5 Questions With Tennessee Jet About His Gritty New Album, ‘South Dakota’

by Jim Casey
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Tennessee Jet pays homage to his birth state with the release of his gritty new album, South Dakota, which dropped today. Jet had a hand writing every tune on the nine-song album—including eight solo cuts. He teamed up with co-producer Casey Diiorio to record the minimalist project at The Valve in Dallas, Texas, using analog tape—no computers.

Born in Belle Fourche, S.D., Tennessee Jet grew up the son of a couple of rodeo parents. But the family eventually slowed down long enough to settle in Oklahoma, where TJ cultivated his love of music. And if you’ve ever seen his one-man live show, you know TJ’s not afraid to tackle the guitar, harmonica, drums, and more, while singing.

Outsider caught up to Tennessee Jet on a beautiful fall afternoon, just two days ahead of his album release. While he sipped a whiskey and strummed his guitar on his back porch in Oklahoma, we asked him 5 Questions about his new album and musical upbringing.

1. How many instruments can you play, because your one-man live show can get busy?

Tennessee Jet: It just depends. And I say that because there are certain instruments that I play good enough to record with. I can work a part out. Once I figure the part out, I can record. If I was playing live, it wouldn’t be as many. I’d typically stick to guitar and harmonica and sing. When I was doing the one-man band show, then I’d incorporate the bass drum and the snare, but on recordings, that’s a little different. For the new album, it was guitar, harmonica, and sing.

2. What was your geographical musical upbringing?

Tennessee Jet: I was born in South Dakota and my parents moved to Oklahoma, which is where I started playing music. From then on, it’s just been kind of living in various places. Lived in California for a couple of years, and then moved to Nashville for a few years. And now back in Oklahoma. And so, a little bit of all over the place, just to try to circle different musical experiences. I moved to California because I really loved Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, and Merle Haggard. They made all their music out there on the West Coast. After that, moved to Nashville. There’s a lot of great music and history in Nashville, as well, and then moved back to Oklahoma. So it’s just trying to absorb a little bit of everywhere that I’ve been in terms of the music that I make.

3. The new album is sparse, gritty, and raw in the best sense of the words. What was the thought process recording the project on analog?

Tennessee Jet: I was thinking the music should reflect the times. And so, with my co-producer Casey Diiorio, we went in, wanted to record a record straight to two-inch tape with minimal enhancement, so to speak. So there’s no compression during the recording. There’s no reverb, it’s just recorded tape with no computers. It was just all very raw and how they would’ve done it in the late ’50s, early ’60s. It was more about just capturing your performance in the way that if there was something that was a little bit imperfect, it was like, “Great, well that’s what humans sound like.” I felt like for these types of songs especially, that was the best approach to really get them across the most. And then I just wanted it to be really, really conversational. I wanted it to be where you didn’t feel like you were listening to a record that was trying to show you how big a production could be. But instead, I want it to be just a conversation between me and the listener.

4. A couple of standout tracks on the new album are ‘William Faulkner,’ one of my favorite authors, as well as ‘Josephine,’ who is a character you featured on your 2017 album. Are you creating a musical canon?

Tennessee Jet: Well, to me, “William Faulkner” is a Southern Gothic story, the song itself. I wanted to kind of give a nod to that, to that kind of folklore that comes from Southern folklore. The wink was just the name itself of this character and what that represents. But with Faulkner, there’s a song from my last record, The Country, that kind of mentioned The Sound and the Fury, as well. Lot of my records, they’re kind of one body of work. They’re intertwined with songs from previous records. It’s all kind of one big narrative. And the individual tracks are a different place in that narrative.

“Josephine” is the same character from 2017’s “The Girl in Blue.” It’s a common device that authors use. Stephen King does that a lot and Evan [Felker of Turnpike Troubadours] does a damn good job of it as well. I think it’s something that you can use. For one, it’s enjoyable I think as a listener, to make connections and tie things together. And as an artist, sometimes it’s good to actually give yourself a framework to work in. You need limitations sometimes. Sometimes if you’re wondering, “Okay, what am I going to write about today?” And if you’ve got certain characters that you kind of will go back to, then you already have a bit of a backstory. It’s like, if you were to ask Quentin Tarantino about certain characters, they might have a small part in this movie, but he’s got a whole backstory written.

5. Why did you cap the album with ‘The Good,’ an uplifting message after the journey of the first eight songs?

Tennessee Jet: As an artist, what is your ultimate message? In my songs, there’s a lot of death and sadness and loneliness, but I always try to have redemptive quality. There’s always got to be a redemption because if not, it’s just a big downer. To me, the record starts off on the road and it goes through a really dark, dark place. But then in the end, it really starts lifting up and putting things in a grander perspective. So I needed to end the record on something that was going to say like, “Okay, well, there’s good things ahead.” Let’s keep the right attitude to the extent that as someone that plays guitar and sings would tell anybody, to the extent that you didn’t want to tell anybody anything about what they should do with their own life. Free-thinking people can think for themselves. They don’t need someone—just because they’re playing guitar—to tell them what to think about anything. But to the extent that I can be a positive influence, I want to do it for sure.

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