Worldly Journeys Reflected in Song
By Andrew Dansby, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Folk-blues musician Robert Kuhn's adventure began when he bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. He had graduated from Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, where a football scholarship had gotten him into school but injuries frequently kept him off the field. After graduating, the English literature major had an itch to travel - and like many before him, that
itch came from reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." "I grew up
in Houston, but I'd never been to Mexico," he says. "It didn't even occur to me that you could just
drive there. Or that you could continue on into Guatemala. So me and a buddy decided that's what we were going to do." Then the buddy bailed. So Kuhn purchased airfare to Buenos Aires with little more than a few changes of clothes, a couple of books and a guitar. He moved about Central and South America for more than a decade, working odd jobs and odder jobs, watching the drug trade pass from South America on its way to the United States. He got married. And he also wrote songs. Some of those appear on "Everybody Knows," a fascinating debut album with worldly colors that reflect his travels, as well as some bluesy shadings that represent his Houston roots.
As often happens to someone on a border-crossing journey, Kuhn returned to Texas in 2010 with more stories and life experiences than money. While teaching in Chile for a year, he also played music and worked as a puppeteer. He spent a year in Costa Rica. During a stay in Colombia, he remembers feeling his room shake when a bomb went off in Cartegena prior to an election. He was in Venezuela in 2002 when Hugo Chavez was ousted from office for two days during a coup d'état. His longest spell in one place was six years on Little Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua, where he worked as a fisherman and farmer. "There weren't really any venues to play music exactly," he says, though he found plenty of opportunities to play anyway. "You'd still get paid in other ways. Sometimes you'd get cooked a big pot of food." Being out on the water as a fisherman, he got to see the drug trade up close. "You'd have pirates, police, all sorts of chases and see drugs get thrown overboard and then pulled back in. A lot of these places were recently war-torn regions, so everybody there had seen plenty of violence." Kuhn wrote the entire time he was in the south. Much of what he wrote was for a book he's now editing. But he also came out of it with songs. Upon his return to the United States, he settled briefly in Houston, where he worked at a shirt factory, which he describes as "awful, just awful." But it allowed him to take care of things he didn't need in Central America - like a car - while also trying to find open stages at night.
On the island
Kuhn moved to Galveston and started playing nights at places like the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe and Rip Tide. From those sets a band started to form. He was participating in an open mic in the Heights one night when local blues great Little Joe Washington happened in selling some of his albums. "I remember reading about him," Kuhn says. "So I asked if he'd like to do a song. I gave him my guitar, and I played harmonica." Washington liked what he heard that night, and since then Kuhn has been playing harmonica in his band. Washington also played guitar on three songs on "Everybody Knows." Kuhn recorded the album nearly a year ago at SugarHill Recording Studios. The album is difficult to pin down. His travels have lent some of the songs an international flavor. "Tear Your Love" has a reggae lilt, and the Spanish-language "Mujer Chinandegana" is - at least judged by my sketchy Spanish comprehension - an invitation to dance, as is the title track. But elsewhere, the record takes folk and blues constructs and places them in intriguing, sometimes dark arrangements that suggest alternative pop and rock. The bluesy "How Long?," with Jahrel Pickens' pulsing keyboards, suggests "Time Out of Mind"-era Bob Dylan. Claire Silverman's cello adds a somber but beautiful tone to songs like "Aurita." Kuhn's voice - cracked, raspy and expressive - ties the recording together. His vocals sound as well-traveled as Kuhn himself. Kuhn is 35, an atypical age to put out a debut album. But he has a large stash of songs from which to draw for his next recording and no regrets about spending his 20s the way he did. "In a lot of cultures getting away like that is almost mandatory," he says. "I met some Germans when I was down there. Their families were shoemakers. But when you grow up and first get out of the house, you're supposed to get away from it for a while. You're supposed to shed who you used to be."
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