Texas is home to some great songwriters. Brian Kalinec may not be a household name outside of Texas but he’s definitely worth a listen or two or three or more. Brian’s heartfelt lyrics and impeccable playing and production are testament to the hard work that he has given to his craft. Songwriting awards are accumulating on his resume as more and more people come to appreciate his gift for words and music. These are songs that stick to your soul and refuse to budge.
For more information about Brian Kalinec, spend some time on his website.
What was it like growing up in Beaumont, Texas? I checked out the map and I see that it’s fairly close to the Louisiana border, and also right up the road from Port Arthur, home of Janis Joplin.
Beaumont is an intriguing cross between a small town and a city, and was a great place as a youth. If you stay there any length of time, you will eventually meet just about everyone. The area has a recent but rich history due to the influence of the oil industry. It’s primarily a blue collar, working class town and those values were instilled in me at an early age by my parents. I went to Catholic school for eight years, and those friendships are as strong as ever, as are those from high school and college which I also attended there. Being that close to Louisiana, we had a lot of people of French descent and thus a large Cajun influence in the culture there. As is the case with most cities in the south, Beaumont has a sizable African-American population, and I grew up at a time when the nation was trying to shake off the last vestiges of segregation. Interestingly enough, there is also a large Italian population that settled there in the late 1800’s, so the food was great growing up. The place was a veritable cultural crossroads, but I didn’t truly appreciate that until later. Port Arthur was just a smaller version of Beaumont–and all the towns in between. And yes, Janis was a musical hero, as was George Jones, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and the Big Bopper.
What music resonated with you as a child? You picked up the guitar early on; what did you want to learn to play?
I was influenced by a lot of different music. Of course, the blues were big in Beaumont, due to the African-American culture–Lightnin’ Hopkins played there all the time, and Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel singer whose bottleneck slide playing was later studied and emulated by every premier slide player in the world, spent his last days there in the 40’s. Country music was everywhere, at dancehalls and nightclubs. The Beatles and the rest of the British invasion hit just before I picked up the guitar, so that music influenced me a lot early on. And in elementary school, I played at some of the first Folk Masses in Beaumont when I was about 11. And we learned folk songs–Woody Guthrie, Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, et al–from the nuns. I’d play about three hours a day, practicing rock & pop songs, and eventually playing in dance bands in high school. So I played a lot of different music, and enjoyed it all.
I actually picked up the guitar with a childhood friend, Kenny Scarborough, and we pushed each other. Kenny would learn a lick and then I’d have to try to outdo him. His dad was in a country band, so we were taught a good bit by him as well. Kenny is still a great friend and an incredible player.
When did you first start writing your own songs? Were you one of those people who wrote secretly in your bedroom and never shared your music with anyone or did you have an outlet to receive feedback from others?
I probably wrote my first song when I was about 11. All of the major groups wrote their own music so it just seemed the normal thing for me to do. I wasn’t shy about sharing my music with others, although I’m certain some of those early songs didn’t really need to be heard by an audience…
In college, I began to write more, but still played in groups that did mostly covers. I played a couple of summers five nights a week in clubs in Houston while working during the day. My songwriting improved substantially during this time, and there are a couple of songs from that period I occasionally play. Although I played professionally briefly after college, I didn’t really get serious about writing until the 90’s, while my daughter was in high school and college. That’s when I joined the Fort Bend Songwriters Association (now called the Houston Songwriters Association).
Tell us about the Houston Songwriters Association. Did this organization help you get more serious about songwriting?
What a great move my involvement in that organization turned out to be for me! I found out about it in 1990 from a friend, Freddie Matthews, with whom I occasionally played. The critique sessions helped me immensely in learning what makes a song tick, so to speak. I learned how to edit songs and to make them as tight and cohesive as possible. We also had seminars with guest professional writers from Nashville. And one of the coolest things we did back then was to host the Sonny Throckmorton Songwriter Festival, an event which I had the honor of producing for several years in the mid to late 90’s when I was president of the association. Sonny wrote and co-wrote some incredible country hits in the 80’s and 90’s like “The Way I Am”, “Friday Night Blues”, “This is Where the Cowboy Rides Away” and “Middle-Aged Crazy” which inspired the movie of the same name. Sonny would bring his songwriting friends like Bruce “Hey Baby” Channel, Casey Kelly, and Rock Killough. We also had featured songwriting stars at the festival including Gretchen Peters and Rodney Crowell. If an aspiring songwriter can’t find inspiration from that cast of characters, then in my opinion, he never will find it anywhere.
Your title song of your latest CD, The Fence, speaks of the value of hard work: That song, in fact, won placement in the Woody Guthrie Song Contest. Your words–“There’s a joy in every task I finish well” is good advice to everyone. Are there any personal life stories related to this particular song?
This song was inspired by my grandfather, a typical Texas farmer who grew corn, cotton and hay and raised cattle and chickens as well. When something would break, he would generally fix it himself. Sometimes he would have to mend a fence, or put up a new fence line, and I found that especially intriguing. It was just part of his daily routine, but inspiring to me nonetheless. My grandfather was a truly loved and respected member of his community, so the fact that the song was honored by the Woody Guthrie Song Contest made me particularly proud.
One night I was performing at a house concert with my good friends and wonderful songwriters Connie Mims (my co-writer on “Paint”) and Danny Everitt. After playing “The Fence” a schoolteacher in the audience remarked how she thought every student in school should listen to that song to learn the value and importance of working hard to achieve one’s goals. I guess I had never thought about the song in those broader terms, but I was both impressed and humbled by her comments.
One of the songs on The Fence “Blessings of the Day” is a song for the ages. What inspired you to write it?
Thank you so much for those kind remarks, Kathy. Actually, the song was an assignment a couple of years ago at the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (SWRFA) Conference in Austin. The slip of paper said “It’s 2012 and the world is ending–what do you do?” Well, I thought about it a bit and decided to comment on how I felt about the statement itself. Suffice it to say I’m not building any special shelter or stocking up on extra supplies. I am honored that it was one of the songs I entered in the 2012 CT Folk Festival Songwriting Contest where I placed second.
I’m curious about another song on The Fence–it’s the song called “A Song I Heard” written by Maury Muehleisen who was Jim Croce’s guitarist, someone whose career was cut short by a tragic plane accident. How did this song come your way?
My manager, Charlie Stewart, suggested that it might be a good song for me to learn. While I knew Maury was the genius behind those amazing, iconic guitar parts on Jim’s songs, I was not aware that he was also a songwriter. I got a copy of his record and heard the song and of course, Charlie was right. Maury was not only an incredible guitarist, but a very fine songwriter as well. In fact, his record company was getting ready to shift focus on his career when the accident occurred. At the 2010 International Folk Alliance in Memphis, I had the opportunity to meet Maury’s sister, Mary, who has been working diligently to keep his memory and his music alive. During one of my showcases she attended I played the song, and she called her mother so that she could hear my performance of it. That was a moving moment for me.
Coincidentally–and I didn’t find this out until I began recording the CD–Merel Bregante, the drummer and percussionist on “The Fence” was the drummer for Loggins and Messina and the band did a lot of shows with Jim and Maury. Merel remembered some great times with the two of them.
You received a major honor this year at the Texas Music Awards. You were bestowed the “My Texan” award for your support of Texas music. Tell us about your work with other Texas songwriters.
Well, Kathy, I must say that that came as a big shock to me…and in reality I share it with my wife, Pam, who has been very supportive of my musical career. She has a great ear and I do rely on her advice as we travel to conferences and hear new artists. Berkalin Records, the record label we started with my first release, is one vehicle we’ve used to help get artists’ music out there. We are proud of what our artists have accomplished. In addition to my CDs, we’ve released projects by Bob Cheevers, Jeff Talmadge, Matt Harlan, the late great Tim Henderson (whose final CD I produced), Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus, and George Ensle. All of our songwriters have received a great deal of recognition both in awards and on the charts here in the US and in Europe.
I also believe it is very important to nurture songwriting in the community. My good friend and fine songwriter Carolyn Wallace (you can hear her on many harmony tracks on “The Fence”) and I host a monthly songwriter showcase locally at Waldo’s Coffeehouse bringing in both touring songwriters and local ones as well. We are starting on our fourth year, and it has been very successful.
Whenever possible I try to attend and support local songwriting groups and open mics as well. And I always feel like I should do more of this. When someone asks my opinion about a song they are working on, I try to answer him or her in an honest and encouraging way. You never know what an individual’s potential may be…so I believe in a positive and constructive approach when giving advice to any writer. It’s not a competition–we are all constantly working to get better at our craft.
What’s next for Brian Kalinec?
First of all, I consider myself very fortunate, and I am extremely appreciative of all who have been supportive of my music and my career. I’ve always felt that any success I experience is due in large measure to those who have been helpful along the way.
I am currently booking dates both here in Texas and across the country, with early May 2013 trip to the East Coast, and perhaps to Europe later in the year. I am also planning more full band shows this coming year.
And of course I’m always working on new songs, and am more actively co-writing these days, which I find to be very fulfilling. I will also be focusing on more song placement in film and TV.
I’m sure at some time in the next couple of years, I will release a new CD. I don’t expect that to be before 2014, though. I may put out a single or two before then.
For now, that’s more than enough to keep me busy…