Don’t think of Tennessee Jet as your typical country music performer. Consider him more like a character from a Beat-era novel, hitchhiking from California and back, hanging out with a motorcycle gang for a week in the desert, camping out under the stars on the side of the road, all with a guitar slung on his back and writing songs whenever the inspiration hits him, performing them for others when he can. A little lost, but loving life, and taking you along for the ride.
Introduced to many from his appearances opening for folks like Cody Jinks as a one man band, the music of Tennessee Jet is more of a folk style of country—a bit more whimsical and carefree, kind of like Todd Snider with twang, until he follows his muse into the rock realm and throws a curve ball or two at you. “I’ve got a head full of metal, but a heart of country gold,” he sings at one point, and this confluence of inspirations are expressed in the ten tracks of his new record, The Country.
Country music is what you get more of than anything else on Tennessee Jet’s third album. Opening with the jangly “Stray Dogs” that reminds you a bit of early electric-era Dylan, it’s a cool road song whose steel guitar keeps it grounded in country twang like so many songs on the record.
But Jet’s unafraid of kicking it up a notch too, like he does on the plodding and loud “Johnny.” The music is inspired by Kurt Cobain, but “Johnny” is about country legend Johnny Horton and how he predicted his own death at the hands of a drunk driver, which came true in 1960 when Horton was hit head on in Milam County, Texas driving home from a gig. So even when Tennessee Jet goes rock, country is still regularly at the heart of the story.
Combine “Johnny” with the jealousy-driven country rock song “Hands On You” that gives you all kinds of 90’s alt-country vibes, and TN Jet throws quite a lot of variety your way. He jumps around, not really sure who he is musically. But what’s for sure is that he’s a songwriter. This is his natural element—being alone on stage—and where he shines.
“Off To War” is about his struggles and doubts trying to make it in the music business. “Someone To You” is about not losing sight of the most important things in life as he pursues notoriety. And he’ll find plenty of favorable reception for the title track, performed alone and acoustic, where he drops the line, “I miss you like the country radio don’t play no more.”
A couple of obvious cover songs adorn The Country as well. It’s questionable why we need a cover of “Pancho & Lefty” with how definitive the Willie version is. Bringing in some star power with Cody Jinks makes it a bit more interesting, but the over-singing of Elizabeth Cook and then Paul Cauthen just makes you crave the original even more. TN Jet’s version of “She Talks To Angels” by The Black Crowes is a bit more tolerable, but still feels dispensable. Still, he records what he wants to record, and that’s hard to not respect.
Tennessee Jet assembled a good crew to help record this album, including members of Dwight Yoakam’s touring band and the great Mickey Raphael on harmonica. They do a great job interpreting whatever Jet throws at them, but defining what he does is still not easy. This might put him at a deficit in finding a solid home and strong support for his music.
But this Oklahoma native (despite the name) that grew up with both parents touring the rodeo circuit is not aiming for superstardom, or major commercial ambitions here. The offbeat nature and unpredictability is what he’s going for, and it’s what his fans buy into. He’s a wild card, and not knowing what’s coming next makes The Country a fun and interesting road trip adventure novel through American roots music.
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