Don't look now, but that tight-lipped man behind you in line at the supermarket might just be Long Beach-based singer-songwriter Kern Richards.


He's easier to spot lately, since he's shaved his head — and perhaps because he is by nature as invisible as an empty shopping cart. You'll not hear him exclaiming over Dolly Parton's latest tabloid mishap as he nears the cashier.


"The thing with me is, I'm naturally shy. I could go months without talking to people," says Richards, over lunch recently at a restaurant in downtown Long Beach where — in a bit of a switch — he did more talking than eating. "It's like the opposite of stage fright."


It wasn't always this way for Richards, who will play a set of his country-influenced material Friday night at DiPiazza's Restaurant and Lounge in Long Beach. An original member of the once-feared Pig Children, one of Orange County's wildest punk bands of the early '80s, Richards left the group in 1985. "The trouble with that music is, it's like if you're a painter and you only paint in bright red," he says. Plus, there were just a few too many late nights. "It was destructive and I saw the whole thing going to hell," says Richards, the Pig Children's bass player-then rythym guitarist.


In particular, there was one night when the entire band turned out to see the Birthday Party at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood. After some serious merrymaking involving stuff you're not supposed to do, things turned purple — literally — and at the evening's end, it took them two hours to find their car.


Still, those were strange days, he says. "when I left the band, I thought of those guys every single day," says Richards, who heard news of his old friends not too long ago. "I thought they were probably all dead, because we were all insane."


Off the stage meant his natural reticence set in.. "I guess I thought performing music wasn't worth it," he says. "But I got to the point where I realized that music is not something I just do, it's something I am."


Raised in a household where story songs — by the likes of the Clancy Brothers, Johnny Cash and Cal Smith — were the order of the day, Richards found himself being pulled toward music that said something — and picking up a pen to write his own songs. As for his picking style, well, he copied that from Ramblin' Jack Elliott.


"I actually learned to finger-pick from him, although he doesn't know it," Richards says of his hero, whom he considers an original punk rocker in spirit. "Every local show he did, I'd go down in front and sit and watch him. It's so fluid, it's obviously in his bones. You've got to learn from somebody like that."


During the early 1990s, he started doing open-mike nights in and around the Hollywood area, playing the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, the Natural Fudge Company, the Dixie Belle in Downey alongside grizzled bluesman Top Jimmy, and anywhere he could get a spot. Four years later, as Clinton's second term crested, he found himself an overnight success — on a small scale.


"Monday, May 18th, 1998 — that's the night I turned professional. I had slummed for years before that," Richards says, recalling a gig at Jillian's in downtown Long Beach where he caught the eye of songwriter and band booker Mike Martt, formerly of Tex and The Horseheads. "I met him when I was booking Song Shop at the Blue Cafe," says Martt, who was leaving the building that night after finishing his Jillian's set. "Big fancy place with high ceilings and I was like, 'I gotta get outta here.' Then Kern started singing and I literally stopped in my tracks."


Just being recognised made the difference; "having somebody seeing (my songs) as having worth," Richards says. And Martt did, impressed that Richards sang in his talking voice, a gravelly baritone that at times is uncannily close to that of Tom Waits. And like Waits, Martt thinks Richards' work "is natural, it's not put on."


His songs sound as if they're a real day in the life:

"Woke up standing in a bar somewhere, time was sitting still / Turned my back

 to the past with the strength of my will. Looking for my friends, my eyes drawing

 blanks / Emptiness pulling me that I've got to fill,"

he sings on "Alcohol Dreams," a track off his self-pressed four-song EP he sells at his shows. Turns out that it's gritty honesty isn't too far off.


"Lately, I've written a lot of songs about drinking," says Richards, a driver at his day job, who spends a lot of time between here and Nevada. The solitude helps him write, he says. "There's this kind of buzz that goes on in the desert."


Lately, Richards has had something of a buzz around himself — or, at least, he's reaching a point where gigs are starting to make themselves available to him. Writing, too, has eased to where he just has to make sure pencil and paper are within arm's reach. To ensure they're available, he recalls the words of another hero — folk pioneer Woody Guthrie.


"Woody Guthrie had good advice. He said, 'Always make sure you have pen and paper handy,' and I have pen and paper nearly everywhere in my apartment — even the bathroom," Richards says. "Strange things can happen when you're ready for them."


Theo Douglas, Long Beach Press-Telegram

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