My brother is always “filling-in” with different bands. Everyone knows Harry. I usually introduce myself as “Harry’s brother” in the bluegrass music community so that people within the scene have a reference point for me, to which the typical response is “Oh I see the resemblance now!” In one of Harry’s many misadventures, he wound up filling in for a band based out of the Austin Texas area about 6 years ago. He spoke very highly of their material and the experience of getting to play music outside of what he was accustomed to. The leader of that Texas outfit was none other than today’s guest, Mr. Tony Kamel. Tony, say hi to the folks at home.
Tony Kamel here – I play guitar, sing, and write tunes with Wood & Wire in beautiful Austin, TX.
JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?
I grew up in Houston, TX and started playing music around 12. I was lucky to have great parents that encouraged my interests after I found my Mom’s old classical guitar in the attic. I strung it up and just started trying to figure it out. Houston isn’t exactly a bluegrass town so my influences were far off from that world. Over time I fell in love with classic country music and classic psychedelic rock. My Mom put me on Frank Zappa, which led me to other psychedelic stuff, and eventually jam bands introduced me to bluegrass in high school. From there I worked backwards down to Bill Monroe and everyone in between via the Music Library at The University of Texas while I was in College – checking out all kinds of old recordings. All during that time I’d play for fun, smoke a bunch of pot, write songs and poetry, and jam with friends – but I wasn’t wasn’t playing bluegrass. After school I got a job in medical sales. I was a big listener of bluegrass but I still didn’t know the first thing about playing it.
JED: Who were you listening to a lot of at that time?
Lots of Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley. Doc especially. Those two guys are what really hooked me in hard. I decided to dig in hard and start really trying to learn how to play and how to flat pick around 2009. Over the course of a few years I got in with some pickers here in Austin because I could at least sing. I’d just try and keep up with flatpicking (still do). I really fell for the communal nature of the bluegrass world and it was over once I went to my first festival (Old Settler’s 2009). Somehow in 2011 I ended up in Wood & Wire and we were actually gaining some momentum. I had to decide whether I was gonna travel and play music or keep selling medical stuff. I quit my job at the end of 2012. I can’t quite believe I’m still making it work somehow. It’s a miracle, really.
JED: What are your favorite 5 albums, and do they influence your work? If so, in what ways?
Sorry man I don’t think I could even begin to answer this question. I’ve been all over the place over the years as far as what I like and what influenced me. Most of it wasn’t bluegrass. Honestly sometimes it feels like the less I listen to music, the more unique my writing is. I definitely listen to a lot of music but I’ll intentionally stop listening for long periods of time to actually try and not be influenced by anything. I’ll listen to audiobooks or podcasts instead.
JED: You know, I feel like I’m in a period of that right now. I am not particularly interested in listening to new music and I don’t particularly want to wear out my “old faithfuls.” A break is really nice on occasion. Funny you should mention that.
I’ve found either taking a break from listening to a ton of music, or listening to something completely different than the music I play helps me think outside the box. Also I just really enjoy learning a bunch of random stuff from Audiobooks and Podcasts when I’m driving around. Hell even taking a break from playing every day helps me sometimes.
JED: I enjoy that too. Lately during my commutes back home to Arkansas, I just listen to podcasts that I find intellectually engaging. The break from constantly analyzing music seems to be good for me. Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?
There’s really nothing like the feeling of performing for a receptive crowd. I can’t get enough of it. I think recording comes second – mostly because it’s always exciting to be putting out new music. I have a weird relationship with writing. I think I love it more than anything but I wouldn’t say I always enjoy it – it’s something I’ve always felt like I needed to do and it’s not always fun.
JED: Man you really put to words the way I feel about my musical experience; I feel like I NEED to do a lot of the things I pursue, but I don’t always have a fire under me to do em.
It’s a difficult dynamic to explain. I’ll totally admit that sometimes I wish I didn’t have such a burning desire to do this for a living and it was just a fun hobby.
JED: I couldn’t have said that more succinctly.
With songwriting, sometimes I go to personal places in my psyche that aren’t easy to visit. Sometimes I just write a song about breakfast. Either way, there’s just nothing like sharing it with others from the stage.
JED: What are three musicians that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?
There are too many to choose from, and certainly a lot of women that don’t get their due. I could never only pick three people but I’ll be damned if Danny Paisley isn’t one of the best singers of all time. I realize that everyone knows that in our little bluegrass world, but I wish the rest of the world knew.
JED: Man for those that aren’t familiar with Danny’s voice, as a big fan of his, tell us what draws you to his music and voice?
Danny’s got one of the truest country voices out there. It’s gritty, soulful, not too pretty, and strong. He sings with all his might every time.
JED: Well said. It’s so real and authentic; unrefined, organic, and raw. Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?
I play a Collings D1-A guitar and I love it. I live just a few miles from the shop and they’ve always been really great to me. I put a K&K Mini pickup in it and I play it through a Grace Felix DI which is a fantastic piece of equipment.
JED: I’ve used the “Pure Mini” DIs in several of my guitars. Do you notice they add sort of a darkness, bassiness(?), percussiveness(?), to the tone of your D1A?
Honestly I can’t say I’ve noticed that too much but the truth is I don’t really like any plugged in guitar tone very much.
JED: Haha! Same!
I pretty much just tolerate it because it’s best for the type of shows we play. The Felix makes a big difference in tone and gives me more options to get what I want. When I do get to play into a mic, I put the mic through the Felix too. It’s great!
I wish I could play through a mic every night but it just wouldn’t cut it. I also play an open back Ome Banjo when I clawhammer on solo shows or with other folks.
JED: If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?
Honestly I’d do it just like we already do in Wood & Wire. We keep it simple – we work on the tunes, get ‘em ready, and just play them like we play them, live to tape when we get in the studio. We can make some simple fixes if we need to but we don’t play to a click and try to go off of feels and vibes. I hate re-singing tunes. I’m not knocking it for others, it just doesn’t feel real enough for me when I do it that way. The energy I feel when I sing with these guys playing along with me just wouldn’t be there. We’re about to release our next record on August 28th. It’s called “No Matter Where it Goes From Here”. We had our same setup but experimented with some different sounds and scapes on this one. We used some old vintage amps and analog effects. Nothing crazy but definitely added some different flavors on this one.
JED: It sounds like your focus is more on capturing an all-around good “performance” rather than a polished or perfected take? Would that be an accurate statement?
Yes that’s exactly right. We try to pick the performance that feels best and roll with it. Like I said though, we can and do make some fixes. It’s more challenging to do so this way, but we do. I really feel like finding that good energy is key – more so than making everything perfect and pristine. Hell that’s how they used to do it, and with a lot less control. Some of my favorite old recordings have stuff out of tune and all over the place.
JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?
I’m very proud of the record we put out in 2018 “North of Despair” but this next one coming out in August (“No Matter Where it Goes From Here”) definitely gives it a run for its money in my mind. We worked really hard together on these songs and really put our heart and soul into this recording. It ain’t all roses, I won’t bullshit you. We’re 4 strong willed artists with different influences and different opinions outside of bluegrass – working through that democratically can be difficult. But we’re like a family and we work out those artistic decisions like family and allow each other’s voices to come out. The process we went through for these last two records really brought us together and solidified the creative trust we have for each other. I’m as proud of that as I am the music and the Grammy Nomination we got for “North of Despair” in 2018.
JED: Wow man, what an incredible honor to be nominated for! Tell me a little about going to the Grammy’s!
The Grammy’s were a trip! It was all a bonus for us really. We didn’t expect to be there. When I say that, I really mean it was the biggest surprise of our lives. We didn’t even know we were being considered. Because of that, we could relax and just enjoy the ride. We were super proud to be amongst such great bluegrass artists in that category, and very happy that The Travelin’ McCoury’s took it home. Also very happy that Michael Cleveland took it home the next year. He deserves it more than anyone.
JED: What are you currently working on?
Our new record “No Matter Where it Goes From Here” comes out on August 28th. Our mandolin player Billy Bright contributed a lot of tunes to this upcoming recording – more so than the last – and I’m excited for people to hear it. I really enjoy singing the tunes he writes. We won’t be touring much around it this year because of The Coronavirus but we felt it was right to put it out during this time when people need music the most. Hopefully we can get back on the road hard in 2021.
JED: I hope that for you too Tony. Man thank you for taking the time to talk to me and tell me a little bit about your music and your journey. I’m super excited about the upcoming release. Where should folks go to hear it?
JED: Fantastic. Tony, it has been a pleasure to have you here and get to hear about your story and music. I hope 2021 has a full calendar of happenings for you and the W&W crew. Until next time my friend.