Cover photo © 2023 Bob Seaman
If the name McKendree sounds familiar, no doubt you have seen Kevin McKendree’s name in the credits on many records. His keyboard work has appeared on albums by Brian Setzer, Tinsley Ellis, George Thorogood, and Lee Roy Parnell. He also spent 14 years as a member of Delbert McClinton’s band. In recent years, he has been doing production work in his Rock House Studio in Franklin, Tennessee. Last year, he was at the helm for a very special project, Buchanan Lane, the debut album of his son, Yates McKendree.
After hearing the album, and digging into the younger McKendree’s impressive musical talents, you walk away knowing that this young artist will be making beautiful music for many years to come.
Born in Nashville, the younger McKendree was surrounded by music from the start, which is understandable given his father’s storied career. At the age of two, he started playing drums, then switched to piano a year later. It wasn’t until he was five years old that the Yates picked up a guitar in earnest.
“I remember that my Dad would always have Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield, Freddie King, Jimmie Vaughan, and others playing in the house, so I grew up hearing the music, and falling in love with it. Since then, I have continued to dig deeper and deeper into it, a process that still continues to this day.
“I specifically remember hearing “Going Down” by Freddie King as a toddler. My thought at that moment was, yeah, I want to do that. Things just kind of spiraled from there. I never really had any formal lessons. My education came from watching my dad play gigs, and learning by ear. Being around that is what I gravitated to, and what inspired my own journey. I have a love for all of the instruments that I play, and hope to incorporate some piano into my live shows.”
About the age of eight years old, McKendree started sitting in on stage at his Dad’s shows. He joined a band that played locally doing blues covers several years later. Like many musicians, he spent his formative years as a sideman, soaking up what it takes to be a successful front person and band leader.
“I finally reached the point where I wanted to do my own thing. The emotions and musicality of blues music has always inspired me. I feel very deeply about the music, and I want to see it continue. The music has basic human feelings that I believe anyone can relate to. One of my goals is to introduce the music to my generation, and younger people in general. If you convey the music the right way, people can understand it and feel it, almost like an energy force.”
Besides his father, McKendree has a number of key influences, with five being seminal guitar masters.
“One would be T-Bone Walker, then Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Freddie and B.B. King, and finally Otis Rush. They had a huge impact on me. For keyboards, you can count Jimmy McGriff, James Booker, and, of course, Ray Charles are artists that I have learned from.
“T-Bone Walker laid down the form of much of what we hear today, the originator of the single string guitar style of electric blues. In addition to his songwriting, his touch, his tone, his vocal style, really hits me in that special spot. Watson had that aggressive attack on guitar, a biting, edgy sound that gave him a unique sound, plus his incredibly soulful vocals. Watson has a similar approach to Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) in that both did this wild, all-out plucking of the strings. My cover of Slim’s tune, “It Hurts To Love Someone,” on my album has an combination of both.
“As far as Otis Rush, his vibrato is my favorite on the planet. When he hits a note on the guitar with the vibrato, it makes you feel something. He had such a wide, deep vibrato. And his singing was off the wall, it is unbelievable how it hits you in your soul, it is so powerful, at least for me.
“I grew up listening to Freddie King’s instrumentals, with that cool Texas thing going on. His playing has always resonated with me. The way he played and the licks that he went for spoke to me. With B.B. King, I remember being about ten years old and discovering a live album he did in 1966 called Blues Is King. The rawness, and the emotional aspect of it, you can tell he is in the moment, and the crowd is feeling it. Hearing that record shattered my mind, and I still listen to it obsessively to this day.
“So you will hear little bits of each of those artist in my playing. But the bottom line is that I am constantly seeking to find my own sound, which is an amalgamation of an enormous amount of the old soulful music that I grew up listening to, and loving!”
As far as vocals, McKendree didn’t start singing until he was about 17 years old. Up to that point, his focus had been strictly on the music.
“I was very insecure about about my voice, but had the determination to just do it. So I worked on my vocals by singing along to B.B. King records. That is how I taught myself to sing. I did that for a couple of years, until I was comfortable enough to sing out in public. Never had a voice lesson, learned it all by ear.”
On his debut album, McKendree co-wrote two songs with help from noted songwriter Gary Nicholson. He also composed “Out Crowd,” the opening instrumental that showcases his piano skills, and the closing number, ‘Voodoo,” a funky workout on guitar, with a big assist from his father on the Hammond organ.
“My songwriting starts with inspiration from real life. I have the good fortune of being able to write with Gary. We put our heads together musically, talk about life until we come up with some good ideas. I am deeply rooted in the blues traditions, so musically I want to convey it the way I want to convey it. The combination of Gary’s lyricism and my musicality makes for a strong combination. The two we co-wrote on the album, “Wise” and “No Justice,” stem from heartbreak, and the pain you feel going through it. You might want that person back, but you also realize they may not be the one for you, that there is a better person out there. On both of those tracks I did the vocal, the guitar parts, plus Hammond organ, bass and drums.”
The rest of Buchanan Lane is filled with covers of songs from a wide variety of artists. To his credit, McKendree bypasses the well-worn classics, offering a fresh batch of quality material from some surprising sources.
“I wanted to do Dr. John’s “Qualified” because it was a song that got stuck in my head. It has a great groove with cool lyrics. I am a huge fan of his, and I think he deserves more recognition for being such a spectacular musician, so I wanted to pay tribute to him. A lot of what moves me the most is not the common stuff, it is the songs that I discovered as I dug deeper and deeper. Now I want to hip people to the music, to inspire them to dig deep for themselves.
When it comes to the gear he uses, McKendree has several favorites that he can’t imagine living without.
“I go through different moods, which helps determine what I decide to play. Right now, I have a 1967 Gibson ES-175 that I have been playing a lot. I really love the tonality of it. Then there is an ’08 or ’09 Gibson SG Classic with P-90 pickups that has also been getting a lot of work. For my amplifier, I use a 1971 Fender Super Reverb amp that I adore. I don’t feel that I can find that tone with any other amplifier, so the Fender is my go-to choice. My guitar cable goes straight into the amp, no pedals or effects.”
For his backing band, the guitarist gets help from friends in the Nashville music scene, like-minded musicians who are willing to jump in and study the music with a similar passion.
“I have a good friend, Griffin Photoglo, on drums. Currently Sean McDonald is on second guitar. He is an up-and-coming young blues artist that I think is absolutely incredible. He is so rooted in the tradition that he blows my mind every time I hear him. It means so much to me to be able to make music with him. On bass, I have another friend, Gregg Garner, who was in my first band. I have been making music with him since I was 11 years old. And, of course, my Dad on keyboards. I certainly look up to him, and I think he is proud of me, which means a lot.
“I know one of these days that Sean is going to go off and do his own thing, but I still want to keep working with him. I have other musician pals like guitarists Jon Hay and Jad Tariq, who are both in John Nemeth’s Blue Dreamers band, who are really great cats. There is such a lack of the traditional scene in the younger generation. But there are some musicians like those guys, and Jontavious Willis, that give hope for the future.”
On the album, McKendree utilizes some veteran musician who have also had an impact on his musical development.
“Big Joe Maher plays drums on seven songs. I chose him because I grew up around him, so I have been hearing his vast songbook of all of the rare and deep blues stuff that he knows since I was a toddler. He has been a major factor in my development. That also holds true for Steve Mackey, who plays upright bass on seven tracks. I grew up with him around. Drummer Kenneth Blevins is my godfather. He plays drums for John Hiatt, and has played with John Prine, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, and other New Orleans cats. He has been around since I was born.”
Buchanan Lane has been receiving plenty of positive press. Now McKendree is hoping that his booking agent, Scott Boyer at North Shore Artists, can line up some tours so that the guitarist can start expanding his fan base.
“We are definitely working on getting out there. We have some dates on the books including appearances at the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas and the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues festival in Washington state. We have started putting together a second album, so I am actively listening to more music and picking out songs for that project. I am elated that people have been liking the my first record. I put it out because of my love of music, and to see people enjoying it, I can’t express what that means to me.
“The challenge is to stay inspired. My goal is to get younger people to understand how relatable, viable, and current blues music can be in it’s traditional form. If you have ever been sad in your life, you can understand it on some level. And if you have ever been happy, you can connect to the music on a human level. I want people of my generation to know that, and embrace it. Jazz and classical music have been studied as indispensable forms of music. It is the same with blues. It is American music that needs to continue and be enjoyed. Getting people to hear this natural, humanistic music live can make a huge difference. It means so much to many listeners, as the root of most forms of modern music.”