Captain Joe Kent has one of the most unique jobs you can imagine for a country songwriter: He pilots giant 90-foot ships that often push two or three barges at a time across inland waterways from his home base near New Orleans to ports as far east as Florida, as far west as Texas, and as far north as Minnesota.
It’s a job not all that different from what Mark Twain was doing over 150 years ago, when Twain worked on and wrote about steamboats in the Mississippi River. But in large part thanks to some very modern technology that Mark Twain could only have dreamed of – Facebook videos of Joe’s songs – Joe Kent’s music is at long last starting to get heard along Music Row.
“I don’t do this for a living, I do it for fun,” Captain Joe says of his day job in a phone conversation as he prepares for another river voyage. “I get to drive a frigging boat. I’d do it for free.”
Happily he does get paid for this difficult and vital work, and early on Kent believed that the unusual work schedule of shipping, with 28 days and nights on board followed by a week or two off at home, would give him an ideal chance to pitch songs on Music Row between voyages.
But like countless aspiring tunesmiths for decades, most of what he encountered here for years was rejection.
“I was sending out 100 letters to Nashville each time I got home,” he said. “I would go broke running tape copies, giving tapes away and sending out demos.”
At first his wife was as excited as Joe was, but as the rejections kept piling in and chipping away at her husband’s pride, she got to the point she never wanted to hear anything else about music or Nashville.
“At one time I almost did quit songwriting,” he says. “But I don’t quit, because I just can’t. I wrote my first songs at 7 years old. For many years, I wanted to be a songwriter but didn’t have nothing to write about. When I went thru my divorce, songwriting kept me sane. I went thru some wild times after I got divorced, and I went from having written a handful of songs to from 300-400.”
His greatest influences are Hank Williams Jr. and singers from the Outlaw Movement, such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson. Captain Joe considers himself far more a songwriter than a singer, though his gritty vocals on autobiographical tunes like “Son Of The Highway” and “Dark Cloud Blues” are also strong and unique.
Hank Jr. is often known as Bocephus, so it’s not surprising that Joe sometimes bills himself as “Captain Jocephus.” Another of Joe’s heroes is the late, great Merle Kilgore, a prolific music publisher and songwriter (he co-wrote “Ring Of Fire”), who worked for years as Hank Jr.’s manager.
Kilgore had been a role model for Kent for years from afar, so naturally Joe mailed a package of his songs to Merle’s office. As usual, he didn’t hear anything back. But one Saturday afternoon when Captain Joe was ashore, he mustered up the nerve to phone Kilgore’s office.
“When the phone call went thru and Merle Kilgore answered it himself, man, it was cold chills went all over me,” Captain Joe recalls. “I introduced myself, and we had a great, awesome conversation. He gave me permission to submit 4 or 5 songs. Of course, the songs got turned down, but he called me personally afterwards and he was very supportive.”
Kilgore told Joe, “son, just keep on writin’ them songs. You never know, you just might write a No. 1 song.”
After years and years of rejection, that series of calls from Kilgore was enough to inspire Captain Joe Kent to keep writing and keep pitching forever. “Here’s a guy in that position that called me personally,” Joe still recalls, with a smile.
Kilgore, a fellow Louisianan who also charted 8 Billboard country singles as an artist including 1960’s Top 10 “Love Has Made You Beautiful,” died in 2005 at age 70.
Hurricane Katrina was a traumatic period on the Gulf Coast, and Joe’s next video “My New Orleans” was originally penned for the victims of Katrina. When the hurricane struck and devastated New Orleans, Captain Joe was on a boat doing government contract work on the inland waterways between Houston and Panama City, Florida. For several days, he couldn’t find out what had happened to wife or his home near New Orleans.
“I had a friend of mine pick me up off the boat at a bridge,” Joe says. “Despite sheriff’s orders that nobody go into that area, I went and found my wife and told her I was okay.”
His home and yard had suffered some damage, including the destruction of a chicken coop that left dozens of chickens squawking around the yard. For weeks, friends and neighbors had to use Joe’s swimming pool for bathing.
“My wife went 31 days without electricity. She lived off the eggs from the chickens,” Joe says. “I’d stop and get groceries on the way home, and would bring her bags of ice since we had no power for the refrigerators.”
Captain Joe Kent has lived a life that is in many ways like a country song. Now at last his own songs are being heard and his videos are being watched.
By Phil Sweetland