Fishman Artist // Keith SewellMulti-instrumentalist Keith Sewell has spent years honing his craft as a player and songwriter for other artists, and now he has his own musical stories to tell.
Raised in the small Texas town of Duncanville, Keith was born with bluegrass in his blood. His grandfather, Kenny Sewell, was a fiddler with the celebrated Shady Grove Ramblers, and the fledgling Sewell followed in his granddaddy's footsteps, taking up the fiddle at the tender age of 3 and traveling to bluegrass festivals far and wide to compete in fiddling contests.
"They worked the whole Texas/Oklahoma bluegrass scene and I got into it because we used to follow him around and watch him play," Sewell remembers. "I come from a long line of fiddle players - my daddy was also an amateur fiddler, as was my great-granddad."
His musical talents were soon parlayed to the five-string banjo, and then to the guitar, which he considers his first instrument. Sewell moved to Nashville shortly after high school and began a musical quest that has produced successful careers as both a songwriter and sideman. On Love Is a Journey, his debut album for Skaggs Family Records, Keith wrote or cowrote all 12 songs and did the arrangements, as well as the production, coming full circle as an artist to create the type of album he's always wanted to release - organic songs with heart and soul.
Sewell has toured with a number of celebrated acts including James Taylor, the Dixie Chicks, Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs, who gave him his start with his country band when Keith was just 19 years old. Currently, he plays lead acoustic guitar with both Sam Bush's band and Jerry Douglas' band. By the same token, his songs have been recorded by a number of eclectic artists ranging from Montgomery Gentry and Steve Wariner to Sonja Isaacs and BR-549, among others. In 1991, Skaggs recorded his song "From the Word Love" for the album My Father's Son. The title track from Skaggs' current album, Brand New Strings, was penned by Keith and Steve Leslie.
"I write songs when an emotion overflows me to the point where I want to translate that into a melody, to a lyric. All the songs on this record were written from that place," Sewell says. "Those feelings just don't come along every day, and I just didn't feel that when I was writing songs for a living, so to speak."
In 2001 when his publishing deal ran out, he took a break and didn't write any songs for nearly two years - his well had run dry. He was burned out on the scheduled, formulaic songwriting sessions that are the reality of a workday for many songwriters - briefcase writers, as Keith puts it, who come in at 9 a.m. and open up the latest Billboard magazine to see what's hot on the charts. He wanted to do songs that spoke to him, not necessarily the commercially-viable ones he had been penning.
During his hiatus, Keith toured with Dobro master Jerry Douglas, and the creative spark was slowly rekindled. Alison Krauss was looking for songs for an album, and he wrote "Tell Me Again" - he wrote the lyrics in less than an hour and then picked up his banjo later and plucked the melody. Though Krauss liked the song and recorded it, it didn't end up on her album; however, Keith felt good about the process and it gave him a burst of creative energy to continue. He fell in love with the process all over again.
In October 2002, the Dixie Chicks came calling and recruited Keith to play acoustic guitar for their highly successful "Top of the World" tour. He also performed on their Live CD and DVD projects. "It was a blast playing bluegrass at rock 'n roll volume!" Sewell says of the two-year stint with the Chicks.
"The month after I got off the road with the Chicks, I was really inspired. That was a really cool tour, and I was inspired to really write and make music."
In his home studio, Keith chose a few songs he had written - some from way back during his country songwriting career that were rejected - and just started jamming on them with friend Andy Leftwich. They'd turn on a click track and the microphones, and let the spirit move them. The first one they cut ended up being the title song for the album, "Love Is a Journey." They kept the basic tracks and Keith expanded on them later, building the song up with layers of instrumentals.
"I originally wrote some of the songs to be progressive country things, but with a little grass feel to 'em," Keith explained. "I realized they could be really cool aggressive acoustic songs. Back then, that's not necessarily what I wrote them for."
He revisited four songs that he had in his musical stash, to see if he could reimagine them. He liked the results and the project took off from there - he penned some new songs to balance his previous work. For the studio sessions, he pulled together some of his favorite musicians to work with him, including banjoist Scott Vestal, bassist Byron House, Douglas, Bush, and L.A. songwriter/producer Wendy Waldman, who is one of his key songwriting influences and mentors. Skaggs sang a duet with Keith on "Love Came Down" and contributed his distinctive mandolin work.
"I feel like there's a style and an angle to my writing with these songs that really has never been revealed, ever - all these songs have a common thread, and that's the way I write. Publishers tend to pitch the songs that the label heads want to hear - they're the safe ones."
Well, safety be tossed out the window. Keith has his experimental groove on now, and with Love Is a Journey, he pushes the boundaries of bluegrass music, giving it a contemporary flair that defies categorization - a breath of fresh air. Uptempo, three minute positive songs are a thing of the past.