The ballad of Kenny T
He put aside crippling demons to create a stunning solo debut. It's a new beginning.
Published: August 1, 2012
Kenny Tudrick springs up from the couch, heads to the kitchen and returns balancing carefully a platter of cut vegetables and ranch dip, which he places atop a rack of recording gear. He grins and announces awkwardly, "Check me out. Hosting, man."
Down-dressed up in Y-back suspenders, white V-neck T-shirt, flared jeans with a big vintage belt buckle, and boots, the singer-songwriter hardly resembles a "host." In fact, clothes hang off him like a malnourished scarecrow, he's naturally graceful with sharp elbows, bony shoulders. His high cheekbones lift a complexion toughened a bit by a few weeks' growth, some hard road and a teenage battle with zits. Hair's grown-out shag: total rock star.
But for good reason he's host, and nervous. He's in Royal Oak's Rust Belt Studios for the first "public" listen of his new, self-titled double album — which just arrived from Manhattan mastering house Sterling Sound.
In the darkened studio "B," the album's co-engineer and executive producer, John Smerek, a shabby-fringed dude with killer biblical hair and quiet manner, sits at the digital work station and pulls songs up on screen. Lanky keyboardist Chris Codish, who played piano and organ on a dozen or so of the album's songs, relaxes alongside his equally tall girlfriend, Francesca, who, with her flowing mane and angel-sleeved dress, resembles a light-skinned Buffy Sainte-Marie. Tudrick's partner, Drea Duchene, makes sandwiches in the studio's kitchen. She's a lovely, benevolent, shy mother of three whose presence recalls that sexy, boho-vibed eighth-grade teacher you had an inescapable crush on. Young Fountain Records owner and huge Tudrick fan Michael Monte hangs around, talks of how his new label's resources will funnel into this album and its songwriter.
The little scene feels like some Laurel Canyon living-room dream circa '69; Graham Nash, Papa John Phillips, Lenny Waronker, Joni Mitchell et al. just sittin' around.
But Tudrick's never been a comfortable center of attention, even as a frontman, and because everything's revealed today — his debut solo album, his songs, himself — he's especially self-conscious. His sobriety's pushing the 15-month mark, and these social situations are akin to a car motoring with the oil running low — shuddering from the internal friction, the threat of looming breakdown.
(He can certainly pull off a sober show: A week earlier Tudrick did a headliner as sober singer, and it went well despite the jitters. His crack band included Detroit guitar hero Joey Mazzola, drummer Ben Luckett and Duchene on bass (Tudrick taught her), and it showcased the hook-rich power pop he wrote and recorded more than a decade ago in his apartment above Grosse Pointe's Ye Olde Tap Room, a living arrangement that was, as Tudrick himself would acknowledge, like allowing a mouse to live above the cheese. Monte's Fountain Records just released Ken's Kitchen, an LP of the songs.)
For nearly a decade, his rock 'n' roll shenanigans rivaled Stones and Guns N' Roses (note that Tudrick was up to replace Scott Weiland in Guns' offshoot Velvet Revolver). Tudrick was Kid Rock's in-house rock-star guitarist, a center-of-attention onstage and on 50-foot video screens with swagger that recalled a young — but frenetic — Keith Richards. That was a day job he quit several years back after — well, Tudrick doesn't remember how many shows he played with Rock, but they were marred by numerous episodes of downward-spiral toxicity and drunkenness, like the time he got booted off a commercial flight, too drunk to see, and the band left him behind in Vegas. The guitarist is pretty contrite and self-critical about such actions now.
Tudrick also co-wrote the Rock hits, "Rock 'n' Roll Jesus" and "Cowboy," and there's friction over royalties with the latter hit because, Tudrick says, he signed away songwriting splits — worth many thousands of dollars — on a napkin. That's Kenny of old. ("I learned my lessons the hard way," Tudrick says.)
He doesn't like talking about Rock stuff now — or how he recently turned down tours drumming with the Detroit Cobras and Sub Pop's suddenly big King Tuff (he played drums on King Tuff's latest, Bobby Harlow-produced album) — that shit's not important; the songwriter would rather talk about his current day jobs of on-and-off landscaper and songwriter. It's about the music. But he can't escape Mr. Rock's massive shadow, not when co-workers' jaws drop on discovery that this guy sweating next to them was Rock's guitarist ("Dude, what the fuck are you doing here!"), or when he eats crow building a pond for high-school chum and Rock-bud Uncle Kracker at the latter's Harrison Township manse.
Smerek pushes play and Kenny Tudrick bursts from the small studio monitors, and suddenly it's as if the Jayhawks, McCartney, Neil Young, Steve Earle, with the ghosts of Gene Clark and Ronnie Lane, all stroll into the room. Songs rise, things change: Talking stops. Just listen.
There's nothing about Tudrick's music that doesn't say necessity. It's obvious that head-tripping lessons learned in Kenny Tudrick's life have informed countless moments spent writing and recording these words and ideas, these lovely lilting songs that command and whisper of personal ache and redemption, of regret, of love, of acceptance, of family, of fishing up North, of discovering and sustaining inner peace; and like pinprick stars that first appear from behind falling twilight, songs slowly reveal themselves.
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