Most of us are lucky if we’re able to realize a few of our wildest dreams at some point in our lifetimes. Blues singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Kirk Fletcher knocked off a couple of them just this past year.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Fletcher, long in awe of the axes played by his musical heroes, partnered with his friends at Gibson to create his very own signature guitar (see sidebar.) And he was able to record his latest album, Heartache By The Pound, at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
The big year took shape when Fletcher did an about-face from his original album plans, as he told American Songwriter in a recent interview. “Before I started the writing process, I was going to do more of a traditional blues record, and I was gathering my thoughts for that,” he remembers. “The pandemic was not all negative for me. It made me think about re-evaluating my life and what I wanted to achieve. Because we really didn’t know when we were going to be able to play again or get together with people.
“I thought why not just try and write the best possible songs I can and fulfill all of the dreams I had, like recording at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals? I figured before I could book the studio or think about players or anything, I better try and write the best songs I can. I got together with a friend of mine, Richard Cousins, who plays bass with Robert Cray. I was living in Switzerland at that time and he lives in Switzerland. We got together in a really organic way to write these soul and rhythm and blues songs that could express how I feel as a man at 46 years old.
Once he set his sights on his dream studio, there was no holding Fletcher back. “This is the first time that I’ve recorded my own music, not playing with other people, where I could just say, ‘Look, I’m going to go after this goal,’” he explains. “The goal for me was to record in the studio I wanted to record in forever. For me, recording at FAME Studios is like recording at Abbey Road for a big Beatles fan. I thought of all the different records made there, by Aretha Franklin, Otis Rush, and all these people. FAME Studios and that band and that sound is a certain thing. It’s Southern soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and blues, and it all meets in Muscle Shoals. I said, ‘This is it. I have to make it happen.’”
Fletcher also made sure that the instrumentalists he brought along to support his songs were in the same head space about the hallowed environment. “We all respected FAME Studios,” he says. “When you have that in your mind, where you’re doing this thing and you’re in this legendary studio, I think everybody was on the same page to serve the song, try and keep it simple. And I only added guitar to enhance the song.”
Heartache By The Pound hops from style to style with ease, beginning with the horn-filled swagger of “Shine A Light On Love” and ending with the emotional balladry of “Hope For Us.” In between, there are a couple of 12-bars for the purists, but Fletcher explores a diverse range of genres and emotions, always anchoring it with his impassioned vocals and effortless guitar.
He even looks back fondly at how he got here in “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up In The Blues,” recalling his childhood musical foundations. “That is definitely my life story in the song because it really was like that,” he remembers fondly. “I grew up playing in church. Even saying ‘wrapped up, tangled up’ is something from a gospel song from when I was a kid. I turned it into a blues song like many people have done before.”
When asked to view the album compared to the rest of his body of work, Fletcher speaks of how it’s the culmination of his progression from an in-demand sideman to a fully-fledged solo artist. “I grew up being an accompanist, sort of a sideman supporting other people,” he says. “With these last three or four records, it’s been more me trying to come into my own, trying to go on this path of writing, singing, trying to make these cohesive records that have great songs, getting better at the overall process. I feel like this is my best work to date.”
From gospel to the blues with all the stops in between, the journey continues for Kirk Fletcher. “There’s a real tradition of the bluesman starting out in church and then going out and playing blues music and studying the blues tradition,” he says. “I’ve spent a lifetime listening to it and working on it, trying to marry that tradition with songwriting. Rhythm and blues, soul music, blues, and gospel, they’re all a family. I’m excited to even explore that even more.”
GuitarGibson Custom Shop Kirk Fletcher ES-345 Sidebar
“Overwhelmingly incredible” were the words Kirk Fletcher used to describe his opportunity to design his signature guitar with Gibson. By the grateful tone in his voice, you could tell it was no exaggeration. The guitar in question, the Gibson Custom Shop Kirk Fletcher ES-345 (ES standing for Electric Spanish), captures the tradition of some of Fletcher’s favorite classic models and adds some personal touches along the way, including the blonde color and the ebony fingerboard replacing the more traditional rosewood.
Fletcher developed his thoughts for the guitar with Mat Koehler, a friend of his who works for the Custom Shop. “It was sort of like sitting down, having dinner and the napkin thing, where you’re sketching out different ideas,” Fletcher says with a laugh of the process. “It’s really based on the classic design of a Gibson ES 345. I’m a traditionalist at heart, but I just wanted to add a few things to make it a little unique.”
The guitar feels like a wide range of guitarists and guitar aficionados will fall for the new design. “You play, you learn, and you get better, and you aspire to having a guitar like this like I did when I was young,” Fletcher says. “Or you might be the person who just loves the way guitars look and loves the classic design of late ’50s models. It’s nice to have something as close as you can get to a vintage guitar.”
Photos courtesy GIBSON