About a year-and-a-half ago guitarist Pete Kennedy was still mailing demo tapes to record labels around the country, another Washington musician in search of a deal.
"I'd been doing that for about eight years when I suddenly realized something," he says. "What's the first thing a group does when it gets big -- real big, like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? They start their own record company, because they want total artistic control. I realized then that I could do the same thing on a much smaller scale."
Enter Rosewood Records, Kennedy's new label. The Birchmere will hold a special showcase Tuesday night for Rosewood's impressive first releases, "Rhythm Ranch" and "Sunburst."
While Kennedy's stellar guitar work illuminates both albums, no one would confuse the two. They are as different as night and day, or, more to the point, old and new. Of course, when you consider Kennedy's versatility and musical taste, which is eclectic to say the least, the traditional and contemporary styles he's chosen to record aren't all that surprising.
A Washington native, Kennedy cut his musical teeth as a teen-ager mimicking the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Ventures in the early 1960s before graduating to garage bands such as The Flying Hospital. In the '70s he became increasingly infatuated with acoustic swing and jazz, and has since become one of the area's busiest and most sought after guitarists.
On any given night you might find him playing rock, jazz, bluegrass, folk or rockabilly in a club, often with an entirely different set of musicians, or cutting a jingle for a regional food chain such as Giant, or, when the Redskins are winning, working as a member of WRC sportscaster George Michaels' 'Skins Dirt Band. He's even performed at the Kennedy Center in the role of the "token pop or country guitarist" with the National Symphony, although he's found that assignment a little unnerving at times.
"I had never played with an orchestra in my life," he says. "Not even in high school. All of a sudden I found myself plopped in the middle of the concert hall with 110 musicians around me. They always stick you right up front, right next to the conductor, when you'd just as soon find a seat way in the back." At the moment, the production of Godspell at Ford's Theatre is keeping Kennedy busy in its orchestra, but he hopes to tour the country later this year in support of his albums.
He sees "Rhythm Ranch" as "my way of summing up 10 years of exploring American musical styles. I wanted to tie together bluegrass, old-timey music, gospel quartet stuff -- which I really love -- rockabilly, perhaps the most unacknowledged form of folk music, with other styles."
To Kennedy, folk music is "any music that evolves out of popular culture. Even hip-hop music is folk music. When you see a kid on the street in the south Bronx dancing to a rhythm track -- that's folk music. Rockabilly, for instance, combines rhythm and blues, country and gospel -- you can't get much folkier than that. Of course, it's impossible to put everything on one record. It's even a big challenge to do 12 tunes in different styles and make them all fit together. But I really felt up to it."
Kennedy carefully collected the tunes over the years, including Billy Ed Wheeler's beautifully crafted ballad "Coal Tattoo," a delightful string band version of King Oliver's "Sugarfoot Stomp" and the Django Reinhardt piece "Mystery Pacific." He added the apt "Pete Kennedy's Fancy" after discovering it by chance while leafing through a dusty volume of O'Neill's Music of Ireland at the Library of Congress.
If "Rhythm Ranch" honors the past, "Sunburst" reflects the influence of "new acoustic music," the frequently virtuosic string band idiom popularized by mandolinist David Grisman. Two of Grisman's colleagues -- mandolinist Mike Marshall and violinist Darol Anger -- appear on the album, deliberately avoiding flashy excesses.
"One of the tunes on the album, 'Synapse,' has some super-fast licks," says Kennedy, "and it felt right. But I didn't want to do that when it didn't fit the song. I don't want to get into a horse race with musicians, though we get forced into that sometimes, about who's the fastest picker. Basically, I just want to play good songs. I'm not afraid to leave a little air or silence in there when I think it's right." The music, all of it composed by Kennedy save for Claude Debussy's "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," often flows, and is refreshingly melodic as a result.
Kennedy looks upon the show at the Birchmere Tuesday night as the culmination of a year-and-a-half's work, the time it took to make Rosewood Records a reality. "It's going to be an ideal gig for me," he says, "because I have the luxury of working with some of the people who've recorded with me. Mike Stein, Cathy Fink and Marcie Marxer will be there. We'll be doing a lot of the stuff on 'Rhythm Ranch' and some things from 'Sunburst' too, playing the kind of music I always wanted to play."