Nylon Strings & a Few Friends Help Craig Kinsey Strip Down

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The Craig Kinsey I recently met at a local bar is not too far from his real self. That self is not too far removed from the performer, either. Kinsey is no facsimile, no hack trying to sell a brand or image of a projection of himself. He is authentically artistic, perceptive and empathetic. After I tossed my keys, notepad and recorder on the bar, Kinsey asked for five quiet minutes, gently turning the notepad toward himself and taking my pencil. He wanted to interview me.

“When was the last time you went camping?" he asked. "Spent any time in nature?” He smiled.

In person, Kinsey is unassuming, yet with an aura of balance and patient inquisitiveness. His shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair was combed back, his western shirt threaded with bright embroidery near the lapel. He spoke frankly yet softly, meeting my eyes when making a point, his gaze always straight ahead through brass-rimmed glasses. His laugh is easy and his demeanor is deeply reflective without prying or making others uncomfortable. He has a marvelous self-awareness that few men possess.

This is Craig Kinsey, onetime leader of Sideshow Tramps and author of dozens of songs about heartbreak and love, life and dreams. The Houstonian who wears a shirt bravely proclaiming “I’m not moving to Austin.” He is a man of simple tastes who makes music of depth, beauty and reckoning. And, above all, he always waits for just the right moment to make things happen.

Kinsey's latest album, The Nylon Sessions, is officially out today on Houston's Splice Records; the release party will be tomorrow at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. “It’s definitely going to be a toned-down show,” Kinsey admits before elaborating: “Well, you know, my shows usually have burlesque dancers, people taking their clothes off, mosh pits — you know, that sort of thing.”

True. Don’t let the acoustic guitar or harmonica fool you. A Craig Kinsey show is the stuff of debauchery and ancient Greek temple cult worship — you know, a damn good time. Yet there’s a significant dichotomy to a Craig Kinsey experience not to be missed outside of a raucous party: the deeply stirring emotional impact of a man and his music.

Kinsey’s singing voice is sly, chameleonic. When you think you’ve got him pegged as a blues singer, the hue of his voice changes to something altogether different without being abrupt or disruptive. His tone adjusts again and again to sound bluegrass, then country, then soul with a touch of Bob Dylan’s nasal heaviness — but he never imitates or mocks an influence.  

Kinsey’s voice can hover over a note with the expectation of a question begging for an answer. His lyrics seem to transform from recited poetry to conversation with the listener. Within the first play of the album, I found myself not only singing along to the lyrics in “Cold Shoulder” and “Little Girl Called You,” but already attaching moments of recollection and memory to the music.

That’s the power of Kinsey's songs. Whatever wand he waves over his musical influence holds listeners spellbound by his talent. It’s why we sometimes call artists stars — because they shine such a light on what it means to be human, those moments in life that we often fail to adequately put into words.

What else besides music and art could describe love and loss? These feelings are too far-reaching to be summed up in a word, a sentence or even a paragraph, but songwriting can transform love and longing into sound and poetry. Kinsey knows this; listen to his voice flutter across the words of “Atheist’s Love Song,” and you’ll begin to unravel romantic mysteries like these in a musical context.

“I wanted to make an album between albums. I had heard Seu Jorge do an album of pared-down tracks and I thought that’d be nice. So I invited some friends along,” Kinsey explains, referring to the David Bowie tunes used in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

Recorded at Sugarhill Studios, The Nylon Sessions includes Kinsey's friends, like Geoffrey Muller, Sergio Trevino, Mike Whitebread, Aaron Koerner, Will Van Horn and Kelly Doyle, who help broaden its instrumental palette to pedal steel, organ, trumpet and banjo. The other voice heard in the between-song banter is SugarHill's Grammy-winning engineer and Houston treasure Steve Christensen. The title, by the way, comes from the nylon-stringed guitar Kinsey used on the album; its simplicity is as striking as it is beautiful, yet simplicity is different from not taking risks. “This is the first time I’ve ever used electronic music,” Kinsey says, referring to the synthesizer used by Doyle on “Romulus and Remus” and “Always Late.”

Kinsey promises another album in the works for 2017. “It’s already written; just needs to be recorded.” All things in due time, surely. The back cover of The Nylon Sessions promises fans,  “This should tide you over until the next full studio album.” While his fans may long for pacification, the sixth album of Kinsey's career more than satisfies the need.

Join Craig Kinsey and his guests 9:30 p.m. Saturday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.

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