The term ‘Country Royalty’ should never be used lightly, but when you are given the opportunity to meet with an artist who has recorded and released a total of sixteen solo CDs, written and produced three musicals, served as an associate producer for the documentary, They Called Us Outlaws (presented by the Country Music Hall Of Fame), then the feeling of being next to someone with a special talent is hard to shake off.
Add to the above a theatre production titled ‘Is There Life After Lubbock plus many appearances on Film, Stage and TV; a novella/cookbook which she published and her show Radio Dreams, which focused on the history of American roots music and artists.
Her songs have appeared on multiple television and film soundtracks and she has her own record label and studio, Sunbird Music, for over 25 years. Kimmie lives and records in Austin and tours internationally with her son and producer/multi-instrumentalist, Gabriel Rhodes.
Lonesome Highway met with Kimmie Rhodes during her short tour of Ireland to discuss her career, her creative muse and her recent book, Radio Dreams, a duet memoir with her soul mate Joe Gracey, who died back in 2011. Her enduring relationship with Joe Gracey has a timeless quality and his memory endures through the pages and tales in this excellent book.
LH: You have concentrated on doing gigs in Northern Ireland over recent visits. Has this been a conscious decision on your part?
Kimmie: No, not at all. I don’t know if the audience is just more receptive to what we do up North or just that I don’t have anybody booking me down in the Republic. I have played the Seamus Ennis centre at the Naul a lot of times and we were at the Venue Theatre in Rathoath earlier this year. If there are suitable venues in the South then I would love to play there. I have travelled all around Ireland; Cork, Galway, The Burren and the West Coast so it would be great to play other places.
LH: Tell me about Sunbird Studios, your recording hub in Austin.
Kimmie: When I met Joe Gracey in Austin in 1979, he had been mentored by “Cowboy” Jack Clement as a producer and he, in turn, had been mentored by Sam Phillips at Sun Records/Studios in Memphis. That was an independent label and so I guess there was always the spirit of not compromising and just going ahead with what you believed in and putting it out there. Joe had lost his voice to cancer, having been a popular DJ and a singer, so he had become a record producer and had a small publishing company also.
So, I started with an independent focus. It was not easy to make a record in those days because everything was analogue and demos were recorded on 4-track TEAC reel to reel machines. When Joe had been a DJ he had played Willie Nelson’s records on the radio and he had invited Joe out to his place, so I got to meet him and we went to his studio, which had two 24-track machines. I was amazed and here was an invitation to make my first record, in a 48-track studio where we just had to come up with the money for the band.
You had to have a label or some kind of a deal in the early 1980’s as making a record back then cost a minimum of $20,000. So, I made my first two records at Willie’s studio. It was hard for me to get a record deal that I wanted. I was not prepared to do what the major record labels wanted me to do; I looked right and I sang well but I was too wild for the commercial market they wanted me to fit into.
So, when digital music came along, we decided to start Sunbird as a studio; it was originally meant to be a writing room behind the house, but we changed that and I had this dream to paint the space yellow and put a white baby grand into the room. Well, I had this photographer friend who owned a white baby grand and her house had burned down, so she needed a place for her piano and there am I doing the dishes one day when along comes this truck with a piano! It’s been in my studio ever since, probably going on 20 years now… We make most of our records out there since those days.
LH: I read that “Cowboy” Jack had said to you that ‘It only takes 3 minutes to record a hit’ and that ‘we are in the fun business, so if we are not having fun, we are not doing our job’.
Kimmie: Well, he was the first person that I met when I first came to Nashville and he had this great recording studio. One day I went to visit him and when I walked in there was nobody about, which was unusual. I went back to his office, where he was there on his own… He asked if I wanted to go for a ride and I thought we would take one of his cars; he had two identical white cars, called R2-D2 and C-3PO. He took me around in a golf cart, bought an entire box of popsicles in a local store and we drove around eating them! He was this legendary figure who was all about having fun. I said that my Dad had grown up in a carnival and he was all about having fun too so I knew that it would work for me and I didn’t have to modify myself in any way. You have to believe in that kind of magic!
LH: Did you have an innate feeling from a young age that music was what came naturally to you?
Kimmie: I think that you are born to be who you are meant to be. Life just placed me with the perfect people, in pretty good timing, to go ahead and develop into who I was. I have always had music in my life, even back to a babysitter who used to play the pump organ for me! She would let me play with the sheet music and that was one of my earliest memories of the magic of music. We were just transported.
LH: And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when I see your son, Gabriel with his amazing talent and natural flow on the guitar, among the many instruments he can play
Kimmie: He has been exposed to music all his life from the time he was a little boy and able to fit into Joe Gracey’s lap. He started with the recorder and then played the saxophone, then he started playing with all the musical people he grew up around. We had moved out to the hill country to be close to Willie’s studio because Gracey was working there.
There were always characters hanging around like David Zettner, who was Willie’s first bass player after he had stopped playing with Ray Price and decided to form his own band. Zettner had also played bass on my records and there was Johnny Bush on guitar; Jimmy Day on the steel guitar; Paul English on drums; and Bucky Meadows, who had come from the Charlie Christian school of jazz players. Gabe just grew up around all that.
I was with a British label and I went to record in Memphis before mixing and mastering in Nashville. Gabe was left with David Zettner and Bucky Meadows as babysitters and when I got back, they had taught Gabe how to play the guitar! It would have been almost unnatural for him not to have picked up on music as a young child.
LH: By his mid-20’s he had progressed to producing your records
Kimmie: I had a publishing deal with Almo/Irving Music, Herb Albert and Gerry Moss, on the back of some success with Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd. Part of that deal was that I would write songs for the company. Mostly I wrote by myself at that time so when I had to demo a song, Gracey would record it and Gabe would play on it, so it was the perfect vehicle for us. He just grew from that and passed me out. At one point, I would leave small instruments lying around the house and they would disappear. Later, I would hear Gabe practicing with them up in his room but he really cut his teeth playing on those demos for big publishing companies.
I had been involved in writing a play with Joe Sears (small town girl) and while I was gone Gabe had cleared all the furniture out of the way and set up a small recording space where he took about 12 of my songs and made tracks on a couple of small ADAT machines (a magnetic tape format used for the recording of eight digital audio tracks)… He told me that he had gone ahead and produced my next record!! Luckily, I really liked it and it turned into Rich From The Journey, my next release.
As a side story, Bob Ezrin, who had worked with Pink Floyd on The Wall, was working on a film, Babe, Pig In The City. Bob Ezrin was the music director on the film and one of my suggested songs he liked was Heart Of A Believer. We would be on the phone a lot and he said ‘those guys who are playing with you really know their stuff’ – to which I replied, ‘Well, that is my 20-year old son who just moved the furniture out of the room and produced that track’.
So, Gabe ends up talking directly to Bob Ezrin, one of his heroes. He really had an almost instant success by producing something that he had no initial permission to do! So, we have had a lot of magic happen.
LH: What’s it like to play in front of a live audience and make music with your son?
Kimmie: For the most part, I don’t think about it in those terms. We built it from the ground up and it is innate, will always be there, all the time. It is special and we are so close as a Mother/Son, so it is naturally something that people can see. He looks after me so well.
LH: As an artist and a performer, your craft is highly developed. Yet you have a generosity that allows your talents be shared by other stars who have taken your songs and had hits with them (Willie Nelson, Wynonna Judd, Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant, Joe Ely, Waylon Jennings, Peter Frampton, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris). How does this work for you; is it a conscious decision?
Kimmie: I love to sing and I love to perform but I feel like at some point my writing just surpassed my singing and performing. In terms of having to give up one, then I would always have to write. I would be writing a song for me and it never occurred to me that anybody would want to take one of my songs in the first place. By the time that people did look at my songs, I wanted to have success and it just happened to be that those people were really big stars at the time, so what’s not to like?
Also, I needed the money. I was married to a man who could not speak for 30 years, but who was able to work with me. I had two sons and we had a daughter, but I just never wanted to be famous in the first place. Success for me was being good at what I did, make a living at it and being able to travel. One of the things about being famous is that you don’t have that freedom to walk down the street anymore. Another thing that was great for me was that I got an opportunity to make good money through writing songs at a time when my children needed me most. I still kept making records and they were always the best calling cards for my songs anyway, in that most of those cuts that were recorded by other artists came off of my records.
I could travel to Nashville and keep living in Texas so it was a good situation to be at home with my family and then be able to tour when the time was right. I did not want to have a family at the end of a phone all the time so when I was at home I could see my kids in the morning and be there in the evening but when I travelled to New York or L.A. then I was out writing or playing and that got my full energy.
LH: Do the songs come easily?
Kimmie: When I was working as a professional writer I got on a real roll; I got swept up into it, whether co-writing or writing solo. There was always a song that was unfinished in my brain, playing away and the lyrics were always full of meaning. I would be off in my own world and any downtime, in my brain, I would be always writing. I had 100% permission to do it as it was my job, I was getting paid well for doing it. I have a good work ethic and can be very disciplined when I want to do it. It’s like a journal to me and I always want to do my best. I have always written about what is going on.
When Joe Gracey died I knew that if I was going to write around then, my songs were going to be just too dark. I didn’t have the perspective of being able to write from that place where you can see the darkness balanced with the light. A good friend of mine, John Gardner, who was a drummer with Don Williams and played on a lot of my records, suggested that we get our families together and just spend a week recording some covers that Gracey would have liked for different reasons. And so that ended up as my 'covers' record. Other than that, I have always been able to pick up the guitar and just write.
LH: Is the process of co-writing a compromise for you?
Kimmie: I got good at co-writing and I would go out to L.A. and write lyrics while the music was mostly written by others. That was an interesting experience. I worked with Kevin Savigar, who was a producer with Rod Steward, who was really great at programming tracks and coming up with melodies. Writing with people like Emmylou, Waylon Jennings, Al Anderson, Peter Frampton, Gary Nicholson was as much about hanging out with them and writing at the same time. I don’t have to write with anyone where it turns out to be a painful experience.
Another pleasure has been working with Chris Difford (ex Squeeze), who formed a partnership with ‘The Buddy Holly Foundation’ to run a week of writing at Pennard House, Glastonbury for aspiring young artists. It’s fun and I get to pass on what I have learned. I also get to visit universities and with honorariums where I get paid and talk with the students. We also do radio classes, women in music, poetry classes. It’s all a real privilege.
LH: The book has taken up a lot of your focus over the last few years. In addition, your past projects have allowed you to collaborate in other creative mediums. Do you think that having Willie Nelson as a mentor so early in your career helped give you that confidence to try new things?
Kimmi: There are a lot of people with talent out there but when Willie mentored me I think he saw me as a wild child and someone who would have (as we say in Texas), a tough row to hoe and maybe struggle in the business.
He had struggled in Nashville himself to establish his career as a recording artist and in Texas we didn’t have a music scene; we had a live scene with the dancehalls and he came back to establish himself. He was old enough then to be my father and came from those days when a farmer wanted to put the mule in the barn on a Saturday night and just go dancing. Those were his roots and he had grown up singing Gospel in Church and so had I, with my Father and my Brother. Singing in the choir on Sundays was what we did. We never really had a band but we also performed at sing-ins, with someone on piano where people would sing along.
There was so much focus went into all the things that I have done. The documentary They Called Us Outlaws was a 12-hour production and I was passionate about the Austin music scene and passing on all the relevant detail of those times in the mid to late 1970’s. Lots of people became involved including Doug Sahm, Marcia Ball, Bobby Earl Smith, Joe Ely and many others.
So much revolved around the influence of Joe Gracey and his activity as a DJ, Journalist, Engineer, Producer, Publisher etc. Growing up, Joe had never liked Country music but then he went to work at a Country music radio station in Fort Worth that had Lawton Williams as one of their local DJ’s. Lawton had written the song, Fraulein, that was a big hit for Bobby Helms and had also been on the Chet Atkins label as an artist before he became a radio DJ. Then along comes Chet Atkins making a new radio format called countrypolitan…
So, Country music radio suddenly changed and then along comes the explosion of the 1970’s with Dylan, The Beatles and The Byrds. Joe is now playing Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Willie Nelson’s record, The Party’s Over, which he really liked. So, he ends up in Austin as a DJ and he started playing Willie and these other Country songs on his radio show and that starts a whole new direction for the scene there.
All these things came together to create more of that magic. Pretty soon the whole scene took off with artists coming in from all directions. It was just like Hemingway and Paris!
When I moved to Austin it was as if someone took a fish in the water and just let it go… I was with people who liked me and encouraged and helped me. I found my tribe and it just grew and grew over all these years.
Kimmie was more than generous with her time, giving almost a full hour to our chat and we spoke after a very special house concert that our gracious host, Andy Peters, presented with great success.
Her tours this year have been to support the book release and we met in the beautiful landscape that surrounds the village of Rathfriland, Co. Down, with its rolling hills and spectacular scenery framed between the Mourne Mountains, Slieve Croob and Banbridge.
Kimmie played guitar and told stories between two sets that covered much of her career and she was joined by her wonderfully talented son, Gabriel Rhodes (Gabe), who played some incredible guitar to both colour and lift the songs to new levels of feeling, technique and warmth.
Kimmie’s book is a must-read and captures many stories that will make you laugh and cry along with many insights into her music career. The full title is Radio Dreams: The Story of an Outlaw DJ and a Cosmic Cowgirl. A fitting description for this gracious and humble person who displays a real enthusiasm for life. Natural to a fault and very open to the magic that the World sends her way.
Interview by Paul McGee