Makin' Tracks: Indie Act Austin Jenckes Addresses Dad's Ghost In 'If You'd Been Around'
As Father’s Day rolls around June 16, plenty of songs that celebrate the bond between dads and their kids will find some level of attention in country culture. Alan Jackson’s “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” Heartland’s “I Loved Her First,” Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be” and Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man” are among the vast number of titles that demonstrate appreciation for dear old Dad.
But not everyone is in a celebratory mood on Father’s Day. Country has captured complicated father/child relationships in Reba McEntire’s “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” Doug Supernaw’s “I Don’t Call Him Daddy,” Zac Brown Band’s “Highway 20 Ride” and even Johnny Cash’s outlandish “A Boy Named Sue.”
For Austin Jenckes -- a 2013 contestant on The Voice who just released his debut album, If You Grew Up Like I Did, on May 31 -- Father’s Day is definitely complicated. “Sometimes,” he says, “I wish that it could just be Mother’s Day again.”
His father committed suicide when Jenckes was 16. It brought on a slew of guilt, deprived him of a sounding board as he grew up and put him on shaky footing as he advanced through his teens.
Jenckes often wrote about his father as his artistic career developed, but album focus track “If You’d Been Around” hits closest to home, acknowledging a father who’s no longer in his child’s life without stating specifically if he died or abandoned the family. “I really wanted it to be something that anybody could connect with,” says Jenckes. “That’s important with songs like that, but I also wanted it to be real.”
The subject was extremely real for both Jenckes and co-writer Tammi Kidd-Hutton (“Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way”), whose father also took his own life when she was just 5. Kidd-Hutton discovered their similar stories when she met Jenckes through Nettwerk One Music, where both were signed to publishing deals. She asked about one of his tattoos; it was his dad’s initials.
“Just from the look in his eyes, I knew we were a member of the same club immediately,” she says. “I didn’t even have to ask.”
They delved into the subject more deeply when they got together for a co-write with Kidd-Hutton’s husband, Lynn Hutton (“Cold One,” “Did It for the Girl”), in his office at Sea Gayle Music on May 19, 2016 -- exactly one month prior to Father’s Day that year. “Her and I were just kind of sitting there talking to each other about that feeling, growing up [with] the insecurities of not knowing why and wondering if it was something that was wrong with you,” recalls Jenckes. “Even though everybody’s telling you that it’s not your fault, it’s just that kind of constant, looming feeling.”
Kidd-Hutton had addressed her father’s death in therapy and in a veiled manner when she wrote LeAnn Rimes’ “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way,” but always had directly avoided it in the writing room. Jenckes had been noodling with a melancholy acoustic guitar passage, and the discussion led Hutton to a phrase that fit, “If you’d been around.” Kidd-Hutton says the song would not have been written if her husband hadn’t observed the conversation and gently nudged them to write about their experiences.
“I write songs every day, and that’s the only time that I’ve ever been in a room where I was writing it, but I felt like somebody else was writing it,” says Hutton. “The good Lord was just working through me.”
The song was drafted for a father and son, though Kidd-Hutton got the heart of her father/daughter relationship into the opening lines -- “I got your name/ And I got your eyes” -- and into an appreciation for a mother who was forced to take on both the maternal and paternal roles of child-raising. They made a point in the chorus to tell their departed dads, “Just so you know, I’m doing OK.”
“To me, that’s the most important line in the song,” says Kidd-Hutton. “I’ve probably not made the best decisions in some areas, but I turned out pretty damn well. It’s not an anger thing. I think I’ve made the pain pay me back through songwriting.”
They wrote only the first verse and chorus that day, and both sections sound remarkably similar. That was intentional. “We don’t need to hit people over the head with a big dramatic melody thing when the story is kind of doing that anyway,” surmises Kidd-Hutton.
They left the song alone for months, but Hutton was later inspired to write the second verse about the process of growing up on your own -- learning lessons not from Dad’s example, but from making the wrong move and suffering the consequences. He sent those lyrics to Jenckes, who changed three or four words to make them more personal. The last addition was a bridge -- essentially a third verse, but it changes the context from all the uncertainties to a projection of what it could have been like if Dad had been around long enough to become friends with his son.
It was, understandably, a challenge to sing when Jenckes recorded a lo-fi demo at his home. “I did like 12 passes of the vocal, and I don’t think I sang all the way through the song once,” he admits. Jenckes continued to sing it around the house as well as a few times publicly. He finally cut it in May 2018 at Sound Emporium Studio B with producer Aaron Eshuis (Scotty McCreery, Ryan Hurd) and a small studio band: drummer Phil Lawson, bassist Tony Lucido and electric guitarist Rob McNelley.
“We went back and forth a lot on whether we should just do it as an acoustic guitar/vocal or if we should put drums on it,” says Jenckes. “It’s not overly dramatic in any way musically, but I really liked the way that it ended up being: just simple.”
Jenckes’ acoustic guitar part, recorded in one take, is the centerpiece in the arrangement, which is similar in tone to Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.” Lawson and Lucido are barely perceptible when they arrive in the first chorus, and McNelley’s parts are hauntingly atmospheric. Jenckes was equipped to complete the vocals by then, and his final performance captured the complexities of the storyline. “When I originally did the demo, I was really sad,” he says. “I don’t know if this came across on the vocal in the record or not, but I know I was feeling a little bit more angry when I recorded the actual album version.”
Writing “If You’d Been Around” significantly affected the writers. Kidd-Hutton now has fewer bouts of sadness, according to Hutton, and they’re not as overwhelming when they appear. “She’s only about 5 foot tall, but she’s one of the strongest people I know,” says Hutton.
Jenckes, 31, only started to feel like an adult in the year since he recorded it, in part because sharing his emotional journey on concert stages has made him more confident in his humanity. “It’s kind of this strange Catch-22 because sometimes it’s uncomfortable on my end,” he says. “Then when somebody really is connected with it, it makes me feel so much more normal with some of those feelings that I’ve had for such a long time.”
In one of the ultimate tests, Jenckes intends to sing “If You’d Been Around” when he makes his Grand Ole Opry debut on June 15, the night before Father’s Day. His mother is flying in for the performance, making a point to be there for her son in a way that Jenckes’ father could not.
“My mom is a badass, and she is more of a rock star than I’ll ever be,” he says. “I’m just hoping that I can hold it together on that stage.”