On his new album, The Kernal asks you to ‘Listen to the Blood’

Our story starts with a red polyester suit.

After his father died, Joe Garner found an old suit of his in the attic. His dad, Charlie had played bass at the Grand Ole Opry for decades and when Joe found the suit… he was struck with inspiration. He hadn’t grown up wanting to play country music but when he picked up the suit, he knew there was unfinished business with his dad and that maybe he could figure it out through music.

And thus, The Kernal was born. The Kernal was made for the stage. All red polyester and a joyful, story-driven type of country music. On his albums, he plays with conventions and standards and updates them with modern themes, like break up ballads that involve scrolling through Instagram.

Listen to the Blood is the third album in a trilogy written in response to his father’s passing. This week on the Reckon Interview, we discuss that journey, which has carried him from a small town in East Tennessee all over the country. We chat about where he finds his inspiration. And we talk about whether this is the end of that red polyester suit.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

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Reckon: Let’s start talking about your new album, “Listen to the Blood.” It is the third album in this trilogy that you’ve built around this persona of The Kernal. Can you tell us a little bit about how The Kernal came to be?

The Kernal: Yeah. Like any musical project, there’s an impetus to get you sitting down and reflecting on things. And, for me, it was after the death of my dad, I had had an interest in writing and that kind of thing, but hadn’t had really much of an interest in the style and the way you go about doing country music and the sort of entertainment side of it until he died. And it sort of felt like it was an opportunity for me to carry something on. So it began there as, in some ways, maybe like a grieving kind of process to try to connect to some of those kind of things that he did. And from there, it sort of took on a life of its own.

And as it became more of something that was me rather than me trying to imitate or approximate a style. It became a little bit more about a vision I had for myself. So yeah, that’s kind of where I started the whole thing.

Reckon: Your dad, Charlie Garner, played bass at the Grand Ole Opry for 30 years, was it? Behind Del Reeves. And so when you talk about taking on that country style as a way of honoring his legacy. What was it like for you growing up around the Grand Ole Opry?

The Kernal: Oh, man, it was so cool getting to be a fly on the wall backstage and seeing all that. I mean, it’s such a unique experience because there never were very many people back there. So it always felt like you were in a little club or something. There were always some weird celebrities there. And you never knew who was gonna be there. When we were really young, we didn’t go as much, but by the time we were eight or nine and we knew how to behave ourselves, my dad would bring us around and keep a short leash on us and stuff.

But I have a lot of fun stories about just meeting different like baseball players and seeing actors and you just never knew who was gonna show up back there. You know, so it was always fun because it was kind of a little bit of a wild card kind of situation. But man, just being backstage while the Opry was going on, I mean, they kind of have these pews in the back that you sit on and watch the show from the back.

And just seeing how the musicians interacted with each other and you see this great show going on out front and everything is so well oiled. And everyone’s kind of shooting from the hip, outside of the songs. I mean, because they kind of play the same songs all the time. You know, they play the hits, but just seeing how they talk to each other and the musicians working with each other. And I have some very vivid memories hearing Leon Rhodes and some of these amazing musicians and how loud they were. And how cool the tones were and stuff. It was a really cool man. It really was.

Reckon: And yet you came out of that not necessarily growing up wanting to be a musician yourself. That was something you came to kind of later in life?

The Kernal: Yeah. I mean and with that world, there were a lot of really young musicians at the Opry. And I guess it’s still that way. I don’t know. But it seemed like every time we went, there was some little six-year-old fiddler out there. I mean, they would always bring these kinds of people out for like a novelty aspect of it, but they were all amazing, you know?

But, no, I never thought I wanna do that. I always liked music. You know, being a young man, raised in the South, if you have any proclivity to sporting at all, you know, then you’re probably doing that.

And so I have a twin brother actually, and we just played sports and we didn’t think about anything else until, you know, we were in high school, probably. We were just all sports all the time. We grew up in the country. So we were just kinda running around in fields and letting our imaginations run wild and playing sports. It was pretty simple.

So, no, I never really thought about playing music until I was getting ready to go to college and got interested in the guitar. You know, wanted to learn a couple tunes and stuff and kind of started there. But, yeah, as a kid, my dad played a little bit of music, but mostly we were just country boys running around and throwing rocks at stuff.

Reckon: And then your dad passed and I believe you went and found one of his red polyester suits in the attic. And that was kind of what you built this character persona of The Kernal around?

The Kernal: Yeah. I liked the idea of having something tactile to connect with the project. And I knew about this suit. There was a kind of famous photo of the Opry when the Opry House moved over to where it is now, like in the seventies, forget what year exactly. There was kind of a famous photo, an aerial photo looking down and my dad was part of the band that was in the shot. And he was wearing the red suit. We always saw this photo like at the Shoney’s we went to in Nashville. And there was a TV Guide that had the photo on the front that we had at the house.

And you’re like, “oh, dad’s on there.” So we knew this thing was somewhere, but we never tried to find it or anything until he died. And then I kind of just put all the pieces together.

You know, whatever happened to that suit? Where is it? It took me a while to find it, cuz it was kind of just buried off in the back of the attic. And we have an old house and the attic is a little scary up there, you know? There’s a lot of places to fall and it’s a little rickety up there.

But I pulled it out and it was just pristine. Like it’d never been worn. I put it on and it was little bit too small, little bit too short, but it was good enough. And I remember bringing it home and my nextdoor neighbor is a photographer and he still lives next door and has done a lot of my photos over the years.

I brought it and I still remember the first photo we took with it. I said, “Hey, man, I wanna put this suit on. Take my picture with it.” And it just kind of started from there. And I started thinking a lot about country music and started getting more into song writing and finding country songwriters. You know, John Prine. It’s such a rich tradition of songwriting and there’s so many different kinds of ways to get interested in country songs.

It just kind of became something that I started putting all my creative efforts toward that at that time. You know, I thought, well, I’ve got a suit. I can be a different guy. What kind of guy am I gonna be? What am I gonna do with it? And in some ways with Del too, Del Reeves, I mean, he was kind like an uncle to us growing up cuz he and my dad were really close. And he lived in Hickman County where I grew up, as well, which is why my dad moved to Hickman County from Georgia. Cuz Del had bought a house in Centerville. So my dad moved to Hickman County as well, so they could all kinda be close.

So I kind of felt part of him in the project too, Dell, and seeing how he entertained people. And he was really funny and just a great entertainer, great at impersonations. And I’m not good at that kind of stuff. But I wanted there to be a little bit of levity to it, cuz he always brought that levity to the music that he always put out. And I always kind of enjoyed that. And so that became part of it too, just kind of seeing what I saw as a kid and taking it the next step.

Reckon: Is this more of a Garth Brooks is Chris Gaines type thing or is this [like] Lady Gaga has created the character of Lady Gaga? Like how much of you, Joe Garner, is in The Kernal and how much of it is just kind of you creating that avatar of the music you liked growing up?

The Kernal: There’s definitely parts of myself that I leave out. Or I don’t think of it as my full self. In some ways I’m kind of a shy person, always kinda been a little bit shy. I mean, I can be around people, no problem, but I kind of prefer more of solitude and my brother’s totally different. It’s funny. He’s like life of the party, you know, just loud and stuff. But I’ve always been a little bit more reserved. But with The Kernal thing, I mean, there’s not really any room for that, you know?

So, yeah, definitely, it helped me pull some parts of myself out that maybe weren’t necessarily natural to me. But I enjoyed it because I think, and I’ve mentioned this before, but when I first started I really was trying to prove something to myself else. That I could be, you know, assertive and I could perform in an assertive manner to have people captivated and that kind of thing.

It’s been an interesting little journey. It’s not all been great, cuz I think there are some aspects of that… messing with that kind of… interacting with yourself in a way that maybe isn’t natural, that you’re trying to push yourself in a certain direction that it can kind of get you hung up a little bit. And I’ve definitely had a few phases in my life where I think some of that performing has contributed to in a negative way. But, you know, thankfully I’ve not been all that successful so it hasn’t really messed with me too much. [Laughs]

Reckon: How has it affected the way you think about your dad? Obviously he did not see this character cuz it was kind of created after he passed. But your relationship with your father after his passing, how has taking on this mantle wearing –his suit, walking around in his clothes– affected that?

The Kernal: Yeah. You know, I had written a couple of songs before he died. And I got a chance to play him like three songs one time. And he was pretty ill at the time. I thought I gotta do this. You know, because I liked writing and I thought, “Hey, you know, I’m artistic. I’ve put some good stuff together here.” And I remember I played him these three songs. He didn’t say anything. And after I got done playing them, he said, “well, that’s abstract.”

That’s all that he said.

You know, he didn’t really care for what I was doing at the time. And I think in some ways, I wanted to write something that… well that he liked. And that he thought, you know, would be good. So that was definitely a part of it early on. That was a task. I wanted to try to write something that sounded like a country sound, that kinda worked in the genre. I guess, if you wanna put it that way.

And eventually, you do it a little more and you kind of find your own voice and what you wanna say and make it a little more natural to yourself. But initially when I started out, I think, because he wasn’t very approving of what I was doing, I kind of wanted to lean into that and say, “well, if he had heard this one, he would’ve thought, well, that’s pretty good.” He might not have liked any of the stuff.

Reckon: Your second album is called “Light Country.” I’ve seen where you’ve also referred to what you do as quote unquote “diet country.” What is this genre that you’re playing around in? Cause on some songs you sound country western, on some songs you have the rockabilly vibe going. It’s kind of like if you were flipping through sixties and seventies country, but updated through a modern lens.

The Kernal: Yeah. It’s crazy that we have such easy access to all music that’s ever been made. You know, you could never learn it all. Someone might mention something to me, well, you sound just like this guy from the sixties this, obscure guy. And well, I’ve never even heard this person before. And it’s wild how there’s less of the gate keeping going on and more of like some random person somewhere could hear a playlist and hear this song that a thousand people have heard or something. It’s pretty wild. But at the time when I did Light Country, I think I was just trying to define, in some ways for myself, where I fit. Where I fit in with things. And around that time, things that were sort of strongholds or things that were very well defined began to kind of crumble a little bit. And everything kind of started becoming the same thing.

And I didn’t wanna be someone who was saying like, well, I’m gonna dig my heels in and play traditional music. And this is real country music and this kind of thing. It’s kind of a silly way to go about doing things. And people have said that to me before, well, you’re real country, you know?

And I think, well, what is country? The more you ask that question, the more it slips through your fingers. I just think with Light Country, I just kind of meant there was a lightness to it, a lightness to the definition of it.

But with actual songwriting, I have always attempted for those things to be from myself and not to approximate too much. It’s always a combination, obviously.

Reckon: And it does seem like country music maybe right now more than any other genre has kind of become a lightning rod of people trying to define, like, what’s the real sound. Is it kind of the Nashville sound? Is it the Americana sound? Is it the folk sound? You mentioned that one of your inspirations, I think, was John Prine. And kind of going back and forth between like that Grand Ole Opry sound and the John Prine style songwriting, which kinda reveals a deeper truth. When you move past this Kernal project, what kind of music do you see yourself playing further down the line?

The Kernal: I don’t know. I mean, I have 5,000 voice memos on my phone right now that sound like all kind of stuff. I have fixed myself in this project for the last several years. And I did kind of wanna put an end to it to give myself the opportunity to not just be stuck.

You know, and so I am interested in doing other things. It’s such a difficult thing to put out music and to try to tour, and especially not even mentioning COVID stuff, but even before that. I mean, it’s really easy to get burned out on the whole process of it. Cuz it’s like anything else that you do, there’s work involved and it takes time and it takes a lot of your attention. It’s a strugglesome thing at times.

So, you know, as far as the business side of it, I don’t know. I think I might just enjoy putting out some records and just kinda letting them be what they are and not try to take it too much past that.

I mean, I’ve always just tried to enjoy myself with the music too. I’ve always wanted to write stuff that was enjoyable to play live with the band. Just creating that bubble with the band to say, hey, if we all like this and we’re all having fun, a thousand people could be out there or ten people could be out there and it’s still gonna work. It’s still gonna come through and it’s still gonna be satisfying.

I don’t know what’s next. Obviously I hope the record… I hope people like it. And you know, it can kind of propel forward what we’ve been doing up to now, but you just never know. But I still love music, obviously, no matter what happens. I love playing piano, cuz I don’t really know what I’m doing. I never have. I enjoy my relationship to my piano and I could do that forever. So I don’t know. I don’t know what’s next. We’ll see.

Reckon: You have a song that almost seems like it’s addressing influencer culture. You know, you’re talking about the ranting on Facebook thing. “U Do U” is kind of about the logical conclusion of a person who is just kind of following their own journey of self-actualization, winds up being kind of a jerk in the process. What sparked that song?

The Kernal: What sparked it was me thinking about myself, the things that we do to assert ourselves and assert our personal identity and the sacrifices that we make of all those around us in order to make that happen.

I mean a lot of us fall into that, even with our work. We all know the person that shows up to the party and they don’t talk about anything, but how many houses they closed on this month. And it’s like, “oh, here comes Ricky again, and he’s gonna tell us how much money he’s made.”

And we all do kind of have that tendency, or not all, but a lot of us do have a tendency to get a little bit… especially as you go through your thirties and it’s like: you’re in your twenties and you’re just having fun. And everyone thinks, it’s so great that you’re doing whatever you’re doing. And then you get to your thirties and you know…

So that song was about me really starting this project and trying to say, look at me, I’m out here. I wanted to write something for myself to say, now watch out if you get too far into this and you, you think too much about yourself one day, somebody’s gonna pick up something in a bar and crack you across the head with it. So that was kind of the start of the song. You know, I thought, well, I wanna write a song about myself doing what I’m doing and going all over and playing music. And then I say something weird to a guy and he cracks me across the face. Then I go into contemplation mode, stand on the docks and fishing for premonitions about where did I go wrong and how do I correct this? But yeah, in that song, I represent, I think, a wider tendency to focus just on yourself. And especially when you have your phone and, you know, everyone’s a pop star now. It’s pretty crazy.

Reckon: I’m picturing the album cover right now. And it’s you and your red suit kind of face down on the ground. Is that connected to that? The idea that you’ve been popped in the face? Is this about you kind of getting rid of… burying the polyester suit? What the album art doing?

The Kernal: It’s all those things. And with the album title, listening to the blood, you know, rather than listening to social media or listening to the voices in your head. It’s like what does it mean to listen to your blood and the more essential parts of yourself instead of the politicized parts and the parts that people try to manipulate you with all our media and things like that. You know, is there an essential part of myself that I can listen to? That I should be listening to? That informs the way that I carry on my life. So it’s me asking that question and really hoping that I can, by [being] face down in the blood with the blood in my ears, listening to that blood. And what’s the blood telling me? I got that line from another person that’s become really difficult to talk about, Woody Allen, in one of his films, “Shadows in Fog” where John Cusack kind of makes a monologue about wanting to kill himself and wanting to shoot himself in his head where all the thoughts are troubling him. And then, he kind of paused when he wanted to kill himself and he heard his heartbeat and and he heard his blood. And he said, “so I listened to my blood.” And when I heard that line, several years ago when I watched that movie, it just immediately was something that resonated with me. Kind of carried it with me for a while.

And so when it came time for this album, that was kind of the concept that I leaned in into. And the songs to me are kind of mile markers. Kinda like “U Do U.” Ways to maybe correct myself and I think by doing that, I mean, my hope is that other people can feel that. You know, again, to the iceberg thing, even if they see a different narrative in the song or whatever, I hope that there’s a transmission of that feeling. Because, really, at the end of the day, I wanna do better. I don’t want to get to a point where I think I’m doing great. And I find out that I’m not. That’s a really scary place to be.

Reckon: It sounds like after sitting with this album for two or three years and the way that the world has kind of changed in the last two or three years, you may be thinking about this music differently. What goes through your mind now when you’re playing some of these songs that maybe wasn’t going through your mind when you were writing some of these songs?

The Kernal: Yeah, it makes me think about certain periods in my life over the last few years, like with a song like “Piston in the Pillow,” kind of seeing more people come forward and saying I’ve had problems with anxiety and all these kind of things. I never had any problems like that growing up really, I wrote that song because that was something that I dealt with too a few years ago. “Lockin’ every lock up twice” is a line in that song. And there was a time where I realized that I was checking the locks on my doors several times before I went to bed.

And at one point it just dawned on me, like, why am I doing this? You know? Like, what am I afraid of? What’s going on here? And eventually it culminated. And so that song is an example of looking back and saying like, wow. Yeah, I do remember what it felt like in that period to be dealing with that.

But that’s a nice thing about songs. It’s kind of like a little point in history. You put a little post-it note there and then you’ve got it and you can pull it back out and say, well, I might not be dealing with anxiety right now, but if someone else says that they are, I know a little more how to deal with that. Because, something like that, I’ve heard so many times over the years so and so’s got anxiety issues and I used to think, “come on, you know, it can’t be that bad. Like you’re fine. You’ve got all these things going for you.” And how shortsighted we can be with each other with things like that.

I think once the record is out and people start saying, Hey, we like this, or we hate this, or this is pastiche or whatever, I’ll start maybe reflecting on those things a little bit more. I’m kind of just ready to get it out and see if people like some of the songs and how they relate to ’em and what they think about it and stuff. Because you kind of agonize over writing these songs as a songwriter. And you know when you’re done and you can’t change it anymore. And at that point it’s just kind of got a life of its own. But, yeah, I think I’ll reflect on that more in five or six months or something. You know,

Reckon: You know, it’s fun the way that you will take these standard styles and formulas, like I’m thinking of on Light Country, you have what feels like a kind of traditional country western song, a Marty Robbins type song, but it’s about the Old Taco Bell. And on this one, you’ve got The fight Song, which feels a lot those kind of country breakup standards that you heard a lot in the sixties and seventies and eighties, but you’re referencing Instagram and going to therapists and stuff like that. It’s not satire. It’s not parody. But, certainly, you’re having fun with it. Talk about that approach to your music.

The Kernal: Well, with that song, it’s funny. It’s like you would readily hear an Instagram reference in so many hip hop songs and there’s such an easy avenue into that, but it’s such a weird thing. When I was writing that song, I’m like, I wanna say something about this specific thing and just being like, yeah, let’s just do it. Just talk about it.

But yeah, I always wanna entertain myself really. When I’m trying to write a song, one of my main metrics is are you gonna be despicably bored having to sing this five years from now? And that’s kind of a measuring rod for me when I’m writing. If I’m gonna be interested in it, then that kind of helps me move on. And if I get to a point in a song and I don’t know how to navigate that to make it something that’s at least interesting to me, then I kinda have to abandon it. And sometimes I I’ve done that and a couple years later, come back to it. Like, oh, I know how to solve that now. Or I know where I can take this now. So yeah, I always try to entertain myself when I’m writing.

Reckon: This album is the last of a trilogy. And my understanding is you are planning to bury your dad’s red suit in your mom’s hometown, is that the case?

The Kernal: Yeah. You know, when I started this project, I really wanted to be anonymous. I wanted to go like full Orville Peck. And I think when you don’t really start to pop off, you’re just a guy in a small town and it’s like kind of weird and no one’s gonna listen to it. So I kind of started letting things out a little bit more. That’s why I called myself a silly name. Um, you know, I didn’t wanna show my face and stuff. And I wanted a lot of these things to be anonymous too, because there’s a lot of personal things kind of baked in to this project. A lot of things that, you know, I won’t talk about. Some of those things have kind of eked out. Which is fine.

But yeah, that’s the plan. It’s kind of… are you familiar with psychomagic?

Reckon: I am not. Tell me about psychomagic.

The Kernal: Alejandro Jodorowsky, he’s a filmmaker. He kind of coined this thing, psychomagic and it’s kind of a combination of shamanism and psycho-analytic practice, but he has a book called Psychomagic.

And it’s like a list of all these different problems. Maybe you have, you know, trouble relating to your mother or something and he’s got a task. You go do this and go do that. So it’s kind of a psychomagic act to bury the suit and to bury certain things. So yeah, that’s my plan. This spring actually. Coming in hot to do that. But yeah, it’s just kind of a fun little side thing that… I think one reason I didn’t wanna talk about it too much is cuz my mom would probably be mad if she found out that I buried this cool old suit. But you know, that’s life, man, you know?

Reckon: Well, so in terms of the psychomagic ramifications, I won’t make you go into anything you don’t wanna talk about, but how have you changed through this process? You know, how have you changed over the course of making these three albums, taking on that suit that you found in the attic? And what will it mean to you to say goodbye to it this spring?

The Kernal: I don’t know. I think when I started, I assumed that I would have accomplished more in myself, not, uh… just, you know, I would’ve done better. But I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m really not sure. Sometimes I wonder if it’s helped me at all.

I started the project really wanting to console myself and to help myself. And by doing that, I thought maybe others could be helped in the process. Not just through enjoying music. But through, maybe, some of the ways that I did things lyrically. But I don’t know.

I mean, in some ways maybe I’ve not done as well as I could have. I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s a tough question, cuz it’s so hard sometimes to know those things about yourself, to know there’s a marked difference between this period and this period.

Reckon: As somebody who wasn’t necessarily wanting to be a touring musician, but grew up around country music, grew up in the country in Tennessee. How has your understanding and relationship to the South changed as you dove into this music and toured throughout the South?

The Kernal: Yeah, man. And really, that’s honestly a big part of the project too, is just giving myself away. Cause I’ve toured a lot on bass with other acts as well. And I spent a lot of time on the road over the last eight or ten years and have loved that. And that was a big part of it for me is just going and seeing what other places are like, seeing what people talk about in these weird taverns and stuff, all over the country and all over the world. How people interact with each other. And it really is true that when you start to travel a little bit more, you start to see more similarities than differences. And when you hole up and you don’t go anywhere, as a lot of people in the South have attempted to do, you don’t have as broad of a perspective on things and there are good and bad things to that.

But traveling has opened my eyes a lot to really how we should attempt to work together on things. And it’s just that classic mob mentality versus a one-on-one interaction. You know, if you ever talk to someone face to face, like the guy that does StoryCorps, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. Where, you know, that face to face interaction with people that are not from the same political background or religious background, whatever, it’s fascinating.

And it’s a very human thing to connect like this. But once we start broadening that and we turn it into this category of thinking versus our category of thinking, it starts to get a little hairy. And I’ve loved getting to travel and talk to a lot of different kinds of people.

But the South in particular, you know, there’s a friend of mine, Gregory Thornbury, who used to say this of Christians in the South, but it can kind of be pointed at the South too, in some ways. That “anything you can do, we can do later.” You know, it’s like anything you can do, I could do better. He’s like anything you could do, we could just do later, you know? And it’s so true sometimes, when you look at… you know, it’s like, “all right, y’all, don’t you see? Can’t you use your little noodle enough to imagine what it would’ve been like if you were a person of color growing up in this era? Or whatever.

And so many people are like, “Nope, I don’t have that. I’m not doing that because you’re trying to pull a wool over my eyes or something.” yeah. It definitely gives you a little bit more confidence to come back and speak more pointedly when you realize that people are more similar than they are different. But I don’t know.

Reckon: As we wrap up, are there three artists that you wish were getting more attention right now than are? Other than yourself, of course.

The Kernal: Well, uh, man, the first person that comes to mind is Tristen. If you’re familiar with Tristen’s music. She’s a Nashville artist who I’ve been a huge fan of for like a decade. And she played with Jenny Lewis for a while, but she’s just amazing in every way. So she’s the first person that I think of.

I really love Teddy and the Rough Riders. They’re playing at our release show in Nashville this weekend and kind of just recently gotten into them, but they’re awesome. Let’s see. There’s a, another guy named Chris Acker who’s a New Orleans guy. Who’s a great songwriter. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of him. But he’s another one that I love what he does and he’s still a young buck and I’m just curious to see how he’s gonna carry on. But I love the way he writes and does his thing. So yeah, those are the first three that pop into my head.

The Kernal’s album “Listen to the Blood” is now available for purchase through Single Lock Records.

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