by Matt Kersch
Have you watched Yellowstone? If you haven’t, well, you should; I know you have at least heard about it. Having been born and bred in Texas, I have at least a decent understanding of what it’s like to be a cowboy. In an age of technology and “progress,” that way of life has died out in a great many ways, but it isn’t dead.
Growing up, I watched the hell out of “Westerns.” Some of my absolute favorite movies included: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo, Shane, and The Sons of Katie Elder. Thankfully, I am just old enough to have also loved watching the old weekly shows like, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Sky King, and Bonanza. I was drawn to the stories of learning to work hard, fighting for what you believe in, to be a gentleman, but not to take bull excrement from folks.
Those were shows about cowboys, but I don’t know that any of them quite captured the nitty gritty parts of that unglamorous, but rewarding way of life, quite like Yellowstone. This month’s column isn’t about movies or shows, no, as usual, it’s about music. Though, I feel like that notion of understanding that “cowboy mentality” is a beneficial introduction to our story today.
One of the things I am blessed to do as a musician is to be a part of playing various city events in Boerne, Comfort, New Braunfels, etc. A handful of years ago, either in Boerne or Comfort, I was set to take the stage after a gentleman who both in his look (not just his dress, but the way he carried himself) and music, struck me as a man I would consider a cowboy.
I got to hear him play a few before he wrapped up, and having grown up on classic country music, it was plain to see and hear that this fella knew what was up. Afterwards, I introduced myself and got to make the acquaintance for the first time with Dave Kemp. He was warm yet unassuming, and I got the feeling from talking to him that this was a man who had his feet firmly on the ground and knew who he was. Dave has been on my radar a while now to feature in my piece here, and I am glad we were able to get together on this so I can share it with you here.
“I don’t remember ever not singing. My dad and mom were both great singers and performed in family groups as children; in fact, they met and became acquainted at gospel singing shows. We would always sing while working or anytime we were together. I had five siblings so all vocal parts were covered. I guess what hooked me on performing personally was The Beatles. I was ten years old when The Beatles had been in America for three years and people, especially the kids, were excited by the music and image they projected.
“Of course we always sang in church and it (singing) was a normal part of life as long as I can remember. I first started playing when I was about 12 years old. I liked the singer/songwriters of the time. The Beatles, John Prine, John Denver, CCR, Melanie Safka, Peter Paul & Mary all were artists that helped shape me. Later, I was drawn more to James Taylor and Harry Chapin. My cousin, Larry, was into CCR and showed me a few guitar licks from their songs.”
Even though Dave conjures up so many feelings that are most related to old school country music, many of his influences are more folksy or alternative. The same is true for me, even different rock and roll influences creep into my songs when I play.
“It was in college that I started playing for real, meaning, I was getting paid to do it. I had a Bluegrass trio with college friends and we had a recurring gig at a little bar/restaurant just off the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. The initial deal was we got $25 a piece, a submarine sandwich, and all the draft beer we wanted. After a couple of gigs, our employer renegotiated our deal minus the beer. That was my first paying gig.”
“Over the years, I’ve had all kinds of jobs, but none have been as consistent as music. I played all through college and the Air Force—the latter allowed me to play in Europe and all over Texas. Jobs have come and gone, but the music is always there. The Air Force sent me to Austin just as the Outlaw movement in country music with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings was getting started, so that was when it really got to be busy and fun.”
“I lived in Austin when Armadillo World Headquarters was operating and you could see Willie and Stevie Ray Vaughn playing in the small clubs. That’s when I really got interested in the craft of songwriting. When you would see the audience just hang on every word the performer was singing, that was real. I walked into one of our regular little haunts down on Congress Avenue one time and saw Waylon Jenning, David Allan Coe, and Townes Van Zandt picking and swapping songs in the corner mid-day totally unannounced!”
Like Dave, at a young age, I had the realization that the songwriting itself was the lifeblood of the music. Not the sounds the instrument made, but the composition on paper of how the song would feel and what it was meant to say. Along with the artists mentioned earlier and the trio just above, Kemp also talks more about how James Taylor, John Prine, Merle Haggard, and writers Gary Burr and Bob McDill impacted him.
In talking about the ups and downs of this path in life, Dave continues, “Challenges in a music career are many. I think the most difficult thing is being away from home while your children are growing up. I was on the road for an extended amount of time when my first child was 18 months old and he didn’t know me when I came home. That was the last time I did that.”
“I’m retired from all those other jobs now, so I play music exclusively and enjoy it even more than I ever have before. I work on my Ranchita outside of Bandera and do woodworking as a hobby and mental health.”
In talking more with Dave about his life and some things folks may not know about him, he shared, “I hope my life demonstrates to people I meet that I am a follower of Jesus Christ most of all. And when I close my eyes when I sing, I’m just watching the video in my mind. I wear a big cowboy handlebar mustache, so folks naturally assume I’m a Texan. Though I was born and raised in Tennessee, I got here as quickly as I could.”
Do yourself a favor, and watch for Dave Kemp’s name playing around the Texas Hill Country. He’s a great man and musician, and your ears and heart will thank you for the fact you got out to hear him play and sing.