Yates McKendree

Blues Emotion
Yates McKendree
Yates McKendree: Kenneth Blevins.

Yates McKendree hasn’t yet turned 22, but he has already digested a lifetime’s worth of American roots music.

The proof is in his debut album, Buchanan Lane, which is named for the street where he makes his home in Franklin, Tennessee. A 13-song collection, it reflects varied musical influences including blues icons like B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, New Orleans R&B keyboardist James Booker, and B-3 master Jimmy McGriff.

“I wanted this to be an amalgamation of the American music I love and grew up with,” he explains. “I also wanted it to be marketable, and want people to actively listen to it. But really, my goal is to introduce traditional blues to a younger audience – take it back to being a popular form of American music, because it’s relevant. And I think if you emotionally convey it the right way, people can understand it.”

A self-taught musician, McKendree was a teen when earned a Grammy for his engineering work on Delbert McClinton’s Tall, Dark & Handsome. He’s been playing guitar since he was five years old, but he was banging on the drums at two and started on the piano shortly thereafter; his father, Grammy-winning keyboardist Kevin McKendree, was McClinton’s longtime bandleader.

McKendree used a ’67 Gibson ES-175 as the primary workhorse for Buchanan Lane.

“It’s all original,” McKendree says of the ES-175. “I did take the neck pickups out and flipped the magnet so it’s out of phase in the middle position, to get the T-Bone Walker tone, or really just an early-blues sound. Some Freddie King songs have it. Probably the most famous out-of-phase tone would be Peter Green. It’s just a sound, a tonality that I’ve always loved. But I don’t tend to do a bunch of mods to my guitars. I just kind of pick ’em up and play ’em.”

You’ll hear the 175 on the swinging “Brand New Neighborhood,” an early-’50s song by Fletcher Smith, Tampa Red’s “Please Mr. Doctor,” and a pair of T-Bone Walker covers, “Papa Ain’t Salty” and “No Reason.”

For several other songs, McKendree employed a modern Gibson SG Special, including the Walker-esque slow-blues original “No Justice,” and the standout track “Wise,” a minor-key effort that evokes B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” The tune puts McKendree’s versatility on full display, as he also plays drums, bass, and the B3.

No matter the guitar, the amp was consistent throughout – a ’71 Super Reverb. “It’s all original,” he says. “Original speakers – I think it has replaced tubes. There’s something about a Super Reverb that just gets the tone for me. There’s a depth and airiness to it that I just can’t find with any other amps.”

For strings, it’s D’Addario NYXL .010s and .011s, “Depending on what I’m feeling. They hold up for all those bends.”

Yates literally grew up in a recording studio. The family’s suburban Nashville home includes The Rock House, a studio owned and operated by Kevin. But despite the father’s standing as veteran of studio and stage, he downplays any substantial role in Yates’ musical upbringing.

“I always joke that when his mother was pregnant, I used to put headphones on her, so Yates would hear all my favorite music,” the elder McKendree said. “Junior Walker was a huge one – and I always go, ‘All that must have worked.’ But with your kids, you want to steer them toward what they are interested in, and he’s always been interested in music. So for him, it’s been nurture and nature. [The music] was in him, and he was fortunate to grow up and have a recording studio in his backyard.”

For Yates, 2023 looks hopeful and wide open, despite pandemic headwinds that continue to pose challenges for working musicians. He’s weighing options, including a possible Nashville residency. Bottom line is he just wants to play.

“For me, it’s the love of the music,” Yates explains. “I want people to understand that, and I want people to grasp the emotional aspect of the blues, how relatable it is, and how current it can be, if you think about it. Blues is not exposed to the masses, but everybody who isn’t a music fiend – every regular, run-of-the-mill person I’ve played my music for – is like, ‘Yeah, I understand that. It’s emotional. I feel it. I get it.’ And that’s why I think if you can get it in front of a bigger audience, it can be widely understood, because it’s just an emotion, really.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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