How Cody Jinks Turned Discontent and Thrash Metal into Country Success

With the dark honky-tonk country of 'I'm Not the Devil,' the former metal singer finds a passionate audience

Outlaw country singer Cody Jinks discusses his thrash metal past and the making of his album 'I'm Not the Devil.' Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Perhaps the most important lesson to yield from the 2016 presidential election is never underestimate the power of discontent.

There's a significant parallel in country music, where, in the past few years, the rancorous debate over what belongs in the genre and what doesn't has frequently boiled over in social media and across indie-major label lines. It's hard to judge the size of their ranks, but undoubtedly some longtime country fans feel like strangers when they switch on today's country radio. And, disenchanted, they've begun looking to outsiders like Cody Jinks for answers. 

The Texas singer-songwriter has skillfully made the most of these market conditions, galvanizing fervent support with traditional country arrangements and disgruntled anthems on his new album I'm Not the Devil.

"We go all over the United States, man, and people tell us, 'Thank you,'" says Jinks. "I hear 'thank you' more than I hear anything else. There's no bullshit in our show. There's no dancing, there's no sparkle-bottom jeans. We get out there and we rip people's faces off."

Though the tension between popular and traditional expressions of country music has long been a vital part of discourse about the genre, an insurgent group of more rough-hewn performers has risen to prominence in recent years. Sturgill Simpson's cosmic experiments have made him an upper-echelon entertainer, Jason Isbell's poetic flair has labeled him a revered tunesmith and Whitey Morgan – with whom Jinks has toured – has injected a gritty Rust Belt pride into his sweaty live shows. But Jinks may be the most palatable of the lot, blending an innate knack for hooks with the DGAF attitude suited for a rebel.

When I'm Not the Devil was released in August, it turned heads by debuting at Number Four on Billboard's Country Albums chart – not exactly unprecedented, but still unusual for an artist working outside the major label system. Jinks' name was suddenly on everyone's lips as a talented newcomer, even though he's more than a decade into his country career with four previous albums to his credit.

"Everybody seems to be calling it a breakout record," he says. "It's like my fifth record."

In person, Jinks is thin, with myriad tattoos blanketing his arms and a bushy black beard that's shaped vaguely like the body of a Flying V guitar. He's intense and thoughtful, given to introspection about the state of the world and the shadowy forces that conspire to shape it. That outlook is a pillar of I'm Not the Devil, which though not explicitly political, nonetheless gives a glimpse of the unrest swirling in the heart of America.

Before he became a country singer, Jinks fronted a thrash-metal band called Unchecked Aggression. Influenced by Metallica and particularly Pantera's Southern-fried grooves, they recorded songs such as "Hell Razor" and "Kill Me Again." That band didn't last, but the experience cemented Jinks' decidedly downcast, anti-mainstream stance in the present.

"It was very much, 'Fuck you, I'm gonna do it on my own,'" he recalls. "There's no market for it. You can't make money playing metal unless you're just one of the biggest of the bigs. I didn't care. I didn't care about money when I got into playing country music. I didn't even mean to start playing country music."

It's a familiar narrative: Jinks grew up on country music, learned to play country guitar from his dad, found metal and rebelled. After Unchecked Aggression broke up, he went back to basics and started writing country songs on an acoustic guitar. With time, he began to discover his voice. While early albums like Less Wise and 30 feel closer to standard Texas country singer-songwriter fare, seeds of his current sound were starting to appear on Blacksheep. By 2015's Adobe Sessions, he'd really found his stride, taking a more defiant approach with songs like "Cast No Stones" and appealing to the live-and-let-live sensibilities of regular folks.

I'm Not the Devil expands on all of the above, sounding supremely confident and purpose-driven. Jinks composed the title track with Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ward Davis and, though it bears some outlaw signifiers, its conciliatory tone offsets the more defiant numbers, including a cover of Sonny Throckmorton's "The Way I Am." But things get really dark with "Hand Me Down" and "Heavy Load," where he pulls the oh-so-metal trick of reciting the "Pale Horse" verse from the Book of Revelation.

"There's a lot of apocalyptic stuff, undertones in different songs," he says. "How the world has just manifested itself into a giant cesspool of shit. I don't like what I see."

Deepening that view, Jinks invokes the name of an embattled literary figure on "Vampires," which arrives near the end of I'm Not the Devil. Disgusted with the current state of the world, he views himself as "another Holden Caulfield" trying to save the innocent – like his own children – from tumbling off the metaphorical cliff into adulthood's brutal realities. It's a classic portrait of angst, amplified by Jinks' gloomy outlook and the exhausting-by-any-measure presidential race.

"Who told who to take the dreams out back to die?" he snarls in his robust baritone, firing volleys of questions at the titular vampires – politicians, news media, basically anyone he sees as obfuscating rather than trying to help. It's rooted in concern for his kids, now aged four and seven, and the world they'll inherit at some point.

"We try to shield our kids from that as long as we can," he says. "And all of a sudden one day my kids are gonna look at me and go, 'Wow, I had no idea how fucked up shit really is.' Like, 'Yeah, wow, welcome to the real world.'"

Like J.D. Salinger's beloved, alienated protagonist, Jinks values an esoteric kind of authenticity, the type of quality bestowed on a person by fans who want to see themselves reflected back in their favorite performers. For Jinks, that means accepting him, metaphorical warts and all.

"There's no smoke and mirrors," he says. "If I have a hangover, I have a fuckin' hangover. I'll probably tell em, 'I've got a hangover, man; I gotta drink a couple beers before I get to feeling better.'"

In Jinks' estimation, that's precisely why people keep returning to his shows. If there's a common thread between members of his audience, he figures it has something to do with their struggles to get by and the nagging suspicion that they're seen as marginal, undesirable people by the rest of the world. A Cody Jinks show offers solidarity.

"Bikers, suits, hippies, cowboys – all of those people are at our shows any given night," he says. "Men, women, old, young – just working-class people. That's what I came from. That's where all of us came from: people that worked hard, people that have had to work hard."

It's remarkably similar to the way self-sustaining fan communities spring up around scenes and performers in the metal world, a mindset that Jinks has repeatedly applied to his country career. Keep making the records, tour constantly and you'll find your people.

"Not every time's gonna be a better record, but if you stay on the road and put out independent records that people dig on," he says, "you're gonna earn a lot of fans that are really thirsting for substance, somebody they can say, 'That's our guy. I believe that guy. That guy has something to say.'"

That fierce loyalty has worked out to the benefit of artists like Sunny Sweeney, who played a series of shows with Jinks in 2016 after spending years in the nearby orbits with the Texas music scene. She immediately felt a warm response from a crowd who hadn't come there to see her and likens the experience to sharing the stage with fellow Texan Randy Rogers.

"Randy and Cody's fans, they respect their opinions so much that if they vouch for the person standing on stage opening for them, they're like, 'Oh we should listen to this too,'" says Sweeney. "Because that's the exact feeling I got."

Likening his album to a palate cleanser, Sweeney expresses her admiration for the independent approach that Jinks has applied to his career. His rise hasn't been a rapid one – at least until this year – but he still uses lessons from the past to safeguard against changing tides.

"I've run my country band entirely like a metal band," he says. "Exactly the same business model: save what you can, invest in yourself. Be smart with your merchandising. You can totally do it yourself. I tell kids that all the time. They're like, 'How do you do it?' I'm like, 'Be better than everybody else, work harder and it's a business of longevity.'"

As with politics, country music has its vocal supporters that demand change and a leader who can deliver it. In the present moment of unrest, Cody Jinks is their man.