Tell it slant
for The Tulsa Voice
On the band’s new record The Thunderbird, Beau Jennings and the Tigers chronicle stories about fisherman Jimmy Houston and Dairy Queen employees lamenting their fate. Jennings sings about Tulsa’s BRONCHO hitting a ceiling as a local band and throws out a baseball metaphor to capture the plight of an Oklahoma death row inmate. It sounds ridiculous laid out like that, but these disparate fabrics share a common thread connecting Jennings’ recent songs: It all feels kinda true, when he puts it that way.
Jennings has never shied away from plainspoken lyricism, whether in his band Cheyenne, active from 2003 to 2012, or on his solo efforts, including The Verdigris, an ambitious 2015 record-and-documentary combo about his search for connection with hometown hero Will Rogers. The latter consumed Jennings’ creative energy for nearly a decade from inception to release, and on the other side of it, he was, in his own words, “ready to get out of [his] own way.”
Bolstered by a solidified lineup of collaborators including longtime Tigers Michael Trepagnier, Chase Kerby and Dustin Ragland, Jennings made the record he was looking for—a feel-good, 35-minute rock band LP worth spinning from start to finish. It’s full of just as many frank, Jennings-esque lines as any record he’s been part of so far—“The Empty Bottles are playing tonight,” he sings about a local alt-country cover act, “I think I’m gonna get a sitter”—and still manages to come across as a fun-loving collection of universal truths on the modern Oklahoma experience.
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Becky Carman: At the end of Cheyenne, I got the sense that going solo was maybe not a creative decision but a circumstantial one. What were you thinking when that was happening?
Beau Jennings: Cheyenne always had a bunch of lineup changes, and then our guitar player left, and I was not feeling like finding a new one, even though I had always done that. A small record label wanted to put out the second Cheyenne record, and there was some self-preservation instinct that, because they had a small recording budget, made me be like, ‘Use this to kickstart a solo career.’ I was kind of feeling it internally, and then an opportunity happened, so I could see where it maybe seemed tentative.
Carman: You mentioned to me a while back that you were trying to sort of take things more seriously with this album release. How so?
Jennings: I realized a while back who listens to what I do, and it’s a certain demographic: people my age. [Jennings is 39.] I’m trying to really reach out to those people, to try to build a smaller but more dedicated audience as opposed to just reaching everywhere for whomever might kind of be interested.
Carman: The Verdigris was a long-term, really ambitious project. How did it change how you make and release music?
Jennings: It was so much fun, even though I wasn’t doing anything that no one else had done—historical music has been done before, and documentaries have been done before. It still felt like, ‘Nobody else in the world is working on an album about Will Rogers right now.’ It was really engrossing for me and felt like I was just doing something new. I’ve been chasing that feeling for a while. What I tried to shed from The Verdigris was the seriousness of it. I wanted the new record to be more loose and carefree and just feel different.
Carman: Over the years, what’s been your philosophy about what’s worth putting into a song?
Jennings: I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I have this book called Hemingway on Writing. It’s a collection of different places where he’s commented on the writing process. He’s just like, whenever you’re stuck, think of one true thing and write it down. Then think of another true thing and write it down. That’s been helpful to me—to really, with a fine-toothed comb, go through any line and ask, ‘Is this line bullshit, or is this true? Are you putting on some air or affectation? Are you communicating something that in 10 years is going to resonate?’ Trying to whittle it down to true statements and also trying to make less of a statement, if I ever did, and just let facts exist.
Carman: Are you one of those regimented songwriters or a ‘catch the inspiration’ type?
Jennings: I’m a big believer in putting in the time and work, but it’s never worked [laughs]. I only have good ideas when I’m doing something else, and I gotta pull over and write it down. Maybe the clocking in part is exercise, and then game time is when the idea strikes. That’s my latest theory: You’re always working with those muscles so that when a real idea occurs, I know what to do with it, or have a sense of how to at least start.
Carman: What’s your favorite moment on the record?
Jennings: That song “Gettin’s Good” feels really good to me. That song’s probably one I’m most proud of, that feels kind of new and is getting at a sound I’d like to get better at.
Carman: You’re leaning into the Springsteen.
Jennings: I totally get why that song would come off as that. I try not to deny my influences too hard, but I don’t go for them either. I can’t sing like that. If I could sound like that, I would. At least in my humble opinion, I aim for something, and I miss it, so I end up somewhere else.
Carman: Now that the record’s out, what do you think of it?
Jennings: We can play the record front to back at a show. I’ve never really had that before, where the record works as a setlist too, and I’m really proud of that. A lot of the feedback has been just how the record feels good. A lot of times you put your bangers up front and then the more introspective stuff at the end. I like that this is a little more even feel all the way through.
Carman: There are things on the record that don’t sound like they were your idea, like the way that you push your vocals and stylize them. What was the outside influence on the way you performed on this record?
Jennings: A lot of that was Michael Trepagnier. When we were recording the vocals, he encouraged me to do things I didn’t normally do. I’m a limited vocalist, so it’s really easy for me to play it super safe. Anything new or different I did maybe started with a desire for me to do something new, but also him making me.
Carman: What do the Tigers enable you to do, onstage, or just in terms of mental space, that you couldn’t do before?
Jennings: Performance-wise, I have total confidence. This is a very musically solid group, and I feel like they can pretty much do anything they want. I’ve always liked this idea of me being the worst member of the band. I’m the weakest musically for sure, and that just makes me better. The rising tide thing is kind of how I look at it.