There’s a genuineness to Tony Kamel’s voice, a comfortable weight reminiscent of the best advice your father ever gave you or the funniest joke your best friend ever delivered. Recorded live to tape at Bruce Robison’s Bunker, Kamel’s new album Back Down Home is marked by all the kinetic poetry and ability of a Midnight Ramble and features a salty batch of stories that roll like a warm breeze off of Galveston Bay. Kamel, a Houston, TX native and member of the GRAMMY-nominated string band Wood & Wire, maintains his bluegrass savvy while also reveling in newer sounds and soaring on songs drawn from the grit, characters, and reassuring mythology of the Gulf Coast. Back Down Home is available now from The Next Waltz!
AI- Out of all the stuff that I’ve heard come out of The Bunker– and there’s not been a bad track yet– Back Down Home might be the most human, living, and breathing collection of songs that I’ve heard so far!
TK- Thanks, man! I really appreciate that. I won’t say we were necessarily going for that specifically, but it just sort of happened naturally.
I’ve actually spoken to Bruce [Robison] and to many people that have been down to The Bunker to record, and for some of them, goin’ in there and bein’ live in a room recordin’ to tape, it’s their first time goin’ all analog. And it’s a little shocking! Did you know, goin’ into it, how you wanted to have everybody set up and do it?
No, no, I didn’t know a lot. I knew how to record live. With the band I’ve been in these last eight or nine years, Wood & Wire, we did a lot of our stuff live. Although, we still had Pro Tools [and] knowing that Pro Tools is there gives you a different perspective! My experience was somewhat limited. All the stuff I’d done was basically with Wood & Wire and then occasionally goin’ in to record some banjo or guitar or background vocals for other people. So doin’ it this way with these tunes, I didn’t know how we were gonna set it up. I knew there were a few musicians I really wanted on it. But then there were a few that I didn’t know [like] which drummer I wanted or few other things. Bruce sorta took the lead on some of that.
Some of it was just goin’ for it and seein’ what stuck! The experimentation and the act of getting everyone in the room and just seein’ what felt right, and then throwin’ it down a few times– that has its own thing! That’s really what a lot of this record became. So I went in real nervous, frankly, and not knowing how we were gonna record a lot of these songs. It was open-minded in a lot of ways! But man, after the first song we tracked– that song’s not actually on the record– but after we got that song then we tracked “Amen”. Once we did “Amen”, we were feelin’ so good and havin’ so much fun that the rest of it just fell into place naturally!
You’ve said that the timing for a solo effort was just right because live shows had dropped off for everybody, including Wood & Wire, but the seeds had been planted for you to get together with Bruce for quite some time. He had been eggin’ you on to do this for several years now. Why did he think that was a good idea for you to go do somethin’ solo?
I think that one of the great things about Wood & Wire is that we didn’t try to make bluegrass. We didn’t have bluegrass songs, we just had bluegrass instrumentation. So I think what Bruce saw was some good songs that turned out great with Wood & Wire, but he also [heard] some of the songs I was writin’ that Wood & Wire didn’t do, and I guess he saw potential in other avenues. And I did too! I’ve always wanted to go outside of what Wood & Wire did and do somethin’ whenever the time was appropriate. But I think mostly it was because doin’ somethin’ different would have been fun! I think Bruce just liked the songs I was writing and thought that, “Man, this guy could probably make a cool record out here. Let’s just give it a shot!”
I really think it was that simple! But that started four years ago, and I was too busy and too committed to Wood & Wire at the time to throw out anything else appropriately. Once I was freed up because of the pandemic and babies and stuff, I said, “Well, let’s see what I can put together!” And it worked out perfectly, really! Like I said, I think it was really that simple– Bruce liked the songs that I was writing and thought it’d be fun to put me in there and do somethin’ a little bit different with ’em.
Real life, aging, growing a family, and navigating all of that as a troubadour. That’s predominantly what you sing about, what you talk about on the album. There’s a lot of talk of falling apart, I think mostly physically as opposed to mentally, but how much of that comes from that downtime and you being able to really slow down and look at your life versus just everything accumulating?
Well, I don’t think it had much to do with the downtime. There were a couple of songs that I wrote during the pandemic, but specifically, the term “fall apart”, in the tune “Let It Slide”, I wrote that when I found out I was havin’ a baby and I thought maybe I should grow up a little bit (laughs)! And then I realized I was too old to grow up any further in certain ways! There’s not a soul on this earth that doesn’t have a lot of the thoughts that I was havin’ when I was writin’ a lot of these songs. The downtime doesn’t really have much to do with it. I wrote a lot of the songs before that. I think it relates because the downtime was difficult for me and difficult for a lot of people. The hard times, they’re just gonna come and go. I mean, that’s nothin’ new, right?
My dad passed away six almost seven years ago, and so there’s some of that. That’s definitely a palpable thing throughout the record as well. Huge life changes tend to happen around my age, which is my late thirties, early forties. I think a lot of things change for people around that time and it gets uncomfortable and it feels weird. That’s why there’s this backdrop of the Gulf Coast where I grew up because when I go down there, it just feels comforting and nostalgic. That’s the stew of what this record is– unfamiliar, changing times, and goin’ somewhere where you feel almost normal whenever you’re dealing with them.
There are so many things that happened to us when, as you say, we grow up and become adults that nobody talks about or prepares you for. I don’t know that the word normal is the right word to use, but I think maybe that over time, people, when it happens to them, they forget the shock of it, and then they don’t pass that knowledge on to somebody else when they see it happen, whether that’s the passing of a parent, the birth of a child… Everybody’s got advice to give you when your first child is born– but that feeling of shock? Mine just turned five, and I had many breakdowns even before her birth. Like I’d be tryin’ to paint a wall and not being able to build something and just like, “How the hell am I gonna be able to do this?” That’s not something I think that people prepare you for. You do have to figure it out, whether that’s in song or just as you go.
Some things are just shocking and some things are just weird and some things are just hard and there’s really no preparation you can do. It’s just the way things go and no one can really explain it to you. Even if two people have been through it before, you can’t really find the words to really describe what you went through or prepare anybody. You can get all the advice in the world on how to deal with becoming a new father or a new parent, or how to deal with the sudden death of someone you love or how good it feels to come out of the dark times, but until you actually feel it? And everybody does and everybody will– and if you haven’t, you will! There’s just no way to describe it. That’s why I think it’s fun to try [describe it] in a song. That’s normal. That’s what a lot of writers do. If you can get it somewhat close and somewhat right, people will relate to it. I hope anyway. I hope.
For me, when I feel those times, I know they’re gonna happen. I’m used to them happening. I found a way to deal with it, and part of that way is by goin’ back to my roots and goin’ to places where things feel familiar and comfortable whenever everything around me is fallin’ down (laughs)! This is normal. There’s just no way to describe how this stuff feels really until you go through it. And then whenever you hear about it from someone, or maybe people tell you that it’s hard to describe, then when you go through it, you realize what that really means.
You have a song on that I think captures a lot of that feeling. “Who Am I Kidding?” There’s a lot that you explore in that song, including the fact that you weren’t always a professional musician. Tell me a little bit about your early days getting into it. ‘Cause you were in a sales position, right? Like music was a hobby and you had a straight, square 9 to 5, right?
That’s right, man! It was more like 6 to 10! It was a really demanding job, but actually, I really liked it. I sold knee and hip replacements for joint replacement surgeries. It’s fascinating! I was in surgeries and working with medical staff. I really loved working with people that work at hospitals– nurses, techs, and things like that, and doctors as well, but the soul of those places are really the nurses and the techs and things like that. I really miss that. I did that for seven years and the money was good and I enjoyed it, but the opportunity came up to play music for a living– or at least try! After a friend of mine passed away, I just decided, “Man, why don’t I just see what this is like?” Sort of a cliche situation like “you only have one life” hit me right in the face– but cliches are cliches because they happen a lot! I decided to at least try. I knew that if I didn’t at least try then I’d regret it. So I did and it worked! Wood & Wire grew fairly quickly, and I’m still doin’ it– still playin’ music for a living! I’m not the kind of musician that never thinks about my old life and how there are things about that [life] that were a lot easier. Certainly the income and the stability. I’m not sayin’ I’m gonna go back, but I’m not gonna lie to people and say that I don’t think about it. I guess I’m just not one of those guys that’s like, “It never even crosses my mind!” If I said that, it’d be a lie!
It’s not anathema. It’s not something that you would consider a dark path if you were to choose to do that again.
Hell no, man! It was a good job. I was very lucky. I’ll never look back on it in a bad way. I was very fortunate to have it. It’s a sought after position, and I would never look back on it any other way than fondly
You’ve been doing– and will be doing– a lot of solo shows. Has that been an adjustment goin’ from being part of the ensemble and then goin’ into doin’ shows by yourself?
There’s two different ways I’ve been doin’ solo shows. Most of them have just been me by myself and that has not been an adjustment ’cause I’ve been doin’ it for years and I really love it. I love playin’ by myself and tellin’ stories and really connecting with an audience. I change it up. I play some banjo and I play a little electric guitar just to try to make it so that it’s not just “some guy up there with a guitar.” So those shows I’m super comfortable with and I love doing them and I’ll do them as often as I can. I hope to put that style of what I do on records– just me by myself, in front of an audience, a solo live record. Bruce and I are talkin’ about doin’ that in an early November, out at The Bunker, like a live show with an audience in the studio, which I think will be cool.
And then for these release shows in the fall and beyond, I’ve been working with a group of musicians– a drummer, electric guitar player, steel guitar player, bass player, and a fiddle and mandolin player– to have ensemble shows under my name. Man, that’s been so much fun ’cause it’s so different than what I used to do! We’ve been rehearsing and played a few gigs and we played a gig in Houston this weekend, the release show, and we hit a real stride and groove. I’m really excited about that potential! We got release shows all month at festivals and clubs. Those are all with the band and I’m pumped about ’em! So there’s two avenues and the band thing has definitely been new because I’m the bandleader and I sort of make all the decisions– but the musicians I’m playin with are fantastic! I’m really lucky. But beyond, I definitely want to do a lot more shows just by myself in listening rooms or otherwise. Or in party venues! I opened a couple o’ shows for Robert Earl Keen last month, and I thought I was gonna get my head bit off by that rowdy crowd! But they were awesome! I had so much fun and I would do that every night if I could! So I see a lot of potential moving forward and I’m really excited to get to work.
You brought up that show coming up in November at The Bunker. Are you gonna be the vanguard for that kind of thing or has Bruce been doin’ it? I know that they had done some videos out there of live shows, particularly when they were tryin’ to put together the holiday show last year. But as far as like doin’ shows with audiences, is that somethin’ that’s been goin’ on? Or are you gonna be the first one to try it out?
We’ve done a few dry runs. Bruce and the team put together a few shows out there. I think there’ve been three or four. Bruce had a band for his stuff. I just did my stuff by myself. I know he did another one with Emily Gimble, a fantastic piano player and singer-songwriter here. I think there’s sort of a system in place now that we’ve done a few. They just reach out to their mailing list and stuff to try it out. I think it’s gonna go great, man. I’ve discovered, especially in the arts, there’s so much faith. You just do it and you see what happens!
You can’t tie every loose end up in this world. It’s impossible! If you do, it’ll probably be pretty lame, frankly. You gotta leave things open to see, to adjust to things that go wrong and to groove with things that go right. I’ve let go of makin’ sure everything’s gonna be perfect– and what we get, we get! I guess I always have the option of not using it? But I don’t care! I want to use it. I want to put it out there and we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been doin’ this stuff by myself for so long! I’m ready!
I listened to the Beyond The Liner Notes podcast, which was just thoroughly entertaining. Man! Hangin’ out with Wrecks Bell! What a great conversation! I love hearin’ the stories of the scene from the ’60s and the early ’70s.
I know! It was awesome! Wrecks has been so good to me over the years, and I feel so fortunate to have had the Old Quarter there in Galveston, to have been able to go there and check it out and eventually to play there. I’ll be honest, man, it’s gonna be hard to top that one! I really threw out a big Hail Mary early, but we’ll get into some other cool stuff about how we made the record and stuff like that. I don’t want to be too self-indulgent, so I want to really make it about other people. And then as that stuff sort of fades away, and I’ve said enough about the record itself, I’m finding out that the more people I talk to down on the Gulf Coast– and I’ve only been at Texas so far, but I’ll go anywhere– at the end of the conversations, they’re always like, “Man, you gotta talk to this guy! He’s got crazy stories about this!” I want to follow that path and follow that direction and see who people tell me to go talk to next.
I have friends that I want to talk to. He hasn’t nailed down a date or completely committed, but Kevin Russell with Shinyribs, he’d be a great guy to talk to. I’ve gone back and forth with Hayes Carll, who got started down in Crystal Beach in Galveston and Houston as well. And then there’s just normal, weird Gulf Coast people! Like some shrimper who has weird shrimping stories or tugboat stories! I don’t really even know where it’s gonna end up, but I’m excited for the adventure! Hopefully, it ends up cool. And hopefully, people find the stuff about us doing the record itself and writing the songs cool too. But I think long-term, it’s just gonna be lookin’ for cool stories about the Gulf Coast.
One of the things that struck me, when you got down towards the end and Wrecks played his song, you could hear ’em jinglin’ through the mic, he had Townes’s finger picks. When he said that, I thought, “I wonder if Tony’s gonna try to play with the finger picks?” And you did! What’d you play?
Oh, I played him “Slow on The Gulf”, the second song on the record. I played him that song ’cause it’s super finger picky and I thought it’d be a good one to mess with the finger picks on it. It was surreal! You know, things are just things– but sometimes things aren’t just things. That was a really cool thing to hold and feel. It was special.
One of the songs on the record, “Rueben’s Train”, an old, old song– where did you pick that song up in your repertoire?
When I first started playin’ bluegrass. I learned that song from a guy named Wayne “Chojo” Jacques. He’s a fantastic fiddle and mandolin player here. And side note, I got an episode of the podcast I’m working on that features him and talking about where he learned that song and I’m tryin’ to go backwards from there! When I started playing bluegrass around here, I started playing these bluegrass nights on Monday nights. Once I started getting into the rotation of being in that band, Chojo was there too, and he always played that song. It was always so much fun! I started to learn that it goes back to old-time music as opposed to bluegrass.
It’s been written and rewritten a million different ways. It’s one of those songs where people would spread it through word of mouth or word of song, if you will. They’d play it for each other, people would write their own lyrics, and I thought, “Man, it’s a fun song. I wonder how it’d sound with the band?” I actually took it to the studio as a way to kind of warm up. It’s not a very difficult song to play, so I thought I’d take it to the band that we were gonna have and we could just jam on it and have fun with it to loosen up and get to know each other musically. I wrote some of my own lyrics to it! As I was rewriting all the songs for the record, I wrote some of my own lyrics to it to sort of make it fit a little bit with the Gulf Coast theme.
That was gonna be part of my question ’cause I think any good folk song of that nature or any kind of song that’s endured like that really only gets better over time as folks add their own bits of personality.
I agree. And I think that in an old-time song like that, it’s appropriate. I think there are certain times where it’s not, but an old song that’s been passed along for generations, I think it’s appropriate if you do it right. I hope we did. I know musically, it’s way outside the realm of tradition, but it was a blast and we had really a good time playing it! I think the guys really enjoyed it. I know I did!
I’ll be interested to hear that podcast you do with Chojo to talk about his history with that song. Again, with the podcast, at the end of Wrecks’s episode, you’re plannin’ on talking to the couple that have taken over the Old Quarter down in Galveston, right? Is that still plan the plan for number two?
Yeah, I’m still editing that episode. It turned out cool. It’s Joel and Angela Mora, the saints of Galveston acoustic music. Thank God they took over that club! And a local Galveston musician named Gabe Wootton came and joined us. We talk about how they came to own the Old Quarter, why they did it, why they don’t want to change it, and then we get into some interesting things about the Gulf Coast, and they tell a few ghost stories. Wrecks is in that episode as well. I saved a few soundbites from when he talked about when he met Joel and Angela and why he wanted them to take it over. I think it’ll be a good episode too. It’s hard to beat stories about Townes Van Zandt, but I do think that this is a really good one as well!
You close out the album with “Change”. “Change is coming on…” Tell me when you wrote that one. Is it as on the nose as it sounds?
I guess it is. I wrote it after my dad passed away and it was just another one of those moments, the most intense I’ve ever felt, this feeling when everything was just falling down around me for real. It really felt that way. But I had been through enough to know that things would get better eventually. I wrote it as sort of a poem, and then I was playing a cross-tuned, old time fiddle when the melody that you hear on this record came through. There is another recording of it, a band called Della Mae recorded this song on a record they put out a couple of years ago, but their version of it is a bluesy version that I had. It sounds great!
When we recorded this one, I didn’t want to do the same version, the same melody they did. I wanted to make it different. And then I realized, “Oh, I have a whole other melody for this song, the original one!” I went back to an old recording and picked up a fiddle and found it. I also just really wanted to make it sparse and old-timey. It was really fun! Noah Jeffries, the fiddle player– he also played most of the mandolin on the record– did a killer job! I’m super proud of that recording right there ’cause I just thought it was lonesome and hopefully still positive in the end.