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SMALL CROWDS, BIG TALENT Guitarist Pete Kennedy Is Happy Doing His Own Eclectic, Non-Electric Thing

After a while it becomes an impossible blur: the heavy E string caught between his thumb and forefinger, stretched taut, snapped sharply back against the frets. Quickly now, the heel of his right hand thumps down once, twice onto the bridge of his big Taylor 510 guitar. The overall effect is a hollow whap-boom-boom that he repeats again and again -- a steady stream of 16th notes, a staccato 1-2-3 rhythm, with the 4th note missing -- the pattern perfectly offsetting the accent of the song so that it pulses like a churning helicopter rotor, an African drum beat, an aching heart about to break in two.

He does all of this, Pete Kennedy, while standing on top of the bar in the Top Side restaurant in Galesville, a normally quiet burg on the West River, just below Annapolis. Though not especially tall, he has to bend his head carefully so that the blade of the overhead ceiling fan does not cut short his song or his life expectancy. After a few minutes he leaps down and grabs an unopened pint of Thunderbird wine. He slides the glass bottle up and down the strings of the guitar's neck with his left hand, while his right deftly picks out the bluesy, tormented notes. Whatever funk you have within you has been coaxed out onto the table in front of you; the feeling is almost indescribable, as if a chunk of concrete has been lifted from your soul.

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When he is done, the people in the audience -- all nine of them -- gasp and pound their palms red. Mr. Kennedy beams an engaging grin as if this were a packed house at Carnegie Hall. The 40-year-old singer, songwriter and virtuoso guitarist from Fairfax, Va., plays regularly on some of the largest stages in America, backing up stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith and John Stewart. But he seems genuinely untroubled by the dozens of empty tables and chairs on this slow night at the Top Side, a comfortably rustic wharfside restaurant known more for its crab cakes and Dixieland music on Sunday nights than its country-rock on weeknights.

He launches blissfully into another frenetic tune, moving casually among the tables as he plays, sitting himself on the edge of the fireplace that divides the dining room from the bar. There he crosses his legs and aims his words and notes point-blank at each of his rapt listeners.

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Later, after the show, he leans against his black Toyota pickup truck, a youthful-looking man in pointy-toed black patent leather boots, tight-fitting black jeans, a black tank-top shirt, and unruly brown hair. He nods at the front door of the Top Side.

"The intimacy is here," he said. "It's almost impossible to make a connection in a big place. This is more fun. To be playing when you can see people's faces. Every word you sing they show some kind of reaction. I never want to lose that kind of thing. If I was a big star I'd never get to play in a small place like this."

IF BIG STAR means Garth Brooks or Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pete Kennedy is right: He's not one of those. But if you like contemporary acoustic music, bending a little toward rock and blues, and if you live anywhere in the area between Northern Virginia and Philadelphia, it would be hard not to be aware of the size of Pete Kennedy's reputation. Within that tight country-folkie-rock world it seems as if someone is always singing one of his songs, or promoting one of his appearances, or lamenting that they had to go out and shoot their guitar after hearing him play.

Since 1985 he has been honored by one local music association or another as the area's best free-lance musician, best instrumentalist, best songwriter, best rock and roller, best country guitarist, best folkie, best bluesman, best jazz man, best picker, best grinner. His recordings have won a variety of awards, his videos have won regional Emmys. But to show just how difficult it is to categorize him, his "Highway 10" album was honored simultaneously by the Washington Area Music Awards as the best folk/acoustic and the best rock/pop album of the year.

Most recently, following the release of two new albums by Mr. Kennedy -- "Channel 3" and "Shearwater," -- Maryland Musician magazine named him to its top listings of rock, folk and bluegrass musicians, based on a reader poll. The magazine outright labeled him the best acoustic guitar player in the area and managing editor J. Doug Gill went one better. Lamenting that in spite of such an illustrious pedigree, Mr. Kennedy had yet to enjoy his "big break," he called him "the unsungest of the unsung."

Yet Pete Kennedy seems his usual untroubled self, climbing happily into that black truck and aiming his headlights toward the next Galesville somewhere down the road. In between he might fly to Ireland to back up Nanci Griffith, or to Austin, Texas, to back up a country TV show. He might take the stage at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., or the Kennedy Center in Washington in his familiar sideman guise. But he always comes back to that truck, and it always seems to be taking him through nowhere at 3 a.m., to the next gig just beyond the dip in the road.

"He can go on the road with Nanci or Chapin and make some money and get some national exposure," says Doris Justis, a Washington folk singer who has known Pete for years. "But he is just so unaffected by it all. He still likes to do the bars and the coffeehouses, he likes to do rock and the blues. He wants to be able to do what he wants to. And he wants to do it all."

PETE KENNEDY GREW UP in Northern Virginia with a father who was a folk music buff and a sister who owned a folk guitar she never played. As a 10-year-old, Pete appropriated the guitar and noodled for hours in his room with the cool sounds of surf music. Still, he admits, the powerful lyrics of folk music would never allow him to become a total Beach Boy. Thus he was as likely to play "If I Had a Hammer" as "Walk Don't Run."

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"I never understood why people drew any kind of delineation between acoustic music and electric music," he says. "It was all just music to me. It's funny how you can be 40 and you're still following the same pattern."

But just as nature abhors a vacuum, the music industry abhors an eclectic.

"Ten years ago," he says "I realized the big star-making machinery wasn't going to respond to someone like me who didn't want to present one real marketable image. I don't really want to sound like anyone else. But you get a reputation for being kind of a rebel. A record company will say 'not interested; you're eclectic.' When I grew up, eclectic was a great word. I think of the Beatles or the Byrds or Jimi Hendrix or Dylan."

Since his first gig at 13, he has never had any other job in life. Although he studied history in college, he later spent several years independently studying music theory, everything from classics to jazz. He has thrived as a studio sideman as much because of his eclectic tastes as his technical proficiency. Not to mention his laid-back personality.

"He is such an egoless guy," says ex-folkie John Stewart, now a mid-level pop-country-rock artist based near Charlottesville, Va.

"When Pete plays a set with you he does all he can to stay out of the way," said Mr. Stewart. "He is the only sideman [to whom] I have ever had to say, 'Play more.' Even then he doesn't steal the show. A lot of sidemen try, but you have to ask Pete to do it. And when he does, he takes it into the realm of magic, not just for his playing but for his sensitivity to the music."

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While lately Mr. Kennedy has been doing less backup and more acoustic solo work and more with his own rock band, in everything he does he steadfastly ignores those who beg him to limit himself to one groove.

"My strength is that there's an unpredictability about me," he says. "Professionally, it can slow you down, but that's the price you pay for the freedom to do what you want. It means I don't sell 20 million albums. But there is an audience of people who like eclectic. It takes you a lot longer to find those people. But what you get in the end is people who will stick with you forever."

A WOMAN CAME up to Mr. Kennedy after a show and said sympathetically, "I hope your voice gets better." He often tells this joke on himself, a pointed reference to his raspy, sandpaper vocal chords.

"I don't have a great voice but I sing anyway," he says. "As soon as I write a song I want to play it for people right away. People respond to that more than seeing someone playing really fast on a guitar."

Yet even though it may be the least visible of his talents, songwriting is perhaps the element dearest to his heart. For one thing, it fits perfectly with all the cross-country driving he does.

"When I'm traveling, going from place to place, that's when I'm most myself," he says. "It's absolutely essential for me to be alone, moving and traveling and sort of rootless. Like a nomad. Almost all of my songs are written then."

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Many of his most popular songs -- "Distant Thunder," " '55 Nomad," "Highway 10," "I'd Run Red Lights for You" -- contain a road theme. Typically, one night he drove alone from New Orleans to Birmingham, Ala., and was inspired by the car in front of him to write:

" '55 Nomad, tearing up the two-lane

Lord I'm feeling so bad

Rolling out in the cold November rain. . . . "

"A nomad is someone whose home is home when they're traveling," he explains. "Guy Clark has a line in one of his songs: 'She ain't goin' nowhere, she's just leavin'.' That kind of sums up the nomadic thing. It's not where you're going, it's the act of going."

In spite of the underlying pain in such songs, he insists he is a happy traveler, one who often takes a break from touring by throwing camping gear into his truck and heading alone to the hinterlands for a couple of weeks of aimless exploring. Divorced, he has no children and keeps no pets in his home in Fairfax, where he spends about three months out of every 12.

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"Not even a plant," he jokes. "But you can still have relationships in this lifestyle. For one thing, you have a wider network of friends. I don't feel my best friends are located in one place."

His travels are filled with odd acquaintances he strikes up in diners, usually in the middle of the night. That's where he met a Vietnam veteran who, 16 years after returning from the war, hadn't been able to tell anyone his story. Mr. Kennedy listened and wrote a haunting ballad that made exquisite use of his bass string-snapping style, simulating a helicopter's churning rotors:

"I'm a bushhog scratching for a rat underground

In the jungle of the valley Ashau

I gave 'em 18 rounds but it didn't go down

I'm dealing with the devil again

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I turned 19 in Vietnam. . . . "

In another late-night encounter he ran into a couple of rubes, on of whom stressed an obvious, rhetorical point to a friend in such colorful language that Mr. Kennedy couldn't resist working it into the most memorable stanza of his silly love song "I'd Run Red Lights for You."

"You ask me do I love you baby --

Is a bullfrog waterproof?"

"The guy in 'Red Lights' would never sing '19 in Vietnam,' " h says. "He would never be introspective enough. That's the one thing I like about Shakespeare. Every one of his characters had a completely different voice."

A Pete Kennedy performance always includes a handful of little snippets from the highway. He'll explain that the 'Vulcan grill' mentioned in a song is the name of the manufacturer of a stove top in a typical diner. "Vulcan was the Norse god of fire," he tells his listeners one night. "It's kind of a comedown from being a Norse god to having a grill named after you. But, at least the guy's working."

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Ultimately he sees his performance as a form of communication.

"You're not totally just giving yourself," he says. "It's like a whole ritualistic experience, and you're just the interlocutor. You're just helping it happen."

Dick Cerri, the longtime host of "Music Americana" on WLTT-FM (94.7) in Bethesda, cites the perfect example:

"Folk singer Hamilton Camp was backstage one night when Pete went on," he said. "He heard him and he came out to the wings and he said, 'There's only one guy out there!' He just stood there in amazement and kept saying 'Just one man!' "

Thus, it's not surprising to hear editor J. Doug Gill suggest that Mr. Kennedy, like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, doesn't get enough respect. And both Dick Cerri and musician John Stewart predict Mr. Kennedy's brass ring is just around the corner.

Pete just grins.

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"The big break is a myth," he says. "Not in the sense that it can't happen, but in the sense that it's not a real thing that you can count on happening. I don't need to be a big star. The one thing I don't have to worry about is whether I'm going to be accepted or not. I just do what I want. You just have to believe in yourself and believe that that's not arrogance. It would be arrogance if it wasn't worth it. But then, only you can decide that."


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