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KC singer/songwriter Scott Hrabko plumbs his unique voice

Scott Hrabko
Scott Hrabko

Scott Hrabko’s initial foray into music came more than 30 years ago. He’d moved to Kansas City from St. Louis to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute, where he was a painting major. That’s when he acted on an impulse.

“I had absolutely no music background,” he said. “But I thought I’d try it. Punk rock was still kind of happening and there was this idea that you could not be very good on an instrument or not really know what you’re doing at all but still make something interesting if you had the passion for it.”

So he started writing songs on guitar and started a couple bands. One of them, the Splinters, lasted a few years and booked gigs at the Grand Emporium and Parody Hall in its River Market reincarnation.

“We got lumped in with the cow-punk bands, which was sort of true,” he said. “But we mess around with a lot of styles.”

Hrabko would move to Chicago, where he met his future wife, then Austin, Texas, before returning to Kansas City in the late 1990s. He gave up music for a while, but that impulse never completely expired, and about five years ago, he responded to it again.

“I had bands in Chicago that never got off the ground,” he said. “The same in Austin. When I came back here, I played with the Original Sinners for a while, but then I stopped writing all together for years.”

Hrabko was raising a family in Kansas City and working as a freelance video editor, but around 2010, that voice within started talking to him again.

“The impulse to get back into music kept nagging me,” he said. “So I went back out and started doing solo/acoustic shows here and there.

“I was doing the singer/songwriter nights at Czar Bar, which were organized by Elaine McMilian. She really encouraged me a lot and did some booking for me. Things really took off from there, kind of unexpectedly.”

His style of music had evolved a lot since his punk/cow-punk days.

“When I was living in Austin, Rounder Records released a boxed set of Jimmie Rodgers and I bought it,” he said. “It blew me away, the coolest thing I ever heard. I really hadn’t gotten into too much old-time music until then. It became the blueprint for a lot of what I do.”

He also changed his songwriting style, though it still drew, in part, from some of the music he grew up with.

“I listened to a lot of prog rock and art rock and was always really attracted to complexity in music,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chops to emulate it.

“But I got into country and folk and old-time music and kind of put those ideas together. My songs had some interesting changes but were still in the traditional vein. I still don’t really know what I’m doing as far as theory goes, but if it sounds good, I follow it.”

Lyrics also became elemental to his songs, as you’d expect from a fan of Loudon Wainwright III, Randy Newman and, more recently, Michael Hurley.

“I’ve really come to value individuality in music,” Hrabko said, “people who remain themselves regardless of what goes on in the market place. And people whose lyrics are really revealing but are also really convincing. I can’t stop listening to (Hurley), who I just stumbled upon. He has all those qualities and a sense of humor.”

In 2013, Hrabko released “Gone Places,” his debut full-length. It was released under Scott Hrabko and the Rabbits, though the band was more of an informal gathering of skilled musicians.

“I brought in people to help me get the sounds I wanted,” he said. “Like the song ‘The Fool in the Song.’ I wanted it in this country-jazz vein Willie Nelson used to write in. I thought it would be great to have some very jazzy piano, so I got Pat Pearce to play on it and Matt Hopper, a jazz guitarist. It was like that for almost every song: ‘Who do I know that I can bring in?’ 

“Gone Places” showcased the kind of lyrics that earned Hrabko comparisons to songwriters like Lyle Lovett or John Prine though, Hrabko said, “I don’t necessarily agree with the comparisons.”

From “Baby, You Know Me”: “I used to be the king bee of many a honeycomb / A collector of nectar everywhere I roamed / But, Lord, those days are over and now I’m just a working drone / But somebody’s wife is lonesome tonight / I’ll make a beeline home.”

As strong as “Gone Places” was, its successor, “Biscuits and Gravy,” released in 2015, is even better.

“I had a core band for that one,” Hrabko said. “Kirk Scott on guitar and Emily Tummons on harmony vocals. She’s amazing. And Josh Arnold on bass, who is also a great harmony singer. They all knew the songs. We’d performed them live quite a bit, so it was more natural to lay down the tracks. We didn’t have to fuss too much.”

“Biscuits” got a lot of love locally and nationally. In a review at NoDepression.com, Kansas City writer Mike Warren wrote: “Hrabko’s songwriting starts in traditional country veins and then works outward, with generous splashes of western swing and the blues, and with big doses of Jack Kerouac’s continental wandering and wordplay.”

Saturday night at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave., Hrabko and the Rabbits will deliver songs from both albums. After a lineup change last spring, the songs are sounding slightly different.

“Kirk moved away, and Emily is too busy to be in bands right now,” Hrabko said. “We still have Josh and Tim Higgins (drums) but we’ve added Marco Pascolini on steel guitar and Fred Wickham on lead guitar. We sound different, much denser. We’re having a lot of fun with it. Songs are interpreted in really interesting ways.”

His sound is a bit elusive. Hrabko said people cite Bakersfield influences. It’s country, but it’s also roots-y and blues-y. One of his favorite songs on “Biscuits” is “I Dreamed I Quit My Job,” which he described as “an experimental, almost R&B thing, which is out of our range. We had fun with that.”

Comparisons can be flattering, but like most artists and creators, Hrabko said he only aims to sound like himself, to listen most carefully to that voice, that impulse, that compels him to write and sing.

“There are singers who have influenced me,” he said. “When I was in art school, I’d drive my friends up the wall doing impersonations of Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, which made me think, ‘Maybe I can sing.’ So he was an influence. So was Elvis. And Hank Williams.

“But mostly I think I sound like me. That’s what I feel most comfortable doing.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Saturday

Scott Hrabko and the Rabbits perform Saturday at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave. Dead Voices are also on the bill. Showtime is 10 p.m.

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