Kenny Hess has been singing the songs of some of country music’s best-known and most-loved artists, such as George Jones, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, since he was a young boy. Hess has even opened up for and sat in writing rooms with many of these country music greats. And now, he is taking a new show on tour that celebrates their music — and the stories behind their songs.
Hess is a multiple-award-winning recording artist, songwriter, performer and music entrepreneur who has been in the music industry full-time since he was 15. Born in Outlook, Sask., and raised in Fernie, B.C., Hess has been writing and performing since 1977. He went to Nashville in the early 1980s and worked as a staff writer right through the 1990s after signing with legendary songwriter Harlan Howard’s publishing house, Harlan Howard Songs. Hess also had a recording contract with Curb Records.
Hess and his band are coming to Quesnel this week to perform their brand-new show, The Songs That Wrote Country Music.
Hess, who is a member of the B.C. Country Music Hall of Fame, says this show is based on legendary country artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Ray Price, but even more so on the stories behind the songs.
“You think about how many times you hear a song, and you don’t remember really who sang it, you definitely don’t remember who wrote it, but that song takes you to a place in your life, and that’s what music is all about, the songs themselves,” he said. “This is based on the songs and how they came to be and what effect they had, not only the artist, but on the music genre itself and also on me personally. I’ve been lucky enough to tour with Johnny Cash, with Merle Haggard, George Jones, everybody, and sat in a lot of the writing rooms with these guys, so it really is a walk through the history of the songs that made country music.”
Hess says there were a ton of songs to choose from for the show, and the selection process was a lot of fun. They looked for songs that would instantly be recognized, and they asked themselves if they could only listen to 100 songs for the rest of their lives, what songs would those be.
“That’s kind of what we did, and then we filed it back and said ‘OK, let’s pick 25 or 30 of them, and let’s play them perfectly and present them as close to what they were in the original as you can, and tell the story behind it,’” he said. “We picked a lot based purely on the story behind it, like I love Willie Nelson and had the pleasure of working with him once, only once in my entire life, and I picked a Willie Nelson song for the story behind why he wrote it and how it came to be, and that’s a song called ‘Hello Walls’ that he wrote for Faron Young. That’s kind of what I did on my end, and a couple of the songs, the guys went, ‘hey, why don’t you do this one?’ and I went ‘yeah, I love that song.’”
Hess says telling the stories behind the songs has always been an important part of performing for him.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win Entertainer of the Year a couple of times, and I know it’s based on the fact I love to tell the audience, I love to make them feel like they’re part of it and they’re getting an insider’s look,” he said. “I’ve sat in the rooms and wrote with these guys and laughed with them and told dirty jokes with them, all of the silly things we do.”
Hess has six brothers and two sisters, and his father taught all of the children to sing. Hess actually has quite the connection to Quesnel, and he is eager to bring his show here, as he has two brothers and a sister who live in Quesnel, and his parents lived here until they passed away.
“I started singing with my dad when I was probably three years old, and we’d go out and do amateur hours and church socials and Christmas concerts,” said Hess, noting his dad was the guitar player, and he played bass and sang. His two sisters and his little brother, Rob performed as well, and Rob is involved in music as well, leading karaoke at The Occidental.
“Robbie lives there in Quesnel, he still leads karaoke at the Occidental all the time,” said Hess. “Even my dad sang karaoke there at 90 years old. They’d take him there in his little walker, he broke his hip the year before he died, so he was in a walker, but he’d go there and sing away.”
Hess feels these songs have been around so long and have become so well-known and well-loved because the songs — and people’s connection to them — are primal.
“It’s primal; there’s no question,” he said. “Take your foot and stomp it on the floor in front of a baby, and the baby will find the rhythm. It’s just primal, that’s all it is. We all have it in us, it’s to a varying degree, it’s how much we were exposed to it, what we were exposed to. I don’t know what to tell you, music is everything to me. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m 57 years now and made a living off it since I was 15, and all I ever think about is music.”
Hess is the founder of the Rockin’ River Music Festival in Merritt, so when he is not playing music, he is still very much surrounded by it.
“Music is just everything to me,” he said. “I’m very much a family man; I have a wonderful wife, and music has been a massive part of our whole lives. It’s all I’ve ever done. I think people need music in their life. It’s more than entertainment.”
Hess is excited to bring this new show to Quesnel.
“I know if there is a country music fan that loves real country music, they will enjoy this show wholeheartedly, and I know for those fans I have in my career, I’m still doing a half a dozen of my songs in there that meant a lot to me and were part of shaping part of my career as well, so they will get to hear that,” he said. “But it is without a question a show that pays homage to the wonderful songwriters like Harlan Howard … I’m paying homage to those legends of writing, as well as those legends of country music.”
Hess and his band will perform The Songs That Wrote Country Music Friday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at The Occidental. Tickets are $25 each. The special guest for the evening will be Hess’s daughter, Becca Hess.
“I promise it will be a terrific show,” said Hess. “The musicians are world-class; all of them are multi-award-winning musicians, terrific singers. My daughter is coming, and she’s going to sing a few songs. It’s going to be a huge part of the show, and people will love it.”
For more information about Kenny Hess, visit kennyhess.com.