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
"So I go up to Bob [Kid Rock] and say, 'Do you ever see things that aren't around?'"
"He's like, 'No.' I said, 'Time to shut her down,' and he starts laughing. He thought it was the funniest thing he ever heard. So that became this thing about me, 'Time to shut her down.'"
Turns out it he wasn't seeing things. It was a band day off and there was a barbecue between the tour buses on the Daytona 500 infield.
"That's the thing about being as huge as Kid Rock, you can make shit like this happen. So I went to crash on the bus with my hat over my face." (The episode circled back and fueled Tudrick's song "Know Good.")
Nawara says emphatically that his friend's done testing the limits with intoxicants, calls that person the "old Kenny."
"Everybody goes at their own pace," Nawara says. "I personally find Kenny to be a strong person who can withstand a lot. His weakness? I think that's his attitude about seeing what he can withstand, which," Nawara laughs, "is a heck of a lot."
Whether constructing forts or elaborate little towns for his Matchbox cars, or, later, skateboarding, playing football wide-receiver, and making the Harrison Township all-star little league baseball team, Tudrick was a pertinacious and meticulous kid growing up. That meticulousness informed his musical self-schooling that began at 7 years old when he mounted his first drum stool. The story involves a party with some big-kid musicians (well, 15 years old) and his mother, who agreed if he could make it through the Beatles' "Love Me Do" with the band, she'd buy him the very drum kit he beat on. He did; she did.
Two years later, fourth-grader Tudrick sang and pounded Sabbath and Clash songs on that same kit in his first-ever rock 'n' roll band (Bulldog), whose flash pot-enhanced debut at Harrison Township's Lobbestael Elementary was a smash.
"All the school came out and sat Indian-style in front of us," he says. "After a while, some high school kids came by and they were let in. So it became this show. I passed out at the end, I might've been drunk, but it was everything combined, the moment. People came back and were like, 'Heeeey, Kenny that was great!'
"We practiced for that by doing house parties," he continues. "I was so young that the thing to do was get 'Kenny high and drunk' ... It was 'cute.'" Tudrick pulls from a cup of coffee. "It was all burnouts in my Harrison Township neighborhood. I didn't want to be a burnout."
He took guitar-playing cues from his big bro, Bill Jr., with whom he shared a bunk bed. Bill Jr. would sometimes stay up learning some song on guitar, while Kenny tried to sleep. One time the younger Tudrick woke up and played the tune in a single pass, much to Bill Jr.'s chagrin.
Tudrick also learned to scrap. On ice. Says he grew up playing hockey because his dad's side of the family is from Canada. He joined a team from Downriver. "They were great. It was an all-black team except for me and one other guy, and they had tons of nicknames for me because I had long hair. My first game ended behind the net."
Tudrick stands to animate the story with his hands and throat. "This guy's got his hockey stick on my neck and I couldn't breathe. I got up and this dude was this tall. I just went booooom and went to town on this guy. The whole team loved me after that."
Tudrick, who was born in Detroit in 1972 and lived on the east side near St. Clair Shores and in Harrison Township, saw his parents split for good when he was 14. He tells of hitting a breaking point under the strict rule of his ex-Marine dad, a math whiz employed in the auto industry. His dad confirms the tension back then.
"Ken was about 14, and it was hard on him," Bill says softly. "All three of my children called me a 'drill sergeant' and went to live with their mother. It was a terrible time and nothing I could control."
By 15, he was playing bass in the Colors. He sold his drum kit to Colors (and future Dirtbomb) drummer Pat Pantano so he could buy a Thunderbird bass, once he passed the audition. Bandleader was Dan Manion, who Tudrick calls an incredible songwriter, a guy who made a huge impression on him.
"The Colors were my heroes," Tudrick says. "First band I saw when I was 15. They'd rehearse every night except Sunday, and Dan was studying for the bar exam, while I slept in school.
"My school counselor — and I'm not kidding — said, 'I'm not supposed to say this, but you should focus on your music.' That gave me the OK. I saw what Dan was doing, so I needed to be songwriting, not backing someone on drums or bass. That's when I learned."
So Tudrick quit the Colors, split Michigan to "see the country and work in what my dad fought for. I even thought about going into the military because there was no hope for me."
The 17-year-old landed a job, with help from his sister Holly and her husband, installing wireless cable in Oklahoma, which lasted until he transferred to Mitchell, S.D., where he lived in a motel room.
"I was really young and totally alone. But I was around Native Americans, and it was a crazy spiritual place in time; I'd drive and see wild horses running next to me. All I had was a guitar, my van and my tools. I loved it, even though it was so cold, sometimes 50 below zero, and I'd be wiring up houses in that. And I fell off a few roofs."
Tudrick taught himself to write songs, a craft informed and guided by his travels and surroundings then. He'd drive ex-con co-workers to strip bars and eat at a truck stop where a girl worked who was so beautiful he was too afraid to talk to her, so he never did. "She didn't have any idea how beautiful she was." He wrote songs for her, which, he says, helped his songwriting. "Her husband didn't like me," he adds. "If I'd met her and married her I'd probably be on a farm there working."
After nearly a two-year stint in Fresno, Calif., where he actually looked to put a band together, Tudrick returned home. He hungered to perform his songs, and after some musical experimenting with various musicians, including his pal, Rust Belt Studios owner Al Sutton, Tudrick formed the Colors-inspired Big Block with another pal, Nick Lucassian.
A major-label offer ensued, but the band crumbled that very day when singer Lucassian bailed while suffering what he once described to Metro Times as a "spiritual freak-out." Tudrick put together the Numbers — a full-on mod-pop inspired trio with fist-pump choruses — as a reaction to the painful Big Block breakup.
The Numbers' songs and live show won more big-label interest, including from Epic/Redline, whose A&R man — the aptly monikered Frankie LaRocka — offered the band a sizable deal that evaporated within a year over negotiations by the band's shortsighted manager. The Numbers were done by the early '00s. And Tudrick's drinking chugged along nicely.
His days as a drum-and-guitar session and live man began and he guested with many, the most substantial being Detroit Cobras. In late 2003, he cobbled together Bulldog with his Canadian chum Eddie Harsh (Cobras, Black Crowes), partially to vent his festering personal frustration for ignoring his own songs in favor of playing those of others, and also to document what was a truly great band and developing book of songs.
But Bulldog, after one great, quickly cut album in 2004, chased its tail; for starters, Tudrick was anything but sober and his pal Harsh was having an equally difficult time staying straight. Tudrick says he was hammered and barely remembers recording the album's vocals, though you'd never guess. The album is a lost gem of Tudrick songwriting and performance, a precursor to his debut solo album.
Lineup changes and waning ambition basically killed Bulldog in 2010.
Up some steps, open a door, and it smells faintly of a neighbor's freshly cut grass and fresher coffee. Tudrick's behind his drums, keeping beat on the kick-drum, plucking a melody on acoustic guitar and singing. He stops, joking that in a pinch this could be a legitimate lineup for his next tour, a one-dude band against the world. He'd sing the tunes he tracked and wrote in this musical atelier, which doubles as living room in his Eastpointe flat, a three-room, tube-shaped place, lime-trimmed under angled ceilings – a comfy mix of cowpoke chic and rock star opium den/recording studio. It's so him.
Space shortage necessitates tidiness and only a few personal keepsakes — a watercolor by his dad depicting his tool-and-die workspace, Western artifacts and bullhorns complementing area rugs. An assortment of guitars and basses — from Epiphone to Gretch, Silvertone to Vox — stand guard like dignified, diminutive sentries with long necks in badass suits. There's a small mixing console, monitors ... a record collection filled with Willie Nelson, the Sights, the Band, Bill Monroe, Otis Redding, George Harrison, Ronnie Lane, Billy Preston, Gillian Welch, the Louvin Brothers and lots more. A collection of Civil War songs gets Tudrick's attention: "I was hoping for an Alan Lomax thing, but these are more modern recordings, probably from the '70s."
Vintage Danish lamps ('60s) bookend a black couch and an aged steamer trunk used as a coffee table while housing cables for guitars and recording. A massive 10-times platinum plaque (um, that's 10 million albums sold) presented to Tudrick for Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause, which contained "Cowboy," hangs beside a tattered American flag/toy pistol key holder.
The bedroom sees a flowered spread on made bed, a notebook and pens on a TV-dinner tray; a flat-screen ("It's like a hotel room") and a Mac; it doubles as office space. A U.K. gold album plaque for Electric Six's Fire (he played on it) and another Kid Rock platinum award for Rock 'n' Roll Jesus lean against a wall.
Tudrick sits at the desktop screen, pulls up his own site and a few YouTube videos he shot with Duchene — in total DIY threadbare beauty, landscapes and hinted desolation. Then frustration fills his face. His album is done and is just out, but now what? Forget signing to a major label, they're moot at this point, especially for artists older than 22. A bigger indie? Sure. But still, you have to create your own buzzed-up madness so someone will care enough to invest any kind of effort and resources. Tudrick isn't the kind of songwriter who can crush with a goofy YouTube presence, and he's the last guy keen to participate in a world ruled by gratuitous self-promoters who get all the attention. He has, certainly, with his history on stage, in the bottle and song, earned the right to create a homegrown record. After all, his is slow-burn music with a traditional bent, which can last years, can be told and retold, with the power to make others feel. It's classic like that. So he likely has as good a chance on tiny Fountain Records as on any major label or big indie, and if he creates his own buzzed-up madness, he won't need anyone but Fountain.
The Sights frontman Eddie Baranek thinks things will happen for Tudrick. "The thing about Kenny," he says, "is his songs always deliver. ... He's got honesty in his words to match his melody."
Tudrick had to be in clear mind "to even be sitting here," Baranek says, much less getting support from Fountain and others.
"After Kenny sobered up, he surrounded himself with a different team of people," Monte says. "And once I heard the quality of what he was doing — you have to have that grit from decades of living to be able to make a record like this — I committed to do everything I can to get him heard by as many people as possible."
Monte's Fountain Records is not even a year old; first LP release was the Sights' worthy Twelve in the Bar in December. Monte's longstanding admiration of Tudrick had nothing to do with his playing in the Cobras, or in Kid Rock's band. It was about his music.
"I heard a Bulldog song on Dave Buick's now-defunct radio show Radio Fever [co-hosted with Dion Fischer on WKRK] and I was blown away. That was my first real introduction to his songs. I was fascinated by how he wrote and made songs sound; it was so much better than what everyone else was doing. So when I started the label, he came immediately to mind."
But Tudrick e-mailed Monte first, in January, and said he liked Fountain's work with the Sights.
"I was blown away that he was a fan of Bulldog," Tudrick says. "There was a reason I contacted him."
But Fountain Records — named because his great-grandfather helped build Belle Isle's James Scott Memorial Fountain — is a startup, with plenty of room for error, missed opportunity and bad decisions, and Monte, whose background is manufacturing, knows this. But he has a passion for music, and a willingness to do the backbreaking work because, well, "there's no outside backing ... except me, and what I can do with credit cards."
The genesis for Kenny Tudrick was simple: Tudrick knew he had to quit everything cold turkey if he wanted his songs heard. So he did, white-knuckled without AA, cigarettes included. He was sick of feeling sick inside.
"I was kind of like an idiot," Tudrick says. "I couldn't really stand what or who I was; I just didn't care. I started hearing people I knew saying, 'Wow, I'm surprised you are still alive. How are you even OK?' I can't wait for the time when I don't have those cringing thoughts of coming to and not knowing what happened."
He buried himself into a blue-collar existence for solace, and for summer months in 2011 he worked long days — building Uncle Kracker's pond and waterfall, among other things. Tudrick rolls his eyes at a least one recollection: "Kracker asked me to co-write songs, saying he wanted to do something 'Americana, like Van Morrison.' But I was in a place where I could work at his house and not let anything get to me."
He knew to sign up for another tour or as anyone's hired gun would be career suicide, one more reason to stay drunk. He also knows that a workaday blue-collar life does his sobriety real favors.
Tudrick credits two people for this new double album, Monte's one and the other is Duchene. "When we were done hugging each other for six months, we decided it was time to make a record," Tudrick laughs.
So in January this year, he began writing, as if his life depended on it.
"Mike would come over in the morning, almost every day, wanting to hear things. It was nice to wake up and have someone who wanted to hear it like I did. And that was John's [Smerek, co-engineer] motto: 'Just make an album that you want to hear.' And I trust John. I wanted this record to sound like my last record [Bulldog], which he did."
Monte: "One day I came over and he was tracking the drums, with no other instruments, for "Crutch" — and you could see him doing the entire song in his head as he was playing, and he was this zone, focused like I've never seen him. It was freaking amazing. I've never seen anyone do that."
Tudrick pulls his own Electronic Press Kit up on the screen and says, "We just fired our booking agent because he wasn't doing anything. So now me and Drea are booking the tour. We're doing everything ourselves. I have no time for anything," he says, and adds without skipping a beat, "and I already have six songs for the next record."
He rattles off contemporary artists he's fond of for style and songwriting, as well as their DIY "business models" (yes, Tudrick says "business model" more than once), including such folk and underground country torchbearers as Father John Misty, Robert Ellis, Johnny Corndawg.
Speaking of another artist he admires, producer Jonathan Wilson, who's now working with former Band leader Robbie Robertson, Tudrick digresses, "He probably didn't have a huge drinking problem."
He hesitates, collects his thoughts, and adds, "I could be sitting at Friends [a neighborhood bar] and just be getting hammered. Where would I be? I feel thankful for the opportunity to be present, to be able to do these songs."
This Eastpointe neighborhood is so very Tudrick. It's anything but gentrifying or hipsterish; it inspires him. For example, there's one neighbor's addled boyfriend who howls outside her house in wee hours. Tudrick's impersonation lampoons the scene where he calls her name and then shouts: "I'm sorry I did them druuuuugs. I luuuuv youuuuu." Tudrick says he even warned the howler of an armed, ex-military guy who lives across the street and whose patience for the racket is running thin. "There's a good chance" he'll open fire some crazy morning.
Tudrick furrows his brow, shakes his head, and explains how he loves the scene.
Minutes later, out in his side yard, Tudrick reaches over a fence and gently plays with his neighbor's black dog, Bo, whose bark actually made it to the album.
"I just gave Bo's owner a copy of the album," Tudrick says. "I hope he digs it, especially hearing his dog on there."
Tudrick's new album reflects his age: He just turned 40. Some lessons are sacred and take nearly a lifetime to learn, which is a subtle theme on Tudrick's album, a record by somebody who's lucky and grateful to be alive. It's also an album by a guy who shows his heart is caught somewhere between the winter lands of his reminiscences and the warm breeze of personal reclamations — it says his days ahead can be filled with beauty, if he so chooses.
The 18 songs on Kenny Tudrick breathe in guitars, harmonies, harmonica, Mellotron, organ, Beatles bass lines — songs move like raging campfires and fading embers. And it's hard to believe the pace at which the recordings were made, whole thing took about a month. Tracked mostly by Tudrick alone at his flat, then mixed at Rust Belt (sessions Tudrick paid for by trading the studio owner his van).
But the sessions weren't without problems. For instance, his tape machine quit in the early stages, so he went mostly digital, though he prefers recording to tape. He also confronted limitations of his own keyboard playing, a problem solved mainly by phoning keyboardist Chris Codish to add Nicky Hopkins-style Stonesy runs and Dr. John's New Orleans boogie, which Codish did mostly in single takes with zero rehearsal.
The double disc shows how Tudrick's lyrics lift on beautiful simplicity. For example, piano, organ, acoustic guitar, bass and drums create palettes of sadness on "Bird That Flew," on which Tudrick croons, "And love / blinded all I want to be / so gone I can't see." It's languid and hushed, a countryside of endless horizons and burnt-orange sunsets.
"Cadillac Lake" is a real place in Tudrick's kid world where fishing is life, and here it becomes a sweet and gentle idea of escapism: "Been a long time to come / so sweet in the settin' sun / fireflies flashin' bright / it's gonna' be a great, great night." He channels Lennon with aplomb on "Water into Wine," and then Macca on "Angel's Pass," a she's-got-you lullaby, the perfect opiate metaphor to a song that recalls "Mother's Nature's Son."
Tudrick talks of the countless convenient coincidences that came together during the making of this record, how on the haunting "Lightning Lights the Way," for example, it began raining and lightning outside of his flat, and it all made it to tape.
"The River" talks of Tudrick's personal shift in his 15 months of sobriety, what he calls "This realization that you have to change."
The droning "Moonshine" stuns, colored with self-effacement such as: "Take your Southern comfort / got my Northern aggression." And "Colorblind" surprises with its chain-gang beat and drone.
"This album means everything to me," Tudrick says, out in the small parking lot of Rust Belt Studios as the day wanes. "It's me, right now. But sometimes I just want to sit down and have a few beers. When we finished recording the Bulldog album, I sat down for beers because I thought my job was done. Now, if I sit down with a few beers my job will be done, for good."
Brian Smith is a Metro Times contributing editor and a former managing editor, features editor and music writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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