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David Nail Feature - ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Bootheel town puts music on big stage
By Amy Bertrand
Apr. 18 2010
In concert, country artist David Nail often jokes that there's something in the water in his small hometown in Missouri's Bootheel. That something in Kennett has produced a fascinating number of singers and songwriters.
Nail is up for single of the year Sunday night at the Academy of Country Music awards for his hit "Red Light." And you may have heard of another Kennett sensation: Sheryl Crow, the winner of nine Grammy Awards.
Kennett also has produced country singer Trent Tomlinson, who had three hits on the Billboard top 40 country charts a few years ago and has written with Sara Evans and George Strait.
Then there's indie rocker Will Johnson, who has recorded more than a dozen albums solo and as front man for Centro-matic and South San Gabriel and has toured with the Monsters of Folk.
All grew up in the same small town (population 10,707), going through the music program in Kennett schools and honing their talents in Kennett churches.
"I wouldn't think that we necessarily did anything different than music teachers and parents in other towns," said Dennis Nail, David's dad and band teacher at Kennett High School and junior high for 24 years. "I think the talent was there, but talent is everywhere. What they did is made the decision that even if they were going to have to sacrifice a lot, they would go where they needed to go and do what they needed to do."
Nail also suggests that Crow's success was a catalyst for others to attempt a music career.
"When Sheryl became what she became, all of a sudden you think you don't have to be pigeon-holed in a tiny town like Kennett, you can do anything," he said.
In fact, in the liner notes to David Nail's first (but unreleased) album, the singer wrote: "Sheryl, thanks for showing me that it can be done."
But it wasn't done so easily for David Nail. After high school, he set out for Nashville, Tenn., and got a record deal right away. But he struggled after that album went unheard, and he decided to take a break from the music business.
"Those were some hard times," Nail, 30, said by phone from Florida, where he was on tour.
In 2007, he signed with MCA Nashville and began the process of recording what would become his official debut album, "I'm About to Come Alive," last year.
"It's funny, when we started out making this record, I had just come out of a really dark time in my life," Nail said. "I was reflecting on the last several years I'd been in Nashville, what had got me to that point and how far I had drifted from the person I was.
"So when I sat down to make this record, I realized it had this theme of, 'Here's this kid who grew up in a small town, very modest means, and one day woke up and lost himself, and he was yearning for that simple time, yearning to go back where he came from.'"
His first single, a cover of Train's "I'm About to Come Alive," went to No. 47 on the country charts. His next, "Red Light," stayed on the charts for 42 weeks, setting a record for longest charted single on the Mediabase country charts.
People Magazine labeled him "One of Nashville's Hottest New Stars," and he toured with Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert.
His newest single, "Turning Home," features a video shot in Kennett, where it all began.
"I just assumed everybody had the same lifestyle and the same upbringing, the same financial status," Nail said. "It was really a perfect life. It's funny, when I was 18 and left, I couldn't wait to get out. It's amazing how you subconsciously lean on those morals and values and lessons you had. I find myself missing it more and more."
Nail's sound has been called country soul, and he says much of that came from the influence of his dad.
He vividly remembers driving around in his father's car with his "poor man's console, the kind you used to buy at Walmart." It was filled with cassettes from the Beatles, Elton John, classical music, the Commodores and Stevie Wonder.
"So when I picked up a guitar, that's the first stuff I learned to play," Nail said.
As for his famous neighbors, Nail said a lot of the credit goes to his dad, choir teacher Viretta Sexton and piano teacher Bernice Crow, Sheryl's mom.
"What they did was they made it almost uncool to not be in choir or band," Nail said. "At Kennett, it was nothing for the quarterback to be in choir, too. There was no such thing as a band nerd or a choir nerd."
Johnson agrees that music is the cornerstone of the Kennett community.
"There's just not a lot of other things to do there," said Johnson, who left Kennett for Texas at age 12. "So a lot of us kids would pick up baseball or music to stay out of trouble."
For Johnson, the church — First Presbyterian Church of Kennett, where Sheryl Crow used to sing and play — also played a role.
"And I credit it all to Bernice Crow, for teaching me how to truly listen to music and get a feel for it," he said.
Other artists also have called Kennett home, including Cris Brown of the alternative rock band One Less Reason; Gene McDonald, former bass vocalist with the Florida Boys Southern Gospel quartet; and Dan Landrum, a hammered dulcimer player for Yanni.
Many of them have turned to songwriting. And something about Kennett has inspired them.
"I think a lot of people could drive through Kennett and not see much, but there's a certain beauty to it," Johnson said. "I've always found it to be beautiful, in a unique little cotton-growing town kind of way."