Since emerging during the mid-’90s in Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker Band, Kenny Olson has been known for the company he keeps — a heady list that includes Les Paul, Chaka Khan, Run-D.M.C., Uncle Kracker, Hank Williams Jr. and the Experience Hendrix Tour.
And that’s not to mention the guitarist’s own bands the Flask, Motorflys and the all-star Seven Day Binge.
But these days, Olson — who the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards once called “one of the best rock guitarists on the scene right now” — is choosing to work under his own name.
He’s launched the Kenny Olson Cartel which, as the name implies, is a collective of players hubbed by Olson and including luminaries such as Jimi Hendrix bassist Billy Cox, Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Peter Keys, Tantric veteran Hugo Ferriera, Sonia Dada’s Paris Delane and Detroit singer-songwriter Brandon Calhoon.
But make no mistake; the Cartel runs on one man’s vision.
“It’s just time for me to do this,” explains Olson, 44, who was born in Detroit and raised mostly in Traverse City, though he’s lived in Nashville since 2008. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve gotten to do pretty much everything one could dream of doing and work with some amazing people and explore a lot of different elements with my music.
“I’m always growing as a guitar player, and I have a lot of different influences from all genres. The Cartel lets me put it all out there in one fell swoop.”
The Cartel’s 12-track debut album certainly covers plenty of ground. Nodding to Olson’s heroes such as Hendrix (“Away We Go”) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (“Water”), it ranges from the blazing riffs of “Loaded” to the swampy textures of “Rebel With a Cause,” the slinky and fun funk of “Left Sock” and the sweaty groove of “Sweet Rosie’s.”
Tracks such as “Heaven on Earth,” “I Can’t Feel” and the Olson-sung “Phoenix Will Rise,” meanwhile, are more earthy and organic changes of pace.
“It’s really versatile,” notes Olson, who began playing guitar in earnest when he was 11. “There’s an old school, Motor City, Detroit rock ’n’ roll vibe to it, but it also has the soulful, Motown funky vibe, too. It covers all kinds of genres, and it allows me as a guitar player to experiment and have access to amazing people to work with. When you do that, anything can happen.
“But, overall, it’s pretty much an ass-kicking record.”
The Cartel adds a welcome new line to Olson’s already formidable résumé. Besides his six-album tenure with Rock and company — which took Olson to Woodstock ’99, the Grammy Awards, Super Bowl XXXVIII and on tours with Aerosmith and Metallica — he also established his name on Uncle Kracker’s double-platinum debut “Double Wide,” accompanying Chaka Khan on “Little Wing” from 2004’s “Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix” and playing sessions for Big Chief, Run-D.M.C., R.L. Burnside and Williams Jr.
He’s still asked if he regrets leaving Rock’s camp in 2005, but Olson claims he hasn’t looked back.
“Those guys are like family,” says Olson, the married father of three. “I was with (Rock) the longest; I love him like a brother. I love that whole band. They’re like a family to me, and I miss them. We’ll be 80- or 90-year-old guys, if we live that long, and we’ll be able to look at each other and go, ‘Can you believe ...?!’
“But I felt like I was at a point where if I didn’t do my ultimate dream thing then, I never would.”
He’s pushing his dream forward with the Cartel. The push begins in earnest during 2012, and Olson says he has enough material ready “for a few more albums at least.” Before that, however, he plans to establish the Cartel as a live act, taking his core band and a rotating group of guests around the country to establish a name beyond his voluminous album credits.
“That’s my high. I belong out there playing,” Olson says. “What I like about this situation is nothing can stop it. As long as I’m alive and kicking, I can keep the Kenny Olson Cartel going and keep the music coming.
“So you’ll be hearing a lot from me. I promise.”
The Kenny Olson Cartel, the Reefermen and Brandon Calhoon perform Thursday, Dec. 29, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 248-544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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