Review: Kendell Marvel Caters to No One on Third Album of Rugged, Honest Country

Kendell Marvel
Come On Sunshine
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Just one look at Kendall Marvel’s bald head, no-nonsense stare, long white Rip Van Winkle beard, and hulking, tougher than leather persona and it’s clear he’s serious about whatever it is he does. In this case, it’s making rugged, honest outlaw country inspired by the no-BS style of Waylon Jennings and Chris Stapleton.

The latter is especially notable. They have written dozens of songs together and Stapleton’s high profile has helped Marvel establish himself as a performer by letting him open shows. After being a behind-the-scenes songwriter for decades, Marvel started making albums in 2017 at the age of 46. Along comes fellow Nashville resident Dan Auerbach in 2019 to provide a label and production assistance for Marvel on the well-received Solid Gold Sounds release.

For album number three, Beau Bedford (The Texas Gentlemen) takes over the production reins. He also provided the Dallas-based backing band, who Marvel had never met before recording these ten intrepid tracks. Unsurprisingly, Stapleton plays a fairly major part in the disc’s creation. He co-pens two selections, sings backup on a few more, and contributes guitar to another. While Marvel’s sound is similar to that of his buddy, there’s surely room for more of what Stapleton is ladling out to sheds full of adoring fans.

Marvel’s dusky baritone drawl and soulful swamp dominate these tunes informed by honky tonk and classic country, given an edge when run through the singer’s blunt approach. From the dark dreamy “Hell Bent on Hard Times,” where he brings a bit of George Jones and blues to the darkish ballad (No reason not to turn around/guess I’ll just be runnin’ blind), to the gutsy ZZ Top meets Tom Waits slow rocker, “Put It on the Plate,” a take no prisoners attack on phony preachers, there are no weak moments.

Marvel doesn’t play anything he doesn’t believe in declaring in the pre-release notes, “I’m 51 years old, which means I’m long past the point of catering to anybody, I’m just telling the stories I want to tell.” One of those is the thudding Waylon stomp of “Habits,” where he takes the voice of a rogue who knows he has to change but can’t reform his bad habits singing Heaven only knows how many suns I’ve seen rise up from in the county jail/Lotta daddy’s paychecks got wasted on this redneck’s bail.

But that doesn’t mean he’s beyond showing his tender side, which he does exquisitely on “Fool Like Me,” where the chorus of Took a man to keep you, but to lose you took a fool like me, is set against a melody so memorably bittersweet you’ll be singing it after one spin. It’s a highlight of both this album and Marvel’s recorded career as it exposes another side of his craggy swagger. The closing weeper “Dyin’ Ain’t Cheap” ends the set on another poignant note as Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and pedal steel bring sensitivity to a tale about how living don’t come easy and dying isn’t cheap.   

Kendall Marvel got a late start as a frontman, but he’s making up for lost time with three potent, unapologetically raw country albums in the past five years, of which Come on Sunshine is arguably the best.

Photo credit: Laura E. Partain / Sacks & co.

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