When Austin Jenckes made his Grand Ole Opry debut in June, the Duvall, Washington, native had only expected he’d be performing two songs: “We Made It,” the track that opens his new album If You Grew Up Like I Did, and “If You’d Been Around,” a deeply personal ballad about the father he lost to suicide when he was 16.
The Opry crowd, however, along with host Vince Gill, demanded more, and spurred on by a standing ovation, Jenckes returned for a third song, which yielded yet another ovation.
“Vince said, ‘Play the other one.’ I said, ‘Which other one?'” Jenckes recalls with a bemused laugh. The “other one” was “Fat Kid,” the Lori McKenna, Andrew Dorff and Neil Mason co-write that Jenckes identified with the moment he first heard it. Since releasing the ballad, “Fat Kid” has become a bit of an anthem for the former contestant on The Voice. It’s a tale of being an outcast — a fast girl, the math nerd, the fat kid, as the lyrics go — not just in high school but into adulthood. “Ain’t life just like high school sometimes,” he sings. “You’re probably sitting in the back of a cafeteria by yourself.”
Jenckes’ gift, as the Grand Ole Opry audience and Gill learned that night, is in conveying such vulnerability and isolation in a way not often seen in country music during the recent bro-country era. Until just recently, country songs were jacked up with bravado, attitude, and machismo — it was the Attitude Era of the WWE set to a twang and hip-hop beat.
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But Jenckes, who co-wrote every track on If You Grew Up Like I Did aside from “Fat Kid,” says the vibe is changing in Nashville. He sees it firsthand in the writing room.
“I can feel it, man. You just walk in and everybody wants to say something [meaningful]. The difference for me is now being in a position where somebody will want to write a song that I would sing,” he says. “Forever there, it was people trying to guide me in a different direction.”
That direction frequently read “Party Song, This Way.” But as Jenckes, sipping on an iced tea at a coffee shop in the Nations neighborhood of Nashville, will tell you, good-timing fluff isn’t his strong suit. “I can’t sing a sexy-time song either,” he jokes. He is, however, wildly adept at wringing genuine emotion out of the songs he writes and performs. To watch Jenckes sing and play his guitar on a stage, often testing the upper reaches of his register (“screaming my head off,” he calls it), is to witness an artist fully let his guard down and embrace the human condition. Even if it can momentarily knock him off his game.
During the first few lines of “We Made It” at his Opry debut, the excitement got the better of him and he lost his breath. While some artists would take it as a cue to dial it back, Jenckes pushed even harder, using the moment to connect with the audience.
“Maybe they thought I was going to mess up or something, but it brought everybody in,” says Jenckes, who will make a return engagement to the Opry on July 13th. “I’ve been searching for a long time trying to figure out what I wanted to say with music — I want to connect with people on a deeper level. I don’t want to do it just for the sake of moving my career forward. To me, music is healing and it’s meant for more than just that.”
The struggle for Jenckes though is in getting his music heard in the first place. While his appearance on Season 5 of The Voice gifted him with fleeting reality-TV stardom (“For six months after the show, no joke, I could have been Barack Obama,” he says), he had to navigate some pitfalls on the road to releasing If You Grew Up Like I Did. He recorded an entire other album and scrapped it at the last minute, and lost his publishing deal around the same time he and his wife Brittany had a baby girl. For a year and a half, he struggled to secure a new one. During that time, he flew from Nashville back to Washington 17 times to play gigs that he knew would pay enough to cover his bills.
Today, Jenckes is landing better shows (he opened for Brothers Osborne this month and will return to the U.K. in September), but as an independent artist, he’s unable to ever stop hustling: When he’s not promoting his album on the road (see his tour dates below), he’s doing press; when he’s not playing live, he’s fostering his social media. He and his manager Neil Mason (Jenckes and the Cadillac Three drummer roomed together when Jenckes first landed in Nashville eight years ago) hired a company to help with that, but for the most part, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are his responsibility.
“People want to know what it’s like to be a musician, but also what it’s like to be who you are. But how do you find a way to affect people emotionally? What is an Instagram equivalent picture of authenticity?” he asks, well aware that the ultimate goal is to sell enough albums and tickets — without the benefit of a record label or even country radio — so that he can continue to record and tour. “I try as hard as I can to say [on social media], ‘It’s still cool to buy whole albums,'” he laughs.
But whether his fans are buying his record or just saying hello after a show, it’s those personal connections that mean the most to Jenckes — and, like those two Opry ovations, validate his decision to pursue his career.
“I like sitting down and talking to people more than music. It fuels me,” he says. “People talk about ‘adding value.’ What’s our service? What am I here to do? For me it’s to try to open up a window to allow people to feel something. The only way I know how to make this work is to be emotional.”
Austin Jenckes on tour:
July 11 — Varysburg, NY @ Jam in the Valley
July 12 — Chicago @ Windy City Smokeout
July 13 – Nashville @ Grand Ole Opry
July 14 — Verona, NY @ Turning Stone Resort & Casino (with Brothers Osborne)
July 26 — Ridgefield, WA @ Sunlight Supply Amphitheatre (with Lynyrd Skynyrd)
July 27 — Auburn, WA @ Whiteriver Amphitheatre (with Lynyrd Skynyrd)
August 2 — George, WA @ Watershed Festival
August 3 — Beach, ND @ Golden Valley County Fairgrounds
August 8 — Sedro-Wooley, WA @ Eagle Haven Winery
August 16 — Moses Lake, WA @ Grant County Fair
August 24 — Nashville @ Grand Ole Opry
September 5 — London, U.K. @ Bush Hall (with Steel Woods)
September 6 — Glasgow, U.K. @ Poetry Club
September 8 — Lutteworth, U.K. @ The Long Road Festival
September 9 — Manchester, U.K. @ Castle Hotel
September 10 — Berlin, Germany @ Franzz Club (with Jillian Jacqueline and Lauren Jenkins)
September 11 — Munich, Germany @ Backstage (with Jillian Jacqueline and Lauren Jenkins)
September 12 — Hamburg, Germany @ Indra Club (with Jillian Jacqueline and Lauren Jenkins)
September 13 — Cologne, Germany @ Luxor
September 16 — Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Factory (with Lauren Jenkins)