Written by Noel Neff
Ricky Kendall’s soulful music has echoed through many venues in Gainesville, entertaining fans drawn to his folksy, bluesy ballads.
However, nowhere have his crisp vocals and heartfelt lyrics been more appreciated than at UF Health Shands Hospital.
As a musician-in-residence, Kendall makes his hospital rounds five days a week. He visits patients’ rooms and frequently strikes up mellow tunes on his guitar in the emergency room to help people get their minds out of crisis mode.
“It’s fulfilling to care for people in this way,” Kendall said. “I try to remind someone of what life is like outside the hospital walls. I look at it as another, deeper human connection.”
Kendall, 32, works 20 hours a week at Shands, balancing those duties with a singing/songwriting career that already includes one album, Soul Searching, and another one in the works. On stage, he often performs with his seven-member band called, appropriately, the Healers.
On Soul Searching, Kendall offers up tunes (such as “Open Arms” and “Speak to Me”) with inspirational lyrics but also tracks (such as “Old Man Blues” and “Sunshine”) that capture the gritty human experience. The title track, “Soul Searching,” is a feel-good song that oozes authenticity.
Although a Christian by faith and the son of a preacher, Kendall prefers his music not be labeled.
“There are many things attached to Christianity in this culture right now that I do not agree with and that I don’t stand for, but I do stand for the love of Christ and I stand for doing the best to embody that,” he said. “If people perceive goodness in my music, I don’t consider that it has to be called ‘Christian music’.”
Kendall didn’t imagine music as a career until he was 15 and with his church group on a mission trip to Guatemala. Young Ricky was riding on the group’s bus and singing spiritual songs when a woman named Violet Steffel, who was overseeing the trip, made a prophetic remark to Kendall.
“She said, ‘Ricky, you’re going to use your voice to touch people someday,’” he said. “When she said it, it was like a light turned on in me. I don’t know why she said it because I didn’t think I sounded very good.”
Violet’s soft praise gave Kendall just the encouragement he needed to focus on music.
Although his grandfather was a jazz pianist, Kendall didn’t pick up an instrument until his teens. He taught himself to play the guitar while singing in a couple of bands.
A native of Jensen Beach in Martin County, Kendall studied musical theater at Indian River Community College in nearby Fort Pierce. He gravitated to Gainesville in his late teens when two of his best friends enrolled at the University of Florida.
“When I came here, I fell in love with the area,” he said. “I was like, ‘This can’t be Florida, with the trees, the hills and the springs.’”
He also was unaware of Gainesville’s history as a music hotbed, the birthplace of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a host of very talented bands and musicians.
“When I got here, I didn’t know anything about the music scene,” he said. “I started listening to Dylan, playing folk guitar and writing songs, but I pretty much stayed in my room. Then, about six or seven years ago, I finally realized there was a downtown and that there were people doing this sort of thing.”
Kendall has performed solo on two tours but prefers to stay closer to home with his band. The Healers include Jared Groom on drums, Ryan Baker on keyboard, Michael Claytor on banjo, Sam Moss on background vocals, Don Blitch on harmonica, Ashley Wilkinson on bass and Jon Alexander on pedal steel.
“I’m really grateful for this town and the people in it,” Kendall said. “There’s such a sense of appreciation and such an investment in what I do from everybody here that it’s truly fostered artistic growth in me like I don’t think anywhere else could have done.”
Working at Shands, he said, has made him to realize what’s really important in life.
“I’d like to do this worthwhile work for as long as I can,” Kendall said. “It’s certainly been a game-changer for me.”
Danielle DeCosmo, a local singer and performer, knew Kendall would be an ideal musician-in-residence when she met him.
“Not only is Ricky a music encyclopedia, but he is compassionate and sincere and the type of person you want to open your soul to,” she said. “That is why I knew he would be perfect for this job, which is not just about playing songs for people but about being present for people.”
A typical visit begins a bit awkwardly, with Kendall and the patient exchanging sideways glances.
“Some are skeptical, like ‘What are you doing here?’” he said. “Most of the time they’re thrilled with the experience. They’ll tell me what they want to hear. My repertoire includes folk, country, classic, rock, jazz, a little Irish music and Motown soul.”
On any given visit, Kendall might offer Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” or perhaps something older, such as “Moon River” or “My Blue Heaven.” More than half of those he visits are cancer patients.
“I think that music, no matter what the situation, brings out emotions all their own,” Kendall said. “Often the patient will tell me, ‘Keep going. I need this.’”
“Ricky has the unique ability to deeply connect with both adult and pediatric patients in very significant ways,” said Tina Mullen, director of the Artists-in-Residence program at Shands. “He listens carefully to their story and provides music that soothes their soul in difficult times.”
Mullen said Kendall once spent time writing and recording a song with a young patient. The patient’s family was thrilled.
“When that patient slipped into an unexpected coma, her parents played that recording to her over and over again,” Mullen said. “He gave them the gift of hope through his music.”
Kendall’s own near-death experience as a child has had a profound effect on how he goes about his duties. When he was 6, toward the end of first grade, he was run over by a pickup truck on the street in front of a friend’s house.
The accident left him in a coma for a week with a broken arm, a gash in his head and bruised internal organs.
“I think the doctors were telling my parents that I was not going to pull through, so it was kind of surprising when I did,” he said.
One thing he remembers clearly about the recovery period is nurses singing to him. Now he cheerfully returns the favor to patients at Shands—sometimes with unexpected results.
About three months ago, while visiting a hospital room, Kendall learned that the patient’s family was from his hometown. He also discovered that they had all attended the same church.
“So I say, ‘Do you know Violet Steffel?’” Kendall said. “And they all go, ‘Yeah, we know Violet!’”
Within minutes, they called Violet and let her know that Ricky Kendall, the teenager on the bus with the distinctive voice, was now singing in hospital rooms, touching peoples’ lives.
Watch Ricky Kendall perform “Open Arms” live at Medusa Studios at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V0sJg6Xl5o
To learn more about the Arts in Medicine program at UF Health please visit the official website.