In February’s Sideman Spotlight, Nik Rodewald takes a look at the life and times of a sideman that has helped support many prominent artists of the Blues Rock genre. Today’s Sideman Spotlight focuses on drummer Kenneth Blevins.
According to Kenneth Blevins, long-time drummer for John Hiatt, the Mamas and the Papas and Country Music legend Don Williams, making good music is a lot like making a good bowl of gumbo: there is no specific recipe for either. Instead, he insists that you have to “put exactly the right stuff in there at exactly the right time…cook it long enough and take it off the fire when you’re supposed to.” If one does this, according to Blevins, “it’s going to sound awesome and it’s going to taste awesome.”
Perhaps this correlation is due to his upbringing. Blevins was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and attributes his Cajun background to his philosophy on life. “Music and food…to me that’s two of the main reasons to live and I think that’s a philosophy a lot of people subscribe to in South Louisiana,” Blevins says with a chuckle. Blevins says that while he was always interested in music – he played cornet in the school band and took piano lessons as a child – it wasn’t until he was about fourteen that he decided that he had to play the drums.
Hearing the Call
Blevins’ call to the drums came when he was fourteen years old and heard Marvin Gaye on the radio while he was doing his homework. According to Blevins, “when I heard that song, that was it. I played drums.” By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, Blevins was playing gigs. At that point, he was a part of several groups that wrote original music and says that, “we just wanted to play.”
While Blevins was heavily influenced by blues artists such as Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, as well as popular music of the day such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he also has a special place in his heart for Cajun music, saying, “My first impression of it [Cajun Music], when I could realize what music was, was that it was out of tune. I got past that after a while and I realized that it’s a fascinating form of music with a really good rhythm.”
While Blevins’ influences are numerous and eclectic, he says that his passion lies in “real” R&B which, he is quick to point out, is not the music currently known as R&B.
Leaving New Orleans
Blevins stayed close to his Southern Louisiana roots for several years, moving from Lake Charles to Lafayette to Baton Rouge and finally to New Orleans. While in New Orleans Blevins says that he was, “playing with a lot of cool people, but never left town.” Thus, in 1989, Blevins decided to leave New Orleans for New York City. Though actively touring with John Hiatt and the Mamas and the Papas, Blevins moved to New York City with the intention of being a studio drummer. Little did he know that the studio scene in New York was starting to shut down for session musicians by the time he arrived, instead opting for band members and in-house musicians. Not having much luck as a session player, Blevins decided to relocate once again.
In 1993, Blevins moved to Nashville. In Nashville, he also had little luck trying to be a session player. According to Blevins, “When I got to Nashville, the attitude was like ‘OK, take a number,’ and as a result I never really was a session guy. I did some demos and some records, but I wasn’t like the guys that worked every day.”
While Blevins has a number of recording credits to his name – alongside Earl King, Sonny Landreth and the aforementioned Hiatt and Williams just to name a few – Blevins says that he always preferred being in bands and being part of the creative process of a song. He considers himself “lucky” to never have gotten a job where he was locked into playing “lounge music” and says that he prefers original music, even though the pay is often not as good.
While a veteran of the road, Blevins is now at a point where he can, to some degree, pick and choose the projects that he wants to work on. While still touring with John Hiatt, Blevins continues to do some studio work. He plans to start on Hiatt’s new album in April and also recently teamed up with saxophonist Dennis Taylor and B3 player Kevin McKendree for some tracks on Taylor’s debut jazz album, Steppin’ Up.
Blevins is currently working with Piano Player/singer/songwriter Sean Corbett on Corbett’s second album, Piety and Desire, a New Orleans themed album that Corbett is planning on releasing by the end of 2012. According to Corbett, “His [Blevins’s] style is pure South Louisiana and New Orleans. It’s just in him…something in the water down there I guess.” Corbett – who lived in New Orleans for five months while writing the music for this album – wanted the album to be classic New Orleans music: funk, soul, second line, secular and gospel music from the bayou. According to Corbett, “If you’re going to play New Orleans music, you need a New Orleans drummer. Blev grew up playing Cajun and Zydeco music and perfected his style in New Orleans, so he was the guy to do it.”
All around the music world, Blevins is known for his unique style. According to McKendree, “the way he plays his fills is funky…there’s really no other way to describe it.” McKendree also says that, “one of the most important things about Blev is where he’s from. There’s a certain thing about drummers from down there [South Louisiana] that gives them a sound that nobody else has.” And although Blevins is heavily influenced by that New Orleans style, McKendree says that he is versatile as well and points to his work with blues singer/songwriter John Hiatt as an example of that.
Outside of Music
In addition to his music, Blevins is known as an excellent cook, particularly for the gumbo he makes for recording sessions at his friend Kevin McKendree’s recording studio, The Rock House. Blevins is quick to point out the similarities between both interests, saying that there is a certain amount of feeling and touch required to get a song – and a recipe – just right. Blevins enjoys golfing and reminds himself that he needs to go fishing a little more often, but also voices his affection for spending time with and watching the musical growth and enthusiasm of McKendree’s ten-year-old son, Yates. According to Blevins, “Spending time with Yates reminds me why I got into music in the first place.”
Performing With John Hiatt on David Letterman