Gethen Jenkins began writing songs as a teenager but put his passion for music aside when he joined the Marine Corps at 18. After serving eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to the States and decided to pursue music full-time.
“I made a promise to myself when I went overseas with a bunch of people from my platoon,” the 6’5″ singer tells Billboard, settling into a leather couch at Sputnik Studios in Nashville where he’s putting the finishing touches on his debut album. “We were over there, and we promised that we were gonna give music a shot when we got back, me and my buddy Jesse. So we did. We came back, and we started the band.”
After years of playing in honky tonk bands throughout California, the baritone singer is readying his debut full-length album. While the Vance Powell-produced Western Gold is scheduled for release early next year, Billboard has the exclusive premiere of Jenkins’ debut single, “Bottle In My Hand.” The first country shuffle the singer has ever written, “Bottle In My Hand” has Jenkins at the bar lamenting about being down on his luck.
“Well I’m just sitting here drinking / Just as hard as I can / Fighting off your memories / With two great big old hands,” he croons on the opening verse alongside steady percussion and ear-grabbing guitar parts.
“I wrote it about what I was going through at the time and I guess I’m still kind of going through that,” Jenkins explains. “All the lyrics hold pretty true for what I’m going through right now in my life. I believe every word of it, that’s for damn sure. It leaves you falling off the bar stool.
Jenkins calls “Bottle In My Hand” an “intense, in your face” song, which is why his team chose it as the lead single off the project. While the track starts out with a man drowning his sorrows at the bar, things pick up by the song’s end where he realizes he’s going to be fine and will move on from that ex.
“It’s about a lot of people, when they’re going through heartache or a breakup or something like that, they find themselves in a bar drinking. Even though it’s the wrong thing to do… you have to get wrong before you get right sometimes,” he admits.
“Bottle In My Hand” is an introduction to Jenkins’ forthcoming project, which he describes as an all-you-can-eat buffet. “There’s a song on here for everybody,” he explains, adding that there are elements of country, funk, blues and rock alongside waltzes, six/eight time ballads, shuffles and even a cowboy cha cha.
While several songs on the album are about traveling and the people Jenkins has met on the road, one track in particular touches upon his time in the military. On “Stories of Your Life,” Jenkins makes the parallel between his singing profession and military career but the song almost didn’t make the album. It was producer Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, Jack White) who urged Jenkins to feature the track on the project.
“That’s a real hard one for me because I haven’t really talked about that too much. It’s important to me that I don’t try to exploit that part of my life. I think I did it in a way that’s respectful, and it’s not too much detail,” he says of the song, which has Jenkins alone with his guitar. “It’s giving honor to some of the stuff that I did when I was in the military. Vance made me do it. I feel good about it finally, about being able to sing about that.”
The track begins with Jenkins asking a question: “Have you ever had the feeling way down deep inside, one you can’t run from, no matter how hard you try?” He hopes listeners will relate to the lyrics and find themselves within the song.
“I’ve had a lot of different jobs, I’ve lived all over the world almost, and I feel in my heart that I can do the most good, make the most difference, making music and playing music for people. I feel like that’s what I’m here to do,” he explains.
For Jenkins, the song is about getting on stage in the right mindset so he can deliver to his audience and give the best show he can. The parallel, he says, is as a Marine he straps the rifle on his back and is relying on his brothers and sisters in arms, as they’re relying on him, to do the best he can in that situation.
“Two things I’m very proud about, and two things that I’ve done; the singing and delivering songs, and then serving my country,” he says. “I get inspired by people and places and beauty, things that move me. That’s what usually inspires me to write something about it.”
Jenkins says the bridge is the pinnacle of “Stories of Your Life.” In it, he sings, “Let me take you back where I come from / Where a memory is painted by a song / The angels gave it to me, so I pass it along.”
“It reminds me when I’m singing it that it’s not about me. I think you’re kind of a translator, really. It reminds me that, ‘Hey, this is a gift that was given to me. Do the best you can.’ It’s a responsibility and an honor to sing for people so do it the best you can and heal them, let them go through their troubles, help them grieve, or just move people,” he shares.
Other songs on the project include a waltz called “While I’m Away,” which Jenkins says is about where he is in his life right now, and a blues song titled “Maintenance Man.” The latter he describes as Tony Joe White meets Jerry Reed. Each song, Jenkins says, has him in it.
“I wanted to record an album that I’m proud of, that’s honest and has some cool movement to it. It’s about my life and where I’m at right now. [A lot of these songs are] about where I am, and where I’m going. I’m an open book. I’m a mess, but I’m open about it,” he concedes. “I am a horrible communicator. Music really helps me get a lot of the feelings that I have inside out, without having to pay money. That’s what I believe about music — it helps translate feelings for not just me, but for other people, too.”
Jenkins’ debut album, Western Gold, is due out in 2019.