For Sackville’s Kenny James, his progression into being a country music artist was so gradual, even he can’t pinpoint a defining moment that he knew he had found his calling.
It has taken him a number of years to reach this point, however.
James, an Ontario native, grew up listening to rock & roll and punk music, and diligently chose those genres to explore with his first bands.
“As a teen, my greatest musical inspiration was found playing in rock bands. It just seemed like a natural fit at the time,” he says.
With his group The Chickens, comprised of former members of acclaimed Ontario band UIC, James performed alongside punk legends The Buzzcocks and guitar great Link Wray, while also having been invited to perform for Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt in New York City.
“That was where I came from – playing high-energy shows in bars everywhere.”
Following a pair of independent releases, The Chickens went their separate ways and James found himself a resident of Sackville, having been drawn to the town via a job.
Once ensconced in the fertile artistic community of Sackville, James formed indie-rock band We Are Action. Sadly, the group released only one self-titled effort before ultimately calling it a day, but ultimately, the group’s dissolution inadvertently helped set the stage for where James currently finds himself.
“I think that as you get older, things change in your life or that you’re more willing to embrace change. I’ve always written songs, but it was a relatively sudden thing that the music and songs I was writing just happened to have a country kind of sound to them. I embraced a different style of playing and a different style of guitar, and, for the first time possibly ever, I found myself 100% musically comfortable with where I was at,” he says.
“It’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy previous acts I performed with. I just didn’t feel like I necessarily being true to myself in the past. When I made the decision to focus on this style of music, it immediately felt like a good place. It suits the age demographic I am a part of right now, but also feels like something I could continue doing as I get older.”
James acknowledges that while his transformation into a country troubadour might come as a surprise to some, his appreciation for the genre is something that has been long-standing.
“My appreciation for the music has always been there. As a kid, I felt a natural pull towards rock & roll, but also wasn’t vehemently opposed to country music, either. As I got older, I started to see some similarities between punk rock and real outlaw-country kind of music, which, though I couldn’t really explain, feel as though there is a natural kind of jump there.”
Indeed, James’ new album Tougher Than Nails, driven by his exquisite picking on the guitar, has more in common with classic country outlaws like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and the Bakersfield country sound made famous by Buck Owens than any music made in the realm of rock & roll.
Recorded at Sackville’s Vogue Theatre, the album bears the hallmarks of a true band effort, despite it being James’ name that adorns the album cover artwork.
“With my previous release, I performed each of the instruments myself at my home studio, which was great in terms of convenience. On this new album, however, I wanted to capture us playing as a band, which, in comparison to the performances on my first solo release, resulted in more of a natural-sounding record.”
Although James would arguably love nothing more than to pack up his vehicle and bring these songs to audiences right across the country, the practicality of having a young family will prevent that from happening in the near future.
Not that he is lamenting that fact whatsoever. He is simply content to have found what he believes to be his calling at this point in his life.
“I am making music because it is something that I want to do, but am at the point where I am not really all that concerned with what people are going think. I feel that once you are being true to yourself with your art, there is really nothing bad that can come your way.”
What: Kenny James celebrates the release of Tougher Than Nails
When & Where: Friday June 19, Ducky’s Pub (4 Bridge St., Sackville) & Saturday June 20, Plan b Lounge (212 St. George St., Moncton)