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 record.
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 on that?
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 the “incident”?
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 the band?
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 available.
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 result.