Austin Jenckes is glad to be back on the road. Alison Dewar caught up with him before the recent Roundhouse gig to hear how the pandemic has influenced a new, mellower style of music and why he feels it is so important to help other people tell their stories.
I think it’s fair to say that when Ashley McBryde’s UK tour hit the stage, she had something of a secret weapon with her. Austin Jenckes is, quite literally, the quiet man – he talks very softly – but when he sings, this man and his guitar can hold the audience in the palm of his hand.
In the run-up to the shows there were plenty of people asking for a heads-up on who Austin was, which songs to look out for, etc etc. Fast forward and he won himself plenty of new fans, both over here and subsequently supporting Brett Eldredge in Europe.
The last time Six Shooter spoke to Austin, it was March 2020, and he was on schedule to appear at C2C – we all know what happened then. Pandemic aside however, he was also in the fine-tuning stage of a full-length album, with the plan to finish it up later that year.
More than two years on, the world has spun on its axis a few times over, and that version of the new album never did make the light of day. What we did see on May 6 however, was the release of Austin’s latest single River Jordan, which was inspired by Johnny Cash’s baptism in the River Jordan in 1971. Check out the audio video on YouTube here:
Austin explains more: “I recorded that in January 2021 and the message on it is kind of what I was talking about, trying to find healing, to let go of things and move on.
“Obviously, everybody loves Johnny Cash and what he stood for. Again, I’ve wanted to be the kind of artist that brought all different kinds of walks of life together and that’s what I love so much about Johnny Cash.
“He didn’t care what people thought but he loved people too, so there was a purpose behind all of that, he wasn’t just messing around trying to be an idiot. With a lot of more rebellious music now – not to be judgmental or anything – I feel sometimes like there’s not a point behind it. To me, with Johnny Cash, there was always purpose.”
The conversation led me to ask how he would like to be remembered.
“Oh man, that’s a really great question, an intense question. You know, I fight with that a lot,” says Austin.
“But I think just as somebody who cared about everyone and wanted to meet people where they’re at. Help other people tell their stories and also at the same time, staying true genuinely to my own.
“I believe there’s still a lot of common ground left in the world and I think that because of media and a lot of different things, we’re kind of driven apart. It’s kind of non-stop, but I think if you turn that stuff off (social media) and you just walk around, the heart of people are stood there. You have to be patient and look for it and put more time and focus on that.”
And getting back on the road is what’s all about now for Austin. Although his next album was so nearly ready, he says without being able to tour there was little point in releasing it. He talks too about his own mental health and how that has influenced the direction his music is now taking.
“For me, touring is the root of what I do and it just didn’t seem like the right thing to put out a record if I didn’t have any shows and so that was part of it. The other part was just wanting to really be set on what I was trying to do. For me, performing live is what is always guiding that.
“I think I ran around in a million different directions and right now, I’m kind of finding my way. Coming out of lockdown I think a lot of people are going through lots of things, whether that’s mental health issues, financial issues or just plain health issues.
“I have always wanted to make music that was healing and helpful and in a bigger way than just having a good time. That’s something that’s important and I think it’s opened up those floodgates for me.
“At the beginning of lockdown I was just trying to write hits because I was like ‘shit man, I need money’, so I was trying to figure out how to write something that maybe someone else would record; or to get a song on a TV show because I knew that I wasn’t going to have any income.
“I’m in a different headspace now, I feel like I’ve really got my finger on the pulse of some different, more meaningful songs.”
He reckons he has some 20-odd songs that are “pretty close” right now and plans to put new music out every couple of months during 2022, the idea being to lead up to an album at some stage.
Of those 20, some 17 songs have been written with Neil Mason, his long-time friend and collaborator, who just happens to be his manager and the drummer with The Cadillac Three. Neil was one of the co-writers on Austin’s hits Fat Kid and Never Left Memphis from the album If You Grew Up Like I Did.
A fellow collaborator is Everette’s Anthony Olympia and Austin reveals that last summer Ashley McBryde herself was pencilled in for a writing session, a plan which never came to fruition due to covid.
Neil has certainly put his stamp on the new music, co-writing River Jordan with Ryan Beaver and, such time as the album does make an appearance, he and Austin will be co- producing it themselves on an independent label.
Staying true to himself and his music is an essential part of who he is, but without a major label behind you, it can be a lot harder when you still have bills to pay.
“Yeah, it’s kind of twofold,” says Austin. “There’s the personal side which is taking care of my wife and daughter. We decided in 2018 that my wife would stay home (with daughter Ravenna) as it was less expensive than going to work because childcare cancelled it out.
“Then when pandemic hit, we were just all hanging round the house together. It was very telling, what I like to do with my music, with my time and energy. I want to be travelling as much as possible.
“My goal is to have them out with me; which means I need a bus, which means I need a lot of money (laughter). So my goals are as big as they ever have been.
“Since I’ve been doing this more on my own over the last year or so…it’s weird, I am not afraid, I’m just in awe of how it keeps going. I don’t understand why financially (laughter). Neil is someone who has always been in my corner and works very, very hard to make sure that things continue to move forward. As I told my wife the other day, ‘I don’t understand how we can pay the mortgage or how we have food…’ but things just kind of keep happening and everything is ok.”
When it eventually arrives, Austin reveals the album will be quite different to what he originally envisaged. It will not only be mellower but, given much of the music was written and shared online instead of in a room with co-writers, he says one of the challenges is figuring out how to get the new material out there live.
He enjoyed his time on the road with Ashley – he joined them throughout on the tour bus, an experience he calls “inspiring” – and often snuck back in to watch her set after coming off stage himself. He admits to having a “couple of moments”, choking up because he missed the power of great music so much.
From Ashley’s final gig in Bristol it was a quick hop and a jump on a plane to Berlin, where he supported Brett Eldredge for three nights (Munich and Amsterdam being the other cities) before finally heading home – sharing a touching photo of him and Ravenna in the pool.
While saying he “doesn’t have anything on the books” in terms of return trips to the UK, Austin hints at a keenness to return in the autumn
He says wife Brittany is a big Anglophile, so much so that she wants to live here one day, which means if he does make it back, it’s pretty likely to be with his plus one. Five-year-old Ravenna may just have to wait a little longer, but she does have one ace up her sleeve in the shape of Daddies With Daughters, a beautiful song that Austin played at some of his UK gigs.
I asked what Ravenna’s reaction had been to the song. “She knows…she definitely knows and she just loves music in general. But it’s funny, what that song kind of sparked is that now any time I have a new song, she goes ‘is this one about me?’”
For those who are keen followers of Austin, I couldn’t let him go without asking where his love of the unicyle comes from – check out his Instagram for clips if you haven’t seen them.
It turns out that when he was growing up, his elementary school had a unicycling team and one of its biggest highlights was a half-time performance during a Seattle SuperSonics professional basketball team match.
He still likes to ride for fun and clearly, this is a man of many talents – if he ever takes to the stage with a unicycle AND a guitar, you know you’ll be in for a even more of a treat!
River Jordan is available to download on the usual streaming sites
Roundhouse photo credits: Craig Dewar, Country Clix