“My Guitar style comes from the harmonic necessity of playing in a rather unusual context,” says Kenneth Pattengale, the ace six-stringer who performs alongside Joey Ryan in the acoustic-guitar-and-vocal duo the Milk Carton Kids. “Instead of being a lead guitar player, I’m more of a color guy. I choose the wallpaper or set the scene, whether it’s a rainy night or a sunny day. You can do that with the sort of rhythms, chords or accidentals that you ‘place around the room.’”
A parlor guitar aficionado, Pattengale is a maestro with intros and outros. He creatively fills sonic spaces with all sorts of melodic runs, double-stops and chord fragments throughout entire songs. He’s also an excellent singer, so the harmonious Milk Carton Kids can sound like a more Americana-tinged version of Simon and Garfunkel, if Garfunkel were a brilliant acoustic texturalist. The Grammy-nominated band won Best Duo/Group of the Year at the 2014 Americana Honors & Awards, and the amusing twosome hosted this year’s event on September 12.
After three studio albums and (by Pattengale’s estimate) some 1,400 shows as a duo, they’ve expanded their sound to include a seven-to-nine-piece ensemble on their latest album, the eerily beautiful All the Things That I Did, and All the Things I Didn’t Do (Anti-). The disc was produced by Joe Henry, whose credits include the Steep Canyon Rangers and Elvis Costello. Pattengale’s guitar prowess pervades the single “Younger Years,” and he manages to seamlessly incorporate an extensive, American primitive-style improvisation into the homesick country ballad “One More for the Road,” which has become a seminal piece in the Kids’ live set with their big, new backing band. Pattengale sat down with Guitar Player to discuss his instrument and technique, and how he and Ryan integrate their sounds and styles.
How did two dudes that make depressing folk music end up hosting the Americana Honors & Awards?
That was a total trip. Early on, we found out by accident that Joey is funny and that our interpersonal dynamic could be entertaining. A few laughs can help the audience get through a somber set, and our show is a sad affair. In the early days, Joey had to fill a lot of time talking because I used to break a lot of strings when I first got my main vintage Martin. The guitar needed a lot of TLC, and it needed to learn me as much as I needed to learn it.
What’s your instrument’s backstory?
It’s a 1955 0-15, the smallest full-scale production model Martin ever made. I’d been looking for an 0-15 for years because I love the mahogany’s dark sound and the continuity a small chamber provides compared to, say, a dreadnought, where the lower register feels very different than the higher strings. The little box on the 0-15 makes notes from the sixth to the first strings sound almost as balanced as a piano. I picked up my Martin off eBay in 2009 from a little old lady living in Arizona, and I got very lucky. When I’d capo above the fourth fret, the strings would buzz, so I got in the habit of wrapping a handkerchief around at the top as a mute, and then that 0-15 sounded exactly like the guitar that I’d always wanted to play.
Joey’s 1951 Gibson J-45 dreadnought has an interesting backstory as well. He was gifted that phenomenal guitar by someone he has still never met. It was one of his earliest fans from MySpace, who randomly asked him for his address. That $8,000 guitar just showed up one day. My Martin and Joey’s Gibson are on all of our records. We consider them members of the band.
How has your partnership with Joey Ryan, for nearly a decade, informed your development on guitar?
My style is very specifically the result of Joey and I getting together to play songs with just two guitars. When you’re singing harmony along with another guy who plays chords, which is essentially what Joey does, there’s a whole lot of space available. I’ll hold down the fort at times as well, but I always have the option of playing lead lines along with our vocals as counterpoint. My guitar is also the primary arrangement tool. It was the only available means to achieving the fast-picking bluegrass sound we were going for on certain songs from our earlier records, and some ballads would feel sleepy if I didn’t play some intricate guitar parts to provide complexity to the arrangement.
Who were your teachers and inspirations?
I’ve never taken a guitar lesson in my life. I’ve learned by trial and error. I think I learned a Tony Rice lick once and a B.B. King lick twice. That’s the end of it, technically, but I’m a great lover of music. Joey and I literally wouldn’t have a band if Gillian Welch and David Rawlings didn’t carve out a path for an audience to receive us. The way Duke Ellington arranged his big band to communicate musical ideas is always kicking around in my head, informing my choices. A good percentage of our fans come out primarily to see me play the guitar — not as many that come for the vocal harmonies, but a good percentage. Many ask how to play like me, or how I do what I do. The only real answer is that I’m simply trying my best to play as well as I can. The intention is to make music that’s truthful and beautiful, real and unique.
In the live promo video for “Younger Years” you’ve got a capo at the fifth fret, while Joey has a capo on different fret. How do you two go about figuring out that sort of thing?
Joey’s J-45 is always tuned standard, but down a whole step. My capo can move almost comically from the nut all the way up the neck. For “Honey, Honey,” [from 2013’s The Ash & Clay], I capo on the 10th fret, and the amount of flack I catch for that is hilarious. The song is in the key of F, so Joey’s playing a G shape on his drop-tuned guitar, and I’m up an entire octave. That was a purposeful and important choice to give that track the sonic variety and space we wanted.
As for “Younger Years,” I wrote an ambitious harmony and melody. We’ll try out every key to see what works best. A half step can make a huge difference in how the harmony vocals work. We ended up in the key of D minor on that one, because it was the only key where I could pull off my lowest and highest vocal notes.
You don’t take a lot of true guitar solos, but that song features a cool break, and the one in the promo video is very much in the spirit of the recorded version. How did you develop it?
All of my solos begin as improvisations. In some cases, a certain solo will eventually manifest that becomes a part of the song, and I’ll play it essentially the same way most nights, unless I’m in a particular mood that leads me down an entirely different road. Sometimes I fall flat on my face, and other times I’ll discover something so valuable that I’ll never play that solo without incorporating some of the information I learned. I mixed the new record, so I heard the improvised solo on “Younger Years” in the studio over and over. I didn’t repeat the studio solo note for note in the promo video, because I’m not that good of a guitar player, but it’s clearly informed by the fact that I’d heard it a bunch. It’s different every night right now. Once we hit the road for real this fall, I’ll probably settle into something more definitive. The solo on “New York,” from our first studio album, Prologue, is a good example of that process. By the end of 2012, I finally found what I like for that guitar break, and I’ve played it the same way every night now for the past 900 shows.
The extended solo on “One More for the Road” is practically unrepeatable. How did you tackle that epic track?
Interestingly, that’s one of the first songs Joey and I ever wrote together, but we never felt good enough about it to record it. It needed something else. I told him that we should sing three verses, then I’ll play a seven-minute guitar solo, and then we’ll sing the last verse. He looked at me like, “WTF?” [laughs] My idea was that it would be very experimental, and I decided to try it in drop D tuning, which I’d never done before. That would allow me to get a drone going on the lower strings while experimenting with chord voicings and melodic ideas on the higher-pitched strings. The song is in F minor, so I capoed at the third fret. I knew I’d be totally unfamiliar with the fretboard, so I instructed everyone that they were forbidden from playing the third. That would force me to play either major or minor scales, and I couldn’t be trusted. I needed everyone to play in F modal, so I was free to play the major or minor third while maintaining the voracity of the vibe. It would only be interesting if it felt like we were riding on the edge, so we made lead sheets that outlined the rest of the arrangement, but for the solo section it simply said, “Follow Kenneth, and don’t play an A or an A flat.” That 10-minute track on the record is the first time we tried it. The second attempt lacked magic because everybody knew what was going on, and they were anticipating what would happen next.
How’s it working out onstage with the Milk Carton Kids and a full band?
It’s good and interesting, particularly when it comes to playing “One More for the Road.” We’ve had a few successes and a few failures. The little nuances that can literally make an album don’t always translate or even exist onstage. In the studio, my guitar determined whether it lived or died, whereas onstage the song lives or dies by the dynamics of the band. Based on audience feedback at the few festivals we’ve played, it seems that half of the audience finds it boring, while the other half feels it’s the most exciting thing we’ve done in years. The first half of the audience is into our songs, while the second half is into our sound. You can’t please everybody.
I imagine the guitar players like it. Totally! The guitar players dig it. What are you playing on the road?
My main 0-15, which is serial number 144667, is in the case at home, but I’ve become a collector of those guitars over the years. I didn’t want to put a hole in my original Martin, but I’ve got another ’55 0-15 with a Trance Audio Amulet pickup in it. I’ve also got another, from 1958, strung with nylon strings to play a few tunes from the new album that I recorded that way for a different flavor.
What instrument would you recommend to achieve your vintage Martin small-body sound that’s more accessible and affordable?
Well, this is going to sound like a plug, but I’ve been working closely with Martin for a number of years on a signature model designed precisely with that idea in mind. We’re constructing an instrument that will capture the sound and serve the original purpose of the 0-15, which was a durable budget model for working people and students. It’s a challenge, because the guitar must be lightweight, with a thin top and a proper X bracing, and made of quality woods and components. The goal is to create a new instrument that can hang on the wall at Guitar Center for about two thousand bucks. I’ve got a couple of prototypes. The plan is to have it ready for production this fall.