Before Kevin Deal decided to pursue music professionally, he worked for 10 years in Dallas as a stone contractor. Although these days Deal may be working with a guitar, not a trowel, his third album, Kiss on the Breeze, reflects the craftsmanship of any good artisan. From its solid songwriting to its careful performances and production, Kiss on the Breeze is a fine country album, the kind of understated gem that Nashville now seems incapable of creating.
First, a bit of background. Kevin Deal, 38, grew up around music. As he put it, “I love my dad, but he’s probably not the best singer in the whole world. Still, he’d sing along to every song on the radio. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones-I listened to a lot of country music growin’ up” (www.kevindeal.com). Deal’s mother, who could sing, shared hymns with the family, and his grandfather gave Deal a harmonica as a child. When he was a teen, Deal began listening to rock and started a band, but when he started a family, he gave up music to be a full-time contractor. The early ‘90s found the business firmly established, so he started splitting his time with music and began playing harmonica around Dallas, which led to a connection with Curly “Barefoot” Miller and other Texas musicians. Mark David Manders eventually singed Deal to Blind Nello Records and introduced him to producer/multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines.
Kiss on the Breeze is grounded in classic country in terms of its themes and melodies, all set to a country-rock beat. His writing is front and center with Maines’ subtle production calling attention to the songs and Deal’s straight-Texas voice, not detracting from them. If you want a contrast, turn your radio to a Hot Country station: You’ll hear big production-take any Faith Hill or Tim McGraw song. (In Nashville, understatement isn’t a problem.) The great thing about Kiss on the Breeze is that it isn’t big: The music’s in the spotlight. Moreover, this album is musically and thematically cohesive. There’s no sense that Deal is trying to reach as many markets as possible.
Kiss on the Breeze begins on the road (“This Time”) and ends there (“One Good Ride”), too. The title track, placed squarely in the album’s middle is also about the road, a fast, breezy number with a Latin beat and some nice accordion work from Joel Guzman. Kiss on the Breeze is about looking, for yourself or someone else. Complicating the search, however, is the fact that the tools we use for making connections, especially language, are limited, so we end up back on the road, still searching-a theme of country music since its beginnings. Although Kiss on the Breeze travels through songs of loss, it does so with humor, and Deal’s vision is ultimately positive, but that doesn’t make the search any easier.
Kiss on the Breeze is built on smart country songs with a contemporary twist, all underscored by Maines’ playing-especially his pedal steel work-and production. For example, in “My Father’s Redneck”, Deal remembers his dad listening to classic country and “kick[ing] more than one hippies’ ass”. So, of course, the son grows his hair long and rebels-until he hits 35 and realizes that “I find my father’s red neck . . . belongs to me.” To a country beat, the singer rails against kids with baggy clothes, loud stereos, and “Marilyn Manson scum”.
Elsewhere, Deal’s humor softens a more serious message. For example, on the honky-tonk “Can’t Hold a Candle”, Deal sings a list of metaphors that contrast himself with his lover’s “Old Flame”: The singer’s a sedan while the flame’s a Cadillac; a rodeo bum as opposed to a matador; a leaky roof, not a soft summer rain. The comparisons are funny, though the longing in Deal’s vocal belies the humor as do the song’s final lines: “The way I feel for her I know she’ll never feel the same / . . . / Yeah, but I hold her just the same.” The hillbilly mandolin and fiddle that ground the song further underscore the class difference the singer sees. Deal takes a similar approach on “Things I’ve Done for Love” where he describes the self-destructive steps he’s taken, saying, “I know it makes no sense / Like runnin’ naked through a barbed-wire fence.” What begins as humor becomes increasingly serious—all to an upbeat, honky-tonk song, creating a sense that the singer’s accepted that despite the damage, this is who he is.
The themes of country music are apparent throughout Kiss on the Breeze. “A Thousand Words” and “Phone That Don’t Ring” both address communication problems. The former, a slow honky-tonk number with lots of pedal steel and Terri Hendrix’s perfect backing vocals, opens with, “I’d take a thousand words for a picture any day.” After all, he’s got her picture, but it’s not particularly comforting. Similarly, “Phone That Don’t Ring” points out how depressing a silent telephone is. In fact, to illustrate the album’s coherence, the song ends with the line “Now I just sit here in the silence going insane”—and the following number is entitled “Cracked Up”. Deal pays tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn in “The Day the Blues Died”, a song with verbal and musical allusions to Vaughn that never loses its country grounding.
One of the disc’s most interesting tracks is “Smoke”, a rock-blues piece complete with call-and-response structure. Terri Hendrix and Julieann Banks add harmony vocals, and Deal’s gravely voice and bluesy harmonica fit perfectly. When Deal suggests he’s the Big Bad Wolf, there’s nothing musically undercuts his claim.
Kiss on the Breeze ends back on the road in “One Good Ride”. It’s Christmas Eve, and the singer’s got his thumb out, feeling isolated and reflecting on his life. The song ends, though, with a trucker offering a ride (while Maines throws in some pedal steel clips from Christmas tunes). The disc’s final image, then, points to the extent that we are all on the road, occasionally helping each other.
The album’s hidden track, an acoustic version of “Honky-Tonks-N-Churches”, provides a fitting conclusion for several reasons. It’s the title track to Deal’s second disc; by including it, he creates a connection with his own musical history. The song also fits nicely with the rest of Kiss on the Breeze, and it’s just a fine song, drawing on two traditions of country music: the bar and the church. As Deal sings in the chorus, “Honky-tonks and churches, they’re both filled with sinners / Lonely hurting people just trying to find their way.” So we’re again brought back to the journey and two places, seemingly different but strikingly similar, where people look for answers.
Deal’s earned comparisons to singer-songwriters like Steve Earle, Joe Ely, and Robert Earl Keen, and while those likenesses are certainly apt, with Kiss on the Breeze, Deal emerges as his own man with his own vision and sound. This is an album that shouldn’t disappear in the wind.
// Notes from the Road
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