Ridin’ around town with the window down and listening to the Kernal makes me feel like I should have an orangutan sittin’ shotgun and fixin’ to signal a right turn. The Kernal and his band, The New Stangers, make music that’s almost alien… Country music from an adjacent realm or Mars Red Dirt. The origins of the Kernal read like a comic book: Young Joe Garner, a mild-mannered college recruiter, finds a mysterious red suit in his parents’ attic. Donning it, Joe feels the power of a 1000 Grand Ole’ Opry’s and transforms into…
AI- Let’s talk about the legend of the Kernal… Tell me about that firey red suit– does it imbue you with superpowers? Are you the Greatest Americana Hero, or perhaps are you a Honky Tonk Ziggy Stardust?
K- Wow– that’s quite lofty. I feel more like an oak leaf that’s just tryin’ to fall right, kinda hit the ground just lightly enough to make a small sound. That suit… You probably read it in some other places, but it’s a thing I found in my parents’ attic not long after my dad died. I saw it and thought, “Well, I’m gonna put it on and see what it looks like.” And you know I was like, “Hey, it looks pretty good! Maybe I should start doin’ somethin’ with it!” So, I just kinda let it develop from there, and named myself, and just kept pitterin’ around with it. The snowball’s got big enough now that I’m talkin’ to you in Macon. So that’s not too bad I guess.
Well, since you brought it up– where did you get the name “The Kernal”?
I just made it up (laughs). I just made it up. I wanted something to convey a “bigness” and a “smallness” at the same time. So I thought, “Kernal”… The sound of it– like a colonel in the army or somethin’ and then you got a kernel of corn… I had to switch that e to an a and voila!
It is fun to introduce on the radio, I’ll tell you that. Let’s talk about Light Country. You’ve had some of those songs in the pocket of that red suit for a few years– what finally put all of it in motion to get that record goin’?
Yeah… I mean, really, we were just tryin’ to find a situation where we could record everything the way we wanted to. It just took that long to find the right relationships. I met Ben Tanner… I was on another tour playin’ bass, and we struck up a friendship. I felt comfortable enough with him sayin’, “Hey, I’m also this guy that writes songs,” like all these other people that we’re hangin’ out with. He listened to ‘em and he said, “Yeah, man, let’s do somethin’”, and that turned into the relationship with the actual release from the label as well. ‘Cause he does a lot of recording outside of the label. He’s an engineer, so it was great. I couldn’t’ve asked for anything better with it, really. I mean– to have people like that, that are only two hours from my house, and it’s not in Nashville really was a big selling point– you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do.
There’s just a lot of corollary between here and there– and my father, when he played music, he spent a lot of time down in the Muscle Shoals area just hangin’ around friends and things like that… It took us a few years of just bangin’ ‘em out on the road to get that relationship. But it was good because by the time we were in the studio… Man, we were ready just to pop ‘em out, and we did it pretty quick. So that was kinda nice.
I read an interview you did with The Fiddleback where you said, and I love this line, “Waylon Jennings needs R. Kelly, R. Kelly needs Zach Condon, and I need them all.” That was in 2011. Who do you need today?
Oh, man! I was just listenin’ to Glenn Gould playin’ Brahms, for instance. There’s somethin’ so great about havin’ internet… It’s so ingrained in our everyday lives, even though there’s a lot of other stuff that comes with it too. It’s just nice to be able to… Like before that, this morning I was listening to a buncha’ old Cajun music, just fiddle music and stuff. There’s just so much… There’s no shortage of awe out there that you can find when it comes to music and people expressing themselves. It’s overwhelming to try to even learn about everything– and I don’t even try to learn about “everything”, but there’s always something that you’re hearing about that’s interesting if you’re just keeping your ears and eyes open. So, yeah, I still feel the same way. Still tryin’ to just put everything in the hopper and see what comes out.
There’s been a rather large premium placed on country music that tends towards a more traditional or hardcore variety. I was talkin’ recently to Zephaniah Ohora… He says that country music should adhere to certain parameters. Now, that was not a jab at anybody else doin’ country music, and it’s certainly not a jab at him, however, while your style of country music does seem to lend itself more to the traditional fare… You are not bound by any parameters. You’re takin’ it off and goin’ where you want to with it.
Well, I just think I’ve gravitated towards the country sound because it’s my background.
Genetic makeup, if you will.
Yeah, yeah– even so, yeah! While there’s a lot of stuff that I listen to when I think about my output, I seem to naturally filter it through that– and I’ve gone back and forth about that a few times because when I first started writing songs they weren’t country at all. It’s become more of a connection that I feel with the tradition. So in some ways, I would agree that you’re adhering to, but I wouldn’t say you have to adhere to anything. It just so happens that the 1-4-5 comes up a lot in country music. So I think of it traditionally, but people have always had problems, even back to the ‘50s, with how folks were putting out country music. It’s always kind of been about money since it started with WSM and all that. Since Hank Williams, it’s always been about money, really– and it’s just kinda outta hand nowadays. It’s like everything else… Everything bows to the economy for some reason, and everybody’s okay with it. It’s pretty weird, but the world’s a little weird too.
Let’s talk about your Pops. He was on the Opry stage with Del Reeves for what– the better part of three decades?
Yeah, just shy. 28 years
And he not only played with Del Reeves, but he played with one of my favorites, Sleepy LaBeef…
Have you got a Sleepy LaBeef tale to tell?
I grew up on Sleepy. He still plays… It’s crazy! He came to my father’s memorial service and that’s the last time I saw him. He came over to the house and brought his daughters when we were kids… Like, I remember this one time, his daughter broke one of our toys. I don’t remember what it was, but it was somethin’ I was really upset about. I was like, “This Pentecostal girl broke my toy, and her dad is huge! Who are these people?” (Laughs)
Do you consider yourself a legacy? And if so, do you think it’s more important to preserve or perpetuate when it comes to country music?
Well, I think it’s more personally interesting to me. I don’t really think of it outside of that because it’s not gonna be interesting in the world if it’s not interesting and compelling to you before anyone else hears it. That’s how I feel about it, anyhow. I don’t think it’s gonna be much use to anyone else if it’s not compelling to me. Because when you’re performing a song in front of people, you’re interacting with them, but really what you have to give them is already cinched up and tied up by the time you give it to ‘em. And you alter things here and there as you develop songs, but… Yeah, for the most part, you’re always havin’ the audience in mind when you’re making things, but I don’t think you can think too far past… Like I said, the idea of pushing the tradition forward, it’s just ‘cause it’s most interesting to me. Where I am, and where I’m from, things like that, so… We’ll see. I dabble in some other things as well, but it’s just kind of where I see myself working from.
That leads me into my next question: Will there come a time when the Kernal and the suit go back in the box?
Is that an eventuality you are already workin’ towards?
Oh, sure. We’ve got it all planned out.
Like a master plan?
Yeah, you gotta have a master plan, you know? You’ve gotta be willin’ to change it, but you’re only as good as your long term plan is.
Well, if it’s only half as exciting as what you’ve been doin’ so far, I can’t wait for it.
Well, thanks. I hope so. It sucks to go backwards, doesn’t it?