Interview and video: Oklahoma singer-songwriter Tennessee Jet goes for variety on his new album 'The Country'
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
'The Country:' Oklahoma singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tennessee Jet showcases the format's diversity on his new album
Oklahoma musician Tennessee Jet is used to making music as a one-man band.
When he opted to make his third album, the aptly named "The Country," a more collaborative affair, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist set his sights on crafting a collection to showcase "the variety of country musics that I love."
That's not a typo: The Hugo-based musician is a student and fan of the myriad varieties of "country musics." So, "The Country" roams from a bluegrass cover of the Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels" and a cinematic take on Townes Van Zandt's legendary gunfighter ode "Pancho and Lefty" to a grungy alt-country tribute to Johnny Horton named "Johnny" to the folk-country balladry of the title track, with the clever lyrical punchline "I miss you like the country radio don't play no more."
"I feel like country music there are certain things that tie it together, and to me, make it country music. And one of those things is story. I think it's a strong element that used to be pretty prominent in country music: stories about ordinary people and their lives and the struggles and the triumphs that they go through. I feel like when you turn on country radio today, that part of it is lacking or nonexistent. So, I really felt like, 'You know, I want to make a record for people that miss that in country music, where not every song is about just kind of the Saturday night. There used to be Saturday night songs and Sunday morning songs. It was sin and redemption, and I feel like now it's just all kind of a commercial for the party life," he said in a recent phone interview.
"That's OK, but I just think that it's been so tipped in one direction where there's just such a lack of so many things that I love and miss about what country music used to be just not too long ago. ...I wanted to make a record to show country music's diversity and try to make every different song a different variation on it."
On the road
Tennessee Jet, whose real name is T.J. McFarland, developed his love of country music in all its forms growing up on the road with his barrel-racing mother and bronc-riding father.
"There are a lot of similarities to rodeo and being a touring musician. I didn't rodeo myself; my parents did. But I certainly remember riding along in the truck from rodeo to rodeo as a little kid. Just the lifestyle of travel and new adventures and different towns every night and just the energy and the excitement around the events are very similar," he said.
Although he spent much of his childhood years in an old Ford pickup truck hauling a horse trailer, Tennessee Jet grew up primarily in Noble and started playing music in Tulsa.
"Oklahoma has been for the most part where I would consider home, although I've lived all over the place," he said, adding that he and his wife left Nashville, Tennessee. and built a home and studio in Hugo a couple of years ago.
For the last five years or so, he has performed live gigs as a one-man band, and he made his first two albums in much the same way, playing every instrument himself. Released earlier this month via Thirty Tigers, "The Country" is different.
"This is the first record that I've done that's a full-band record where I incorporated outside players into the music. I used Dwight Yoakam's band out in California on this record. ... Every song on the new record is a different variation of country music that I love," he said.
So, it's little surprise to hear Tennessee Jet channeling Yoakam's twang on the foot-stomper "Hands on You," but the Oklahoma troubadour made sure that his version of the oft-covered "Pancho and Lefty" was full of surprises. Tennessee Jet swaps vocals with Cody Jinks, Elizabeth Cook and Paul Cauthen on the song, which features guest appearances by Willie Nelson bandmate Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Lady Gaga bandleader Brian Newman on trumpet.
"The whole point of that song was to do a version of it where it would be constantly surprising the listener. We kind of treated it like it was cinema, like it was a movie and every different section would be like a different guest star kind of stepping into the role. It was an imperative that we have a female to come in and sing on that song, to offer that perspective and the way you hear a lyric differently when it's delivered in her way," he said.
"My take on doing cover songs is if you don't make 'em your own, there's really just no point in doing 'em, because if you're going to try to do it in the same way that Willie Nelson did it or Townes Van Zandt did it, you're just going to have a pale imitation of that version. ... With 'She Talks to Angels,' if you were try to do that like the Black Crowes did it, it would just be a weak version of it because they nailed it. ... When you can do a song in a totally different way and it still resonates with people, it's just a further testament to how great the song is."
Even without the mention of Indian Nations Turnpike and shout-outs to his Oklahoma roots, the raucous road song "Stray Dogs" would open "The Country" with a distinctive Sooner State vibe.
"I think it's important with any endeavor to really immerse yourself in it. I don't see songwriting as something that like I sit down and say, 'Now I'm going to be a songwriter because I need to write some songs for a record or to go play live.' It's something I think you just have to fully commit to. I think a poet or a painter or a songwriter is something they're doing all the time, whether they're technically applying paint to a canvas or they're conceptualizing something or they're taking in information that then is going to be processed and they're going to express it with their own artistic abilities. So, I think as a songwriter, I think one thing I've just always tried to do is just always be writing and just be open to anything that you can observe that will help you to create more art," he said.
"You know, artists die and memories of artists live on. ... Ultimately, songs are the things that last."