn't until he took a moment and just tried to please himself that the first of his songs found a voice. But even though he was pleased with the outcome, Welch was hesitant about revealing the song to his publisher.

"I wrote this one song off by myself, when no one was looking," Welch says. "It was called 'Everyone Gets Crazy Now and Then.' I almost didn't even show it to my publisher, which was Tree at the time. But at the time, they were advancing me $100 for every song I turned in. And I needed that $100. So I took it on down and showed it to them. The next thing I knew, Roger Miller, one of my main heroes in songwriting, recorded it. So that was a real big lesson to me. That I could only do this if I were doing my best work. And I could only do my best work if I was doing what I loved."

During the course of his writing career, Welch has succeeded in getting songs recorded by Gary Morris ("Velvet Chains"), Trisha Yearwood ("That's What I Like About You") and Moe Bandy ("'Til I'm Too Old to Die Young"), which have become at least moderate hits, generating what Welch laughingly refers to as "mailbox money." He knows that even a small compromise on his part would increase that number exponentially, but he just doesn't have that particular weapon in his arsenal.

"I've not been a real radio writer," Welch says. "I'd love to be, though. It'd be great to have a whole string of hits out there. I seem to be more of an album cut guy, unfortunately."

Nearly a decade after Miller cut his song, Welch signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and in short order had a couple of critically-acclaimed albums to his credit (his eponymous debut in 1990 and "Western Beat" in 1992).

It was an exciting time in Music City, as the face of country music was beginning to change, with sonically familiar but stylistically different acts such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Foster & Lloyd and Steve Earle making a huge impact on country and pop audiences alike.

"The first three years that I was here were sort of the aftermath of Urban Cowboy," Welch recalls. "It was a time somewhat similar to what's going on now, where everyone seems to be complaining about stuff sounding the same on the radio, and nobody's taking any chances. Basically people stopped buying the records. It's kind of what's happening here now. This always seems to follow a boom time in Nashville. A lot of money comes flooding into town, and everybody just loses their damn heads. They start chasing the dollar, and they're scared it's going to stop. So that's what was going on through those early years, and I just wasn't interested in taking part in it. Then good old Steve Earle came along and kicked down the barn door when he put out 'Guitar Town.' It was time for somebody to do something along those lines, and Steve was the one tough enough to do it."

After the critical praise and low sales of his Warner albums, Welch found himself discussing the possibilities of self-releasing product with fellow songwriter Kieran Kane.

The more they talked, the better the idea seemed, and with the additional support of guitarist Mike Henderson, fiddler Tammy Rogers and Harry Stinson, the quartet formed their own label, Dead Reckoning.

Welch got himself released from his Warners contract, and in 1995 recorded the stunning "Life Down Here on Earth." The following year, after a chance encounter at a Fairfield Four show, the label picked up critical distribution avenues by aligning with Earle's then-recently launched E-Squared Records.

One of Welch's strengths as a writer and performer is his ability to work across a variety of styles and yet still retain a thread of consistency. At first blush, "Beneath My Wheels" seems to be a pastiche of musical genres, including blues, folk, country and pop, but closer inspection reveals the purely musical foundation upon which all of the disparate songs are built. Welch knows that this particular quirk in his performing mode could keep him from wider exposure, but it doesn't seem to be keeping him up nights.

"There's some good stuff going on in mainstream radio right now," Welch says. "People talk as if there isn't. Sometimes, in fact, I talk as if there isn't. But there are some people doing some real good work. A lot of my friends are in that kind of arena. And I say more power to them. They're working hard and doing well. I'm pleased for them. But I just don't seem to fit in there. And once I stopped being upset about that, I just felt a hell of a lot better."

After all that Nashville has dangled in front of him, Welch retains a healthy amount of reticence and caution concerning his chances for fame and fortune with "Beneath My Wheels." With a pause and a low chuckle, he says, "I'm not buying anything on credit."