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Kieran Kane brings banjo and sax together, producing unexpected results

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It doesn't matter so much now that Kieran Kane was scoring country hits throughout the '80s on his own and as one-half of the O'Kanes. He's still active and productive these days, only his way of doing things doesn't really jibe with the mainstream. Even so, he's probably never given a moment's thought to playing the part of the embittered industry veteran. The low-key renegade is more his style.

Nowhere is that clearer than on his sixth solo studio album, Somewhere Behind the Roses, a sinewy, hypnotic set—strikingly so for a singer-songwriter release—that he describes as a fuller flowering of an always-present impulse: "I mean, I could go back to even before I moved to Nashville, when I lived in Los Angeles, of writing one-chord songs and songs without rhymes and things like that. It was something I started for myself, you know, 35 years ago. And I've just been doing it all along. If you look, a lot of the O'Kanes things, for example, are one- or perhaps two-chord songs. We were roundly chastised for it at the time, and maybe still are."

Or, to put it existentially: "I've been on that path, I think, for a long time of just making things simpler and simpler and trying to get down to the essence of things, just trimming off all the fat possible. And this record in a lot of ways, as a whole, really has done that for me, in the sense that it's the same four people playing the same four instruments the entire time. I'm not playing guitar on anything; Richard [Bennett] isn't switching guitars."

Instead of the singer-songwriter's best friend—acoustic guitar—Kane played banjo. He played it in an unorthodox tuning and with an improvised, rhythm-focused technique that—while it's nothing at all like Scruggs or clawhammer styles ("Most of what I do, I just kind of make it up, for better or for worse")—sounds, implausibly enough, like a distant cousin to Bo Diddley. During "I Took My Power Back"—one of two songs on the album co-written with David Olney—Kane actually slips into something like the syncopated groove of "Who Do You Love?"

Kane didn't just start using the banjo with this album. He's done it quite a bit on the three albums he's made with his present two-songwriter band, Kane Welch Kaplin (rounded out by Kevin Welch, Fats Kaplin and Kane's son Lucas)—just not on every song and not surrounded by these particular instruments. Besides the younger Kane on pulsing, minimalistic percussion and Bennett's perfectly placed tremolo, there's Deanna Varagona of Lambchop playing slyly and imaginatively on her baritone sax, sorta, kinda what a bassist might.

And that right there is another act of rebellion—implying that there's no wrong way to frame the work of a folk- and country-tinged, blues-inspired singer-songwriter. "Most people were quite alarmed when I would indicate what I was launching into," Kane says. "The banjo and the baritone sax, I think, being natural enemies, it seemed like an odd idea to most people. But I actually had an idea in my head of what it would sound like—not the notes played but the concept and what it was about sonically. What I could sort of visualize in my head was the fact that with these four instruments, there's no masking of tones. You know, like, ordinarily if you play and you have stringed instruments, to some extent they cancel each other out, because they're living in the same sonic vicinity."

Kane's instincts proved right. On the album opener, "Way Down Below," his odd little ensemble churns in and through and around his circling, modal banjo figure, summoning a quality that feels elemental but also very much alive. He's quick to credit the other musicians for any good result: "Although it's in a lot of ways a very primitive record, in a lot of ways it's very sophisticated too because of what Deanna and Richard play."

Kane's songs themselves are potent. They're made of precious few chords, coiled, compact melodies and no more words than a bluesman needs. He was a rock 'n' roll drummer all through his teenage years, and when he says, "Everything I play, I play as though it were a drum," that applies to words, too.

"I mean, really, one of my goals in life in terms of writing is to get to the point where I'm actually writing using no words at all—and I'm not being entirely facetious here—where it's just sort of sounds," Kane says. "I listen to a fair amount of music that's in foreign languages, and so I don't understand what's going on and it doesn't bother me. They could be grunting and it really doesn't make a bit of difference to me. It's more, 'Does it leave me with a feeling of some kind?' "

He admits to intentionally not enunciating during the thrumming, chant-like refrain of "Anybody's Game," "because the words were not that important to me." Lyrics not mattering? From an accomplished songwriter in this town, that's refreshing sacrilege.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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