BEN KWELLER: On Track

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Like all Texans who leave, Dallas-area native Ben Kweller could feel the tug of his beloved Lone Star state all the way from New York. He knew he wanted to return someday. But his wife’s a New Englander. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to convince her to love Texas.

Like all Texans who leave, Dallas-area native Ben Kweller could feel the tug of his beloved Lone Star state all the way from New York. He knew he wanted to return someday. But his wife’s a New Englander. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to convince her to love Texas.

He never dreamed she’d be the one to suggest moving. But after he finished recording the tracks for his new album, Changing Horses, in Austin, she pitched the idea to him. He was thrilled. They arrived with their toddler son last summer, which they spent seeking out every swimming hole in a 30-minute radius. Then they got to experience one of the mildest, most pleasant winters Austin’s had in a while. Turns out even New Englanders get tired of bone-chilling cold.

It also felt right, Kweller says, because Changing Horses is a country record. It’s hardly Nashville’s version of country, but it’s got, well, not twang, but plenty of steel. And lonesome laments and gospel-tinged blues, with a pickin’-on-the-back-porch feel-if the back porch happened to have a piano sitting there for the occasional honky-tonk break.

If that surprises his fans, it shouldn’t. “I’m a songwriter and that’s what I’ve done since I was eight years old,” explains Kweller, who got his first record deal at 15 as the leader of Radish. “From time to time, you write different types of songs. And when you’re also a performer and a recording artist all wrapped into one, you kind of put songs aside for different projects.”

Occasionally, he’d come up with a song like pedal-steel-saturated “Wantin’ Her Again” or the spare lament “Gypsy Rose” or good-time blues honky-tonker “Sawdust Man,” and consider putting them on whatever album was coming next. But he also thought it would be fun to do an album expressing just his “rootsy-Americana-folkie-whatever-the-f@#$ ya wanna call it” side. “After The Beatles and before Nirvana, country music was the soundtrack to my life,” he notes on the album advance. “That music shaped who I am.”

Later, he says he purposely planned his career from his first solo release, Sha-Sha-a hodge-podge of styles from electric and acoustic rock to power pop and alternative-to be able to make whatever kinds of albums he wants without appalling his fans. And these songs seemed so special, and so similar in vibe, he says, “They deserve to live together.” One of them, “On Her Own,” is so undeniably catchy, it could be a hit for some Nashville star-or pop rocker or Americana act.

Actually, the thread that pulls this disc farthest to the country side of Americana is Kitt Ketterman’s off-the-hook steel playing. One of Kweller’s closest friends, Ketterman is, unbelievably, just a hobbyist. A cello virtuoso at 5, he has bad memories of being forced to perform, according to Kweller, who reports Ketterman also loves his regular job: driving band buses. (But he did join Kweller onstage in Europe last summer, which helped crack the shell of that performing aversion.)

Now that Kweller’s put his country songs together, he’s not sure what’s next. Could be a kids’ record, could be whatever. (His not-yet-3-year-old son already plays drums.) “I’m always writing and just trying to be creative,” says Kweller, “and some really good songs pop out of that.”

HOMETOWN: Emory, Texas
AGE: 26
FAVORITE COUNTRY SONG: “Window Shopping” by Hank Williams. Hank could bring you to tears through his ballads, but I really admire his mastery of “the ditty.” One thing I love about classic country in general; clever rhymes. “Window Shopping” is one of those sweet ditties that just comes together. It feels like a song that came out quickly. It’s an example of how Hank was similar to Smokey Robinson, Carole King, or the old-school musical writers that could write a sweet pop song for what it was.

– 11 of my favorite country songs –

1. “Window Shopping” – Hank Williams – One of my favorite Hank Sr. songs. hank could bring you to tears through his ballads, but i really admire his mastery of “the ditty”. One thing i love about classic country in general; clever rhymes. See Roger Miller, later in this playlist, for prime examples… “Window Shopping” is one of those sweet ditties that just comes together. feels like a song that came out quickly. It’s an example of how Hank was similar to Smokey Robinson, Carol King, or the old-school musical writers that could write a sweet pop song for what it was.

2. “You Gotta Be My Baby” – George Jones – My favorite version of this tune comes from the album Live Recordings From The Louisiana Hayride. This tune really showcases the vocal range that made “Possum” a country legend. Sweet high voice, smooth midrange and a manly bass when he goes down low. It’ll kick your ass.

3. “Rodeo” – Garth (do I really have to write Brooks?) – I don’t care what any of you say, Garth is the
f*¢4ing MAN! When Ropin’ The Wind came out, I, Wore. It. Out. It’s the only country song i know that uses Fender Rhodes piano, which now makes it “Indie Rock”! It’s a song that just makes you wanna hop in the cab of an F250 pickup and go bail some hay.

4. “$1000 Wedding” – Gram Parsons – Such a sad song. check out that early 70’s busy-as-hell bass drum! awesome. of course ya need to know Gram’s version cuz he’s the author, but I gotta tell ya, Evan Dando might do the best version of all.

5. “Little Man” – Alan Jackson – AJ is my fave when it comes to modern day Nashville country. he writes all his own stuff, calls the shots, and makes me want to wear a mullet because his looks so damn good. This tune features a sweet pedal steel nugget which tags the chorus each time.

6. “To Be Alone With You” – Bob Dylan – This is from one of my favorite Dylan albums, Nashville Skyline. The whole album is great. it’s a quick listen, only 27 minutes long, but the material is airtight. I love this cut because it has that R&B backbeat. It shows what happens when country gets funky. Dig Bob Wilson’s honky tonk piano playing along side a young Charlie Daniels’ Telecaster chickin’ pickin’.

7. “Mama Tried” – Merl Haggard – It’s hard to make a country playlist without this tune. It’s probably the most important Rambiln’ man songs. Outlaw country before there was outlaw country. Musically it was ahead of it’s time. It’s got an almost classic rock arrangement. The acoustic guitar intro is something jimmy page would be proud to call his own. The electric guitar lick is as good as a hook gets and before you know it the song is over so you gotta rewind and do it again!

8. “Whiskey Bent And Hellbound” – Hank Williams Jr. – You either love hank Jr. or ya hate him. I LOVE him. He’s written some classic’s. I dig how he’s not afraid to talk about his father in his songs. “Whiskey Bent” has this honesty to it that I love. and How can you reject his voice when it goes down that low!

9. “Pick Up The Change” – Wilco – I got A.M. when it was the only Wilco album. After growing up on Garth and the other pop country of the 90’s, I was so psyched to discover a band that was making good country music below the radar. When I toured with Tweedy around the time of Summer Teeth, he told me that he really didn’t like A.M. anymore, didn’t like how it sounded. I understand the feeling of moving on from past work, but this is still some of my favorite Wilco and “Pick Up The Change” might be my favorite tune.

10. “Mean Eyed Cat” – Johnny Cash – Unchained is one of the best Cash albums and one of his last. “Mean Eyed Cat” is an uptempo number full of spunk. It’s a little known fact that the backing band on the album is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers! Yuh huh!! You can totally hear Tom and Mike on those electric geetars! DAMN it’s good…

11. “Things i Like To Do” – Ben Kweller – Well, I never said these were the best country songs ever, I said they were my favorite! 🙂 I’m not throwing it in here because its mine, I’m throwing it in because it’s got one of the best pedal steel solos ever. Kitt Kitterman shreds on this thing… Look out!

12. “Dang Me” – Roger Miller – Now we come full-circle to simple, clever song craft. This guy was a genius. He new the balance of humor and heartache like no other.



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