They say clothes make the man, and for Joe Garner, it was a red polyester suit he found in the attic of his family’s home. The suit belonged to his father Charlie, who played bass at the Grand Ole Opry for thirty years, supporting country legend Del Reeves.
The idea of donning his father’s western-style suit coincided with his desire to explore the country music he grew up with. Garner was also inspired to unearth the suit when he was working as a recruiter at his university. Garner was told by a co-worker who claimed to have synesthesia and see people as colors that it was bright red.
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“I immediately thought that suit was bright red,” Garner recalled. “That conversation led me to go to the attic and find the suit. It all worked together, me trying to put together what I was going to do musically, losing my father and some of those things that were a bit loaded. Everything fits and I put on the suit to see what I get out of this.”
Thus Kernal was born, and a three-album conceptual arc followed, culminating in their latest release, Listen to the Blood.
The name combined with the flashy red suit creates a tension between the character and the music.
“The whole thing with Kernal is that it’s a cheeky spelling, but when you hear ‘The Kernal’ you think, ‘Wow, this person must be important,’ but then you see it spelled,” Garner explained.
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Garner humorously calls The Kernal’s music “diet country.” (The second album in his trilogy is even called Light Country.) The songs on “Listen to the Blood” capture the nostalgic country sound your grandparents listened to in the ’60s and ’70s without being too reverent and serious, all while sounding punchy. and modern. The songs sway, stomp and bounce with honky tonk glee, and steel pedals and haunting organs create plenty of atmosphere.
“When I started writing songs, I was really into confessional folk like Iron & Wine or Nick Drake,” Garner said. “I wrote poetry and it was an easy extension. I eventually moved on to this project, doing more country sound stuff. I’ve tried to put the country before myself and fit what I was doing into the country.”
As fun as the music is, Kernal still represents Garner’s attempt to resolve the issues with his father that were left unresolved after his passing.
“When you lose someone and you no longer have a way to deal with those things, they don’t just go away and I think you have to actively do something to try to make the most of it,” Garner said. “I think it has helped me tremendously, figuring it out that way. You never get exactly where you want to be, but I think it helps me put a little bit of language to work on those things.”
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The suit has been through a lot since the beginning of the Kernal project. Garner would wear it to every show and saw some wear and tear. “Representatively, it influenced the music, but actually wearing it every night and saying this suit graced the Opry stage,” Garner said. “It represented the tradition that was passed on to me and all the music that I saw growing up.
“I had a lot of stage fright, like a lot of people, when I started playing music,” Garner added. “I needed something to communicate calm. Putting on this suit gave me a barrier between me and the people I was singing for. Ironically, I had to sew it back on twice because I tore it.”
Since each album has a different color as part of its theme, “Light Country” being white, Garner attempted to whitewash the polyester suit. The resulting color was more of a burnt orange, and the process destroyed all of the cotton thread that held the suit together. Garner fixed it and simply put it down to being part of the creative process.
The evocative album cover that accompanies Listen to the Blood features Garner in his red suit, lying face down in a shallow pool of blood, signaling the end of the Kernal project.
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“I don’t wear the suit anymore,” Garner explained. “He is effectively retired. That’s another aspect of being upside down in blood is the inevitable death of things and the death of the suit. There is a lot that goes into that. I enjoy the conceptual side of the album cover.”
This spring, Garner plans to bury the suit in a kind of shamanic ritual in his mother’s hometown of Iowa.
“That’s just another wrinkle in history,” Garner said.
The Kernal will be performing at Over Yonder by Moodright’s in the Starland District on February 10th with their four piece band. The suit may be retired, but the spirit of the Grand Ole Opry and country music will be there.
IF YOU GO
What: The Core
When: Thursday, February 10 at 7 p.m.
Where: Moodright’s, 2424 Abercorn St.