The short version: There’s potential with Gethen Jenkins and ‘Western Gold,’ though he doesn’t stand out much in comparison with his contemporaries or his influences.
- Favorite tracks: “Waiting,” “Restless Ways,” “Me My Bottle And Nothing But Time,” “Whiskey Bound”
- Least favorite track: “While I’m Away”
- Rating: 6/10
- Recommend? – If you’re into honky tonk music akin to the outlaw era, or are fans of modern day reincarnations like Whitey Morgan, Dale Watson, or Cody Jinks, it’s worth a listen to see what you think.
The long version: I said this earlier this year when reviewing Ben Jarrell’s Troubled Times, but we really haven’t had a lot of kickass, honky tonk music this year. Granted, part of that might extend toward the style getting played out, with numerous wannabes emerging in the wake of the Chris Stapleton boom from a few years back. And even though mainstream country is shifting back toward a more organic presentation, “rough and rowdy” is not how I’d describe the biggest artists leading that movement, currently.
In other words, it wouldn’t be bad to have some new blood in the format, which is where Gethen Jenkins steps in. A retired U.S. Marine who served eight years in Iraq, Jenkins has been hitting the honky tonk scene fairly hard in California, enough to where a 2017 EP in Where The Honky Tonk Belongs admittedly slipped by most critical radars.
Moving on to his debut album this year, however, while Western Gold is good enough to show plenty of raw talent and potential with Jenkins, it doesn’t do enough to separate him from the pack. Every element of the album is rather good, but it often leaves the listener wanting more, and trying to answer the question of what makes a Gethen Jenkins song unique is rather difficult with this album.
Of course, the obvious outlaw era influences are there, and it’s no surprise to hear he’s toured with modern day reincarnations like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan. And if I had to describe Jenkins, vocally, I’d say he’s a dead ringer for Morgan circa 2010, with a thicker drawl suited for the style. That, of course, isn’t meant to insinuate he’s an outright copycat. Whereas there’s a harsher recklessness to Morgan’s delivery, Jenkins comes across a bit smoother and more controlled, with a soulful inflection really helping to guide some of these songs. Sadly, we don’t hear that used to his advantage that much here, and that’s why it’s harder to buy into Jenkins as a hell-raiser on tracks like “Bottle In My Hand” or “Basket Case” or find something like “Maintenance Man” to be anything but corny, either.
On the other hand, while he doesn’t quite have the same technical range that Stapleton has, Jenkins certainly has a better emotive range. “Waiting” is far and away the album highlight, showing Jenkins in his most passionate state, accompanied by backing singers that have an equal amount of power to them. It’s a moment he also draws upon for “Whiskey Bound,” where the delivery is stretched-out and Jenkins has room to show off his talent.
Granted, the sonic template is about what you expect for this style – plenty of rougher electric guitars, bass guitars to drive the grooves, and steel guitar for added flavor. What’s notable about Western Gold, however, is its heavier reliance on piano and organ for a heavier melodic foundation. Granted, that’s another area that could use some work, at least in terms of being more distinct, but it’s another testament to how “Waiting” works so well when Jenkins is allowed to ride off those piano accents.
Still, if there’s a small mark in this area, it’s that some of these tracks can feel a bit more boilerplate and derivative than unique, even if they still sound good. “Bottle In My Hand” and “Heartache Time” are fine enough tracks, but the familiar chord progressions do start to run together on this album, leading to more “solid” moments as opposed to ones that stand out.
But there’s also some great technical moments here, from the heavy groove of “Restless Ways” to the jubilant saloon piano driving “Basket Case” or “Me My Bottle And Nothing But Time,” this album at least offers the rougher edges needed to give this album some flavor.
Yet if we dive into the lyrical content, the issues of being derivative once again arise. What’s ultimately going to set Jenkins apart in the long run is his vocal ability and how he uses it. Morgan offers a hard-charged recklessness to his music that’s easy to like, meanwhile someone like Cody Jinks offers a world-weary wisdom, lyrically, that goes beyond the obvious clichés. On his debut album, it feels like Jenkins is still trying to figure out where exactly he fits in, and that’s alright. But again, it makes tracks like “Bottle In My Hand” and “Heartache Time” come across as standard drinking and heartache songs that you’ve heard done elsewhere better.
Still, it’s fitting that the album ends with “Me My Bottle And Nothing But Time,” which acknowledges those clichés in an admittedly fun way, offering some wit and humor to the situation at hand. And to be fair, Jenkins is able to step beyond those shadows when the time comes. Again, “Waiting” is the kind of track where the character in question is a sad fool who can’t admit that the relationship is over, yet holds out hope regardless. The title track plays to the familiar theme of life on the road, but at least has a story to coincide with it. And “Strength Of A Woman” is an especially interesting look at a tattered relationship where both sides won’t give up, if only because they see something in each other no one else can understand. It’s not a personal favorite of mine, but it’s an easy track to respect for its execution.
If there’s any misstep on Western Gold, though, it’s “While I’m Away.” Granted, the intention is good, showing a husband getting ready to leave for another tour on the road while also addressing his wife’s supposed infidelity. The problem is that we never get any hard evidence that she’s cheating on him, making this track come across as a presumptuous, odd, insecure and unneeded warning rather than something that feels earned. Again, the idea is good, but the execution is messy.
I like Western Gold, but I wish it showed more unique qualities than it ultimately does. Again, Jenkins is a fantastic vocalist, and the sound here is fairly likable, but going forward, Jenkins will also need to differentiate himself from the crowd better. As it is, there’s certainly a few excellent standouts on Western Gold, but I’m looking forward to hearing what’s next, because Jenkins certainly has it in him to deliver something more.