I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in April 2010 on The 9513.
He tells a little bit of that story in his brand new song on radio. The second chorus of “The Call” deals with a young mother grappling with the heart wrenching decision of keeping a baby or not and it was from his own personal experience of being that baby that the song’s lyrics took root.
Matt’s birth mother was in an unfortunate economic situation and had made the painful decision to abort him. The doctor that was seeing his mother knew of another patient, a mother who had lost three of her children in a terrible house fire, who had just found out she was unable to conceive more children. The doctor matched up the two mothers and the new family adopted Matt. It makes the fodder for a great country story.
The 9513 had an opportunity to sit down and make a call with Matt Kennon and talk a little about genealogy and about his upcoming album release on BamaJam Records.
KEN MORTON, JR.: With “The Call” racing up the charts, we’ll start there. As I was reading through your bio, I was surprised to learn that part of that song is autobiographical with your own adoption and own birth mom. Would you mind giving some background on that?
MATT KENNON: Actually, there have been a lot of phone calls in my life that have changed me. Not only in my personal life, but in my career as well. My birth mother couldn’t afford to bring me into this world and take care of me. Through the divine intervention of The Lord, there happened to be a family out there waiting to take care of me. They had lost three children in a house fire. So I was very blessed to be placed in that home with that doctor agreeing to carry me to full term. That’s what that second verse of “The Call” was about. I wrote the song with two guys, both of them that had serious illnesses. Jeremy Campbell had had lung cancer at the age of fourteen. He had it for six years and beat it. Noah, my other co-writer has Crohn’s disease. So when I had this idea for this song for a phone call, we had friends that had lost things like jobs and that- and we all had had phone calls that have changed our lives. When they were dealing with their illnesses and all that, a lot of calls kept them hanging on. We decided we hadn’t heard too many songs about a phone call and especially one that changed so many things.
KMJ: That makes a song all the more real to the listener and ever more compelling when there’s a truth behind it like that.
MK: Yeah, it does. And on the suicide thing, I’ve had several cousins and friends and people that are close to me take their own life. All that’s left behind is pain and questions. A lot of my friends didn’t even leave notes. I had a friend of mine kill himself this past Easter. It was after I had written the song. All he left was a family behind with two little girls and a wife. Nothing can be that bad. I think sometimes people feel alone when things are tough and that there’s nowhere out. But I think that’s the importance of this song in letting people know that they’re not alone. If there’s a father you haven’t talked to in ten years, it’s important to keep those people in mind and reach out to them. You never know what you’re going to get if you call somebody. They might have lost all their money in the stock market or lost a family member. You never know what they might be going through.
KMJ: One of those things that makes you so distinctive out there on the radio dial is your voice. Have you had an opportunity to reconnect with your birth family to find out genetically where that comes from?
MK: I actually did. I met my birth family. My birth mom is since deceased and I don’t know who my birth father is for certain or if he’s even still alive. My mother had me at an old age- she had me at 39. She passed away a couple years ago. When I finally met her the one time, I really didn’t find out much more than that I had a brother who was still alive. I’ve developed a wonderful relationship with him. He’s been a real gift. And I think we’ve both done well for ourselves and he’s got a real wonderful family. The best thing that came out of all of this was meeting my brother. I haven’t seen him in a little while, but we stay in touch often on the phone and stuff like that. When I get some time, we’ll go see each other.
KMJ: With that deep voice of yours, did you find that as an advantage or a disadvantage as you went out to go search out record deals?
MK: Well, it’s different. That’s the thing that my label said in that my voice is what is going to set you apart from everyone else. They said, “When you sing, you can believe it. It’s honest. It’s real.” I know for a fact that I’m not a Gary LeVox or a Richie McDonald or some of these more recognized singers out there. But all this time while I’ve been doing this, people have always come up and said, “Man, your voice is cool.” It was like when I was talking to my brother for the first time, it was like I was talking to myself. My mother had a real southern drawl to her voice. Hopefully, I have something between all of that.
KMJ: It was another distinctive voice that kind of kick-started your career when Randy Travis recorded “Turn It Around.” What did that mean to getting your career started?
MK: That is when it all got rolling. When I got into town, I was parking one day, I ran into Travis Tritt’s old manager, Gary Falcon. I recognized him from CMT’s Travis Tritt special. I said, “Hey man, do mind if I park here?” And then I turned around and said, “Hey, you’re Travis Tritt’s manager, aren’t you?” And he was. And they had parted just two weeks prior. So I gave him a CD and it was just one of those gut feelings. And within a few days, he called me and said that I really needed to call a friend of his, Kyle Lehning. Kyle is Randy’s producer and within a few days I was over there. He listened to my songs and commented on my voice and my music and said that he knew within about 30 seconds that this was going to work. He took me to James Stroud and passed me off and there wasn’t any animosity at all, just the natural progression of things. We’re all still great friends and I owe Gary and Kyle huge thanks for getting me to where I am today. And funny thing, Randy Travis used to work with my manager who I’ve been working with for about nine years. It’s a small world. There’s been a lot of similarities and parallels in our careers and in our lives. I always listened to him growing up; my mom would listen to him over and over and over again. It was 1982 and I was listening to “Forever and Ever Amen”
KMJ: You’ve got your brand new self-titled album that will be coming out in about a month. Beyond “The Call,” what else will we hear on that album?
MK: Well, there’s a handful of songs- probably a six pack- that I call “life.” They’re things that I’ve been through, things that I’ve seen and that are important to me. I’ve had the opportunity to write eight of the 12 songs that are on the record. But I don’t think you’ll hear a whole lot of difference between the songs I wrote and the songs I didn’t. I found songs on stuff that I had been through written by others too. You’ll hear some impact songs, some ballads on there and balls-to-the-wall country rocking stuff. We call it country rock and roll.
KMJ: Sonically and musically, how would you compare it against other things you’ve heard or had influence the sound?
MK: I cut my teeth playing drums on there so there’s a little bit of stage rock influence on there- especially live. We had Mark Slaughter come play guitar and sing on the record. I had one of my dear friends Jimi Jamison, the lead singer of Survivor, come sing on there too. He was one of my biggest influences on me- he was the first concert I ever saw. You’ll hear his voice on there on half a dozen songs.
KMJ: Let’s talk a bit about your record label. BamaJam Records is part of a much bigger Ronnie Gilley Entertainment Group. It’s far more than just a record label. Tell me about your experience thus far on the label.
MK: Man, it’s been awesome. They have a passion for great music. Ronnie starred in the “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” by Tracy Lawrence and is just a great guy. He started an event called BamaJam that’s become one of the largest venues in the country. And he takes such good care of us. When we go out there, we don’t feel like an opening act, we feel like a headliner. People are really gravitating towards BamaJam. And our big show is coming up pretty soon. And as far as having James Stroud, it’s been amazing. We’ve been friends for three years now and ride Harley Davidson’s together. He helped me cut this record and co-produced it together. He and Ronnie have just totally taken care of me and it’s been a perfect fit because they haven’t in the least bit tried to change who I am.
KMJ: Beyond “The Call”, do you know what the next single will be?
MK: We believe that it will be a song called “You Can Still Wear White.” But we’re still riding out “The Call” and trying to get this thing up the charts. I feel really that every single song on this record could be a single. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to make a song like Tim McGraw would make back in the day. Every song on there, you could blindfold yourself and point at the CD and you’d recognize it as a hit on the radio. I feel like I’ve had a long time to prepare for this album to learn who I am. I’ve taken all those influences in Nashville and realize the kind of voice I have and what works for me and what doesn’t. We have it dialed stylistically now. There’s a contentment with me being comfortable with me and my voice and where I’m at.
KMJ: One last question for you. This is meant open-ended. What is country music to Matt Kennon?
MK: Country music has been my saving grace. It’s been therapeutic to every thing that I’ve seen and experienced in my life. I’ve found a lot of answers to questions in my life through country music. I’d really like to provide that same level of experience to my fans and to country music listeners out there. I want them to be able to listen to a song like “The Call” and have it move them. I’m already having people share their heart and soul with me. They’re saying, “Yeah, you’re right. I need to reach out to those around me more.” I’m hoping to pass along more of those real-life stories and lessons in life that I’ve had to learn on my own. Hopefully, somebody will be able to take something from that. And if I can make a living within country music by doing that, it doesn’t get any better than that.