Austin Jenckes knows firsthand what it feels like to be the outcast. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the reflective country singer was made fun of for his size throughout middle school. “I was 180 pounds in 8th grade,” he says. “When we picked teams at recess, I wasn’t allowed to be on the boys team. I hated that.”
Jenckes, a fifth-season contestant on The Voice, channels that isolation — and his eventual transformation into a popular high-school football player — in his vulnerable new ballad, “Fat Kid.” Grammy-winning songwriter Lori McKenna sings harmony on the track, which she co-wrote with Jenckes’ former roommate Neil Mason of Southern-rock trio the Cadillac Three. It’s the only song on Jenckes’ upcoming album, If You Grew Up Like I Did, that Jenckes didn’t write himself, but he found McKenna’s demo too irresistible to ignore.
“Ain’t life just like high school sometimes?” he sings in the rueful chorus. “Probably sitting in the back of a cafeteria by yourself/Feeling like a fast girl, a math nerd, the fat kid.”
“The way Lori was singing the song reminded me of everything that I am,” Jenckes says. “I’ve written a hundred songs about growing up in a small town, but this is the one where I thought, ‘That’s me.'”
McKenna and Mason’s lyrics flesh out the song, but it’s Jenckes’ yearning delivery that sells it. A big-voiced singer onstage, he holds back here, favoring restrained emotion over dramatic runs. The track opens with a strummed acoustic guitar before building to a lush, radio-ready production — although some greasy slide guitar from session pro Rob McNelley saves it from sounding as slick as what’s on the airwaves today.
“Fat Kid” is already a hit with country fans. When Jenckes first played it in his home state of Washington, and later at Nashville’s famous proving ground the Bluebird Cafe, the audience clapped and cheered when he got to the line “if you grew up like I did.”
For Jenckes, that felt like validation. “All those insecurities remain,” he says of his childhood, “or you turn them into other things.”