Kenny Malone

The one thing that Kenny Malone wanted to communicate most during our interview was a sense of joy. He told me so, although he didn’t have to. His whole make-up—who he is as a person and how he approaches music—is joy. I knew it the moment he walked into the room with his strong gait and hearty laugh.

Kenny is the ultimate artiste, constantly pondering music—its sound, its attitude, its emotional life, its texture, its dance. He considers all those factors before putting a stick, a brush, or a hand to a drumhead.

“I’ve been studying the effects of music and rhythms on our emotions,” he says. “I’m trying to use sound and music intelligently to stimulate and create positive emotions in people, and to make them want to dance. I learned a lot in the past year about how to inspire somebody to dance. When I’m playing dances, I usually pick out one couple in the crowd and play to that one couple. I’ll watch their every movement. I’ve learned a lot about combining high-frequency and low-frequency rhythms. If the high frequencies are audible to those people, the rest of the band can be playing any phrasing in any kind of time, and the people are going to dance. It’s amazing.”

Kenny has an unending quest for knowledge. I had planned on asking him how he kept all his sessions fresh, but the question was unnecessary. This man is so attuned to his imagination that he doesn’t ever have to worry about that.

It’s no wonder that Malone has been asked to record for the likes of Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, George Jones, Janie Fricke, Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Dobie Gray, Donna Fargo, David Allen Coe, Merle Haggard, The Whites, Crystal Gayle, Charlie Pride, Moe Bandy, Floyd Cramer, Dr. Hook, Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Paycheck, Kenny Rogers, Michael Johnson, Dottie West, Lynn Anderson, John Hartford, New Grass Revival, Bela Fleck, Barefoot Jerry, B.J. Thomas, Bobby Bare, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, John Anderson, Dolly Parton, and Lacy J. Dalton. It’s because music is the priority in his life, not money. In fact, during those times in the past when he felt less than enthusiastic about recording, Kenny took time off to gain a new perspective.

“It seems like it runs in cycles,” Kenny explains. “Right now, I feel like I’m on a real learning spree. It’s very exciting to me, because there’s an element of challenge and I’m going into new musical directions. I need versatility and the opportunity to play many different styles. In recording, if I’m not careful, I start to feel stale, or I feel that there isn’t much room for expansion and growth. Due to time limitations, like three hours per session, I find myself playing safe things that I know will work. That keeps me from being spontaneous and from being able to react instantly to what is happening right now with each instrument. So I stopped working twice. I told everybody that I was going to take off and sort things out. I went to the ocean for about a month and a half, and thought about what I’d really like to do. I realized that I wasn’t playing live; I was in the studio all the time. I had my family, but with three or four sessions a day, there wasn’t much family life. So I started a jazz quartet as soon as I got back, and I decided I wouldn’t work more than two sessions a day. Even that got to be too much, so my wife and I took off to see if we could sort out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. We drove around the country, up to Colorado, and I was painting a lot. Then I came back, and by that time, the industry had peaked.”

It is somewhat surprising that the industry Malone is involved with is that of country music, as that music was not even a part of his life while he was growing up in Denver, Colorado. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I had some pretty set rules for music. If a guitar came on the radio, I’d turn it off. I couldn’t stand it, because it wasn’t hip. At that time, there was a real difference between West Coast jazz and East Coast jazz—Shelly Manne and Art Blakey. West Coast jazz was soft and cool, while East Coast was hard and driving— laid-back palm trees vs. steel and industry.”

Kenny started playing at age five and got an inexpensive snare drum at age seven. Two years later, he was playing with the Denver Junior Police band. “The band director, George Roy, was incredible,” Kenny remembers. “He taught all instruments, and started everybody from scratch. While he was teaching us to hold drumsticks, he was also teaching us scales and chords, and how to play them on mallet instruments. He encouraged us to take private lessons, though, because he wasn’t the absolute authority on every instrument. He knew how to teach and get people interested. I started taking lessons from Charles Watts about a year after I joined the band. When I did, I worked on marimba and xylophone, and a practice pad. Back in those days, the way to make a living in music was to get in one of the top- five major symphonies. Charles Watts would teach us out of sax books, too. I’d be playing marimba, but using a sax book for jazz phrasing. I really got into jazz and classical music. That was my world. I never heard lyrics to a song before I came to Nashville.”

At 17, Kenny joined the Navy and became involved with their music program. “I started the basic course, and shortly thereafter, there was an all-navy talent show, so we decided to form our own rock ‘n’ roll band and enter the show. We went to the semifinals and won. We were going to go on a recruiting tour around the country, making $84 a month. In the meantime, they were also forming this 18-piece jazz band for the tour—five trumpets, five trombones, five saxes, and rhythm. They were holding auditions for that band so I thought, ‘What the heck,’ and tried out. I made the band and decided to go into that, where I’d back up all the acts. There were entertainers from all over the navy. We went around the United States for six weeks. The first stop was nine days in New York for rehearsal. Everywhere we went, the Chrysler Corporation would furnish these brand-new Chryslers with chauffeurs. Everything was top notch, because if we were happy, we would help recruit people for the navy. So I was ready to ship over for 50 years!” Kenny laughs. “They gave us full per diem plus our regular navy pay. The first day in New York, I spent about $150 on shirts.”

The navy made several attempts to get those musicians back into the basic course, but according to Kenny, “We had already tasted the good life.” He chose sea duty with the sixth fleet and traveled to the far corners of the world. “That’s where you learn about music—in the backwoods where they don’t know what shoes are. When you start playing instrumental music, it makes people smile. Music is the universal language. Music is in everything, not just the instruments we play. Even though there are hundreds of different dialects and languages in the world, when people on the other side of the world hear a song in English, it means something to them. They form images and things, even though they don’t understand the language. The way that chords, melody, and rhythm work together mirrors our emotions. Everything we hear forms a visual image or an attitude of a place, a time, or an environment. If I were to play a certain rhythm—just a rhythm—you would imagine something. When you get into lyrics, it’s more literal. When I’m hearing the lyrics to a song, they’re forming images and attitudes in my own being. If I’m down, and then I hear a down song, I can really get down. Sometimes we need to get down and feel bad for some reason to learn something about ourselves. I’ve been married 26 years, and there have been times when I didn’t think we’d make it. A song like that would come up, and no matter who I was playing with, I would live the song.”

Kenny’s marriage is very important to him. In fact, Kenny put the sea behind him, because he wanted to be with his wife, Janie. He decided, instead, to try his hand at teaching keyboard and percussion instruments at the Navy School of Music. “In those days, the structure was very set,” Kenny recalls. “The requirements for a basic student were, in my view, very limited. The requirements consisted of the 26 standard drum rudiments and how to sight-read basic music, so that you could perform national anthems around the world at military ceremonies, dances, and cocktail parties.

“The whole percussion department was looking for ways to do things faster. They had a lot of shortcuts, which really came in handy. There were things that you’d never dream of, like how to tuck drumheads because they didn’t have plastic. There were shortcuts on maintenance, and how to take a drum apart and clean it. There were teaching shortcuts, such as instead of doing the whole Chapin book, we’d start with the four-way coordination immediately. It’s easy when you teach it all at once, instead of just starting with the hands. You have to start slowly enough to form the pattern within yourself. The signal doesn’t come from your brain; that’s just the trigger. The signal that controls your muscle coordination comes through the base of your spine. It’s like a relay that tells your limbs what to do. If you practice slowly enough with repetition, gradually increasing speed, these patterns become natural. We also used the Ralph Pace book, but instead of doing the whole book, we’d do pages 18 and 19. If a student wanted extra, that was fine. We’d take the notes that were written and use them in different contexts, so that you could play with a rock band, a jazz band or a classical band. It didn’t matter.

“Then the school moved to Virginia Beach. We got most of the students from high schools and colleges, and through no fault of their own, they could hardly play when they got there. There was a very low level of competency, but in six months, if students really applied themselves, they could get a lot out of it. It was like a BA degree in music, with theory and harmony. The school had a library full of recordings from all over the world. I’d go up to that library, and there would be volumes on things such as Indian tabla rudiments. You could get anything from that school of music. And we always had the latest equipment. It got to the point where I became the head of the percussion department, and my job started to become more and more administrative. We’d order 50 drumsets, and I’d have to decide which drums were what we needed at sea, and which ones would hold up the best. There were three other instructors within the department, and we’d get together all the time to talk and play. It was a learning environment where I learned as much as anybody.”

Kenny also explored using language to teach. “You can teach an ordinary layman different things using our language,” he explains. “We speak rhythmically, and you can use words to play different rhythms. I could probably teach you to play three against four in a minute. Think ‘wash the car and wax it,’ ” he says in a very rhythmic pattern, “and play that rhythm on the table with your hands.

“I like to teach, although not just by sit- ting down with somebody and playing. I talk to my students. Drums are real simple, and anybody who has an interest can do it. You’ll uncover the secrets by accident— usually through mistakes. Like when I’m building a cabinet and I cut a board too short, I say, ‘What can I do with that board?’ Things can happen that you never thought of through accidents. A lot of that has happened in my life.”

In fact, Kenny’s move to Nashville was rather like a crap shoot. He had been in the service for nearly 14 years. The first time he had re-enlisted, it was because he needed the money. The second time, he had actually started liking it. When the third option arose in 1970, he was compelled to question his motives for considering re-enlistment. He began to wonder if he was afraid to attempt making a living in the civilian world. He decided to take the plunge.

The decision to move to Nashville was made by virtue of the fact that Kenny didn’t want to raise his four children in any of the big cities such as New York, L.A., or Chicago. “I thought Nashville was a small town. I imagined two or three streets with a few recording studios. So I packed up the kids and the dog, and sold our house. I only had $5,000, and ten miles out of town, my radiator blew up. We lived in a one-bedroom efficiency with four kids and a dog for about a month. I had 90 days to go back to the navy and keep my rank of Chief. On the 89th day I started getting real nervous, because I wasn’t working all that much. I called my friend Bill Humble and asked if he knew of anyone who needed a drummer. He made a few calls, and I got a couple of country-club gigs, and played around here and there. I also played in a jazz trio down at the King Of The Road. That became a hangout for musicians for a while, and it was wonderful. Then, all of a sudden, this town exploded. It was about ’71 or ’72, and I’m telling you, what a trip!”

Malone began to reap some of the benefits of the burgeoning recording industry. There was only one catch: He knew very little about the recording process. “I was back there playing away and the producer said, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ ” Kenny chuckles. “I didn’t know you could overdub, so I was playing all of it at once— tambourines, you name it. I literally had to come down to one hand and one foot. I had to unlearn everything as far as technical stuff. There was a whole different feel in recording. There were limitations due to such things as the fact that microphones don’t hear like human ears. A microphone is changing a mechanical signal to an electronic signal and back to a mechanical signal. Playing for the microphone, you primarily have to think about consistency of volume.

“I was so unknowledgeable, but I started becoming interested in understanding sounds and what makes a particular sound. Now I’m studying engineering—learning how to mix, how to record, and learning the limitations of microphones and the technical systems we use. I would like to see it get to where everybody records live—period. After going through the whole drum-booth syndrome, I’d like to see people come back to using two or three microphones to get the overall substance within a given environment.

“Another problem is that there isn’t any way to get a perfect earphone mix for everybody involved in a recording session. It can come close. I’ve had some really fine earphone mixes that inspired me, and placed me in an environment and attitude compatible with the song. But for the most part, it falls short. If it’s an intimate song, the environment has to be like a bedroom. If it’s a regal atmosphere, it has to feel like an auditorium or a theater with echo—reflections off a side wall or back walls.”

How does Malone create these different atmospheres in the sterile environment of a recording studio? “First of all,” he replies, “I try to put myself in a frame of mind as I’m driving to the session. I’m thinking about the session and the people, the things we’ve talked about, our relationships, their families, and things we’ve gotten into besides the music. I enjoy that interaction of goofing off and laughing, to reach that spiritual magic inside all of us. Hopefully, that song will play us. Then it’s easy. Nashville is a wonderful place. There are a lot of people who understand that, even though the business has changed. It’s an industry, which is a fact that took me forever to get through my head. But even though there are those changes, people here are recognizing that spiritual capability within all of us.

“We have a song, first of all—an expression, feeling or idea that we’re going to portray. I listen to the song, and there’s an inner dance that goes on. When I’m hearing a song, I can’t sit still; I walk around. When I’m in motion myself, it makes it easier to judge other motions. I get into the attitude of the dance—what kind it is and how it feels. Then, instead of hearing drums with it, I try to imagine a whole texture of sound I want to put with that song. I usually wouldn’t use an open snare drum with someone’s voice. That would interfere with the quality of the voice. I would use something in a separate frequency range. You’ve got to understand the frequency of the voice. The drums should usually be outside of that. With Don Williams, it was years before I could use a snare drum. I had to find the right texture of snare drum. I put a T-shirt over a snare drum the first time I used one with him. It was a small snare, and it was just for that particular kind of sound. I also put regular white paper on it. Different types of paper will muffle different frequencies. Whatever you put on a drum will take on that characteristic. I even used cement one time, but it was so hard that it hurt the head. So now I put a 6″ x 2” strip of white paper on the snare drum over near the edge, two to three layers deep. Then I edge around it with a strip of duct tape. That’s a general starting point. When I play jazz, I don’t use any muffling on the snare. But Don has such a deep, mellow voice that, if you play anything in that same register, it clouds his voice. So I look for sounds—all different kinds of sounds. Everything you touch contains potential for different frequencies. It’s what you hit it with and how you hit it.

“Another thing I think about when I’m recording is time and tempo. I’ll form a visual image of it. It’s very easy. Anybody can do it. I could teach you how to click off 120 beats a minute just by using your imagination to form mental images. I could sing it to you and give you several key references that I use every time. I did these things so many times in the navy that, instead of perfect pitch, I’ve developed this sense of relative rhythm. Everything used to have to be in specific tempos. A funeral was at 108. The national anthem was at 86 to 100. All the allies in the world march at 120. The Germans march at 112 to 116. If you use your mind to see troops marching—the creases of their pants all in sync—you can do it. Everybody can.

“I like to deal with the key we’re in, too, so I know how to tune. If I’m using open drums—even a snare drum—I’ll find the key and try to find the harmonics within that tone that are most compatible. If the music is in the key of F, I might tune the snare drum to the fifth. I want to tune my toms carefully, because they ring three seconds or more. That’s a tone, so I tune those to the pitch if I have time in a session. It usually comes pretty fast and automatic, though. Tuning drums involves so much, because the harmonic structure on a drum- head is not the same as it is on, say, a string. On a string, it’s a definite system of audible overtones that we hear. In drums, the first overtone is a sixth, but it’s a flat sixth. I’ll usually spend more time tuning the harmonic than the fundamental. When you hit a drum, it automatically goes sharp, and then settles into the frequency you want. So I might tune the drum flat sometimes to get the pitch dive to go below the bass player’s note and below the audible range of the microphone, so it doesn’t cancel the bass note. It goes through it, where the bass sounds like a bass and my drum sounds like a drum.

“It’s interesting to me to be able to walk into a room and judge what the sound is going to be like by the shape of the room. That’s the difference between analog sound and digital sound, which is so prevalent today. One of the limitations with digital is that the transients—the frequencies that move and interact with each other, like on high strings or cymbals—don’t have a chance to interact with each other. Each frequency range is isolated, and it’s filtered through, producing this sterilized sound. You don’t have the transients creating their own tone together.”

I wondered how Kenny, who loves the ring of his drums, feels about the advent of electronic drum machines. “There’s a place for them,” Kenny allows. “They can be integrated, because there are things that we can’t create otherwise—beautiful sounds, if they’re used intelligently. I feel, though, that right now, electronic music is in a very stagnant place. There is a lot of experimentation, the way there was when Syndrums and disco were happening. These things are mechanical in structure, and they’re predictable. I don’t care to sit down and listen to a machine play. I’d rather be interacting with people—period. It’s something we have to accept, because there’s a definite market for it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be here in the industry. When we play acoustic music these days, young people start thinking it’s new, though. And they love it.

“With every studio I go into, I find a difference of night and day, between the engineers, the technology, and the limitations of the machines. When you add a machine onto a signal through the earphones—even a simple delay system—you’re dealing with time frames. You can put a noise gate on one of the drums, which has happened to me several times—too frequently in the last couple of years—where the mic’ is off unless a certain DB-level signal is generated into that mic’. So what do you lose? You lose the ambience of all your drums. When I hit a drum, I hear vibrations from all of the drums, and they all work as one. That’s the way I tune my drums—integrated, as one. You can’t do that with electronic drums. In the first place, they’re not touch sensitive. You can’t react spontaneously to music; therefore, it’s predictable and very left hemisphere. I don’t care for it.

“My feeling is that you’re controlled by it. When you set up a drum pattern on the machine, unless you’re playing every note as it goes down in real time, you’re following a metronome. That’s no fun. You can’t interact with a metronome. You can only play to its limitations and capabilities. The heartbeat fluctuates. When you get excited or empathize with a particular thing, even during a few seconds of a song, your heart changes. Machines are limiting. The only limitless thing we have is our mind. We create the machines.”

Malone, in fact, actually created his own drumset. “My drums are real special. I built them six years ago, when all my drums and all the percussion instruments I owned were stolen out of my van. I went in back of Columbia Recording Studio, opened up my truck, and it was empty. It blew my mind, I had a half hour to make this session, so I went running over to DOG Percussion. Debbie Gallant [Larrie Londin’s wife, who owns DOG] was there, and I told her what happened. She fixed me up with one of Larrie’s sets in about five minutes, and sent me out with one or two people from the shop to help me set up. I made the session on time.

“I had always wanted to build my own set, though, because I love to build things. I can understand things better when I build them myself. So I went over to the Pearl factory, and they said I could have whatever I wanted. There were these blank shells on the floor, so I took those. It took me two weeks to make the drums. Larrie loaned me cymbals. Later, on a session with Michael Johnson, Larrie called me at the studio and I told him I liked those cymbals. A little bit later, he called me back and started singing happy birthday to me. I said, ‘It’s not my birthday,’ and he said, ‘You know those cymbals you like so well? They’re yours.”

“I learned a great deal from making those drums. It’s very easy. I’d like to see drum companies send out kits with a booklet that tells people what makes the different sounds. You only need a few hand tools. While I was making the drums, I was having the windows on my truck tinted to keep people from stealing my drums. I asked how much they’d charge to paint my drums. They said $80, and they really got into it. I had them paint kind of a space scene on them in blue and violet with subtle galaxies, and planets with rings and things. They’re real special to me.

“Recently, I’ve been making a new drum—a foot drum. I haven’t heard it yet, but I can imagine it. I have always wanted to change the bass drum, because it’s a fixed pitch. You hit that thing with one beater, roughly in the same spot every time, and the only variation you have is loud and soft. You can muffle it different ways to alter the length of your ring, but you don’t really have any variables. Since I played conga for all these years with my hands and fingers, I realized that was the type of sound I was looking for, but on a bass drum. I got the idea when I got a set of tablas recently. With the big tabla drum, you are able to bend the pitch and get different effects, so I thought, ‘Well, why couldn’t you do that with your feet?’ For all these years, I’ve never been able to figure out how to mount the heads. I wanted to be able to put multiple heads on one resonant chamber. I’ll be able to do that when this drum is built. It’s a whole different mounting system. The surface playing area is 18″ around, and the resonant chamber looks like a flattened balloon. It sits 10 1/2” off the floor with a funnel coming out the front of it, almost like a conga opening. I’m building it out of solid walnut. I’ll be able to muffle the pitch with one foot, and strike the drum with the other foot. Besides just playing with my toes, I can play it with my heels to get more variables. I can put a dowel of hard wood underneath my toes; that way I’ll be able to get a hard attack as well as a soft attack. I’ll have everything I have on a bass drum, plus all the variables of frequency there are on a hand drum. With this system I have going now, I can make any drum any shape with any thickness without having any wood benders, because I’m building it out of solid wood and layering it. I can take the sabre saw and shape the inside of the drum, piece by piece. It takes more time, but it’s really going to be something.

“Drums themselves are real special to me. I’m even into carrying my drums. I’m strong, and I’ll be strong for years to come because I lug those things around. If I didn’t, I don’t believe I’d have the strength and endurance to play some of the tracks I’ve had to play. Recording can just wear you out.”

Each time he works, Kenny strives to attain the magic that can be experienced when every musician spontaneously knows where the other musicians are going, and all are in the same space of music and attitude. “When you’re real young and just starting to play, you learn all the rudiments, rules, techniques, and logical ways of doing things. Then at a certain point, if you’re lucky, you can let all of that go and draw from it. All my life, I’ve had flashes of this communication—the oneness of a band. When a band is performing well together, every instrument within that band combines into one instrument with vast capabilities. I used to have flashes of this communication for several seconds at a time with various artists—just flashes. But it never really happened to me until the day after I turned 40—where everything I ever learned was available to me. Somehow or other, I was so into the music that the music played me. Everything I played was a surprise. That was with Charles Cochran and Joe Allen. We were helping our kids get a rock ‘n’ roll band started. They were rehearsing one day with Joe’s son on bass, my son on drums, and my youngest daughter on guitar. After rehearsal, we decided to play for them, because Charles, Joe, and I hadn’t played together in seven years. When we first got to town, we played jazz at the King Of The Road for a year and a half on Sunday nights, just to put bread on the table and play. Since then, we’ve been involved in sessions and things, but not in this context with upright bass, piano, and drums. We sat down, and without one word, we just started playing.

“That was one of the most profound experiences in my whole life. It was just all happening right now, and I wasn’t even listening to the drums. The whole band went BAM! That took my concentration off things I had practiced. Everything I was playing was something that I had never played before. We were all one instrument. I’m telling you, it just brings tears to your eyes when that happens after trying for so long. That’s the key maybe, because I had been trying to do it. It’s always been an accident when I’ve been able to get my self- consciousness out of the way, which is really hard.

“Right after that happened, Joe, Charles, and I took the trio down to Key West and played for two weeks in a jazz club. Crystal Gayle came down and sang with us one night. She eventually took us on the road, and we were all after that same magic. Wild things happened. It was so intense. Things would be different from her records every night. Instead of trying to play what’s on the records exactly, I’d get this feeling in me that said, ‘now or never,’ and BAM, we’d be into it! There’s no way you can back out; you’re committed. All of a sudden, everyone in the band had ears ten feet big. And she got out there on the limb with us, totally. It’s a great feeling to experience, because it comes through you.

“Usually in recording there’s a hindrance, because the red light means ‘Do it now,’ and that affects the spontaneity. But one time I closed my eyes on this track, ‘We Must Believe In Magic,’ on which I was playing congas. I was so into it that, all of a sudden, my whole existence changed. I saw nothing but stars and constellations, and they were all around me. I understood somehow that they all involved rhythm and time.”

Obviously, Malone has had his share of wonderful sessions, although after you’ve worked with the amount of people he has, you tend to forget specific dates. There were some memorable moments, however, that he does recall, such as working with Dobie Gray. “The first hit record I ever made was ‘Drift Away.’ We worked most of the night, and that was our last take. It just kind of happened. We had so much fun, because the song was so strong. It’s like a classic now. We still hear it all the time, after 13 or 14 years.

“Don Williams’ sessions are always fun, because they’re real laid back. There’s a lot of interaction among the musicians, the producer, and the engineer. You can really get into the songs and seek other sounds that you can use. I like to look for those kinds of effects. There was a song about riding a horse, for which I played on one of Joe Allen’s grandfather’s spurs with a quarter and got a perfect ring. I like getting those neat little sounds that aren’t necessarily drums, but effects.

“I’ve used different types of salt shakers. I’ve taken a bunch of dime-store bells and strung them all together to shake for effects. I’ve played leather chairs. This was for a song about an old jalopy, so I was trying to get a Model-A type of effect. I used four fingers, and it sounded like it was missing on one cylinder. It really sounded effective. They faded in and faded out like it was this old Model A coming around the corner. When I was a kid, I always used to think it would be lots of fun to play back- ground sound effects for movies or radio programs. We didn’t have television then, but Fibber McGee always used to crack me up when he would open the closet door and all the junk would fall out. I always wanted to be the one to push out all the junk,” Kenny laughs. “I was intrigued with making thunder from sheet metal, and with all the different effects. I enjoy doing what- ever the lyrics call for. We did a gambling song once, and I used some change in my pocket. I like doing things like that.

“George Jones’ sessions are top-notch quality. He just sings right on the spot, and it gives you goose bumps. He’s one of the greatest country singers I’ve ever heard. He sings it like he’s really living it and goes right along with the band.

“Michael Johnson is one of the finest musicians I have ever heard. I enjoyed recording with him, because we were able to get into the lyrics and the attitudes of the songs. It was a good studio—Creative Workshop—a great engineer, and a good rhythm section. It was one of those times when I could just walk in and play music.”

Kenny appreciates working with an engineer who is quick and easy to communicate with. “Someone who doesn’t waste time,” he states. “I’ve done sessions where I’ve spent the whole session just getting a drum sound. You sit out there banging on those things, and it’s just no fun. Besides that, without any reference to the song we’re going to play, it’s impossible to tell how the drums are supposed to sound anyhow. It’s great working with an engineer who doesn’t have a fixed sound in mind. It’s okay to have a starting place, but not one that has to be the ultimate sound. If you do that, all the songs sound the same. And I appreciate an engineer who will occasionally put on the earphones to hear what we’re hearing in the ‘phones instead of the studio monitors. Of course, a lot of that is learning how to communicate without wasting time and throwing the whole rhythm of the session off. Knowing how to ask for what you want is one of the hardest things. I’ll say sometimes, ‘Could you put more 10K on the snare drum or more 3K on the bass drum?’ That’s ten thousand or three thousand cycles. I’ve spent time sitting in a drum booth with earphones on, while the engineer ran all the frequencies and all the various band widths. Doing that, I could hear how it changed the sound on that particular drum in that studio. The older I get, the longer I play and the more I learn. I also understand more about how to listen to sound, about sounds I’ve never heard before, and about the insides of sounds and the forms they take. I heard one way when I was 18 years old, and now I hear another way. Now it isn’t so much what happens when I hit the drum; it’s what happens after I hit it.”

Naturally, Malone has very set ideas about what a session should and shouldn’t be. Of course, lack of freedom can make a date less than enjoyable. “If there are too many preconceived ideas,” Kenny explains, “it becomes negative. The other thing I’ve been struggling within the last few years is earphones. When earphones are fixed, there isn’t any way you can interact the way you would acoustically, because you don’t hear the same way. All engineers hear differently, so you’re really using their ears by proxy. When you’re hearing through ‘phones, it’s artificial. When you’re playing live, you’re playing on your instrument, and then you hear the piano do something. You don’t hear every single note in between, but you hear tendencies and know where it’s going to land. You know logical points where you can go, wait, play some more, and interact. Through earphones, you hear every note that’s played. It’s this large mass that over- powers your imagination, and you’re held captive in that structure. When all the instruments are going BAM on one, you can’t distinguish your instrument from everybody else’s. That’s the whole purpose of using delay systems—30 milliseconds off the side walls, 300 milliseconds off the back wall.

“In the beginning, it was very different. They didn’t have things like delay systems and noise gates. Some engineers tend to use noise gates as we’re cutting the track, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Then you lose all your dynamic interplay. You can’t play softly, because that note is no longer there. You can only play one dynamic level.

Kenny Malone

“I also won’t use a click track. It’s like following a metronome. I guess, at a certain time in somebody’s life, that would be useful. I haven’t tried this, although it makes sense to me, but Larrie says he has them double the speed of the metronome. That opens up and frees the bottom end. Then you’re free to move around it. Music seems to be at a very stagnant point right now, but I think it’s changing because I do hear beautiful music all the time.”

Actually, Kenny is creating his own music right now. “Mostly I’ve been into metaphysical music, which is just a reflection of my life and this journey of understanding I’ve been on. For the last year or two, I’ve been trying to create music using the sounds of nature. At home, we’ll often put on the sound of the ocean or a stream. There is a company that produces environmental sounds on record. They’ve done a lot of experiments where they put on a record of dusk sounds at 2:00 in the afternoon to see how it affects people. People get kind of comfortable, and the conversation comes to an end. Then, if you put on dawn sounds with birds waking up and such, it perks up the whole room. I want to do intelligent music for a good purpose. I know we can use sounds for detrimental things too, but I want to do something that helps people, and that hopefully makes life a little easier and not quite so lonely.

“It all started for me when we recorded my buddy’s baby’s heartbeat in the womb during birth with all the contractions. We were going to put music with it, and later on in her life, give her the tape. She had trouble in delivery and her heart stopped a couple of times. I took the tape to the studio and was listening to it. My heart took on the time of that heart, and I almost suffocated a couple of times. I really started getting into the effects of rhythms and speeds.

“So I’ve been experimenting with wonderful music. God, it’s beautiful! I have Cindy Reynolds on harp and Billy Puett on flute. We don’t usually record with a bass for a specific reason. Nobody else has to know the chords, so the chordal structure is totally spontaneous. That’s what makes me so bored with Western music, where it’s expected that there will be keyboard, or some other chordal instrument, and drums. With our music, there are no melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic restrictions. We are totally free. We’ll establish a premise—like we’re in the wilderness in the Rockies—and we’ll get a place in our minds. We’ll establish an attitude—like it’s a beautiful morning—and we’ll just celebrate this beautiful morning, thankful to be alive. BAM, we start playing—no keys, no words, nothing. I want to get rid of all preconceptions and take everything as it comes—right now—even if I’m not playing anything. It’s woodwind and nature sounds integrated to where music isn’t always the most important element.

“We want to develop a total environmental concept for homes and business, where you can program the environment you want to live in on a 60-minute compact disc. Or you can have an hour of silence, if you want. How would you like to be walking through your house—just getting up in the morning, making the coffee—and hear this gorgeous arpeggio on a harp, then have some silence, and then hear things in different parts of your house where it creates a total environment? I just want to make things better. If I could play a magic rhythm . . . I believe it’s possible, silly as it sounds. There are magic rhythms that stimulate the positive emotions.”

Currently, Kenny is playing in two bands around town. One is called Banjo Jazz, with banjoist Bela Fleck in front. The other is an acoustic group, Right Now, with Charles Cochran, Edgar Meyer, and Billy Puett. And Malone is loving every minute of both. In fact, Malone seems to love every minute of life, while constantly reaching for new challenges during his ongoing quest for knowledge.

“I’m glad I’m 46,” he says with a big smile. “I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m real thankful just to wake up in the morning every day. I looked for happiness for a lot of years, and after I turned 40, my whole life changed. Everything I used to look at wasn’t the same anymore, and the things I used to place value on didn’t have any value anymore. Not too much is important in the way of things. I’m getting this understanding all of the time, no matter where I go—even from adverse moments when I can’t get an earphone mix. It’s frustrating, and I’m fighting up against the wall because of the way things are—mechanics, technology. But I learn something from that, and usually it’s about my own attitude, patience, or communication. When I see within my own self in the way of time, motion and space, I have this wonderful picture. I still love to play music. It’s changed, though. Now it’s a flow. It’s gotten into a more qualitative thing, instead of being so scattered all the time. That’s what happens when you turn 40. Life really does begin at 40. It can be scary, because for the first time, you realize your own mortality. That’s a big one to overcome, but I believe it’s possible. And I still have the interest to do something new.”