With a little help from his friends: Jamie Kent joins the JFK Jazz Band and others at the Academy of Music

  • Jamie Kent, who moved to Nashville in 2014, now writes regularly with other songwriters. Photo courtesy Jamie Kent

  • Northampton native Jamie Kent, who has been carving out a niche for himself as a songwriter and performer in Nashville, returns to the Valley Saturday for a combined show at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Photo courtesy Jamie Kent

  • “The news and politics tend to pull us apart — I wanted to do something to pull us back together,” says Northampton native Jamie Kent, who returns to the Valley Saturday for a combined show at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Photo courtesy Jamie Kent

  • Northampton native Jamie Kent, who’s been carving out a niche for himself as a songwriter and performer in Nashville, returns to the Valley Saturday for a combined show at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Photo courtesy Jamie Kent

  • The JFK Jazz Band will open Saturday’s show at the Academy of Music, where Jamie Kent and his band will headline.

  • Jamie Kent’s most recent album, 2016’s “All American Mutt,” got favorable reviews from Rolling Stone and other music critics.

Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

When he moved to Nashville in November 2014, North-ampton native Jamie Kent set himself an ambitious goal: get himself established as a songwriter and performer in a city that’s not just the heart of country music but the home of indie rockers, acoustic musicians and some of the most touted songwriters in the business.

Three and a half years later, Kent has been named one of the 10 new country artists “you need to know” by Rolling Stone; seen his most recent album, “All American Mutt,” debut at #16 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart (the only independent record that year to crack the top 20); and formed partnerships with a score of fellow songwriters.

In a recent phone call from his home, Kent said there’s “still hard work to do” in building on his connections and developing new audiences for his music. “But I like where I am today,” he added. “I feel like I’ve got a good balance between touring and songwriting … I’ve found a good home here.”

But Kent, a 2005 graduate of Northampton High School, says he hasn’t forgotten his Valley roots, either, and when he comes to the Academy of Music in Northampton this Saturday, he’ll be offering a multi-tiered show to help celebrate them.

“Jamie Kent & Friends,” which begins at 8 p.m., will feature a performance by the JFK Middle School Jazz Band and local country-rockers The FrannyO Show; in addition, Kent says he and his band will be joined by some “special musical guests.” The show will also be used to raise money for the JFK Jazz Band.

The connections? Rhees Williams, Kent’s longtime bass player and friend, is the son of Claire Williams, the jazz band director. “She and I have been talking for years about ways to collaborate,” said Kent, who was in the chorus himself as a JFK student. “She does a great job with the band, so here’s a way we can all help out the kids and this program.”

And Kent also previously mentored Fran O’Connell of Holyoke, the leader of The FrannyO Show, on guitar and songwriting.

The show will be a homecoming not just for Kent but for Rhees Williams and Kent’s longtime drummer, Dan Holmes, who both moved from the Valley to Nashville the year after Kent did. “They’re thriving here,” he said, getting lots of gigs with other performers. “And as good as their playing already was, they’ve both upped their game since they’ve been here.”

The band, which sometimes plays as a trio, has another local connection through its electric guitarist, Ryan Hommel, who still lives in Northampton and also plays with artists such as Heather Maloney and the Sweetback Sisters. Hommel will be on tour with Maloney this Saturday, in fact, so Kent & Co. will be joined by his original guitarist, Jules Belmont, son of Northampton guitarist and composer Joe Belmont.

Finding his voice

Kent, who began playing music in the area after graduating from Babson College in 2009, spent the first few years of his career trying on different musical hats; he and his original band, The Options, played a good-time mix of blues, jazz, reggae and rock. He also organized a series of summer concerts in Northampton.

But over about the past five years, especially as he began performing nationally — both with his band and as a solo artist — Kent has honed a more rootsy, Americana sound that taps sources like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty as well as country-rockers Jason Isbell and Will Hodge. He’s also not averse to adding a few pop flourishes here and there, like a big backing chorus or a funky bass riff.

You can hear the latter on the title cut of his 2016 album, “All American Mutt,” which Rolling Stone rated one of the top 25 country songs of the year. The song was inspired not just by the divisive presidential election that year but his experience living in a more conservative state, at times working with people who might not share his political views.

“I’ve got about eight different ethnic parts in my background, so I just related to the idea of being a mutt and being an American,” said Kent. “The news and politics tend to pull us apart — I wanted to do something to pull us back together.”

The upbeat tune offers an infectious chorus on which Kent riffs on his part in the national mosaic: “There’s so many cloths from which I’m cut / Just call me an all American mutt.”  He also slips in a reference you don’t hear every day in a country tune: “We got Scottish, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist / That’s just the branches of my family tree.” 

Rolling Stone, in its review of his music that year, said this about Kent: “Raised in Massachusetts but rooted in Nashville, Kent has a unique North-South perspective on songs about love, liquor and the cultural glue that binds us all together.”

In fact, Kent said he’s built a strong following in Alabama. Now he’s also helping develop a “Rising Star” road show — “a sort of traveling Grand Ole Opry,” he calls it — in which his band will back up different artists in concert and work with a school in each city they play in to raise money for the school. He and his business partner, Alabama native Tommy Jackson, look at the venture as a way both to help schools and jumpstart the careers of new artists.

Kent has found other partners in Nashville: With a couple exceptions, he co-wrote all the songs on “All American Mutt” with other musicians (eight in total, including his album’s producer, Dave Brainard, who has also produced records for Brandy Clark and other country singers).

Though Kent had begun writing with other people before that, this was his first record to feature co-written songs, and he’s since become sold on the idea, a pretty common practice in Nashville.

“It’s a great way to connect with people, to share ideas, to try out something different,” he said. “It also gives you a chance to find out who you really click with, who’s really a good fit for the kind of music you want to write.”

One of the players he’s clicked with is fellow western Massachusetts (Agawam) native and now Nashville resident Matthew Szlachetka, who’s also won acclaim for his country-influenced sound. On “All American Mutt,” the two friends co-wrote the rocker “Sheila” and “Be Your Man,” a sort of acoustic honky-tonk number. Kent, in turn, has co-written several songs on Szlachetka’s albums. 

Aside from the attention he’s received for the song “All American Mutt,” Kent has also gotten good feedback for another track on the album, “Home Again,” a ballad dedicated to veterans having a hard time making it in America. It might be the most country-flavored of his songs and is borne along on a simple but beautiful melody and banjo, guitar and harmonica.

At Saturday’s concert, Kent says he and his band will debut new songs from an upcoming EP, with more of a rock and roll feel than the cuts from “All American Mutt.” As he put it, “I’ve written a lot of songs, and it can take a long time between recording a full album, so why not just get some of them out now?”

And though he has toured all across the country — finding particularly receptive audiences in the South and Midwest — there’s one place here in the Valley where he’s never been the main act. “I’ve always dreamed of headlining the Academy,” he said with a laugh. “And now it’s gonna happen!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Jamie Kent & Friends” takes place at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Doors open
at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit aomtheatre.com.