Daydream Believers

New York folk-rockers The Kennedys eschew cynicism and celebrate hope

If Sixties chic seems more a matter of style than substance nowadays, retro is still relevant for The Kennedys. Not the tragically flawed and slightly debauched political dynasty, but Pete and Maura Kennedy, a husband-wife duo from New York whose jangly guitars and sunny disposition echo a sentiment seemingly out of sync with the bitter pessimism of today's hit-makers.

Indeed, despite their disappointment with the policies of the current administration, the Kennedys' songs celebrate possibilities that remain unimpeded by political setbacks or pervading, close-minded attitudes. "Something good's gonna happen, something transcendent and real/Maybe a kind of beginning, at the end of a long ordeal," the couple sings in "Common Bond."

These highbrow musings may come across like intellectual overreach, but the Kennedys' journeyman lifestyle and obvious affection for their music and each other belie any hint of posturing or put-on. Weaned on day-glo sounds -- in Maura's case, "the kid music of the day, including The Monkees and The Partridge Family," and "The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, and then Peter Paul and Mary and the other folkies," in Pete's -- they were introduced by a mutual friend at Continental Club in Austin, Texas. Maura was gigging with a local group, the Delta Rays, while Pete was lead guitarist for singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith. "When we first talked, we felt the same chemistry, based in large part on our love for music, that we feel now," Pete recalls.

The Sixties never died for folk-rockers Maura (left) and Pete Kennedy
Hub Wilson
The Sixties never died for folk-rockers Maura (left) and Pete Kennedy

Unfortunately, arranging a first date was a little more complicated. "Pete left town to play the Telluride festival in Colorado, a thousand miles from Austin," Maura remembers. "When we talked on the phone, we decided to meet at the halfway point, Lubbock, Texas, a drive of 500 miles for each of us. The logical meeting place, of course, was Buddy Holly's grave." The two have been recording and touring together ever since.

Griffith recruited Maura to replace harmony singer Iris Dement, and the Kennedys did double duty in Griffith's back-up band and as her opening act prior to venturing out on their own. The couple's first effort together, 1994's River of Fallen Stars, consisted of songs written while touring with Griffith in Ireland, and garnered a Best Adult Contemporary CD award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. Their second album, 1996's Life Is Large, spawned the title anthem -- which has since become their signature song -- and featured a host of marquee guest stars, including Steve Earle, Nils Lofgren, and Roger McGuinn. That was followed by Angel Fire, a mostly unplugged affair, in 1998.

These early recordings established a riveting yet unpretentious roots-rock sound fashioned from vibrant melodies and heartfelt sentiments. It's surprisingly literate as well, with frequent references to, and reflections on, the works of their favorite poets and authors. The Kennedys cite their sources in their liner notes, noting, for example, that "Angel Fire" was influenced by the Native American heritage of northern New Mexico, and "Sunday" was written during a tornado in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma.

While the first two albums were released on the Green Linnet label (recently reissued in expanded versions by Varese Sarabande) and the third on Rounder, their successive albums were self-released. "Technology -- the Internet, home recording gear, and so on -- has made it possible to be a middle-class öcottage industry' musician, unlike the old days before 1995, when musicians depended on the patronage of record labels to bankroll the old technology expenses," Maura explains. "A laptop with a high-speed connection, a good van, and a couple of guitars, and you're on your way."

Pete and Maura have a connection that seems remarkably stable, even with the constant demands brought on by recording, spending nearly half their time on the road, and overseeing a host of other outlying activities, including a weekly radio show ("Dharma Café" on Sirius Radio, Channel 38/Folktown, airing Saturdays 8 a.m. -- 2 p.m.), teaching guitar workshops, selling vintage clothing at outdoor festivals, and managing their Website, www.kennedysmusic.com.

"The whole thing makes the bond tighter," Pete asserts. "We got married to spend all of our time together, and we do. We don't need a lot of space -- hotel rooms and our little New York apartment take care of our needs. The fact that we share our childhood dream of creating and performing music gives us an eternal yellow brick road. Living out of a suitcase has a Zen-like simplicity that clarifies a lot of things in life."

The Kennedys' latest effort, Stand, celebrates that lifestyle via a series of snapshots from the road, from the coffeehouse environs of their stock and trade ("Dharma Café") to ruminations on the attitudes and anxieties plaguing the American psyche ("Stand"). Pete sums it up succinctly: "We see our audience as an extended family, and we treat them like family members -- confidants and close friends. It's a life that we love."

 
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