Kevin McKrell’s artistic endeavors took a serious hit with the onslaught of COVID-19 earlier this year, but fortunately the Brooklyn-born, Saratoga Springs musician is not a one-trick pony.
One of the Capital Region’s top folk music performers and a member of the inaugural class of the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame in 2019, McKrell not only plays the guitar, sings and writes music, he also paints.
That hobby has basically developed into a second career for McKrell, 66, and if you take a look at his website, www.kevinmckrell.com, you’ll discover he’s also pretty creative when it comes to putting oil on canvas.
It’s kept him busy the past eight months, although he still can’t help but mourn the loss of performing live music in front of people, something he’s done since soon after graduating from Columbia High School in East Greenbush, where he grew up.
“This was going to be one of my best years ever,” said McKrell, referring to his musical exploits. “But the last gig I had was in March. It’s been such a big part of my life I do miss it, and if it does come back at all it still won’t be like it was. All the guys that work with me have been scrambling, and the waiters and bartenders. It’s hard.”
Place of inspiration
While he recently completed a new CD at the Bomb Shelter, an Albany recording studio, McKrell has focused on his painting for much of this year. The one good thing about the pandemic is that it has given him some surplus time.
“Yeah, you can just sit there and paint, and nobody else is around, but even then I’m going in spurts,” said McKrell. “Right now I’m sort of in a down time. I might have to head over to the Norman Rockwell Museum or the Clark in Williamstown. That’s where I go to get inspired.”
You can see some influence from Rockwell in McKrell’s art, although his work has a decided Irish-American feel to it. Many of his images are of older men enjoying a drink with friends, and this holiday season, one of those older men, Santa Claus, has made his way onto masks.
“The company that I use, Fine Art America, can put your image onto anything,” said McKrell. “I do a Santa every year, and you can put him on a beach blanket, t-shirt, anything. But masks are important and no matter what happens, maybe we should keep on using them.”
McKrell says he hasn’t been painting seriously nearly as long as he’s been playing music.
“I would go in and out of painting, and I guess I’ve only really started getting serious about it 20 years ago,” he said. “I had been doing mostly pencil drawings, but as I was getting into my 40s, my relatives were giving me paint as Christmas presents.”
He has also discovered that he’s pretty good at carving wood, sculpting with clay and working with oil paints.
“When it comes to painting I’m strictly into oil,” said McKrell. “There’s too much drama in water colors. You can’t make a mistake. You gotta go fast. There’s way too much pressure.”
He’s not sure where his ability to work with wood and clay comes from, and at times he also questions his talent with a paint brush.
“I enjoy working with clay and wood, and I think that helps me with my painting,” he said. “I don’t know, but sometimes I wish I had more schooling. I put a brush stroke in a certain place, and I don’t know if it was luck or if I put it there on purpose. Some paintings come easy, and some are like a wrestling match.
“It can be a struggle, a fight from start to finish, but I do love that fight. And I never went to art school, so there are times I wonder, ‘what in the name of God am I doing.’ ”
When McKrell isn’t making music or working on a painting, he’s riding on his motorcycle or playing with a grandchild. Visitors to his website can see different examples of his art work, and they can also order his new CD, “In Quarantine.” While he’s looking forward to rejoining forces with Doug Moody on fiddle, Brian Melick on percussion and Arlin Greene on bass as The McKrells, he recorded “In Quarantine” as a soloist.
“I went to the Bomb Shelter and it was just me and my guitar, and a very talented producer and engineer in Ace Parkhurst,” said McKrell. “I did my first recording with him back in the ’80’s. He’s also a wonderful musician and writer.”
Parkhurst, in fact, recently released some of his own music and used a McKrell piece of art as his CD cover.
“Kevin is a great guy, a great performer, songwriter and entertainer,” said Parkhurst. “We recorded his entire album in about two and a half hours. Almost all were first takes. He’s a pleasure to work with.”
As his induction into the inaugural class of the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame strongly suggests — in 1998 the McKrells performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City — McKrell’s version of folk/Americana roots music has resonated with fans all over the country.
“He’d slug me for saying it, but Kevin McKrell is legendary,” said Michael Eck, who has performed locally as a musician for more than three decades and currently is a brand editor for Breedlove Guitars. “As a performer, he’s an inspiration. As a songwriter, he is quite nearly peerless, in a league with the greats like [John] Prine and Kristofferson. Few musicians in the region have not been touched by his work, and his songs will long outlast him.”
McKrell, however, who counts Prine, The Fureys, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark among his many musical influences, doesn’t hold himself in such high esteem.
“I’m not a schooled musician by any means, and I know just enough chords to make it dangerous,” he said. “I write a lot of songs and I know how to tell a story, but those guys are great writers and players.”