Q&A with songwriter/guitarist Kyle Culkin, American roots music that projects a truthful authenticity from hard learned lessons of life on the road

"There are so many varieties of music today that I think there is something for everyone. I hope that people who listen to my records understand the importance of living the human experience. Life is short so embrace it all, the good and the bad. Without hard times, we can’t appreciate the good times, so I try to approach music with that same self-reflection and a little humor mixed in. Hopefully that concept is something the listener can connect with. I’ve never found anything that can convey the emotion of the human experience like music can."

Kyle Culkin: Americana Shotgun

Kyle Culkin is an American songwriter, guitarist and roots music recording artist. He has worked over the past two decades as a multi-instrumentalist musician and the guitarist for nationally touring acts such as The Jeff Jensen Band. Culkin opened for the great B.B. King on his 80th birthday tour when The King of the Blues proclaimed, "This kid can play"! Today, with years of experience under his belt, Culkin is playing American roots music that projects a truthful authenticity from hard learned lessons of life on the road. He combines a fun and witty sense of humor with the struggles of life in every song. Culkin's critically acclaimed albums include a mix of country, rock, blues, and soul that put a new twist on an instantly familiar Americana sound.

(Kyle Culkin / Photo by Jonas Lee)

He never overplays his hand and uses taste, tone, and timing to season his lyrics with the right amount of flavor. Now Culkin has enlisted legendary musicians and some of his musical heroes as featured artists with an A-list band (Albert Lee, Johnny Hiland, Jade MacRae, Ted Russell Kamp, Max MacLaury and others) of incredible players for his new album that you wont want to miss! “Shotgun Ridge” releases on Tonebucker Records, June 30th, 2023!

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My understanding of the blues and roots music is always evolving. It’s a deep well in which you can never quite reach the bottom. Music has helped me understand some of the universal experiences that all people share while also appreciating the differences in one another. Even if we don’t understand the language, we can still understand the rhythm and melody of a song and that has an emotional impact. It’s part of the innate human experience. Roots music has also taught me that immense talent can come from anywhere. There is no prerequisite for any type of secret knowledge or economic background. Everyone can offer something interesting or open a window to a view you never thought was possible. I will always love that about music!

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

My friend and mentor Carl Verheyen told me a long time ago, “play what you dig”! I’ve always taken that to heart. Why limit yourself to just one style? I love blues, country, rock, jazz, funk, soul and everything in between. My music may lean one way or another for a given song but it’s always an amalgamation of all those styles. If I had to use one word, I’d describe my sound as Americana. We all have musical influences and it’s essential to learn from them but the most important philosophical idea I utilize today is to make every effort to sound like me and not someone else.

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?                             (Kyle Culkin / Photo by Jonas Lee)

I always want to make music. Inspiration comes from all the challenges, failures, triumphs and humorous experiences life has to offer. There is always another experience that can be put into in to a heartfelt song. You just have to be open to the music coming to you. I used to love touring but today I absolutely love working in the studio and making records. More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to record with musical heroes of mine and that has been an incredibly inspiring experience. There’s nothing like playing guitar with Albert Lee and Johnny Hiland or writing songs with Ted Russell Kamp to light a fire under you! I also find inspiration by listening to incredible players like Jamison Trotter on piano, Adam Gust on drums, Jade MacRae’s vocals and Marty Rifkin making the pedal steel sing.  I’m so thankful to have them in the band for this record. My hope is that people who listen to my songs find something that speaks to them. Whether it’s a witty lyric, a funny rhyme, or just a killer groove with a fantastic band, I want the music to pull on the listener’s heart strings. I put everything I am into these songs and I hope that honesty is palpable.

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

I always loved music growing up but never really thought about it as something I could do. One summer, my dad gave me the Eric Clapton Unplugged record and I was hooked. I never heard anything like that before and had to learn what was going on. It changed my whole life and sent me down a path for the past 25 years to learn about roots music. Everything from Robert Johnson, and Bob Wills to Albert King, and John Prine. I’ve been able to do more than I could have ever hoped for with music, but the biggest highlight is always hearing from fans about how my music touched or inspired them in some way. However, nothing has meant more than my parents saying they are proud of me.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, opening acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I was lucky enough to open for B.B. King on his 80th birthday tour. After our set, I walked to the green room area and heard the King of the Blues say, “This kid can play”! I looked around to see who he was talking about but it turns out he was talking about me. It was a real surprise and an incredible honor to hear one of the pillars of American music give praise like that. Another fond memory was going to The Baked Potato in Los Angeles to go see a local legend Alan Mirikitani with his band BB Chung King and the Buddaheads. He called me up to sit in with the band. I remember Gerald Johnson was playing bass so that was cool!  Alan discreetly invited up another guitar player and handed him a guitar while Alan got a drink at the bar. We played a couple blues tunes and got into this guitar solo section where the other guitar player and I were trading licks back and forth. The crowed got really ramped up and the band was on fire!  As the other guitarist and I were trading licks, we moved really close to one another and I could finally see who it was. I was trading licks with Slash from Guns N’ Roses! What a great surprise!

"My understanding of the blues and roots music is always evolving. It’s a deep well in which you can never quite reach the bottom. Music has helped me understand some of the universal experiences that all people share while also appreciating the differences in one another." (Kyle Culkin / Photo by Jonas Lee)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?  What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

It’s easy to look in the rear-view mirror of life with rose colored glasses. I think music just evolves over time but there are some things that I miss. The biggest thing I miss most nowadays is that the music used to matter more than the look of the artist. It was about the music first. I’d like to get back to that. I also miss listening to the spontaneous nature of fantastic musicians working together on a record. Some of the tracks I hear in modern music today are so perfectly recorded and engineered that it makes me miss those human imperfections that add so much character to a piece of music. With that said, there are so many great artists today, you just need to work a little harder to find them. So much musical talent out there gives me hope for the future.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

This is a challenging question because music can have such a broad impact across culture. There are so many varieties of music today that I think there is something for everyone. I hope that people who listen to my records understand the importance of living the human experience. Life is short so embrace it all, the good and the bad. Without hard times, we can’t appreciate the good times, so I try to approach music with that same self-reflection and a little humor mixed in. Hopefully that concept is something the listener can connect with. I’ve never found anything that can convey the emotion of the human experience like music can.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?                               (Kyle Culkin / Photo by Jonas Lee)

Most bands don’t last and that’s what is so beautiful about it. When I’m making music with great musicians, I try to enjoy every moment to the fullest. Not everyone gets that opportunity so I am incredibly grateful to have so many great experiences and still be making music today. Gigs and records are like a snapshot in time so appreciate them while it lasts.

Another great lesson I’ve learned is that I have a passion for music, but family is incredibly important to provide balance and wellness to life. Constant gigging and life on the road, even for short tours, can be some really hard living. My wife and kids help keep me grounded. Not to mention the endless musical inspiration they provide. If you need musical inspiration, fall in love and have a bunch of kids. I promise you, adventure awaits!

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