A phenomenally talented fiddler, mandolinist and singer, Brantley Kearns has distinguished himself as one of the top country-music sidemen in Los Angeles. Soft-spoken but musically forceful, he’s recorded and toured with Dwight Yoakam, Billy Joe Shaver and David Bromberg, and done session work and one-off club dates with a host of stellar names, from Rose Maddox to Aaron Tippin. Kearns, in fact, has explored the far extremes of country music‘s spectrum, from its most grassroots basics on into the form’s wildest hybrids, a typically Californian mix of the unorthodox and traditional.
Kearns was born in small-town High Point, North Carolina, where his father promoted square dances and ran a dancehall, setting the tone for what would become an inescapable force in Brantley‘s life. It all started very early: At age 4, he received a miniature toy band set, and was immediately drawn to its tin fiddle. When his parents saw that he kept good time, they got him musical instruction; Kearns was playing fiddle onstage every other weekend by age 11.
”It was a couple of guitars, banjos, fiddles, a regular string-band type thing, and you’d play the same tune for the dancers for 10 or 12 minutes — a great opportunity to learn all those songs; I‘d get the tunes in my head and under my fingers. And I’d learned to sing in church; we had a great choir director, so I learned a lot of good basics from there.“
Several years later he began spending his summers in California, playing the folk revival scene with a bluegrass group in coffeehouses, clubs and the all-night hoots at the old Ash Grove. Kearns arrived as an anomaly to the folkies: ”I was totally unaware of who Woody Guthrie was, and then Dylan started happening, but I wasn‘t too crazy about him. At the time I said [mimics Zimmerman drone], ’He can‘t sing in tune!’ That was an acquired taste. But Flatt & Scruggs had just played Carnegie Hall backing up Joan Baez. It‘s like Tom Joad says: We’re all ‘one big soul.’ And being from North Carolina did bode well for me.“
Kearns bopped back and forth between the two states before a deciding to relocate here to pursue an acting career (remember the fiddler in Robert Altman‘s 1971 anti-Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller? It’s Kearns.) In California, he drifted between Hollywood and the Bay Area, and at one point enrolled in Oakland‘s Merritt College (”making up bad grades“). There he tuned in Sly Stone’s KSOL radio show, observed fellow student Huey Newton and Bobby Seale forming the Black Panthers during their lunch hour, and generally reveled in the colorful, at times unhinged, atmosphere that permeated the Bay Area in the late ‘60s and early ’70s.
After being tabbed by folk bandleader David Bromberg, Kearns spent several years based in Manhattan. ”I loved that. It was a real ear opener, but I never felt that I totally copped the Irish stuff as it should be presented.“ Kearns is always his own harshest critic; when he left New York for Los Angeles in late 1976, Western-swing man Ray Benson, in California forming Asleep at the Wheel, thrust a stack of records into Kearns‘ arms, saying, ”Learn all these fiddle parts.“ Kearns duly got each one down note for note, but felt that he wasn’t capturing the essence. He again met with Benson, returned the discs and begged off the job.
Still hoping for a theatrical career but unimpressed by the local scene, Kearns shifted his focus to music, and exploited the club-packing Urban Cowboy craze till it fizzled. Things ”got a little slim after that,“ until he began to work occasionally with the Blue Monkeys, a freethinking combo that blended blues-rock and hillbilly, as per the singular vision of its leader, Detroit-born guitarist Pete Anderson. Not long after, Anderson introduced Kearns to Dwight Yoakam, another off-center country-music stylist whose career got hot in a hurry. Kearns became an important part of that first Yoakam lineup, and when he‘d shamble up to the mike in his baggy overalls, people invariably flipped.
Kearns stayed with Yoakam until 1988 (when the singer replaced him with onetime Strangers fiddler Scott Joss). In the meantime, though, Anderson had taken a year’s hiatus, and Yoakam hired fill-in guitarist Eddy Shaver, son of outlaw bard Billy Joe, and the resulting alliance with Kearns in that lineup led to recording and tour dates for Kearns with the maverick country pere et fils team.
As Billy Joe says, ”Brantley is quite a guy. He‘s got some kind of magic in him.“ The ideal accompanist for a renegade like Shaver, Brantley Kearns, whether it’s blues, a swing tune or a bluegrass standard, relies on an extravagant sense of economy and an almost psychedelic wisdom. These highly unusual qualities, balanced by his back-hills naturalism, create a subtle flow of atmosphere and color that draws audiences in completely. His low-key, far-ranging style is difficult to categorize, but as frequent collaborator Rick Shea says, ”He sounds like nobody else.“
Yet, despite his extraordinary pedigree, the local jobs Kearns often has to take are less than ideal — the perennial feast-or-famine curse of the country artist. ”Most weekends, I‘m working at the VFW halls up in Canyon Country,“ he says. ”I’m the king of the $60 gig.“