Anyone can put the cowboy hat on — and if you love country music enough to do it, then God bless ya. Now it’s another thing to exude country from every fiber of your being, from the blood in your veins to the dirt under your fingernails. When you listen to Kendall Shaffer, the difference can’t be ignored. His 2018 EP The Traditional Revival opens with a sample of Ed Bruce’s 1976 classic “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” Clearly, the sample seems to declare, you’re about to listen to the work of an artist who appreciates a vintage country sound.
But When Kendall and his band kick in with “Honky Tonkin’ (Whoever Said It Was Easy),” it becomes strikingly apparent that he isn’t stuck on getting to the heart and soul of country by trying to make his music sound like it was made half a century ago. That’s because he doesn’t have to put on airs. Kendall’s songs sparkle with a decidedly modern edge and yet they still manage to cut through the homogenization that’s held the genre hostage for far too long. But Kendall’s music shows that you don’t have to try too hard to be yourself — all you have to do is let it flow.
Although he’s a child of the ‘90s, Kendall fell under the spell of artists like Hank Williams, Sr. and Alan Jackson as a young child. On the cover of The Traditional Revival, Kendall — barely older than a toddler and dressed in nothing more than a pair of drawers and a cowboy hat — is shown holding an acoustic guitar in the backyard. Kendall’s love of country music, he says, was already sealed by that point, and it wasn’t long after that that his dad taught him the three foundational chords Kendall would run with. The Louisiana native has never looked back since, even though it means he’s had to push against the grain.
Although Kendall would take a liking to Southern Rock as a teenager, rocking Allman Brothers and Skynyrd tapes while out fishing with his dad, he has mostly eschewed the conformity-inducing call of radio. And sure, he and his high school buddies knocked around on some popular cover tunes in their day, but Kendall has never let peer pressure steer him from his first love. To this day, in his part of Louisiana, the demand for swamp pop can engulf an upstart country artist.
But that hasn’t stopped Kendall, who chuckles when he thinks back to the small PA he used when he first started playing bars at 16 years old. “I had no clue how to run it. My dad ran it most of the time, and he didn’t really know how to do it either.”
Since that point, Kendall has steadily refined his craft. Backed by a crack group of players who are all old enough to be his dad or his grandad, Kendall’s delivery is as casual and approachable and as the sound of someone cracking open a beer before cracking a joke. And by all accounts, Kendall wouldn’t be out of place onstage at a comedy club — a charm that’s enabled him to fold life’s troubles into a vehicle for us listeners to laugh at ourselves a bit.
That said, when he and the band fuse one of their own songs with the intro from Canadian rock band Rush’s iconic hit “Tom Sawyer,” they’re not being goofballs — they’re reverse-engineering a rock classic as if it had been written as a country tune in the first place. And they make the transition sound perfectly natural, a hint of Kendall’s innate ear for arrangement. Across the board, his work is undercut with a sly sense of economy. In truth, not a single word or note does more than it has to, and yet the music is undeniably vital and alive.
“Most of my time during the day — not right now, because I work in a chemical plant — but when I’m not working I’m studying music. I don’t just listen to the lyrics, I listen to the instrumentals, the keys, all of it. Just listening to the kind of music that I like over and over again, and singing it and writing my own songs… eventually you realize you’ve got a sound that you want to put out in front of people.”
And when it comes to bringing his music to Texas – Kendall says bring it on! “I take a liking to Texas Music”.