An independent artist in the truest sense of the word, Casey Kessel may call Nashville her home, but she writes and performs country music on her own terms and at her own expense. Capturing the details of life in powerfully touching songs, Kessel's talents may only currently find their way to public ears in the mouths of others, but odds are that situation won't last long.
Patiently Biding Her Time... for Now
Here's the deal. Independent is not a genre, it's a state of mind. A sense of purpose. And it's something you can find just as easily on the east side of Nashville as the east side of Omaha.
"I am," says Casey Kessel, "I am that person who eats Mac & Cheese for a month to save an extra five bucks. I paid for this record myself. I own it. I have no money left, but what the hell? I wanted to make a record that represented me. The songwriter. The performer. The daughter. The girlfriend. I didn't want to settle for something. I wanted to believe in what I was doing."
Now that, my friends, that is independence.
Indiana-born, Florida-raised, Kessel is now very much part of the NashVegas East Side scene. A singer-songwriter of obvious talent, she's beginning to experience the first exciting flush of commercial success. Two of her songs feature on Julie Roberts's new album, Men and Mascara, and she also wrote Danielle Peck's recent country hit "Findin' a Good Man".
In the past, even the most eagle-eyed observer of songwriting credits had no viable way of learning anything more about Casey Kessel, short of hopping on a plane and stalking her mercilessly around Music City USA. Today, however, Google is your friend, MySpace is your global village, and stalking is all but redundant. It took me just twelve keystrokes and a single left click to discover Kessel is a firm believer in George Eliot's credo that "It's never too late to be what you might have been", and that she was fixin' to prove its truth.
A couple of additional clicks had me convinced, and a few emails later, I had both an advance copy of her debut CD, the thoroughly independent Ripple in the Water, and my first (and only) MySpace Friend.
"Yes, I was born in Indiana," says Kessel. "But I consider myself a Florida girl. I was barely three when my folks moved us to Naples. It was awesome, we had the Gulf beaches, the Everglades....
"I went to college in Orlando, or at least, attempted college. I ended up getting a gig in a local bar, and fronting a band four nights a week. And then I got offered a job hosting a music video show for a company called TMZ - The Music Zone. I got to count down the top country music videos, it was pretty cool... yeah... so I didn't make it back to college!
"I spent the next couple of years with that schedule... and loving it. Songwriting, Nashville... none of it occurred to me. To be honest, I didn't understand that whole world existed. My dad was a phone man, and my mom raised the kids... we didn't know you could write songs for a living, or be a Star. It wasn't until my dad became ill, and I moved back home, that I realized I wanted more.
"So, I stayed in Naples until my dad was better, and waited tables, and saved up money. And then I moved up to Nashville. Blind. I didn't know anybody or anything. I was here for almost a year before I started to figure it out."
OK. I'm buying. How does it work? What have you learned?
"Wow. What have I learned? Patience. Nashville moves very slow. There's no rhyme or reason to this town. I've witnessed incredible talent move back home because they couldn't 'make it' here. I've been so mad at record labels and publishers for not seeing a true talent. But my anger is evenly distributed, I get just as mad at those folks that move home. I want to yell 'Don't give up, Outback is still hiring... give it another year!'
"Nashville's not an easy town to break into... old school still rules here. My philosophy is simple: follow their rules, until you're successful enough to change them. That's why I didn't take a development deal that RCA records offered me a few years back. I wasn't in a position to insist on the kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted more time to prove to them that they could trust me to make the right choices as an artist, and prove to myself that who I wanted to be as an artist couldn't be compromised."
A development deal?
"Basically a development deal means they 'see something' in you, and give you a chunk of cash to record three songs. And then once they listen to those three songs, they decide if they really saw anything or not... it's tricky."
Tricky like a fox. But clearly patience is the key. Because...
"After a couple of years, I got a songwriting deal with a great company run by Byron Gallimore."
Although he's best known as the man who twiddles the knobs for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Gallimore also produced Lee Ann Womack's marvellous There's More Where That Came From, so with that and Kessel's unsolicited testimonial, perhaps there's still some hope for his immortal soul. Anyhoo...
"I got educated and fast! I wrote for them for two years as a 'developing' writer. It was a priceless experience. Truly. I didn't get any 'cuts', but I learned such a lot."
But still, patience...
"Oh yes. I have a song on a Lila McCann record that's been sitting on the shelf at Broken Bow for the longest time. When I say sitting on the shelf, I mean nobody is doing anything with it; it's collecting dust. They haven't released it to radio, to the stores, her website, her mother... I don't know what their plans are for that record, but they may have no plans. Lots of times, labels will put money into an act, record something, make a video... but we never see it."
Casey Kessel now writes for Major Bob Music, the publishing group best known as the early home of Garth Brooks. And despite the success she's beginning to enjoy there, she still seems to have her eyes set firmly on the spotlight. What with recording her own CD and all? Well, yes and no.
"Hmmm... there are artists out there who make records they love without the big major label budget, and major label artists hear those records and record those songs. Bruce Robison (husband of Kelly Willis, brother-in-law of Dixie Chick Emily, and author of 'Travelling Soldier') is a great example. Two of his biggest hits as a songwriter were songs he cut on his own records. I want to write songs, I couldn't survive without my pen and paper, but there's an equal part of my heart that belongs on the stage. I want the best of both worlds. And there's nothing that feels as good as performing a song that I wrote."
As advertised, Ripple in the Water is a thoroughly independent release. Currently, you can only get it via Kessel's website, or perhaps at shows. But the last thing it is is amateur. Produced with care, and graced by some fine musicians, including the most excellent Al Perkins, it's as good a collection of songs and performances as you'll find this side of, say, Rabbit Fur Coat.
"I recorded it," says Kessel, "at a tiny studio in the Sylvan Park area of Nashville called Silvertone Recording Service. Jim Reilley and Robert Reynolds helped to produce the project. Jim is a Grammy nominated artist and songwriter with incredible musical ears. Robert was in the band the Mavericks, and his energy kept us going on some late nights. And yes, a bunch of awesome players came in and rocked it. I couldn't have been more lucky... I said my 'thank you's every day, believe me!"
While Kessel lacks the sheer power of Julie Roberts and the rich, mesmerizing qualities of Jenny Lewis, her voice is undeniably warm and engaging, and it draws you effortlessly into her songs. Full of down-home charm and unlikely, sometimes cheeky rhymes, Ripple in the Water is ripe with authentic detail. It may not have the high gloss sheen that Nashville seems to prefer, but it slots just-so into the lush country hillside that's graced by performers like Lori McKenna and Laura Cantrell, and by records such as Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell's Begonias.
Momma won first prize for her cherry pie that summer I met you
The air was sticky on the banks of the 'Sippi, smack dab in the middle of June
I had a suntan line by the time we kissed in the carnival tent
I said I'm due home at seven, pick me up at eleven, 'cos Daddy's asleep by ten,
And I'll be out again
-- "Ripple in the Water"
The title track offers a direct feminine equivalent to the likeable braggadocio of songs like Dierks Bentley's "What Was I Thinking?". Backed by a gentle country rock not a million miles away from her fellow Floridian exiles Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kessel sings the story of a headstrong young girl who sneaks out with a blanket and a bottle of Boone's Farm Blackberry Ridge to enjoy a night of passion under the stars. The dawn, she says, came much too soon. And then she hints at unexpected but non-specific consequences, much like those caused by a butterfly's wings, or by ripples from an unseen pebble thrown at random.
The ideal counterpoint to "Ripple in the Water", "Nothing's Ever Perfect" is a slow, lovelorn country blues. Co-written by the über-cool and whipsmart Sara Beck, who also provides backing vocals, it's quite lovely and, yes, almost perfect. Continuing the theme, and detailed with all kinds of shiny familiarity, "One Bad Day" is one of those happy-sad songs that country music does so well. Her lover may be gone, her heart may be broken, but Kessel's going to allow herself just 24 hours of crying, moping, and Casablanca before she picks herself up, dusts herself down, and generally washes that man right out of her hair.
Although Ripple in the Water ends a little weakly, there's so much here to love that it's hard to say anything bad about Casey Kessel. If the doubtless autobiographical sincerity of "My Father" sounds hokey to these ears, then "Come Morning" is such a strong tale of a woman tormented that it more than atones. If "Wild Blue Country" sounds like it rolled off the same Nashville production line that gave us Jessi Alexander's "Honeysuckle Sweet" and countless others, then "The Right Thing to Do" worms its way deep inside your internal jukebox with a big beat power pop feel and chiming echoes of "Rhinestone Cowboy", no less. And if the schmaltz of "True Love and Homegrown Tomatoes" sits heavily on your stomach, then "Jackson" is the absolute antidote. Pepto-Bismol for the soul.
While I can't see Reese Witherspoon rushing out to cover Casey Kessel's "Jackson", it's not too big a leap to imagine her playing the lead role in the movie of the song. Or maybe Kirsten Dunst. Strummed gently and swelling only briefly for effect, "Jackson" is the intensely emotional tale of a girl, a picture in a locket, a brief youthful love affair, and a subsequent deep and unremitting sense of perpetual loss.
Having only recently embraced songs about mothers who leave their abusive husbands for the good of their children, Nashville and country radio might not be ready for the heart-rending story of a woman who gave away her child when she was just 15. But I certainly am. And you should be too.
In strictly mathematical terms, there are 13 songs on Ripple in the Water, and ten of them are going to make their way onto my Perfect iPod. With a PiP rating of slightly more than 75%, this puts Casey Kessel's little CD on much the same level as Led Zeppelin's fourth album and a little higher than London Calling. Insert your own smart-ass conclusion here and then check out Casey Kessel at MySpace.