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For Keith Sewell, making music is a journey

By Jon Weisberger, December 2005

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Adding to his busy schedule, Sewell's more recently joined mandolin and fiddle legend Sam Bush's band, too.

"Sam and Jerry, their things are so different," he says. "We do a lot more traditional stuff with Sam, a lot more of the hard driving bluegrass stuff, and then he's got some really wacky instrumentals that he's written with Béla (Fleck). And then we do some reggae stuff, too, but mainly his core is that hard driving traditional thing, whereas Jerry's thing is more progressive, and a lot more dynamic - and it's also a lot more free-form. It's scary how free-form Jerry's thing can be sometimes. I remember, my first show with him, right before we went on, I asked (bassist) Derek Jones, 'what happens on this song right after this?' And he said, 'you know, it's weird, sometimes we do this and sometimes we do that, but man, just try to feel it.' And I'm thinking to myself, that's not what you want to hear before you go out there on your first show!"

Still, it's "Love Is A Journey" that really has Sewell excited these days. Though there are a few guest appearances sprinkled across the album - Skaggs plays mandolin and sings on "When Love Came Down," a classic-sounding gospel duet co-written by Sewell and Jerry Salley, and both Bush and Douglas drop in for some tasty playing - most of the musical weight is carried by Sewell, fiddler/mandolinist Andy Leftwich (a member of Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder band) banjo player Scott Vestal and bassist Byron House.

Top-notch musicians all, they're connected by multiple threads, and the result is an unusual degree of sensitivity and musical interplay.

"Andy's just been great," Sewell says. "We've been great friends for a long time. He and I had already started working on the album, cutting tracks, and when I was talking about bass players, I was thinking about using Derek, but Andy said, 'you really ought to think about trying Byron.' They'd been doing a trio thing, and I knew Byron had played on the Nickel Creek stuff, but it was Sam's call in December 2004, that really opened the door for that - I asked him who was in the band, and he said, 'Byron House, Scott Vestal and Chris Brown.' So I told Andy, and he said, 'go out and play with him and see what you think.'"

"We had our first show on Jan. 20th, and of course, Byron was just super, and Scott was right there, too - and I'd always wanted him on the record, but I just didn't know him at all. It turns out, though, that we were at some festivals together back in Texas when I was a kid, and he remembered me, which was really cool."

"So by the time we got home we had already booked the session. I said, 'I've got this record, and you guys are perfect for it.' So it was kind of cool the way it worked out - we ended up being band mates. And I don't think it could have happened any other way; it was almost like it was meant to be."

The songs on "Love Is A Journey" have an air of inevitability about them. Though several are brand new, a number date back to the days when Sewell worked on his ill-fated Universal album, and their appearance here is testimony to the writer's persistence and faith.

"Some of them were songs that I really pushed for back then," he says, "and the label said 'no.' I was disappointed because some of those were just songs that I thought, these are me, these are who I am - and they were saying 'no, we don't see that'."

"I don't feel like there's a single song on the album that was written in the normal formulaic method of writing songs. I did that for a long time - when you're trying to make a living as a songwriter, you're constantly being pressured by publishing companies. The emphasis was not on quality. It was on quantity. But songwriting can't be something that you just snap your fingers, and it happens. It has to be inspired. When you're writing something, it should move you - more than it moves anybody else. And if it doesn't move you first, you can't expect it to move the listener. So there's not a song on here that didn't move me when I started to play it. That's why they're on there."

"I've always said, if I'm ever a front man, my motivation won't have been fame or fortune, it won't have been being the focus of attention because that's not really my style. If I ever get to that place, it will be because I've made music that I was convicted about making, and that it somehow spoke to people. That's what making this record was really about; I wanted to be able to say, this is what I can hear, this is what I can write, this is what I can play - this is what I can do. And if it moves people, then I've done a good job."

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