“I don’t want to be that musician who weeps over his guitar,” confessed singer/songwriter Billy Kernkamp as he took out a cigarette from a gold pack. “I’m so fucking sick of that image.” Kernkamp and his band—guitarists Teddy Duran and Justin Morales, bassist Justin Deckert, drummer Brendan Murphy, and keyboardist Dallas Kruse—wrote and recorded their debut full-length, 1976, earlier this year. The 14 tales of laughter, grief and heartache will echo through the speakers of Detroit Bar on Saturday for the record-release party. With twanging guitars, gentle rhythms and Kernkamp’s mournful vocals, 1976 is a low-key, Jayhawks-esque wonder. Fortunately for his fans, Kernkamp is as prolific as he is talented: Later this year, the band will go back into the studio to record an as-yet-untitled follow-up, slated for release early next year.
OC Weekly:When did you first realize you were passionate about making country music?
Billy Kernkamp: I always wrote love notes to cute girls in my kindergarten class. My mother was a jazz singer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and she would perform in dance halls with old World War II veterans while I danced around. She would always say I was too pitchy. Her motto was “If you can’t sing on key, don’t sing at all.” But I didn’t listen; I’m still singing.
The title track of the album deals with relationships. Did you experience some serious heartbreak?
I was in a relationship for eight years starting when I was 19. When you are with someone that long, you realize that sometimes you grow apart. Breaking up with her was like letting go of my youth. Basically, the relationship fell apart and so did my life. All of my emotions are on . I’ve always been a boy, and now, at 33, I feel like a man with a brand-new start.
Your songs are very touching. Where did you find the courage to write your emotions into each song?
It’s simple. I’m living life and enjoying my friends. I think it sounds so pretentious, but all I’m concerned with is truth and beauty. Truly, the music is samples of my life—it’s a snapshot of what I experience every day. It’s about all the highs and lows, the laughing and crying. The songs are about being strong. I hope listeners can hear that and say, “Shit, I can relate.”
The lyrics on your song “Song, Whiskey, and You” read like a despairing diary entry. Does the booze help?
I love alcohol [laughs]. I’m trying to be better about it. It’s all about the Maker’s Mark. Alcohol lubricates you; it allows you to be free.
On a more serious note, I heard about your mother being terminally ill. What was it like spending six months recording your album while dealing with such hardship?
You’re getting all Barbara Walters on me. She has stage-four cancer, and she only has four months to live. She’s the greatest influence in my entire life. It felt right to release the album now while she is still here. I’d spend the day in the hospital, and then record in the studio. The record is what kept me sane.
I’ve been told that some of the band members/friends, including you, have tattoos of a cowboy boot on your asses? Is there any significance to the brotherhood of matching tats?
Here, I’ll show you [pulls down his pants]. Brian Crane, Justin Deckert and I have always discussed getting matching tattoos. One night, we were bar-hopping in Lido Island, and we found a place that would do it for $70. We thought, “Hell, yeah, the price is right!” We love country music, and it’s funny–it’s a kick in the ass that we all need.
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Billy Kernkamp perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.
Hey, Orange County/Long Beach musicians and bands! Mail your music, contact info, high-res photos and impending show dates for possible review to: Locals Only, OC Weekly, 2975 Red Hill Ave., Ste 150, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Or e-mail your link to: email@example.com.
This column appeared in print as "Billy Boy Blue."