From The Sound and The Fury to Faulkner and MacBeth: A Conversation with Tennessee Jet
By Kevin Broughton
Tennessee Jet is a lot of things. Starting with the name, he’s mysterious and enigmatic. Pressed on his given and surnames, he demurs. Like the people in his songs, he sees himself as something of a character; a vessel for storytelling. “Tennessee Jet,” he says, “is an idea. Something I want to get across. I want people to go into ‘Tennessee Jet’ blind – not knowing anything about the artist.”
He’s cerebral – citing first cinematic directors and literary giants as influences on his art before acknowledging more traditional, musical sources.
Athletic? Yeah, that too. The former pitcher and second baseman hit .300 in the lower tiers of collegiate baseball. “I loved that game a lot more than it loved me,” he says. Realizing life in the bigs wasn’t in the cards, he simply moved on to a career in music.
And if all this seems unlikely for someone who grew up literally on the road (not surprisingly, he sings of “going Kerouac”) this Okie son of a bronc-busting dad and a barrel-racing mom knits it all together in poetic fashion. He’s a legit Renaissance man.
Jet’s third album, The Country, debuts on Thirty Tigers today and marks the most collaborative project of Jet's career. A songwriter, front man, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, he took a do-it-yourself approach to his 2015 debut and 2017's Reata, both of which found Jet playing every instrument himself. The Country references those early years with songs like the autobiographical "Stray Dogs," whose lyrics find a young Jet speeding down the Indian Nation Turnpike, his future wife riding shotgun, both of them fueled by a combination of love, truck stop gasoline, and the need to make it to the next show on time.
For an album that often pays homage to Jet's DIY past, though, The Country also finds him teaming up with Dwight Yoakam's touring band, whose members add Telecaster twang and Cali-country cool to Jet's raw, ragged edges. Paul Cauthen, Cody Jinks, and Elizabeth Cook all lend a hand, too. "I'm always looking to challenge the definition of what a specific genre is supposed to sound like," he says. "People are aching for truth in country music again, and that's what this record came to represent.”
There’s an ache and intensity to Jet’s reverence for country music as art, and the need for it to be preserved and nourished. Over the course of two in-depth conversations (several responses merited follow-ups) we discussed the state of modern country music, what makes a good cover version of a timeless song, the creepy death of a country legend, and much more.
Okay, ready to go?
Yeah, man. I’ve been looking forward to talking with you. I was telling my manager, “Let’s find people who want to talk about the music.” I’ve been doing interviews and it all just seems kind of general. Like What was the first instrument you played? Or Who are your influences/where you from/how old are you? So, I want to talk to people who want to talk about the record and the state of modern country music.
I’m your huckleberry.
You’re an Oklahoma native, but I don’t know that this album would fit squarely in the “Red Dirt” category. Can you discuss some of your musical influences, in light of your having “a head full of metal and a heart of country gold?”
Yeah! I tend to be more influenced by movie directors and literary figures. John Steinbeck is a huge influence. Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone…I’m really interested in their art and applying it to the music that I make. As far as Oklahoma influences, Steinbeck gives you that whole Oklahoma-to-California thing in Grapes of Wrath. Musically, it’s kind of all over the place, depending on what I’m listening to at the moment. Of course, traditional country was the first thing that I was exposed to by my parents.
And then, you tend to run far away from things that you were first into, then run away and back again. So I’ve got a pretty broad range of influences, everything from Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam to Nirvana and Bob Dylan. Just all over the place.
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recording artist cite cinematic and literary figures as their primary influences. Could we drill a little deeper on that?
Sure. I think people gravitate more toward what something represents, more than what the thing actually is. As an artist it’s your role to make it clear what you represent with something, whether it’s a song or an album cover. I think it’s the reason why some people identify with certain brands in a certain way: This represents a good time. Or This represents a refreshing beverage. Whatever it is.
And I’ve always felt that from an art standpoint, it’s good to be able to sit back and create characters. Because then, you can tell stories. And ultimately, the song is separate from the artist. The song is going to live on; the artist is just a vessel to tell a particular story. I look at producing songs as I think a director looks at movies. And sometimes with all the emphasis being placed on someone’s personal story, the songs aren’t heard in the way they’re supposed to be.
As an example, if someone’s a new artist and has lived on the streets – been homeless – for ten years, you’d listen to that song in a different way than if the person grew up wealthy. So I want the emphasis to be on the song first and the artist second. Shows like American Idol and The Voice have placed so much emphasis on a person’s story, it makes it hard to decipher what’s really great art, or whether you’re a fan of a person’s story. Does that make sense?
Yeah. A bunch.
I was listening to “The Raven and The Dove,” and I texted my publisher and said, “Man, that sounds like a Cody Jinks song.” He said, “It is.” Makes sense. What’s your relationship with Cody like? Have y’all collaborated before this song?
We have, yeah. We’ve written a lot of songs together. The first time, we wrote a song called “Lifers,” the title cut of his album – I guess three records ago. We also wrote another song called “The Wanting,” another title track of his. I guess he’s recorded about seven songs that we’ve written together.
He’s just a great friend and co-writer. And honestly, co-writing is not something that I typically enjoy. But there are certain people I get together with and really enjoy the process. Putting two heads together on a song is sometimes beneficial.
There’s a line in the chorus where you speak of being “scuffed up by the devil but washed in the blood,” and having “been forgiven for all my sinnin’.” Cody – on the Lifers album in particular – makes frequent use of spiritual/faith themes. Is that something that resonates with you personally, and influences your writing?
It certainly does, yeah. I think that we’re here on this Earth to try to inspire positivity and love. So I think that spirituality is really where that starts.
Were you raised going to church?
Yes I was. In Oklahoma.
“Johnny” is a song that really stands out; it’s distinctive and grungy and punky. Is there a story behind the song? I’m also curious about the name “Delia.” Any significance to that?
Yeah, it’s kinda interesting because musically, it’s the least country-sounding on the entire record – probably by a pretty good margin. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s a pretty basic biography of Johnny Horton, and some of the things about his death. He was very into, uh, mystical things. I’m searching for a word here and not finding it… “paranormal” would be the right word, I guess. And the song just sort of lays that out. It’s something good to dig into: the things he said about how he was going to die; and that he would contact (songwriter) Merle Kilgore after he passed on, to prove there was an afterlife. That’s where “the drummer was a rummer” part comes from.
Yeah, that song is probably good for an hour-long conversation by itself. The “Johnny” at the funeral is Johnny Cash – who read the eulogy, so there’s two Johnnies. And Delia…they’re all there. It’s a bit of an Easter egg, that song, to dig into and just run the characters. A lot of people think the “Merle” in the song is Haggard, but it’s not; it’s Merle Kilgore. But yeah, I just wanted to write something that was musically different. It’s inspired by Nirvana, as you can tell. Lyrically, it’s very country. And Johnny Horton was a trailblazer of sorts.
You’ve sent me down a Johnny Horton rabbit hole, man.
Oh yeah? [Laughs]
I’ve read up on some of this stuff, and it’s crazy: Horton married Hank Williams’ widow, Billie Jean. Williams’ last gig was at the Skyline in Austin; Horton played there before being killed by a drunk driver. Did Horton really have a premonition that he’d be killed by a drunk? I mean, reading it gave me chill bumps. Surely some of this is folklore?
Yeah! It’s a movie, isn’t it? But by all accounts…I mean I’ve seen interviews with people like Merle Kilgore and there’s a lot of hard evidence for these things. The people who truly knew Johnny Horton knew that he was really into mysticism. And he had all these recurring premonitions. But you know how it goes; there will always be elements that make the story look better. And the characters in the song are there for you to bend in a way that makes the story better.
But whenever there’s a story like the Johnny Horton thing, there’s no real need to embellish anything; it’s all right there. It’s just a matter of writing it in a way that says “The drummer was a rummer and he can’t hold the beat,” and make it singable.
And what was it about that story that made you want to put it into a grunge format?
I felt that if it were written as if it were a 50s country song, it wouldn’t have an impact. To write it in a straight-up folk way would have been to obvious. In this case I just felt like – the story’s so wild – if you’re thinking about crashed cars and chaos, what type of music lends itself to that story? The music is supposed to feel like a car wreck.
It’s chaotic; it ebbs and flows, up and down. It’s like cinema. I wanted the song to feel like a mini-movie. Johnny Horton is fascinating and a big influence on me, but I think if I wrote a song about a 1950s honky-tonker that sounded like a 1950s honky-tonk, people wouldn’t gravitate to it. But if you give it that type of musical edge, it might draw people in, and they might go down the same rabbit hole you did.
I hear a hint of Steve Earle in your voice; do people ever tell you that, and is he an influence on your work?
He is. The record I Feel Alright is one of my all-time favorites…
…I’m going “Kanye” on you here and I’m gonna let you finish…
…but my very next question was gonna be “The song ‘Hands On You’ sounds like it belongs on the I Feel Alright album.”
Ha! I would agree. That album had a distinct feel with the baritone guitar, the 12-string, the mandolin and multiple stringed instruments. This was one of the cuts on the album where I was trying to record the kind of country song that you just don’t hear anymore. I’ve found that if I turn on modern “country” radio today, I end up writing songs I wish were on the radio. So at times I try to write a Marty Stuart- or Dwight Yoakum- or Steve Earle-sounding song. Because unfortunately, you just can’t hear those on terrestrial radio these days.
We’ll get to that in some detail, I promise. But when I heard the opening riff of “Hands On You,” my very first thought was, I Feel Alright.
Well, I take that as a real compliment. And I probably wouldn’t have made that connection until you brought it up, but yeah. So thanks.
As an album, I Feel Alright is his best work for me. I love it. And there’s something about the way it was recorded, too; it’s got teeth to it. It’s the kind of album that if you put it on in the car, you find you’re driving faster and reaching to turn up the volume. It’s just such a great album.
Yeah, there’s not a bad cut on it.
Let’s talk about the two covers on the record. “She Talks to Angels” is an intriguing, blue-grassy take on the Black Crowes’ original. How did you conceptualize that arrangement, because you really put your own stamp on it?
Well, my approach to covers in general is that if you’re gonna do one, your version has to be so uniquely “you” and uniquely different, or else there’s no point in doing it. And that can be a disservice to the artist who did it originally. And so on “She Talks to Angels,” if you try to do it the way the Black Crowes did it, you’re not gonna get close. So if you’re gonna do that song, you better do something drastically different. And something I’ve learned about great songs: You can do them drastically differently, and they’ll still be great songs and still resonate. So that was the idea behind that cover.
Any belligerent feedback from the Robinson brothers?
Ha ha. I don’t think they’ve heard it yet. So, we’ll see.
They’re probably bored and a little ornery right now.
You know, different people perceive folks’ covering their songs differently. I read somewhere that Prince didn’t like people doing his songs, but there were a few he actually liked. For me, I love different versions of different songs, and I would love people to cover mine and do them however the hell they wanted.
So I don’t know, but like anything, I’d hope they dig it.
You put together a nice little ensemble for “Pancho and Lefty:” Elizabeth Cook, Cody Jinks, Paul Cauthen and yourself. And I love the Mexicali horn arrangement. So many people have covered it; what was your vision for making that song yours?
Well, you hit the nail on the head: So many people have covered it before. I was playing a show Cody and Paul and some other folks in Dallas around Christmas time. We wanted to do some songs we could all sing on, and “Pancho and Lefty” is such a standard. It’s a lot of people’s favorite song. So we did it during a set in Dallas, and there was such a great feeling in the room. And as I was finishing up the record and had pretty much all of the recordings and said, “You know what? We need to get in the studio and put that one down.”
But the challenge was, so many people have done the song. And I thought “If you’re gonna do it, you better adhere to your own rule and do something really different.” So for me the idea became, “What if every verse and every instrumental break became its own character?” Because Mickey Raphael [harp] has the first solo.
So I sing the first verse; Jinks does the second verse and a chorus; Mickey does a harmonica solo; Elizabeth does a verse and a chorus; Brian Newman – he’s Lady Gaga’s bandleader – he comes in and plays the horn part, which is maybe my favorite part of the whole record, honestly. Then Paul comes in and sings a verse, and I finish it up. So it’s all about really making it an ensemble thing, making it a little different. And of course, really leaning into the Southwestern aspect of the song.
You’re the fourth person I’ve interviewed in a year, incidentally, who’s made use of Ms. Cook’s talents. She seems to make everybody’s records better, huh?
She does. She makes everything that she sings on better. She ended up singing on three songs on the record, and she’s the only female singing harmony. She’s just so versatile; she’s extremely country but also has a real edge to her voice. Elizabeth has such a unique voice, and she’s such a pro in the studio.
If we did awards for lyrical couplets, I’d nominate this one from the album’s title track: “Yeah, I miss you like the country/Radio don’t play no more.” Such a self-evidently truthful statement. Do you see any reason for hope that Nashville might repent, or has that ship sailed?
Well, first of all thanks for saying that. Uh, I think a lot of people feel that way. The problem is that there’s such an entrenched system, and such a machine, that self-preservation is paramount for it. So I don’t think there’s any way for it to change from within. I think the only way to get this type of [independent] music heard is to create a completely different system and let the original one atrophy on its own.
I mean it’s got to be frustrating. Take the last two or three of Cody’s albums, for instance; they’re chock-full of songs that would be perfect for mainstream radio, if any of their executives actually had a soul.
Man, I think so. I know it gets into an area of subjectivity and opinion, but country music means something to me. It’s not just something that’s put on for background fodder. It’s an important art form that needs to be preserved; people need to be made aware of it who aren’t. Maybe there’s something in it that can mean something to them or help them through a tough time.
And right now what we’re getting isn’t that. And it’s unfortunate.
The folks who make quality, independent country music – who get no mainstream airplay – have to rely on touring and social media and word-of-mouth to get their material out there. With the pandemic, the “touring” element has gone away. How has it affected you, and do you see any reason for optimism going forward?
I always try to maintain an optimistic outlook. Whenever there are negative things going on you have to try to look for positives and opportunities. And it’s unfortunate that I’m putting a record out at a time when I can’t go out and tour behind it. But at the same time there are people who are hungry and have time to search out music online and find things. Hopefully there’s a little more opportunity to have songs get heard in an otherwise cluttered field.
In a weird way everything’s frozen. Life feels mundane right now for a lot of people. So I think now more than ever, people need art for an escape. And so hopefully, until we can get things more to a live, in-the-flesh setting, the online thing will thrive. That’s what I’m hoping.
The Country is available today everywhere you buy or stream music.