It’s been eight months since The Kernal visited Macon to appear alongside Paul Cauthen for a stellar set at the Hargray Capitol Theatre on February 23rd, 2020. Due to the novel coronavirus, that night would prove the last performance by The Kernal and His New Strangers before the pandemic parked tour vans and locked venues across the country. “It was a good one to go out on that’s for sure,” laughs The Kernal (aka Joe Garner) during a lunchtime phone call geared around the Single Lock Records release of a new single, “U Do U”, on October 16th. I’d been keen to catch up as our last conversation had centered on a new album tentatively set for the summer– but of course, that revelation was mere days before the dumpster fire of 2020 was truly lit and smoking. The tale from there is unfortunately rather common– Kern and the boys (like every other outfit on the continent) shut down tour dates, the Capitol closed its doors (visit saveourstages.com), and Sound and Soul retreated to the basement to assemble, as best we could, the necessary daily information that felt so crucial through the months of March, April, and May. The Sundays of early quarantine around the Irons household were punctuated with fearful mornings, picture-perfect afternoons followed by fried chicken, and the livestreamed Cactus Hour featuring The Kernal and his best friend/guitarist Cotton Clifton. Remember how gorgeous the spring was in Central Georgia? I do. I also remember that I barely enjoyed a second of the sunshine while I wondered how I’d pay my mortgage, buy groceries, and keep my family safe in the coming weeks that continue to stretch into months. But when Kern and Cotton came on, I truly relaxed for a few minutes. “U Do U” picks up where 2017’s Light Country (an integral part of my ‘rona soundtrack) left off, twanging in just the right cadence and showcasing The Kernal’s signature humor and outlook. I can’t swear when COVID-19 will be defeated or when live music will fully return, but I do know that I can’t wait to hear Kern’s new album and see that red suit on a stage once more.
AI- We all sat around collectively as a family to watch and listen to Kern & Cotton’s Cactus Hour. As much fun as it was, I was also very impressed with the way, as the episodes progressed, that you incorporated some of the local businesses there in Jackson into the show. When we see the national and global impact of the pandemic represented on the internet and on television, I think the actual efforts at the local level go unsung. I appreciated what you were doin’ there.
K- Those things, it’s just the kind of stuff you take for granted and you don’t think about a lot. And then you’re sittin’ back and sayin’, “Well, man, my tours are all decimated and everything I’ve had planned is gone!” You’re thinkin’ about yourself– and then you start realizing that this thing’s havin’ an impact on everybody! My wife owns a shop in town too, it’s like everyone just started scrambling to try to figure out how to make stuff work. We realized at some point when we started doing a couple of those, “Hey, we’re all in the same position here!” Music is one of those things that you can do and it brings people together. You can get an audience and tell people things. It was a good thing. I wish we had a little more resources to make it more consistent. ‘Cause Cotton actually moved from Jackson probably six months ago…
Yeah, he moved up to Nashville, which isn’t terribly far, but it’s a couple of hours and far enough that now it’s an ordeal to try to get anything organized. It was fun there for a minute to do those [livestreams], and I’d like to get back into doin’ something like that. But I’m not very technical, as a person, and so all that stuff was a huge learning curve for me, just even like learning how to use basic software to make an interface work with something going live… It was like going to a master’s course for me to even figure out how to do it poorly, you know? (Laughs)
Well, I’m glad that Cotton is good but one of the things I was going to ask you about was navigating the pandemic. You had Cotton they’re right next door to you and able to get together and collaborate and be safe. I know a lot of artists and bands who have found themselves in a position to where they are in different parts of the, not just the state, but the country, and that has really stalled any collaborative creativity.
Yeah, absolutely. ‘Cause we lived about a block from each other. So there for the first couple months of the pandemic, we weren’t seein’ anybody! He was at his house and I was at my house and then I’d walk down and we’d drink a couple beers and hang out for a little bit. But that was pretty much all of our interaction for the first handful of months of this whole thing. Yeah, just navigatin’ that thing has been interesting. Like with my record that we’ve been workin’ on, I was probably, in February, 90, maybe 95% done with the mixing and all that. And then it just totally got stalled! It was just a matter of finding a time to go that felt safe down in Florence [AL], ’cause they had their own set of issues going on. Somebody’s gettin’ COVID here at someone’s wife’s work and so we got to stay quarantine for two weeks and it was just a series of all these things that kept draggin’ it on for months and months. I didn’t get back down there until last month to even work on the last 5% of the record (laughs)! It’s been an exercise in patience for everybody, but definitely when you have somethin’ this close to your heart that you’re working on for a long time… But you know, in some ways it’s kind of a blessing too. ‘Cause it’s good to get away from stuff like that for a little bit and get some fresh eyes on it. So it’s all been good, but yeah, I do feel as though I’ve gotten a little bit older (laughs)! I’ve aged twice as much the last couple months with the presence of alcohol and some of those things! I’ve been having to stiff arm some of that stuff a little bit here lately (laughs)!
Oh, I tell everybody before the pandemic started, I was 6’2 and 185 pounds. And now I’m 5’11 and 230! It’s not fair (laughs)!
(Laughs) That’s it! That’s how it happened! My dad always you used to say, “I used to be 6 foot 2, son,” and he’s 5’10 and says, “Life’ll getcha!”
Let’s talk about “U Do U”. We’ve [100.9 The Creek] actually been playin’ that one– and thank you for sharing that with us so soon– since before your last visit in Macon. But we had started playing it after you and I had spoken last time, so I’d like to dig in on that track now. And if you don’t mind me sayin’, in retrospect, listening to it and having listened to it since COVID-19 took over everything, it would seem that you might’ve known something wicked was on the way.
Yeah, well, it’s always lurkin’ in this country, you know? It’s always hidin’ behind the bushes if it’s not explicit for sure!
The whole sentiment of the song, “How long’s it been since you loved somebody more than you do you,” I think that those words have been the challenge or the mantra of 2020.
To me, it’s astounding how, once people find out they can get away with something, they just keep doing it. It’s amazing that this thought doesn’t cross the mind of more people. I just feel like it’s disappointing the way adults are acting on a widespread basis in 2020. And it’s really a difficult thing to wrap your mind around! How did we lose this sense of commonness? Even like with the political thing– left and right. Left and right have needed each other to define the other for years and years, and then once that understanding gets kicked out, it’s just madness and absurdity, which is what we’re seeing a lot of.
It’s those simple thoughts that keep us together, I think. You see this when tragedy happens or even in a domestic relationship. You’re fighting with your partner and then you find out some bad news– and all of a sudden, all that meaningful fighting just goes out the window and puts it all into perspective. It’s a shame that we need things like that to remind us of the basic structure of being human together. That’s really what that song is about. I always love tryin’ to turn little phrases you hear on their ear because I get annoyed when I hear a lot of people sayin’ the same things all the time. It’s like, when people say, “I know, right?”
Everybody it says it! “I know, right?” And like, “Oh man, you do you! Oh, that’s all good! You do you!” I always hear those things! I get bugged by ’em and I think, “Maybe if I can find a way to turn ’em on their ear, maybe it won’t bother me as much anymore!” But that was kinda my goal with that song, to try to twist that around a little bit and remind myself, really, about some of these things.
That became our callback around the studio here. Like after we started playin’ that, somebody would say they were gonna go do something, and we’re like, “Yeah, you do you, baby!”
You do you, man! I can’t do you (laughs)! I can’t do you for you!
Along that same line, I know this album is done and you’re excited and certainly ready to get it out, but because of everything that has been going on, have you been writing? Are you taking this into consideration and chronicling your experience so far in the pandemic and the dumpster fire of 2020? I’ll be honest, I’m extremely interested to hear what the Kernal has to sing about 2020.
I always feel that it’s important to get a little bit away from an experience just to be able to write about it. It’s like the fish and the water thing. If you ask a fish what water is, it’s gonna say, “What are you talkin’ about? I’m too close to it. I don’t understand this concept.” So there’s a general confusion about how to make sense of some of that stuff to yourself when you’re living through it. For me, I always think that I know what I think and what I want to say in the middle of something. And then I start sittin’ down to try to hammer it out and it doesn’t work very well. It normally ends up being a little while of lettin’ that thing marinate before it becomes a bit more clear. Because I’m tryin’ to make sense of the social dynamics of what’s goin’ on and tryin’ to make sense of it to myself– and that’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from for writing songs.
I always think about being in front of people, all kinds of different people, and what they think and what they believe and what do I want to say and what kind of conversation do I want to talk about while these people are trying to boogie out there? Writing is kind of a constant thing, [but] I don’t feel like there’s a good outlet necessarily right now for me to pop stuff out with havin’ a record in the can and waiting on the rollout of that. I can’t just be poppin’ out new songs. It’s a constant process, man, but I’m curious what I’m gonna to have to say about it too, by the time we get on the other side of it, for sure!
With the new album, we got to talk about it a little bit back in February. I know that you were keepin’ a lot of it under wraps because there was a lot of things up in the air at that point. But I do know that you were back with Ben Tanner producing down at Single Lock Studios. Outside of the band, are there any special guests that appear on the record?
There’s one guy, I’ve told him that anytime I make a record, I want him there. It’s a guy named Cheyenne Medders, who lives between Nashville and Resaca, Georgia– he’s a Georgia boy– where he’s from. I think he’s movin’ back to Georgia soon, but he is a one of my favorite musicians and he’s all over it, everything that I do. With this one, just the nature of it, we went in with our core group and hammered out a lot of the basic stuff, and then Jerry Bernhardt, the guy that plays bass on the record– he plays with Yola and Andrew Combs, all kinds of folks– he and I kinda put our heads together from that point and did a lot of the legwork ourselves.
It was a pretty small group, honestly. I really do like to have a strong core of people around to make the vision happen. And after that, I really do take a lot of pleasure in doin’ as much as I can myself and pushin’ myself, you know, “Let me play this clav! Let me track some drum stuff!” I love bein’ in the studio and tryin’ stuff I never tried before. That’s a big part of what I love about doing music, especially when you find people that you really jive with– like Ben Tanner. I mean, he and I could sit in a room for a month! We’ll have a couple of fights, now, along the way, like any good couple would, but it’s just a delight, man, to be in the studio! A lot of it was just that core group and then I was in there just tryin’ to make stuff sound cool.
You said earlier that you do plan on releasing singles. Have you got a release schedule planned? And is there an actual release date for the full album?
There’s not a schedule or release date per se, but we’re kind of in the middle of that now. We weren’t gonna put anything out before the end of the year. It had just been so long– and it’s like having money in your pocket, you know, “I gotta spend this on something!” We’ve had [“U Do U”] mastered since February, so the label was really cool. They were just like, “Let’s go ahead and push this thing out and try to keep some momentum going into the new year.” The plan right now, loosely, is to keep rollin’ stuff out, hopefully, in spring, summer. So much of the release has to do with the label and their scheduling. But like I said, we’re done with the record. Who knows what 2021’s gonna be like! Good grief! I mean, there’s no telling what’s going on, so makin’ plans right now is a real bad idea (laughs)!
That’s something I want to ask you about. It’s something I’ve been concerned about as far as the future of touring and especially smaller venues. When things can truly open up, and of course, I know neither one of us want to speculate on how or when that’s gonna be able to happen, but when they do, from the loneliest picker in a backwoods barbecue joint on up to the Rolling Stones, everybody’s gonna be tryin’ to book dates. Unfortunately, I dare say, there’s not gonna be enough venues to go around for that first big push. Is that a concern that you have? Or is that something you have considered or discussed with any other artists?
Definitely something that we’ve considered and is concerning with everybody in this world. But you know, it’s one of those things that my friend Jonathan Paul Gillette, who’s a great visual artist in New York, he says, “It’s a problem, or it’s a possibility.” I think especially with country music there’s something about the freedom of just saying, “Hey, Jimbo, pull your 16 foot trailer up here! We’re gonna put a couple o’ 15 inch speakers on there and turn these amps up real loud and cook some barbecue and get all these kids out in the yard! We’re just gonna whoop it and have a good time!” It’s as simple as that.
I don’t consider myself like a club artist necessarily. I love playing any venue, whether it’s a theater or a club or whatever, but I don’t really necessarily filter what I do through the club life. It just obviously happens to be the way that people do things and those are the places that are easiest to play and that have all their stuff together. ‘Cause when you do your own thing, you end up takin’ on seven or eight different jobs and it’s a lot of work to put a show together. So we’ll see. If nothing else, if nobody has us in their club, we can put somethin’ together! ‘Cause we do want to play these songs for people and get it out there as much as possible.
But it is concerning. As every day goes by, it just looks more and more bleak for music makers. This is not a kind climate for people doing this. It’s not valued in a way to sustain it. It’s just sort of a, “Well, if you want to make it work, you gotta find a way to make it work!” And there’s just not a lot of resources out there, which is disappointing, but again, like I said, we’re all in the same position. We’re all in it together and some people will complain about it and other people will find a way to deal with it. Hopefully, I’ll be in the camp that figures something out!