Nearly four years ago, in the summer of 2017, Grayson Jenkins took a big risk; perhaps the biggest of his life. The country artist quit his job at the University of Kentucky to pursue music full-time.
The transition has had its bumps but overall has proven fruitful, with Jenkins releasing an EP and two albums in the time since, including his latest effort Turning Tides.
Accompanied by an all-star cast of musicians, the album navigates through several musical landscapes, including 90s country, bluegrass, rock‘n’roll and folk, all with an exuberant Kentucky twang.
Holler recently caught up with Jenkins to discuss some of the inspiration behind Turning Tides, his serendipitous encounter with Sturgill Simpson and reflecting on how he’s grown since opting to pursue music full-time.
I know that you’re always writing songs, but what else have you kept busy with over the past 18 months?
I grew a lot of tomatoes last year. I tried to spend a lot of time outside because of the downtime from gigging. I bought a kayak and headed west for about three weeks. It was about a 5,000-mile trip with my girlfriend, camping in my van.
Musically it was nice too. I feel like I really got back to how I first started playing music, which was just picking around and fumbling through songs at my house. It was the most freedom that I’ve had in a long time, playing and writing whatever the hell I wanted to.
I’ve talked with many artists who start writing a lot of their music on the piano. Is that something you’ve been dabbling with too?
Yeah, more and more. I wrote a few songs on it during the pandemic. Since I’ve gotten back to gigging, I’ve been trying them out live to get over the hump of taking them from my house to an audience. It takes me into a completely different headspace than writing on the guitar, which results in vastly different songs.
‘Jackson’, which is on this album, I wrote on ukulele. I don’t really play it, I was just travelling and it was the only instrument around. It’s interesting, stylistically, how each instrument sounds different. Even if you play the same chords or notes, it brings on totally different melodies and song ideas.
Speaking of that song, I’m assuming it’s named after Jackson, KY, home of your friend/former bandmate Ryan Allen (now of Magnolia Boulevard) and Sturgill Simpson. Is that a correct assumption?
Yes. That song came from talking with Ryan about home, while we were out on the road together. At the time I wrote the song, I had never been to Jackson, so I tried to put myself in his shoes. It was a little songwriting experiment of sorts.
Everybody already has songs about their own hometowns, so I wanted to flip the script and write about someone else’s. It’s one of my favorite songs on the entire album.
Songs about your own hometown aren’t absent from Turning Tides either. Tell me a little about ‘Kennedy Road’?
I remember the exact moment that I wrote a note on my phone, while sitting at a stoplight in Lexington. I was recalling my first time visiting the city from my home in Western Kentucky, during high school. My friends told me that I could drive myself if I took a friend, but I didn't take a friend. Instead, I printed out MapQuest directions and hit the road solo.
Fast forward seven or eight years later, I was driving through Lexington again and reminiscing on how green I was back then; I remember how nervous I was to be in the ‘big’ city.
So, that song is about missing the innocence I had back then. The older I get, the more complex my worldview gets and the greyer things become. At that point in time, things were pretty cut and dry, life was simple.
The quiet, little house on the farm you grew up on was in Muhlenberg County, right? You’re not from Paradise (for which John Prine’s iconic song is named after), are you?
No, I’m from Greenville. I grew up on Kennedy Road, hence the song name, but Paradise was only 15-20 minutes away.
So you’re still close enough that you can’t escape the ties to that John Prine song, not that it’s a bad thing.
Right? I met Sturgill [Simpson] in a bar one time and he asked me where I’m from. When I said Muhlenberg County, he said “Well that’s the headline right there. Own that shit”. So, I try really hard to take a lot of pride in the region’s musical history, not just with John Prine but also the Everly Brothers, Merle Travis, Mose Rager and others.
Hold up, you met Sturgill Simpson at a bar? Tell me more!
I was seeing a show in Lexington one night, at the Burl. A friend text me saying that Sturgill was downtown at Sidebar having a beer. I was already tying one on since I had the night off, so I decided to head over there to creep on him.
I opened the door to head in and there were only four or five people inside, including him. I was able to hold myself together and talk with him for close to two hours. He was incredibly nice and laid back. He wasn’t shy about sharing advice with me either.
He probably doesn’t remember me, but it was pretty influential because it was only a couple weeks after I’d quit my full-time job in pursuit of music. I’m a big believer in fate; I think that was a huge moment - at a time when I was just starting out – in helping me get to where I am today.
Grayson Jenkins’ latest album, Turning Tides, is out now. You can purchase the album from one of our chosen partners below.
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Grayson is the latest featured cover artist of our New Country Artists playlist, which you can subscribe and listen to below.