For John Kilzer, the road to recovery is a trip where the destination is of equal importance to the journey. Kilzer has emerged from the other side of a winding road of struggle with the humility and grace to produce Hide Away.
Kilzer’s first notable release in the late 80s was his record Memory in the Making. The rocker is most recognizable as the singer of “Red Blue Jeans,” a hit that catapulted him outside of his native bluff city and into the active rivers of the mainstream. Memory in the Making and the 1991 follow up Busman’s Holiday secured Kilzer MTV and radio play through a sound soaked in Americana and soul, blending Bob Dylan with Marvin Gaye via a twangy Memphis filter. His sound hinged on a prowess of the English language and an ability to tell emotional tales through song.
This past October saw the release of his third full-length album, Hide Away. It was released through Archer Records, a label that has produced music ranging from folk sensation Amy LaVere to expert classical guitarist Lily Afshar.
The new album still has an Americana vibe to it, though the time has blunted Kilzer’s edge in lieu of a more well rounded sense of composition found in the mellow crescendo of “Crescent Moon” or the delicately plucked “Eyes of Love.” The album isn’t completely subdued, though: “Babylon” is propelled by energetic piano work and overdriven guitars, and “Graveyard Jones” employs has a come-together-flavored swagger topped with slide guitar solos.
The range of emotions spelled out through the 12 tracks cover a large tract of ground. From the opener “Lay Down” encouraging social change, to the story-driven “Sleeping in the Rain” shedding light on the lows of alcohol abuse, Kilzer humbly puts forth his wisdom, but that knowledge didn’t come easy.
The success of his first two albums led him to living a life in the fast lane. Years of living a risky lifestyle began to damage his career. After enough time living on the edge, Kilzer found himself at rock bottom in the middle of a tour traveling through Paris. Desperate for sanctuary, Kilzer searched for the nearest church, broke and ignorant of the local surroundings. “After hours of fumbling around the city, I crested a hill and saw the lights of Notre Dame—they were beautiful,” Kilzer says. “As I arrived at the church, I felt a harmonic convergence for what was going on in my own spirituality and the world around me, and suddenly realized there are worse things than real-world death.”
Inspired by that epiphany, Kilzer returned to the states with a fresh perspective. He began studying theology at the Memphis Theological Seminary and was granted an opportunity as a songwriter that in the following years would have him pen tunes for Roseanne Cash and Trace Adkins.
After achieving a PhD at Middlesex University in London and stints of pastoral work at churches in Crocket County, Kilzer returned to Memphis to work at St. Johns for a then-new weekly Friday worship session called “The Way.”
In the time since, “The Way” has become Kilzer’s main avenue for music. In 2013, a trip to Arlington hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas would turn into a fruitful writing session.
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“I threw my guitar in my car as sort of an afterthought, but as soon as I got to my hotel room and sat down with it, all of these songs came bubbling up,” Kilzer says.
He would pen the majority of the work in that hotel and bring it back to Memphis to show Archer Records executive Ward Archer, who then suggested producer Kevin Houston. Houston and Kilzer worked on the songs until 2014, then formed a backing band and begin the process of recording.
Behind Kilzer’s soulful crooning sat Lucero’s Rick Steff on keys, as well as A-list session players Sam Shoup on bass and Greg Morrow on drums. More than just a solid rhythm section, Kilzer wanted the best guitar work possible, and not just from one guitarist. To accomplish this, he pulled North Mississippi Allstar’s Luther Dickinson, Solo Artist Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, and The Hold Steady’s Steve Selvidge.
In the spirit of Rock & Roll, the majority of the album was cut live to magnetic tape, and it comes through to the listener. You can hear the room in the background of each recording and each of the musicians playing off each other, melting the sound into a buttery mix of tape warmth and live feels.
Though Kilzer is a pastor, the record isn’t angled as a Christian record. It does have a moral compass in line with the teaching of the New Testament, but avoids direct instructions to follow Christianity. Instead, the album’s sense of right and wrong can be inferred through its stories and tales—one could even call them parables.
“I consider myself a stealth evangelist, the music that I write has a wider scope because I want it to resonate with everyone,” Kilzer says. “But talking about writing music is like putting quantum mechanics to the sniff test.”