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Travelin’ Man : ‘Without Shadow of a Doubt, My Best Work’s Ahead of Me,’ Says Kenny Rankin

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Kenny Rankin looked content. Leaning back comfortably in his chair at a Calabasas restaurant last week, he checked off the entries in an upbeat status report:

A new record, his first in 10 years.

His new songwriting partner, the best he has ever had, who also happens to be his wife of four years, Aime.

And, for the first time in his more than two-decade career, a strong financial investment in his own music.

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It has taken a while. For years Rankin has been the king of the one-nighters, working every imaginable kind of venue.

“I’ve dragged my guitar from coast to coast and border to border,” he said, “because I love the music that I’ve been privileged to do.” Rankin will present a broad selection of that music at At My Place in Santa Monica tonight and at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday night.

Born in New York, the singer-songwriter-guitarist spent much of the ‘60s roaming through a kaleidoscopic musical life. He made his first record (“Saturday After the Game”) at 17, hung out with rock legend Jimi Hendrix and Brazilian songwriter Joao Gilberto, became a semi-regular on “The Tonight Show” (when it was still based in New York) and wrote songs for Mel Torme, Carmen McRae and Peggy Lee.

One of Rankin’s most unusual experiences took place shortly after he began to play the guitar at 22.

“I’d only been playing the thing for a few months when I was hanging out with Dion one day at Columbia Records,” Rankin said. “We ran into Tom Wilson, who was producing Dylan at the time, and he asked me what I thought about Dylan recording with an electric group.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to hear that.’ And Wilson said, ‘Do you want to play on the date?’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve only been playing eight months, but Dylan only uses three chords,’ so I said, ‘Does it pay money?’ And Tom said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s how I wound up playing rhythm guitar on ‘Bringing It All Back Home.’ ”

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Rankin went on to write such songs as “Haven’t We Met,” “In the Name of Love” and “Peaceful” while he continued to record a series of highly praised albums for the Little David/Atlantic label.

But both the recording market and his belief in it began to change in the late ‘70s, and he began to concentrate on live performances.

Rankin is somewhat phlegmatic about his long absence from the recording studios. “I pretty much decided to quit the recording part of the business,” he said, “because I started getting chewed up and spit out too much. I found I had surrounded myself with situations and people that were less than productive.

“There was one company that was set up as a tax shelter. We recorded and worked until one day when they suddenly said, ‘Gee, we’re out of money, sorry.’ And now the material’s all in the trunk of some lawyer in Orange County.”

“You know, we make some poor decisions, sometimes,” he sighed. “But I have to figure that it wasn’t my best work anyhow. Because I know, without the shadow of a doubt, that my best work’s ahead of me.”

“Hiding in Myself” (Cypress Records), Rankin’s first new album in 10 years, and his first songwriting venture with Aime Rankin, represents a major step in that direction. With the added participation of such notables as David Crosby, Robben Ford, John Sebastian and Jimmy Webb, the release has the look of a winner. But it took a while for the two Rankins to get their songwriting up to speed.

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“We were like two souls adrift in this abyss of creativity,” Rankin said, smiling across the table at his raven-haired wife. “She had these books of poetry that she was reluctant to show me, and I had these melodies that I didn’t want to give up because I didn’t know who was going to own them.”

Aime Rankin nodded agreement. “We finally got smart enough,” she said, “to put the poetry and the melodies together, and that’s how the album got started.”

Rankin views his return to recordings as the start of a new phase in his career. But he has no intention of giving up the continuing interaction with live audiences that has sustained him for the last decade. The mechanics of traveling may not be appealing to Rankin, but he feels that the joy of performance more than makes up for the long hours on the road.

“The truth is that I get paid to travel; I sing for nothing,” he said. “To get me on a plane, 30,000 feet in the air, with no feathers, wondering if my luggage will arrive, wondering if they’ll give my car away, if they’ll give my room away, if I’ll be able to find the place-- that’s what I get paid for.

“But once I get on stage,” Rankin continued, “I’m home. Because I get into connection with this audience, this wonderful, loyal audience that has somehow always been there for me, for all these years, across all these miles.”

Kenny Rankin will perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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