When Austin Jenckes was just a teenager, his father committed suicide. Naturally, it was a tragedy that has shaped the Washington State songwriter’s life and informed his music. But the loss also turned Jenckes into a passionate proponent of mental health awareness. On December 2nd, he’ll host a benefit concert in Nashville to support the cause.
“My dad died when I was 16. He struggled with depression; he took his own life. He was everything that I looked at as what was cool,” says Jenckes. “When he died, I turned everything [I did] into trying to be the best that I can be.”
Especially when it came to his music. “My dad played guitar and I learned every song he knew or listened to. Primarily Skynyrd,” says Jenckes, who released the excellent full-length If You Grew Up Like I Did in May and went on to make his Grand Ole Opry debut soon after. He also realized a dream by opening up for he and his dad’s favorite band, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
With that momentum behind him, Jenckes is determined to use his platform to further the conversation about mental illness. On Monday, he’ll perform If You Grew Up Like I Did in full at Nashville’s City Winery with some special guests, including Jaren Johnston of the Cadillac Three, Lauren Jenkins, and Jonathan Singleton. Alex Hall, Sarah Allison Turner, Tammi Kidd Hutton, and Lynn Hutton are also on the bill.
“This album stemmed from my story. Having been so close to suicide at a young age, you don’t realize how that affects you until years later,” Jenckes says. “I always had this thing I carried around. It comes from wanting to make sure people feel heard and understood, and from the idea that it’s OK to not be OK.”
Mental health issues have increasingly become topics of conversation in the music industry following the suicides of artists like Chris Cornell in 2017 and, more recently, Silver Jews singer David Berman and jam guitarist Neal Casal, both in August. Fans and performers alike have also had to cope with the aftereffects of tragedies like 2017’s Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in Las Vegas, the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting the following year, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival attack this summer.
“In the industry, you can get more focused on yourself and it’s easy to not be as sensitive to other people’s situations. I wanted to have a night where it’s about togetherness and community and also to start a little bit of a conversation about mental health,” says Jenckes of Monday’s concert. All proceeds from ticket sales will benefit mental-wellness organization John’s Toast.
Jenckes says he won’t shy away from reminding the crowd why they’re gathered. “I’ve brought up my dad’s depression and his being bipolar and ultimately how it took him away from me and my family before,” he says. “Talking about mental health shouldn’t be as taboo as it can feel sometimes.”