“I grab onto these melodies of the songs that went unsung”, Jack Barksdale sings, reaching back in time to the sound of an age that’s older than all of us - especially the singer actually singing those words – on the title track to his new album.
The 14-year-old, Fort Worth, Texas-based Americana singer-songwriter is set to release his first full-length studio album, Death of a Hummingbird, on March 4; an album of such incredible scope and beauty it belies his age. The follow-up to his live album from a few years ago was recorded over three days last in August with producer and percussionist Mike Meadows at the invitation-only 3Sirens studio in East Nashville.
His songs have the kind of moment stilling quality of Jeff Buckley, the fragility of Barksdale’s still-high voice weaving around his intricate picking as if he’s singing from somewhere deep inside himself, barely touched by Meadow’s sympathetic and intimate production.
From the cheeky shuffle of ‘Sideways’ to the grand transcendental lullaby of ‘Trances’, Death Of A Hummingbird finds the songwriter and guitar whiz honing his craft and musing on the world as it reveals itself to him. His lyrics are a mix of world-weary romanticism, homespun wisdom and daydreamy meditations on the universe. They often feel like conversations he’s having with himself or private field-recordings from his subconscious.
“Time just keeps moving on and it’s leaving me behind / They tell me I have a purpose out there but I’m growing tired of all their lies”, he sings with wide-eyed clarity on ‘Wishing Well’.
Barksdale, who started music lessons at the age of seven and debuted his first composition at a picking circle in Luckenbach, Texas, when he was nine – shocking his parents who had no idea he’d even written a song - remains unfazed by the attention and praise.
Under his ubiquitous red knit cap is a mind already insightful enough to describe the new album as “a chronicle of my continuous search for consciousness”, which “ended up being a myriad of concepts, ideas, and arguments that have crossed my mind, and, in some cases, completely devoured it, so the album turns into a constant internal back and forth. For me, it will serve as a time capsule of some of my first attempts to understand the world, as well as myself.”
After he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Bugle Boy Foundation’s Talent Trust Award grant, and the pandemic kicked in, Barksdale began developing the 11 songs on Death Of A Hummingbird, collaborating with several renowned folk, blues, and Americana artists, at their request. Guthrie Kennard, a 70-year-old musician and one of Barksdale’s best friends, co-wrote the bluesy ‘Before the Devil Knows’ and Jeff Plankenhorn co-wrote ‘Sideways’, a song that Barksdale describes as “a light-hearted song about your life slowly deteriorating in front of your eyes.
His love of the poetry and the music of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandy, combined with his knowledge of obscure instrumentalists and the chord structures of 100-year-old musical styles is likely way beyond most players, much less listeners. But with Barksdale it’s not about showing off. When he talks about these things he’s just excitedly telling you about what inspires him to do what he does.
Holler spoke to him about his upcoming album, his influences and his guitar playing, and what it feels like to finally have these songs out in the world.
What did you grow up listening to?
I’ve always listened to a wide variety of genres and styles. My mom listens to a lot of Americana singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Kevin Welch, and my dad listens to a lot of metal bands like Pantera and a lot of grunge bands like Alice In Chains. When I was four or five and I started getting interested in music, I generally gravitated toward the Americana singer-songwriters, although I do love a good Nirvana or Alice In Chains song every now and then.
I also loved the music of all the Highwaymen together and individually, especially Johnny Cash. My first musical obsession was actually Johnny Cash. The first album I ever bought was Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden. That lasted from when I was six to when I was nine or 10. Then I found Townes Van Zandt, and he’s still one of my favourites today.
What inspired you musically on Death Of A Hummingbird?
Each song is influenced by different artists and styles, but one thing that does appear throughout the album is my love for the active bass line on songs like 'Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel' by Townes Van Zandt and 'Is This What You Wanted' by Leonard Cohen. It was really cool to have that same sound appear on my own songs.
What are your biggest literary influences?
Even though I don’t read as much as I would like to, whenever I do I really enjoy Hemingway, especially his short stories. I also love how Steinbeck writes with his mix of blunt and poetic styles. My biggest literary influence though is Leonard Cohen. It doesn’t matter what form his writing takes - song, poem, novel - it’s always like a small explosion, and the shockwave will kick you to the ground and leave you in awe.
Do you remember how it felt the first time you picked up a guitar?
I was about four when I first picked up a guitar. It was a Toys "R" Us guitar that I had gotten for Christmas, and I remember feeling really excited to play something cool but feeling disappointed when I sounded terrible. That’s what ultimately made me ask for guitar lessons, and in a few years when my hands got a little bigger, I got my first guitar lesson, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are your favourite styles of guitar playing to play?
I do go through phases where I enjoy playing one style better than another, but I’m constantly changing my mind. The first style I really became obsessed with was electric blues (on an acoustic guitar), then I learned how to fingerpick, and I fell in love with Travis picking melodies, then I started combining the Travis picking with my love of blues and began learning some basic Piedmont blues and ragtime guitar.
Lately, I’ve gone back to playing a lot of melodic fingerpicking. I’ve had lots of other favourite styles, but these are the main styles that I’ve become fond of over the years and still play quite often.
What does it feel like the day that a song or an album of yours comes out and everyone gets to hear it for the first time?
It’s exciting to release new music, but the feeling of joy and anticipation that comes from playing a new song for a live audience trumps that of the release of a song or an album.
Which song are you most excited about people hearing on the new record?
What I'm most excited about is people getting to hear the album as a whole. I worked really hard to have these songs come together and make a hopefully well-constructed and fluent album.
Death of a Hummingbird, the follow up to Jack Barksdale: Live From Niles City, is released on March 4