When Austin Jenckes wrapped his gravelly pipes around covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man’ and The Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ during season five of the television series ‘The Voice’, you simply knew you were hearing someone special who would soon be on the radio with original material. The only thing you did not expect was that it would take six years for that to happen. For Austin, it’s all been part of a master plan, however, as he spent several years honing his songwriting chops in Nashville before cutting his first album ‘If You Grew Up Like I Did’, which has just been released. The singer, who hails from Duvall Washington, near Seattle, was preparing to launch his current tour with a homecoming show that serves as a coming of age of sorts.
“Man, I’m so stoked because it’s been a long time coming”, says Austin, who is calling from his mom’s house where he is staying for a few days prior to the show, just hanging out and doing a little writing. “I grew up right by the venue and I’ve been wanting to play there for a long time. The first time I called them to ask if I could play there they said ‘If you and your family want to come and have a little party, that’s O.K., but there’s no way we’re going to book you because there’s no way you can sell this thing out’. Since that day I’ve made it a point in my mind to play here one day, so it’s going to be pretty satisfying for me”.
Persistent is certainly an apt word to use when describing Austin. The first song on the album, ‘We Made It’, is an uplifting number about a couple that struggles through some hard times but the adversity makes their relationship stronger in the end. The song is also somewhat autobiographical for Austin as it can be seen as an account of his growth process, both from a domestic and business point of view.
“I wanted to do something that was close to home. That first verse where I sing about my wife’s father saying ‘Dreams don’t pay the light bills’, is all about why my wife and I moved from Seattle to Nashville. I had to figure out this whole music thing but I had to take care of my family first. I’d saved up enough money to pay rent for a few months and I ended up getting a job driving a forklift.”
“The whole idea of moving to Nashville came about because I heard that they pay you to write songs,” he laughs. “I thought that was crazy so I had to go see for myself if it was true. It took me about three years after I was on The Voice to sign my first publishing deal. I felt comfortable writing every day, and it wasn’t until we had our daughter that it just hit me that I need to be putting all of my efforts into performing. In Washington, I saw some of my performer friends working really hard but having a tough time financially. You know, they were driving around the whole country in a van and really struggling. I moved to Nashville because I just wanted to make something of it that would last. What’s funny is now that I’m married and I have a two-year-old daughter, I’m driving around in a van.”
Although Austin is considered a country artist there is a strong element of blues in some of his songs. A dirty slide guitar kicks off ‘Never Left Memphis’ and then the song goes into overdrive with some terrific R & B background vocals in the chorus. There is also some nice bluesy guitar in ‘Never Forget’ that reminds one of some of John Mayer’s fine southern style picking.
“Well, the blues is a huge influence and John Mayer came out when I was in high school,” Austin begins. “I grew up listening to a lot of classic blues because my dad played that stuff. And of course, I listened to classic rock like Steve Miller and Joe Walsh, who are kind of blues guitar players at heart. When I had my bands in high school and college we were kind of more like jam bands. We had a saxophone player and a mandolin player and our songs were sometimes nine minutes long, so roots music has been there the whole time for me.”
“As far as Never Left Memphis goes, I came up with the title and my thought was that a lot of cool music started here. It kind of travelled the world and influenced different genres and different people, but at the same time, it never left Memphis. It’s always been there at the root of the blues and stuff like that. I originally wrote it to a very pop track but about a year afterward, I was reading the lyrics and I thought it shouldn’t sound modern at all. It should sound like the blues so I kind of went and redid it.”
The first sign that Austin was a writer to be reckoned with was when Lee Brice recorded one of his songs, ‘American Nights’, which also appears on If You Grew Up Like I Did. (“Lee writes his own songs plus a lot of people pitch songs to him, so it was a little surreal when I found out he cut my track.”) Ironically it is ‘Fat Kid’, the one song that Austin did not have a hand in writing, that comes out of the gate as the album’s first single.
“I didn’t write it but I completely relate to it. At the time we were living with Neil Mason, The drummer of the Cadillac Three. (He is now Austin’s manager) He showed me Lori McKenna’s stuff and I became a huge fan. One day Neil said he was going to write with Andrew Dorf and Lori, and a couple of days later he sent me a text with a little work tape called Fat Kid and I just listened to it over and over. I relate to the title because when I went to middle school I was a big kid. I wrestled in middle school but I was always a heavyweight because I was, like, 190 pounds in Grade Eight. I went through a transformation in high school. I got to start on the football team in my sophomore year and I became involved in a lot of programs. I ended up being the Homecoming King in my senior year. I feel like we’re not really all that different when it comes to those little stereotypical things that you get labelled in school. You grow up and realize that we all have the same insecurities whether it’s being overweight or just how you look in general.”
Perhaps the most heartfelt song on the record is ‘If You’d Been Around’, a song he co-wrote with Tammi Kidd and her husband Lynn Hutton. The song draws from a very similar and tragic circumstance experienced by Austin and Tammi.
“Tammi lost her dad when she was three and I lost mine when I was 16,” he says. “Both of our dads took their own lives so it’s kind of a unique situation that’s brought us close together as friends and writers. When we were writing it that day, Lynn sings on the tape because me and Tammi couldn’t even talk. The first time I sang the demo I probably did 13 takes of the vocal and there wasn’t one where I could get all the way through. My dad taught me how to play guitar and I have memories of him. But from graduating high school, through going to college, to meeting my wife and having my daughter, he wasn’t here for any of that. We wanted to write a song that wasn’t too specific where people couldn’t relate to it, but we wanted it to show real emotion. I played it for an old friend the other day and he said he was wondering when the happy twist was going to come around, but it doesn’t come around. A lot of those songs figure out how to have some kind of redemption but we just kind of chose to stick to our guns.”
It will be another emotionally charged moment for Austin when he sings that song on Father’s Day when he makes his first appearance at the Grand Ol’ Opry. (“At first I was really excited but I’ve seen a bunch of friends that I grew up playing with and they’re freaking out about me doing the Opry, so I’ve become a little more nervous.”) Still, after making it to the third round of the sing-offs and performing in front of 16 million people on The Voice, Austin is bound to be cool as a cucumber for the show.
“I really enjoyed being on the show and it was a good test for me, just with all of that craziness of getting that kind of attention or fame,” Austin says. “The main thing The Voice taught me is the difference between the music business and the entertainment business. You have to know when you’re supposed to be a guy and a human rather than trying to be some version of yourself.
“I also learned a lot from my coach on the show, Blake Shelton. It wasn’t what he said, but it was more about who he is and what he did. He’s extremely busy and extremely good at being himself. What I learned from him was being able to be present in the moment all the time. Every time I walked in the room I didn’t feel like he was busy or distracted or that he cared about anybody else. It’s an amazing gift to be that kind of person in those situations, and I’ve always tried to remember and apply that because I can be all over the place.”
Austin will be playing several U.S. dates through August before heading off for a tour of England and Germany in September. While Simple Man remains a staple of his live show, he chose not to cut it in the studio for the new album.
“I know there are a lot of people over the years that have come just to hear that,” he says, and then laughs. “I’m worried that if I put it on an album nobody will come to the shows anymore.”
Other Roots stuff:
JUNO and Canadian Country Music Award winners the James Barker Band have just released their sophomore EP “Singles Only”. The seven-track EP includes their anthemic love song, “Good Together” which was the most spun Canadian Country song in 2018 at Country radio, plus their latest single “Keep It Simple” which is the most streamed song in country music so far this year. Speaking about Singles Only, the band comments, “Our sound has matured, but it still stays true to what we want. Whether it be our country influences, our pop influences or anything else, it still just has that J.B.B. stamp on it that we think all of our fans are gonna be really excited about.” The band has announced a direct support slot to Tim McGraw at the Calgary Saddledome in July, and they will also be performing at several Canadian summer festivals.
Canadian blues icons Downchild are celebrating their 50th anniversary with a free homecoming concert in Toronto. The free show takes place at the TD Mainstage as part of the Toronto International Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 22 at 9:00 p.m. Leading the band will be an original member ‘Mr. Downchild’, Donnie Walsh, and he and the band will be joined onstage by fellow Canadians Dan Ackroyd, who will hopefully dust off his harp from his Blues Brothers days, and David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer. And if that isn’t enough reason to party, Downchild will be joined by Mr. Bad Apple himself, David Wilcox, plus piano player Gene Taylor of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
The self-titled debut album from rootsy country rockers, Black Mountain Whiskey Rebellion will be available on all platforms on June 7. The group brings many years of touring experience, studio time and multi-faceted musicianship to the mix. BMWR have merged a fascination with the history of the North American moonshiner and a love of Southern power chord guitar rock into a collection of smoky backwoods tales. Their debut single “Holy Smoke”, together with BMWR’s self-titled follow-up track, have a combined 1.2 million streams to date. This is no small feat given the songs have never been released to radio, with the collective instead relying on a grassroots approach to sharing new music and gaining fans.