The rock-star-as-egomaniac trope has sadly earned its cliché status, but in no way does it apply to Ken Stringfellow. Despite having earned the right to behave any way he likes, the alt-rock veteran has the patience of a saint. I know this from experience. I had to reschedule our interview several times, as my own ruthless pace caught up to me. He was very good about it, grandly gracious and loquacious as can be.
Stringfellow has spent most of the last few weeks on the road, alone, driving from station to station on a journey that will carry him from one end of the continent to the other. “It seems like I've driven about 5,000 miles on this tour so far, according to the rental car odometer,” Stringfellow says. “This Eastern leg I'm on now is 27 shows in 28 days!” He has another 30 U.S. shows or so to go, followed by another dozen in Europe. It’s a brutal itinerary, but one that he seems to relish.
Born in October 1968, Stringfellow is probably best-known for his work with The Posies, which he formed in Washington State with Jon Auer in the mid-‘80s. They’re still around today, having released eight studio albums and some 17 EPs over the years. Stringfellow has produced six solo albums, and he’s currently on the road in support of his most recent projects. In addition to his long career as a band leader and solo artist, he has built a formidable reputation as a hired gun for iconic artists. And I mean iconic. We’re talking Neil Young, Thom Yorke, Robyn Hitchcock, Mudhoney, Mercury Rev, Ringo Starr and the Afghan Whigs. He toured with the mighty R.E.M. for a decade and assisted in some of their final albums. He was also a major part of the reformation of Big Star, one of the great cult favorites of the 1970s.
All told, Stringfellow has well over 250 album credits on his resume, and they include some of the most well-known alternative bands of the modern era. Having worked with such a diverse array of artists, Stringfellow has become adept at adapting to different musical contexts. “It depends on the context,” he says. “If I cover a song in my solo set, it adapts to my style. If I'm onstage playing w another artist, I tend to adapt to their style. I think as a musician, it's a plus if you are competent enough to become a chameleon. The people whose work I admire the most as players—for example, the 'Wrecking Crew' (one of whom, the late Larry Knechtel, appears on my 2004 album, Soft Commands)—could do anything: a jazz tune for a TV theme, then a rock & roll song, then soul, then country, all in the course of an afternoon.”
Stringfellow’s current tour takes him into all kinds of odd, out-of-the-way venues. The Jacksonville show, for example, is being held at the Ronan School of Music, preceded by dinner with VIPs. This is partly a matter of aesthetics, but it’s mostly about pure practicality. “Part of it is that I always seek to have a piano, and most indie-rock clubs don't have one” he says. “Another part is that bars have lots of distractions. What I and my audience would like is a place where we can be ourselves—that is, we have an environment centered around the music and the unspecified-but-sensed community that is united around our mutual interest in and care for each other.”
He’ll be playing a solo set, his voice unadorned, save for piano and his trusty Gretsch Electromatic guitar. In terms of material, he’ll be working primarily with tracks from his 2001 album, Touched. “I can say it's the album more people go out of their way to tell me about their relationship to,” he says. “It seems to have struck a chord beyond the scope of my other albums.”
It holds the unfortunate but historically compelling distinction of being released on September 11 of that year. “[With] its themes—grief, loss, but also hope, and religious divisions at odds with what I believe is humanity's spiritual oneness—it's as if the album was conceived as an emotional companion for the weeks just following 9/11, which of course I could never have known in advance,” he says. “The songs took on new meanings in the context especially as I toured the U.S. immediately after the attacks.”
Stringfellow credits his assistant, Tina Dunn, with scouting out this string of unique and interesting alternative venues. “I don't know the secret of her magic and not sure she would tell me, in accordance with magician regulations,” he says. Having worked 94 different countries, and all 50 states, life on the road is old-hat for Stringfellow. Amazingly, though, he has never performed in Jacksonville. All that will change on Tuesday.