Austin-based musician Tony Kamel steps out from behind his Grammy-nominated string band Wood & Wire to present his debut solo album, Back Down Home. Released on September 24 via his producer Bruce Robison’s label The Next Waltz, the 10-track collection captures the serene spirit of life on Texas’ Gulf Coast. For Kamel, a Houston native, this album was a vessel for his venturing musicianship, welcoming in like-minded collaborators to help portray the palpable components of a place that make it feel like home.
It’s been a long hard week, a long hard month, it’s been a long hard year / Hard times are nothing new around here,” sings Kamel in his album opener, “Amen.” The Bluesy entrance sets an optimistic tone for an album bred in shared moment chaos and uncertainty.
The second track, “Slow On The Gulf,” serves as a shimmering centerpiece of the project. Co-written with Bill Whitbeck—who Kamel describes as “a staple around here” —the groove-driven tune conjures up coastal vibes. Whitbeck, who serves as a bass player for Robert Earl Keen, also plays throughout this album. Raised in La Porte, Texas, not too far from Houston and Galveston, the renowned bassists came into the project with a firm understanding of the setting, and a similar soft spot in his heart for the unique region.
“We kind of wanted to represent all these weird, funky characters we grew up around down there into this one person who tries to kind of get away but ends up back there,” says Kamel. “The Gulf Coast serves as a backdrop of positivity throughout the record. And the reason it’s that way is that it is a nostalgic place where I go and feel a strong sense of home.”
This sense of stable ground has become a necessity for much of the global population over the last 18 months. Many who had no plans of returning anytime soon found themselves at home again during the pandemic, making this concept more universally resonant.
Bringing this place to life through lyrical depth and vivid characterization instilled a sense of pride and certainty within the artist. Once he wrote this song, Kamel was able to shape the rest of the project around these senses and scenes. “When you go through major changes in your life, which I have over the last several years, it feels good to feel that,” he adds. “So that’s why the song represents that theme throughout the record.”
Once this theme started to emerge, Kamel found himself sifting through his catalog for songs that spoke to the sentiment. He wrote, re-wrote, and edited tracks to make space for moments that would align with the motif. “I tried to find places to bring out the theme in other songs where it maybe wasn’t so prominent, but without forcing it,” he says. “If it wasn’t gonna fit, it wasn’t gonna fit. But the most important thing for me is that this record, as a whole, was different than anything else.”
Kamel acknowledges that he is not the first artist to wield the Gulf Coast as a muse. But what he wanted to convey was the quintessential components of the region that separate it from surrounding areas. Wielding no singular approach, Kamel blends influences old-time influences with country folk traditions within his native Texas imprint. His musicianship as a Bluegrass artist overflows into his expanded jazz-funk borrowed from the nearby Bayou.
Songs like “Let It Slide” and “The Surfer” touch on themes of getting older and looking back, while “Heat” is a lively representation of the people and culture of Lafayette, Louisiana. Horns drive the tune while Kamel paints a picture of locals two-stepping in The Blue Moon Saloon.
“It wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to me to make my solo record a bluegrass record,” he explains. “I wanted to do something totally unexpected.”
Kamel recorded Back Down Home live with no computers, to tape with very little, if any, editing at Robinson’s all-analog studio in Lockhart, Texas. With the help of several talented contributors, the artist crafted an album that conveys the breadth of his dynamic musicianship.
“I think the experience opened up a whole world of possibilities where I just feel like I can do whatever I want now, and that’s exciting,” says Kamel. “I can approach a lot of things differently. Now, when I start thinking about writing a song, I’ll probably be thinking ahead of how I would do it in the studio, and expand that thought as to what will be on the song itself. A good song doesn’t need anything. I always write a song in hopes of being able to play it all by myself and for people to enjoy it.”
To accompany the album release, Kamel created a podcast, Beyond The Liner Notes. The first episode features my friend Wrecks Bell—a longtime Galveston resident, friend, and bass player to Townes Van Zandt, who founded The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe. Listen to the first episode, here.
Listen to Tony Kamel’s solo LP Back Down Home, here.
Photo Credit: Josh Abel