The Gulf of Mexico is the largest gulf in the world and for many Houstonians, it’s their first point of reference for ocean life. Tony Kamel, frontman of Wood and Wire, knows the Gulf well and its influence served as inspiration for his debut solo album, Back Down Home.
Back Down Home was released on The Next Waltz last September and Kamel had planned on making a hometown return for a special performance at The Heights Theater on Saturday, January 15 sharing the bill with Houston rockers, Folk Family Revival, but he got COVID and has been replaced with John Evans.
“I’m proud of it and I'm proud that we got to make it. It was really fun and it was a really different experience for me in a lot of ways,” he says of recording at the remote studio. “How they do things out there is, it's all analog, there aren't any computers out there. It's a truly old school and live process.”
The Next Waltz is the brainchild of Texas legend Bruce Robison and its recording studio is often referred to as “The Bunker” as it’s located in Lockhart where Robison and his team have created a recording time capsule.
The environment and creative process definitely have their effect on the album as Back Down Home feels like a cozy and intimate record filled with stories and relatable sentiments with Kamel's warm and powerful vocals adding to the homey feeling of the album.
Kamel met Robison through Wood and Wire and the two had been discussing recording a solo project for a few years before the timing was actually right. With Wood and Wire, Kamel could usually know where he would be throughout the year as they maintained a busy touring schedule and he didn’t want to cause them to slow down.
When they released No Matter Where It Goes From Herein 2020, which Kamel describes as his favorite project from his band, the world shut down and they were unable to tour in support of it shifting the dynamics of the band.
“It fell on a lot of deaf ears and that was sad,” says Kamel. “After that it became clear that things were going to be completely different.” Whereas previously Kamel hadn’t made a solo effort out of respect for the band's busy schedule, now his schedule was wide open.
“I was just really, really lucky that I could immediately pivot and go straight into it,” says Kamel of going solo and teaming with Robison in the studio.
“I think Bruce was a Wood and Wire fan and I think he heard in our songs that they weren't really bluegrass songs. They were just songs being expressed through bluegrass instrumentation and he sort of lit the fire under my ass to try to get outside of that, try something different and see what these songs might sound like in a different way.”
“Even though I've worked out there for other bands and projects and I knew the process, it was a little nerve wracking for me because it was my project,” says Kamel of his move to go solo.
Kamel’s nerves around branching out are understandable as Wood and Wire, which formed in 2011, has been his only band throughout his career. With them he experienced great success and even garnered a Grammy nomination in 2018.
“This is the first time on a professional level that I got to explore stuff that I liked outside of bluegrass. Wood and Wire was my first band and that's a good start. It didn't make a lot of sense for me to make a bluegrass record under my own name. It didn't make any sense to me because Wood and Wire is Wood and Wire. I don't want to try to repeat what I did with those guys, it's not possible.”
“If I would have said, ‘I want to make a Tony Kamel bluegrass record.’ I don't think it would have been good and creatively, I just didn't want to. I wanted to do something different and see how it goes. I wanted to take that risk.”
Back Down Home shows off Kamel’s roots in more ways than one as he taps into his familiar bluegrass sound while exploring new instrumentation and influences, a conscious decision on his part all while celebrating the central theme of his love for the Gulf Coast.
Kamel takes bluegrass into a funkier direction on “Heat” where he combines a surprising cocktail of strings, horns and piano to create a danceable and catchy tribute to Texas two steps.
“I really thought people were going to be like, what the hell is this guy doing? Why isn't he playing bluegrass, but frankly the response has been wonderful. People have been really open to it and I think that there's a lot of reasons for that,” he says adding, “There's a lot of people who don't really open their minds to bluegrass and this may be a little more palatable for the average listener.”
Kamel weaves imagery of the Gulf Coast life throughout his album and touches on the power of water and its effect on the soul in the touching track “Surfer” based on a conversation he had with a stranger in Surfside, and someone he hopes to track down one day to include in his podcast Beyond The Liner Notes.
“Where I first swam was in the Gulf of Mexico,” describes Kamel. “For many years we'd spend time down there. It feels as much or maybe sometimes more so like my home than Houston in some ways because I had so many happy memories.”
“It’s really unique and cool and over time you start to really appreciate what it is and what it has to offer and the uniqueness and the funkiness of it. It’s sort of ingrained in my blood. Sometimes I'm consciously trying not to write about the Gulf Coast and then I give in. This is what feels good.”
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.