It seems like only yesterday alt-country balladeer Kevin Welch released his genre-defining self-titled debut, featuring catalog classics like “Praying for Rain” and “A Letter to Dustin” — penned for his then-4-year-old son.
In truth, it’s been two full decades, and his hickory-smoked comeback “A Patch of Blue Sky” — featuring a now-adult Dustin on banjo and slide, plus daughter Savannahon on vocals — is his first solo set in eight years. But that’s not by choice.
“It hasn’t been an easy few years, frankly,” says Welch, who occupied himself by touring and recording with his old pals Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin, a trio that plays Hardly Strictly Bluegrass today.
When a 10-year relationship ended and his significant other moved back to her native Norway, the Oklahoma-bred artist left his adopted home of Nashville, Tenn., for rural Wimberley, Texas, where he confronted a debilitating case of writer’s block.
Post-breakup, he says, “I didn’t have any idea what I thought about anything, and I didn’t have any answers. So I didn’t write a word for about a year and a half.”
Welch’s whiskey-tinged drawl and loping, laconic wordplay are sharper than ever on new “Patch” numbers such as “AndamanSea” and “Come a Rain.”
He arrived at this rich vein by finally staring long and hard in the mirror.
“There’s a song on this record called “That’s How It Feels,” and I just wrote it basically about not knowing anything, about not being able to write and not having anything to say, and just accepting that,” Welch says. “And once I wrote that song, it loosened everything up and all these other songs just started falling out.”
The album’s centerpiece is the forlorn, banjo-clucking ballad “Marysville,” based on a real Australian hamlet that was ravaged by recent brushfires.
“That was one of the only tunes I’d written in a long time, but we were there when those fires were happening,” says Welch, who penned, recorded and pressed the track in Melbourne and sold it as a benefit single on he, Kane and Kaplan’s entire Antipodean tour. “So we were able to come up with a few bucks that way to contribute to the aid effort.”
Now Welch, 55, is so in touch with his muse again that he’s launched a monthly songwriter’s workshop from his log-cabin abode in Texas.
“I’ve got room for five people out here, we’ve got good cooks, so we feast, drink mountains of beer and wine, and talk about songs,” he says. “We even did some group co-writing. And that’s real-time teaching at that point!”
Ballad man: Kevin Welch joins his friends Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplan in concert at the 10th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass today.
If you go
Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin
Presented by Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Where: Rooster Stage, Marx Meadow, JFK Drive between 25th and 30th avenues, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. Sunday