READERS OF GP’S ACOUSTIC SISTER, FRETS,
might remember Keith Sewell from when he
was profiled on the release of his first solo
record, Love Is a Journey, a few years back. Fans
of Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas,
Earl Scruggs, or Ricky Skaggs will recognize
Sewell as the secret-weapon sideman on those
gigs, who can kill on acoustic, electric, mandolin,
or banjo. Most people simply won’t
recognize him, however, because he’s one of
those Nashville cats who does what he does
so well and so effortlessly that it’s easy to take
him for granted—easier still because Sewell
is so humble and unassuming about his talents,
whether it’s rock-solid rhythm playing,
hot-rod Tele leads, or blazing, pristine bluegrass
flat-picking. Despite a phone that never
seems to stop ringing for gigs and sessions,
Sewell has temporarily taken off his hired-gun
hat to release his second solo album, The Way
of a Wanderer [Rubber Dog], which shows that
in addition to keeping his stellar chops up, he’s
become a deeper songwriter and a stronger producer
along the way.
How would you characterize the difference between
The Way of a Wanderer and Love Is a Journey?
The songs are more focused. I was more
confident this time. On Love Is a Journey, I was
a little more all over the map. I think this is a
better record in a lot of ways than my first
You keep pretty busy. Is it hard to find the time
to make a solo record?
It’s not too bad. When I’m not touring, I’m
doing sessions, but I’m always creating. I have
Garage Band on my Mac and I also have a little
recorder that I keep with me so I can keep
track of ideas. Most of the songs I come up
with start with a riff that I stumble across. That
inspires me to keep going. I always approach
the songwriting from a music standpoint.
That’s not the typical Nashville way, is it?
There are people in Nashville who say the
lyrics are everything. I know that lyrics are
extremely important, but if you’re in the supermarket
and a song catches your ear, it’s not the
lyrics. It’s the music. So for me to be engaged,
there has to be something substantial from a
musical standpoint. Then, if the lyrics are great,
it’s just another layer of beauty for the listener.
Some of these tunes, like “Josie’s Reel,” were cowritten.
What are your thoughts on collaborating?
When I write with someone else, it has to
be a real natural thing. That song and a few
others were co-written with Niall Toner, and
we have a great relationship. I’m kind of the
melody guy and I’ll come up with some music
and he’ll suggest lyrics. I’ve been in situations
where it seemed kind of forced—those typical
Nashville blind-date songwriting sessions. I’m
not really a big fan of those. I did that for a long
time but it’s kind of hard for me to manufacture
songs that way. I know guys who do that every
day and I have nothing but respect for them, but
it doesn’t really work for me.
Break down the song “Imogene.” Who’s doing what
I’m playing the acoustic and electric guitars,
as well as mandolin and banjo. Rob Ickes is on Dobro. He came to my studio, took a
couple of passes, and just ripped that solo
right off the top of his head. He’s outstanding.
Luke Bulla is on fiddle—he went through
the Skaggs ranks with me. My solos were
totally improvised. When it’s solo day, I’ll
take a bunch of passes and try different ideas
each time. I like it to be spontaneous. For
the acoustic solo, I played a Bourgeois Vintage
D Brazilian/Adirondack that Dana
Bourgeois built for me a couple of years ago.
The Brazilian rosewood was taken out of an
old building they tore down in Lewiston,
Maine. They found out the beams in there
were Brazilian and Dana got some of that
wood. This acoustic really has some old guitar
character to it. The rosewood is incredibly
dark and straight grained. It’s some of the
best Brazilian I’ve ever seen.
How did you track the guitars?
For acoustics, I’ve got some Earthworks
QTC40s that I really like. That mic sounds
really dry and natural. Sometimes condensers
can get a little brittle and these
don’t. I put one around the 12th fret and
one on the lower bout to get some of the
top sound. It works really well. The electric
was a PRS Johnny Hiland model. Paul
Reed Smith knew I was a big Tele player
and he said the neck is like a Tele from the
12th fret down. I was a little skeptical, but
I tell you—it’s a great guitar. I love it. I’ve
been taking it on the road with Earl Scruggs.
I miked a Fender Princeton with a Shure
SM57 that I ran into an A-Designs Audio
Pacifica mic pre.
Were you on that 2003 Dixie Chicks gig when
Natalie Maines uttered the sentence that became
I had done a couple of one-off gigs, but
my first full show with the Chicks as a member
of their band was that night in London
when she said that.
How did the controversy that ensued affect
It was really wild, the contrast before
and after. I don’t care what side of the aisle
you come down on, people say stuff critical
of the president all the time. Every day. Why
was this so different? I don’t think any of
us thought it would turn out the way it did.
I had a wonderful experience with them,
but that night changed things for all of us.
After the emotion of everything in 2003,
they went right into writing with Rick Rubin.
Then they worked on that record, Taking the
Long Way, for a year. We toured and then
there was the sweep of the Grammys and I
think by that point their gas tank was empty.
They really needed a break. When it’s the
right time, I think they’ll do another record
and tour and I’d love to be a part of it if I’m
You consistently work with many of the greatest
musicians out there. What does it feel like to
know that you can call up Jerry Douglas or Ricky
Skaggs and they’ll not only take your call but they’ll
play on your record?
It’s humbling, it really is. I’ve had some
pretty awesome gigs and there’s never been
a situation where I haven’t taken something
away from it. Jerry and Ricky have been really
available to this generation. They were never
stingy with their time and their talent. They
realize that they have something to pass along
and we’ve all become better musicians as a