The Genre-Blending of Randy Kohrs’ Resophonic Guitar
Having played on more than 500 albums and toured with artists that range from Hank III to Dolly Parton, Randy Kohrs has become one of the go-to musicians when there’s a need for a resophonic guitar. Dierks Bentley got noticed as a star-in-waiting with “What Was I Thinking,” a song driven largely by Kohrs Dobro. Jim Lauderdale won a Grammy for The Bluegrass Diaries, which not only featured Kohrs’ guitar skills but was also produced by Kohrs in his own studio.
“What’s so cool about the resophonic guitar is that it really has a voice,” explains Kohrs, who moved from his native Iowa to Nashville when he was 21. “I’ve played on blues records, Christian country records, some rock records, some weird, Daniel Lanois-type of lap steel stuff. The Dobro seems to fit in anywhere.”
Kohrs has also become an in-demand producer, engineer and all-around studio guru, His own Slack-Key Studio has recorded the likes of Lauderdale, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time and the Infamous Stringdusters. He says he learned his trade from all his work as a session musician.
“Some of those records were recorded by the best engineers in the world,” he says, “so I would sit beside them as close as I could get without making them uncomfortable, kept my mouth shut and watched what they did. I used all that time to my benefit and tried to learn and become better at my craft.”
When it comes to his own music, Kohrs has three distinct influences that he’s fit together into his own signature sound.
“I guess I’ve always had a blues tinge to my style, and I’ve always loved classic country stuff, and I grew up playing bluegrass,” he says. “It’s natural, I guess, that the three of them melt together for me.” Kohrs’ last album, 2007′s Old Photograph, explored that mix of musical stylings–occasionally to his detriment, he jokes, because it became a difficult album to classify. For the record, his preferred description of his music is “acoustic.”
His upcoming release, Quicksand, continues to bend genres by taking traditional bluegrass instruments (fiddle, banjo, Kohrs’ resophonic guitar), adding in drums and tackling a mixture of Kohrs originals and classic covers from the likes of Tom T. Hall and Del Reeves. Taking a diverse group of songs and blending them into a cohesive album might be difficult for many musicians, but he received plenty of rave reviews for doing just that with Old Photograph, and the new album promises more of the same.
Kohrs produces his own albums, which he says allows him to present the music in its rawest, most unfiltered form.
“I think more acts should really have a hand in producing themselves,” he says. “I try to make a balance of commerciality and the pure and somehow strike a chord with more than one type of music and more than one type of fan.”
When Kohrs starts putting together songs for a new album, he doesn’t favor his own songs or set aside room for a certain number of ballads; his goal is to pick the best available songs. Nevertheless, he does have certain criteria.
“Ballads should be breathtaking lyrically, and I really like story songs that don’t go so deep it requires listening to every word in the song to get the whole story. I guess that’s the commercial side of me poking out,” he explains. Kohrs has a love of story songs, and the first single off Quicksand is “Devil of the Trail,” about a woman named Sarah and her journey on the Oregon Trail. It was written by Kohrs and frequent collaborators Dennis Goodwin and Ashley Brown, who is also his fiddle player. Goodwin supplied the facts of the story, and Kohrs and Brown made a few changes to make it a more compelling tale.
The title track came as a stroke of good fortune, as Kohrs still hadn’t named the album when he took a job to produce a couple of songs for Canadian singer/songwriter Codie Prevost.
“He’s a talented singer who lives up in Saskatoon–that’s way, way north where it’s winter for 11 months of the year and three weeks of bad skiing,” he jokes. Prevost gave Kohrs a copy of “Quicksand,” which he wrote with Adam Wheeler.
“It just knocked me over,” Kohrs recalls. “I saw an album cover, I saw a video, I saw everything flash in front of my eyes, and I just knew I had to cut it.”
Kohrs’ blues influence comes out in songs like “Down Around Clarksdale,” which he and Brown wrote during a blues tour in Mississippi. After he filled in at a show for another resophonic guitar player, they went on a pilgrimage through the state, stopping at Elmore James’ grave and finding out where Robert Johnson’s crossroads really are.
“I was a complete tourist, I admit, but it was so much fun,” he says. Inspired, the two wrote the song in the car on the way back to Nashville.
Along with the original songs, Kohrs also covers Del Reeves’ “This Must Be The Bottom,” which dates back to the late ’60s. “More About John Henry” was written by Tom T. Hall and was recorded in 1972, and Kohrs discovered it while going through Hall’s albums. He toured with Hall for several years before Hall’s retirement from the road in 1997 and considers him a musical father-figure.
Since most of Hall’s most well-known songs have been covered many times, he wanted to find an up-tempo song that everyone had forgotten. He came across “John Henry” and quickly realized that it was perfect for a bluegrass band to cover. Putting his own spin on it, he brought in Scat Springs, a well-known Nashville singer, to be the voice of John Henry and the McCrary Sisters to give it a gospel soul feel.
“I kept the instrumentation very bluegrassy, but with drums, and we pile-drived it like a bluegrass band would do if they had to go play in a black gospel church,” Kohrs says of the result.
Quicksand won’t be available until January, 2010, but Kohrs already has nine cuts in the can for his next project, one that’s aimed at the mainstream country market. While it will have a more contemporary sound, he wants it to have some throwback aspects.
“[Record labels] spend a lot of money on Jason Aldean, for example, and guitar solos are two bars and then it’s Jason singing again. It’s all about Jason, Jason, Jason, the whole time,” he explains. While acknowledging the industry’s desire to promote its stars, Kohrs wants his album to reflect some of the sensibilities found on Ricky Skaggs’ early records.
“He came out with the Country Boy record, and all his players were just blistering. They could execute every note of his record live, and it was really fun to listen,” he says. “I want to make it more about the music and the band than a big marketing plan all wrapped around me.”
On this album, Kohrs is trading in his resophonic guitar for an acoustic guitar, and the songs feature James Mitchell on electric guitar and Tommy White on steel guitar. He hasn’t determined which label will release the album; Rural Rhythym, which released Old Photograph in 2007 and will release Quicksand next year, is currently working with a mainstream act, so it may be a candidate for this album as well.
As well as being well-established in the mainstream country scene as a session musician, Kohrs is a fan of the music, but he would like to see more of a balance than what there is.
“I have no problems hearing the most pop of pop-country on the radio,” he says, “as long as I get to hear a good country shuffle once in a while, which never happens right now. It’s been a long time since a country shuffle was on mainstream country radio that legitimately had sizzling steel up in the mix and sounded like country music.”
Kohrs’ dual roles as a musician and producer have enabled him to work with a great number of artists in Nashville that can’t gain any traction in the industry and musicians that are stuck recording demos all day.
“It’s so frustrating to see talented people sitting there in stasis,” he says. “It pains me as a producer to see what could be.”
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