Kenny Vaughan Gets In Hot Seat With First Solo Album

This appeared in The Tennessean - October 14, 2011

Kenny Vaughan’s multiple personality thing isn’t a disorder, it’s an advantage.

“I try and figure out which version of me ought to show up for whoever I’m working for, based on what I think they need when they hire me,” says Vaughan. The guitar chameleon’s ability to play every form of American roots music with soulful authority earned him the Americana Music Association’s first lifetime achievement award for instrumental work in 2006.

Five years later, as the Americana folks prepare for tonight’s sold-out Honors & Awards show at the Ryman, Vaughan stands among the genre’s quintessential instrumentalists, and as an embodiment of Americana’s big-tent, nearly all-inclusive musical philosophy: He’s at home playing country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll or gospel, and in his role with Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives band, he winds up dipping into all of those forms on any given night.

This week, he played his every-Monday Kenny Vaughan & Friends gig at 12 South Taproom and then celebrated the release of his first solo album — the characteristically expansive V (Sugar Hill) — with a Wednesday-evening Americana Music Festival showcase at Mercy Lounge.

And on Saturday night, he can be seen and heard on RFD-TV’s The Marty Stuart Show, performing with Stuart, guitar greats James Burton and Kenny Lovelace, legendary drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland and others.

It’s kind of a light week for Vaughan.

“I’ve never lost that 14-year-old in me who just wants to get together with his buddies and play,” he says. “It drives my poor wife (singer and multi-instrumentalist Carmella Ramsey) crazy. I will have been in a recording studio all week, then gone on the weekend playing shows with Marty, and then it’s Monday and I’m off to the Taproom. She’ll be like, ‘You just got off the road, and now you’re going out to play?’ And I’ll wiggle out the door to play the stupid gig.”

‘One thing led to another’

Vaughan has been wiggling out doors to play gigs since he was a teenager in Denver. He took lessons from now-legendary guitar innovator Bill Frisell, and he was soon splitting time playing country music in honky-tonks and playing punk rock in a band called The Jonny 3. In 1987, a friend recommended him as a fill-in guitarist for Nashville-based sister duo the Sweethearts of the Rodeo.

“It was supposed to be a three-week job, but I became their regular guitar player, and I fell in with other people right off the bat and started getting recording sessions,” he says. “One thing led to another. I never said, ‘I’m moving to Nashville.’ That statement was never made. But I’m still here, passing through.”

While passing through, Vaughan has managed to become Americana’s consummate enabler, contributing to the life’s work of Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, Marshall Chapman, Billy Joe Shaver, Tim O’Brien, Elizabeth Cook and many other stalwarts of the genre. In the mid-1990s, he teamed with country classicist and force-of-nature Greg Garing and helped draw tourists and music-lowers to long-fallow Lower Broadway. And in the late 1990s, he became an integral part of Lucinda Williams’ band, a position that provided him an international showcase.

“Being in Lucinda’s band was a huge boost for me,” he says. “I’ve been so fortunate in the bands I’ve gotten to play with. With your average Nashville concert act, the light show and choreography are synchronized, the guitar player is supposed to go out on a ramp at a certain time, and the fog machine goes on at the same time every night. I’ve never even had to be in a band that worked off the same set list every night. Lucinda played what she wanted to play, when she wanted to play it, and sometimes she’d stop in the middle of a song and abandon it completely. It was different, every time we went onstage. It was real.”

Stuart saw Vaughan playing on television with Williams and got in contact in 2001, asking if he wanted to start a band. Vaughan thought for several nano-seconds before saying, “Sure,” and The Fabulous Superlatives soon became known as a jaw-dropping instrumental and vocal ensemble, with each member contributing mightily.

The Superlatives are a true band, not a frontman and a crew of backing musicians, and Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bass man Paul Martin spend time after each show alongside Stuart, signing CDs for fans. Vaughan takes some lead vocals during the shows, as well, and concert-going fans kept asking why he didn’t have a CD of his own to sell. After a while, he ran out of good answers for that one, and he decided to record an album, enlisting Brandon Bell and Ramsey as co-producers.

“I’ve never put out anything with my own name on it, so I’m nervous about it,” he says. “But it was fun the way we recorded it, with no headphones, just playing live. Carmella helped me with the vocals, and she was hilarious. The singing was hard for me, and she kept writing notes that would have Brandon on the floor, laughing. I’d be singing, and she’d write, ‘Please, kill me now.’ ”

Ah, lovebirds. In any case, V finds Vaughan adding “recording artist” to a resume that already includes guitarist, session player, touring musician, singer, songwriter and producer, and it finds him exploring rockabilly, honky-tonk, Bakersfield-inspired country, gospel, jazz and plenty more. In the 10 songs, 10 versions of Vaughan are present, each one playing with tone, taste, roots and extraordinary acumen.

V is another open door. Good luck wiggling out of this one, Mr. Vaughan.

By Peter Cooper

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