AlKammen.jpg by Jeremy Berg

When I first heard “The Fire Next Time,” I was struck by its resemblance to a Johnny Cash tune. A month or so later I found out that its author, Al Kammen, had in fact deliberately written the song in the manner of the country giant. That, however, is about the only purposeful nod to anyone else in his songs. “When I started doing music, I deliberately decided I wasn’t going to do covers, I wasn’t going to do other people’s music. . .I was going to do my own thing.” Right now that includes singing songs about everything from failed first dates to a boy who loses his father to the Vietnam War and sees him one last time in what is either a dream or a spiritual visitation. Though they vary drastically in tone and subject matter, as befits a man who’s been married and divorced, suffered from crippling stage fright, and lived all over the country, they all bear the stamp of his major at the University of Wisconsin: journalism. “One of the problems with contemporary music is the story writing. . .you don’t find that anymore.” In Kammen’s music, the story is ever present. Whether the vocal delivery is sung or almost spoken, whether it’s one extended narrative or has a verse and chorus format, all of his songs tell a story or are from the point of view of a clearly defined character. My girlfriend Sarah put it best when she said that he “sings like a writer, not writes like a singer,” a description he agrees with. “The words matter to me the most. The problem with lyric writing is it flies by so fast . . . A song has to come across the first time.” Despite a format that is unfamiliar to some, his songs often succeed in doing just that. One in particular, “Bleeding,” based on the story a friend told him of deliberately cutting herself while a teenager, has frequently hit home with his audience. “I just sort of rearranged the words and created a character which wasn’t her, exactly, but. . .I guess it’s a big problem with a lot of girls. Nobody ever talks about it, but. . .when I started playing that song. . .It would be like every time I’d get off the stage, someone would come up to me and say either they used to do that, or they had a friend who did that.” Though he acknowledges the story song’s long history, Kammen stresses that he is in no way a strict traditionalist (“people turn these vibrant genres into museums for music”), a point underlined by his choice of a Fender Telecaster as his primary instrument — not exactly the typical axe for a folk singer. As he says, “folk music is music for folks, and what do folks listen to?” As a man whose admiration of Nirvana equals that for Cash and Tom Waits, the answer is apparent. Besides, “there’s something nice about a blue Telecaster playing folk music.” That Telecaster is moving up quickly. Though still present at the open mic nights at which he began his Milwaukee performing career last March, Kammen has been on the bill for gigs at Linneman’s and The Bremen Cafe, where he performs often, and was included in the roster of Linneman’s Dylan tribute, A Nod to Bob. He also plans to record in the future. Commenting on his music, Kammen is humble: “I’m not a great singer, I’m not a great guitarist, but I’m doing something different.”