Kenny Olson is one of the world’s greatest rock lead guitarists. Let the words of his peers tell you just how accomplished this multi-platinum artist is:
“Kenny Olson is one of the best rock guitarists on the scene…” Keith Richards – Rolling Stones
“I love listening to Kenny play. He’s got a real voice with his guitar, which is a rare talent.”
Paul Rodgers-Bad Company
“Kenny is and always will be considered part of the Metallica family. As for his guitar playing – that simply speaks for itself and needs no further comment.” -James Hetfield of Metallica
You get the point. Olson has chops, sure, but he matches that with instinct and passion, grit and originality. All of that is heard on KENNY OLSON CARTEL, the Nashville-based axeman’s first full-scale solo album on an eye-popping resume that includes a founding tenure in Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker Band as well numerous appearances on the Experience Hendrix Tour and live or recording collaborations with the likes of Metallica, Aerosmith, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, Run-DMC, Chaka Khan, Sheryl Crow, Faith Evans, Les Paul and the all-star group 7daybinge and more.
The world has heard a lot from Kenny Olson over the years, but this is the Kenny Olson the world has been waiting to hear.
“It’s just time for me to do this,” Olson explains. “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 Kenny Olson Cartel is the product of a life lived in music from the time Olson was young. Born and raised primarily in Detroit, Olson recalls that “there was always a guitar around my house” belonging to his father or uncles, who also instilled in the fledgling musician a love of blues and rock classics — including Howlin’ Wolf, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin and Miles Davis. From Seventies R&B, Motown and Funk to Iggy and the Stooges, Olson was soaking it in and rooting himself.
Olson started playing in earnest when he was 10, and it was indeed love at first riff.
“I heard Jimi and it was all over,” Olson remembers. By the age of 14, he was hitting the stage as a serious six-string gunslinger, and as a Detroit teenage rocker, Olson says, “It was all about driving around Woodward in muscle cars, listening to the Stooges, Bob Seger and Black Sabbath.”
Out of high school, Olson’s raw talent and band were discovered by Roger Probert (signed AC/DC to Atlantic). He was New York bound to gig around town and record an album with Probert. By his early twenties, the band dissolved and Olson got that itch to hit the LA scene. He spent his time bouncing between LA, Detroit and New York working live and in the studio on numerous solo and band projects (Dragonfly, Filtheater, Enemy Squad, Big Chief). Olson worked with many Detroit legends including Scott Asheton of The Stooges, Scott Morgan of The Rationals, members of the Funk Brothers and even George Clinton who appeared as a guest on Olson’s early recordings. Olson opened for numerous national acts including appearances at Lollapalooza, but when the ’94 earthquake destroyed his LA apartment, he saw it as a sign to head back to his roots in Detroit.
Olson’s claim to fame came when he joined forces with Kid Rock the following year, making an indelible contribution on stage and in the studio. Kenny and Kid wanted to experiment with new song structures and rock sonics, taking the evolving rock-rap blend to a new level. As founding axeman of The Twisted Brown Trucker Band and co-writer, Olson performed on major albums, all of which reached platinum status, several or many times over: Devil Without A Cause (1998);Cocky (2001); Kid Rock (2003); Live Trucker (2006). He also appeared on various releases from History of Rock and other albums.
From the soulful guitar work in “Only God Knows Why” and the guitar antics on “Cowboy”… to the funky elements in “Devil Without A Cause” and hip-hop-flavored riffs on “World Class Sex Rhymes” (featuring Snoop Dog)… to the meat ‘n potato in-your-face guitar action on “Bawitdaba”… and even the teary guitar solos of “Picture” (featuring Sheryl Crow) Olson happily reflects, “It was a smorgasbord of musical expressions for many years.” Just listen to Olson’s live work on Kid Rock & The Twisted Brown Truck Band’s album Live Trucker (2006) to hear how Olson brings to life the depth and range of his lead guitar work and live performances throughout this period.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world took note of Kenny Olson’s muscular yet intricate style. He contributed to works including Uncle Kracker’s double-platinum debut Double Wide (2001), Run DMC’s Crown Royal (2001), Desmond Child/Bif Naked’s Purge (2001), Hank Williams, Jr.’s Almeria Club Recordings (2002), Sheryl Crow’s The Very Best of Sheryl Crow(2003), Billy Cox & Buddy Miles’s The Band of Gypsys Return (2004).
Olson also began an association with the Hendrix family and Experience Hendrix, LLC – which considers him “family” according to Janie Hendrix. In developing the project, Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (2004), Al Hendrix (Jimi’s father) wanted Kenny to play with his favorite singer, Chaka Khan, on the album, hence, “Little Wing.”
According to Carlos Santana: “First of all, Jimi Hendrix was a seeker, an explorer for the rest of us. He didn’t copy anyone’s style and he wouldn’t expect that out of us. To copy him or to try and sound like him would not honor him. As for Kenny Olson, Jimi would have loved him. Kenny is quiet like Jimi was; he doesn’t seek the spotlight for himself. He lets his guitar speak for him. In musical circles Kenny Olson is known as the cat that plays with Kid Rock, not for him.”
Add GRAMMY, AMA, Billboard, VH1, MTV awards, late-night shows, Super Bowl, world tours with Aerosmith and Metallica and even his own Simpsons character to begin to top it all off.
Needless to say, the decision to leave Kid Rock was difficult — but necessary.
“Those guys are like family,” says Olson. “I was with (Rock) for 11 years. I love that whole band. We’ll be 80-year-old guys 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. And I knew the journey would be the kind it should be – tough and long.”
After leaving Kid Rock, Olson formed groups such as the Flask and Motorflys and joined several Experience Hendrix tours, where he had the chance to play with some of his heroes, including Hendrix cohorts Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin. “I learned so much and heard so many stories and made such great friends,” Olson says. “It was the greatest education. I really feel like they’ve passed me the torch, and it’s my job to keep it burning.”
Other projects included those with Les Paul, The Flask (worked with Eddie Kramer), Billy Cox, Faith Evans and more. When Olson began working out of Nashville, he put together 7daybinge with 3 Doors Down’s Todd Harrell, Jon Nicholson of MuzikMafia and drummer Shannon Boone Hurcomb (Puddle of Mudd), while the idea of the Kenny Olson Cartel started to formulate in his mind. Before long he created a revolving group of players but a unified sound centered on his guitar and his sonic sensibility. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Olson explains. “It’s always appealed to me. I meet so many different and really talented players, I wanted to find a way to make them part of my world.”
The Kenny Olson Cartel album certainly doesn’t scrimp on the talent. The guitarist’s 10-song solo debut includes contributions from Billy Cox, Jon Nicholson, Todd Harrell and Shannon Boone Hurcomb, as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Peter Keys, Tantric veteran Hugo Ferriera, Sonia Dada’s Paris Delane, Detroit/Nashville singer-songwriter Brandon Calhoon, Candlebox’s Adam Kury, Emanuel Cole and Detroiter John “Wolf” Abel — among others. Equally impressive is the fact that many of these players also make up the Kenny Olson Cartel on the road. Furthermore, at any given time, Kenny’s got at least three lead vocalists from the album on stage, including himself.
The sound, meanwhile, is agreeably all over the place, ranging from the blazing rock riffery of “Up All Night” and “Loaded” to the bluesy textures of “Rebel With a Cause,” the slinky (and fun) funk of “Left Sock” and the old-school groove of “Sweet Rosie’s.”
Tunes such as “I Can’t Feel” and the Olson-sung “Phoenix Will Rise” display an earthy, organic tone that shows he can do far more than just tear the proverbial roof off the sucka.
“It’s a real versatile album,” Olson notes. “There’s an old school, Motor City, Detroit rock ‘n’ roll vibe to it, but it also has the soulful, Motown funky vibe. But at all times, it’s got a rootsy thing going. It covers all kinds of genres, and it allows me as a guitar player to experiment, to express and to 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 Kenny Olson Cartel is an ass-kicking live entity as well, with a core group of members and some of the more high-profile guests rotating in. “That’s my high,” Olson says. “I belong out there playing.” But the studio is another home, and there will be more where KENNY OLSON CARTEL came from. The guitarist says he has enough material “for a few more albums at least,” with more coming seemingly every day, which means the Cartel is well stocked for a loud ‘n’ proud future.
“What I like about this situation is nothing can stop it,” Olson gushes. “As long as I’m alive and kicking, I can keep the Kenny Olson Cartel going and keep the music coming.”