Bap Kennedy - Under The Spotlight

First Published in Country Music International – September 1998

Bap Kennedy, one-time Belfast punk rocker and leader of the now-defunct Energy Orchard rock band, is the latest Brit to try his luck on the Nashville sidewalks. Unlike others, he has a solid endorsement from none other than Steve Earle, and like Earle, Kennedy is aptly representative of the veteran troublemakers, outcasts and odd ducks that are regarded as anomalies within the current talent pool for what reportedly passes as country music.

Signed to Earle’s E-Squared label, Kennedy’s DOMESTIC BLUES debut solo album, recorded in Music City with such heavy-weights as the ‘Twangtrust’ (Earle and fellow maverick Ray Kennedy), plus Nanci Griffith, Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan, is, at the time of writing, sitting comfortably in the upper reaches of the Americana chart. 

“That’s a bit weird for someone from Ireland,” says Kennedy, “but it doesn’t seem weird to me. Going to Nashville to make the record seemed very natural. I didn’t think twice about it.”

Kennedy had just interrupted a hectic stateside promotional and live tour to return to Britain for a few days to be the best man at his brother’s wedding. His American acceptance this summer seemed a million light years away from last summer when he was drawing dole, working on London building sites and generally scratching a living any way he could.

“It’s a big step, having to go out and get a job after being a minor celebrity, but that’s the way it goes and you have to take it on the chin,” he says philosophically.

Like so many Irish youngsters, Kennedy grew up hearing country and Irish folk music, and admits to remembering the music of such diverse performers as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley. Like any rebellious teenager in the late 1970s, it was punk-rock that had the greatest attraction. He formed his first band, Shellac, when he was 15, but they only got to play one gig before splitting up. Unlike the other band members, Bap Kennedy was bitten by the music bug.

“But I made my mind up that music was what I wanted to do. I started another band called Ten Past Seven that was part-punk, part-pop, had a couple of years of that, then it just fell apart because we had nowhere else to go. There’s no music industry in Belfast. So I knocked the band on the head and moved to London.’

Kennedy arrived in London in the mid-1980s and started working on building sites by day and playing music in the evening and at weekend. A couple of other musical buddies also came over and the trio became the nucleus of Energy Orchard, a kind of mainstream rock band. It was almost two years before anything positive happened: Steve Earle, who saw the band play at the Marquee club, was suitably impressed and prised the door open with MCA, his then record label, resulting in a lucrative recording contract for Energy Orchard.

The band made two albums for MCA and two more for Transatlantic, achieving considerable success before calling it quits in 1995. Most of them moved back to Belfast, but Bap stayed behind in North London and continued to write songs.

It was through a contact at Transatlantic that Kennedy got to hear Steve Earle’s TRAIN A-COMIN’ album, and suddenly his whole world was turned on its head.

“He’d popped up again, when I heard he’d made this comeback record,” Kennedy recalls. “Steve had disappeared for three or four years, and I thought he was dead. I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. This guy gave me the record, and it just turned me on. I realised that was what I wanted to do, make a record like that. So I decided to get in touch with Steve.”

Earle was pleased to hear from his Irish musical buddy, and with finance provided by some people involved with Transatlantic, Kennedy got to go to Nashville to record. That was in the summer of 1996. The record then sat on the shelf for two years due to the demise of Transatlantic.

“I ended up owning the record but with no label,” he explains. “Steve wanted to release it, but he was having problems with the company as well. So there was a lot of shit flying around. It took a year for everything to settle down. He was ready to release the record, but he couldn’t do that right away; he had to wait and pick the right time.”

DOMESTIC BLUES finds Kennedy delivering a dozen insightful originals plus an unlisted bonus version of the Ewan MacColl folk standard Dirty Old Town, performed as a duet with co-producer Earle. “Barroom philosophy with Dobros” is how Kennedy describes the album’s approach. “I just wanted to make an honest-sounding record and try to capture some songs in an unpolished form.”

Bap Kennedy is an artist who cares passionately about the music, and he’d still be playing it if he had to go back to working for tips.

“If you can go through all the shit I’ve been through and come out of it still wanting to make music, it’s got to be worth doing,” he says.