It can occasionally seem desirable to be someone else. Perhaps to be someone who doesn’t feel what we feel or who says the right things (or who doesn't care that they don’t). Sometimes I’d like to slip out of myself like an outfit poorly chosen at the beginning of the day and roam about for the rest of the afternoon as another person, as someone who is not me as I or others know myself but who in some way still reflects something essentially true about who I am. For Joe Garner, this break from the self isn't so much a slipping out as it is a putting on. When he dresses in the signature red suit of his eccentric, country music persona, he becomes someone he says he is not—he becomes the Kernal.
Growing up, Joe found himself in proximity to the characters of the Grand Ole Opry’s stage. His father, Charlie Garner, used to play weekends at the Opry alongside Dell Reeves in the red suit Joe has since appropriated for the Kernal. Joe remembers how they would gather for an overnight hog roast at an outdoor pavilion they’d dubbed the “Flea Market.” The kids would run around, and Charlie and Dell would entertain with music and impersonations.
“Other people would come up, and they were entertainers, too,” Joe remembers, “but they were just people in the community. That way of doing things made the Opry what it was. It was just stuff people were out doing in the country anyway. And they weren't doing it to try to be famous or try to entertain to make money. That wasn’t a thought in their mind. It’s a very human thing, in other words, to make each other feel good with music.”
These memories of the Opry and its characters’ Flea Market stuck with Joe and would eventually shape his vision for his own music and for his alter ego, the Kernal.
“I remember having a conversation with my dad before he died about being interested in the idea of stage performance,” he says. “I think I was reading some Aristotle stuff about the theater and about catharsis.” He talks of seeing something transpire on a stage and then to allowing that experience to speak into one’s life. “Something resonated with me about country music in those terms.”
It’s his shyness, his fear of judgment, real or perceived, that fades away when Garner puts on the red suit and steps onto stage as the Kernal. It’s an exercise that diverts the audience’s attention from Garner’s anxieties, that deflects any scrutiny he might feel.
“The Kernal,” he says, “was a way for me to maybe make an attempt at not being overwhelmed by these kinds of feelings, and I think that’s what drives a lot of people I’m influenced by. If you can make light of yourself somehow in front of folks or find a way to do that, it sort of lessens all of that stuff in your personal life. Even if you’re not being 100% honest. I like the idea of blurring genuine things or things that we take to be genuine.”
I recall a Picasso quote (“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”) and wonder aloud if that blurring somehow conveys truth better than transparency can.
“Or that true and false, they’re not effectual or they’re not efficacious in that world,” Joe responds. “They don’t really work as well. Anything that kind of blurs those little lines, that stands on the edge of two dual things, is always interesting.”
This interest in the blurring of lines between the genuine and imagined, between irony and sincerity, and of genre shines in the Kernal’s new album LIGHT COUNTRY, due to be released by Single Lock Records on March 3.. It’s been six years since Garner debuted his first album, Farewellhello, as the Kernal, delivering a brand of country that clearly alludes to the genre’s heyday. But in LIGHT COUNTRY, Garner more clearly draws from various wells of influence, including gospel and rock and roll.
The album's opening track is a new arrangement of Farewellhello’s opening song, “Where We’re Standing.” This version breaks from the optimistic twang of its predecessor and instead delivers its lines with the solemn authority of someone who has held out his hands in faith, received, and now finds himself with outstretched hands again: “Somewhere beyond where we’re standing / there’s a better way, if you help me find it. / Reach out your hand and leave it empty / and see what you find, see what you find.”
And if you didn’t already sense this shift in the opening piano notes or in Garner’s vocals, the song’s outro delves into a searing medley of electric guitar that proclaims of a worldlier, more complex Kernal.
Part of that complexity is balancing, both thematically and aesthetically, the playful and sometimes ironic motifs in songs like “At the Old Taco Bell” and “Knock Kneed Ballerina” with more tender themes of hurt, healing, and acceptance in songs like “Tennessee Sun,” “Try Again,” and “I Understand.”
“It’s funny to think about,” Joe says of songwriting, “because I've noticed that I’m almost attracted to brands, what a brand does, and flipping or nuancing the brand so you get a different perspective on it.”
“At the Old Taco Bell” is an example of this, written after Joe saw a photograph of a building abandoned by the fast food chain and was amused by the idea of reclaiming old Taco Bells and remodeling them into homes. Such worlds exist in LIGHT COUNTRY, and “Taco Bell” tells the tale of folks taking up residence in one of these buildings. When the fictional inhabitants hear the music of Béla Bartók, they’re struck with the fear of the Lord, and it’s at the old Taco Bell where they hide from the Christ knocking at their door. But when their fear is met with grace and mercy, the absurd is juxtaposed with the divine, and the song ends with a sample of Charlie Garner’s family singing the gospel tune “I’ve Been Changed.”
It’s a paradox that, well, works.
Joe says the gospel clip speaks well to “that sense of relief of being terrified that the worst thing is going to happen, and then God himself saying, ‘Hey, I got this sword. Let's melt it down and make a spoon, and I’m gonna feed you. I’m not here to strike you down like you thought.”
Old recordings of Joe’s family, which he found on a quarter-inch reel in his parents’ attic, appear elsewhere in LIGHT COUNTRY, which ends with his forebears singing “I Was There When it Happened.” The inclusion of these gospel songs infuse other tracks on the album with a spirituality that echos out of Garner’s childhood memories. Garner says his parents didn’t visit their extended family often as he was growing up, but when they did they would gather for family reunions that resembled old-fashioned revivals.
“Every family reunion would always be at one of these community centers. It was almost like the whole point was to get around and sing. Everybody was just wanting to sing. These things, to this day, are still some of the most intense experiences I’ve been around because it was very emotional. [Cousin] Kenard would start playing his gospel piano, and they’d all gather around. They used to have this singing group, and they’d sing on the radio when they were kids and stuff. They were unreal. They were so good, and they would all just cry. They’d all just sing gospel and look into each other’s eyes—these big dopey eyes—and they would just cry and cry and sing gospel songs. It was like a competition, too. They were so loud.”
Joe recalls that when he first started singing his dad would say, “You better sing out! You’re whispering!”
“I think about that more and more,” Joe says, “that there is something about being confident and finding your voice, using your voice, and not even thinking about it. . . . Find it; sing with it; use it. They did, and those things were so powerful and scary when I was a kid.”
The influence of Garner’s bandmates also appears in his music. The first time guitarist Brandon Clifton played with the band happened to be the first night Joe performed in the red pants of his father’s suit. It was alongside them that the Kernal came into himself.
“We try to keep the same band,” Joe says, “and after a certain amount of time you wanna write something that the band can enjoy instead of just saying, ‘Here’s my song. Learn it.’ What kind of thing would be fun for Brandon to play, for Jesse to play? What do they like? When you’re close for a long time you know these things, and they meld together, and that should influence how you progress and what you do to move forward.”
“I Understand” is one of LIGHT COUNTRY’s most emotive tracks, and one which Garner says was shaped by the band. His original intention was to write a “hot Jerry Reed kind of track,” but after some time working on it with the band the song evolved to conclude with an affecting and gentle piano outro.
“It was emotional to do, too,” Joe says of recording the song. They wanted to record the vocals in an uninterrupted take, but for some reason Joe says he wasn’t feeling it. “Then right before the third take, one of the guys in the group said something to me. He almost winked at me and said, ‘Where’s the Kernal at?’” The result was the earnest vocals that made it onto the album.
Garner’s vision for future albums includes continuing to recut “Where We’re Standing” as the opening track. (“I’ve got at least one song for the next record,” he jokes.) The song will maintain its original structure and lyrics and will let the new arrangement speak to any transformations Garner will have undergone. It’s a small gesture of trust, a door slightly cracked, that may give us, an audience that could easily get wrapped up in the presentation, some insight into where he’s been, where he’s going, and maybe, if we look closely enough, into who the man in the red suit is.
Josh Garcia is a writer and photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ