Kevin Church has been doing his rock 'n' roll thing for more than 15 years. He's never been able to form a proper band. He's never been signed to a label. He's not rolling in royalties or gig cash. But he couldn't be more optimistic about his vocation as a working songwriter.
"I'm really getting started with the serious side of it," Church says of his current situation. "I'm trying to make a living at it and treat it like my job. I think I can do it. I've been doing it for over a year, solid."
Church, 34, grew up in Gastonia, N.C. He attended Western Carolina University before transferring to Appalachian State University in Boone, where he finished his college years.
"Right out of college, I moved back home and played a lot in Charlotte and the surrounding areas," he says. "After a while, my mom told me that I had to get a real job."
Church worked as a sales rep for a local weekly paper for a few years, playing solo shows on the side. In recent years, he worked for Zaxby's franchising before getting laid off.
A freelance promoter position lured him to the Charleston area in 2008, but the project didn't quite get off the ground. In the meantime, he started networking, collaborating with local musicians, and performing at local venues. He started performing regularly at the Sunfire Grill and the West Ashley Home Team BBQ and branched off from there.
"One gig led to another gig, and I realized that I could really do this," he says. "I met some very supportive people in the scene. It's insane how much opportunity a working musician has in Charleston ... if they're willing to play cover music. I know that things go in three-month spurts, depending on the seasons and where the people are."
Church got his first guitar at the age of 15. He regularly played around the family home.
"I tried to play with different musicians, but I never was officially in a band," Church says. "A lot of guys would say they were into it, and then it would flop. No one would commit to anything! I even bought an old Pearl drum set, just to have on hand in the garage — and even my friends who played drums wouldn't even come over to jam or anything. It was crazy."
He says his earliest experiences with rock and country music were with his dad's Beatles compilations and a few Willie Nelson records.
"I used to hear my dad playing Willie's version of 'Blue Skies' [by Irving Berlin] and the Red Headed Stranger album. I once read a description of that record in a Columbia House advertisement that said it was 'country goes cosmic,' and I kinda knew what that meant."
Essentially stranded on his own with no serious band project on hand, Church spent time learning his craft and putting song ideas together. He's been writing original tunes since he was 19.
"I was listening to all sorts of rock. I liked Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins a lot at that time, but also liked Bob Dylan a lot, too," Church says. "Over the years, listening to artists I like was how I learned the dos and don'ts of good songwriting," he adds. "I feel like my songs relate to people. Now, I'm freed up enough to express myself the way I like."
Church believes that the country, folk, and pop music he absorbed from his parents' collection led him to vintage blues music, like Robert Johnson's early material and other early-century greats. Through his 20s, Church soaked up as much rock-related music as he could, utilizing bits and pieces in his own songs. He demonstrates his blend of styles on his recent effort, A Little Change, a clean, strummy, self-produced collection of Dylan-esque ditties and big-chord folk-rock ballads. Many of the stories feature characters dealing with frustrating life experiences. While there's a touch of melancholy, most of A Little Change is slyly upbeat, nostalgic, and optimistic.
"Now that we have the term 'Americana,' it encompasses all," Church says. "If it's not truly blues, if it's not truly country, and if it's not truly rock, it's Americana. That's where I fall, I think. This new album has a lot of Dylan influence, but my latest material is more influenced by the way he collaborated and aimed for spontaneity than his actual sound. There are a batch of strong songs that are ready to record for the next record."
Church is already off to a busy start for 2011. On Jan. 6, he shares the Village Tavern stage with Kara Hesse, but that's only one of several shows he'll play this week. Later this month, he travels to Tennessee for a string of shows. Church will also host the Singer-Songwriter Series at the Village Tavern.
"My next disc will be straight acoustic, so the listener will get a taste of what I do at bar shows," Church says. "The goal is to tour, hit Nashville more, and keep things rolling."