It’s always a bummer when a place we love disappears. The memories, the comfort, the people- gone with the sign of a check, a terminated lease, or a smash of a bulldozer.
And in Nashville especially, beloved establishments have been closing their doors due to developers and “it” city pressures well before the pandemic had a stranglehold on society. Out with the old and in with the new so they say, but many times, the new just doesn’t hold that charm, personality, and familiar appeal.
For Americana songwriter and ex-hockey stud Howard Jennings, that place was beloved record store, vintage shop, and low-key venue Fond Object. It was a haven in East Nashville, and one could grab a delight from Mitchell’s Deli or Dosé coffee shop across the street, and head over to peruse the records and treasures abound.
The place was so important to Jennings, he wrote a song and made a music video dedicated to it- “The Sound Song.” Local radio station favorite Lightning 100 has spun it on multiple occasions, and American Songwriter also wrote a piece on it. Before that, he released the single “Ain’t Over Yet,” which was his ode to John Prine. Lightning 100 also favored that song on the radio.
He is currently in the lab piecing together what he hopes to be a full-length album come 2021, and like the rest of us, is just trying to ride out the storm. With his poignant and heartfelt songwriting, Jennings is locked and loaded to be a major player in the Americana scene in Music City and beyond.
We had the chance to discuss the single with Jennings and much more.
So where did you grow up, and what got you into playing and writing music?
Just outside of Plattsburgh, NY, in Cadyville, on the edge of the Adirondacks, near Lake Champlain, about an hour south of Montreal. My dad could strum a few chords and make up songs on the spot with his ‘67 Guild… so that always stuck with me. He loved The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young, so there was that influence too. That said, I didn’t know that I wanted to perform and write until I was 17, when I saw Dave Matthews Band play at SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center). I remember thinking that however this band is making me feel right now, that’s what I’d like to do for other people. And who didn’t/doesn’t want to play an acoustic like that guy? Could have been the weed flowing through the amphitheater air too… I didn’t seriously pick up that Guild guitar though until I was 18 going on 19, when I was playing junior hockey in Canada. It started more as a way to escape from the demands of competitive hockey, but it turned into playing 8-10 hours a day.
How difficult was it for you to give up on your hockey lifestyle initially, then your career in the corporate world, to then take a flyer on life as an artist?
Even though making music started as an outlet, it really opened my eyes to the idea that I didn’t have to define myself as a “hockey player”. Being on the ice was all I did since I could walk. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and great memories (especially traveling with my family – check out my tune “Aerostar” for the feels on that) that came from the sport, and I wouldn’t change a thing, but music let me know there was life outside of hockey. Sports are a crucial part of our culture, but I think our society puts too much pressure on taking them so seriously… and that can be so tiring. I think my dedication and focus with hockey helped prepare me to be a musician though. Ice hockey is one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports, so I think that translated well to diving right into becoming a musician. As for giving up the corporate gig – that was tough because I went to Clarkson University with the goal of getting a job like that – and I was fortunate to have an opportunity with IBM. In school, I wasn’t just getting an education in supply chain management though, ha. The college years were when the gigs started – my band and I were playing shows all over the north country at clubs and colleges. It was an informative time musically more than anything. I was building confidence as a performer, and figuring out what did and didn’t work.
So this past July, you released your latest single and love letter to the late Nashville-favorite record store, Fond Object, called “The Sound Song”. What made that place so special to you that it inspired you to write this song?
It was one of the main reasons we wanted to live in that part of the neighborhood. My wife found our house while I was on the road for a show, and when she mentioned it was a block from the record shop, I didn’t even need to see the house to know it was the one. I have the best memories pushing my daughter in her stroller to hear the live music, and once she could walk she would lead me there when she heard the music playing. It was the Nashville dream: music all around you, a place that fostered creatives and community- gone for more condos.
Where did you record it and who was involved in the production?
I recorded the electric guitar parts and vocals in my home studio in East Nashville. I actually built a studio from scratch behind our house and it was one of the first songs I recorded there. My good friend Jesse Siebenberg who lives in Ojai, CA, recorded/played bass, drums and synth on it… and he mixed it too (at his studio out there). The guy can do anything at the highest level. And a major assist to another pal, Nashvillian Adam Grover with Sterling Sound for the magical mastering.
Can fans expect to see it on an upcoming EP or LP, or is it just a standalone single for now?
The initial thought was to have “The Sound Song” on a record, but plans don’t matter in 2020, so now I’m writing for an LP of all new songs for 2021. You’re the first to know this. I feel like my writing is in a good place now where I’m not rushing to finish songs. I’m taking the time to edit and get them as right as I can.
And how about your single, “Ain’t Over Yet”- what’s the inspiration and influence behind this track?
When the news came that John Prine was sick with COVID-19, it shocked everyone, especially the songwriting community in town. I just feel like he was supposed to live forever. I was listening to his songs nonstop, even more than I normally do, and I wanted to say something and show my thanks to him (even if it never made it to him)… Our city had just taken a beating from the tornado, and we didn’t even have time to process it all or recover before the virus hit. So all those emotions combined with the possibility of not having everyone’s favorite songwriter around to write us through this was the catalyst for the song, which started as a clip for Instagram. After John passed, I had to record it just for myself if nothing else. Lightning 100 ended up spinning it, which was a big deal to me and it was added to a reputable Spotify playlist, so those were nice surprises for a song that I wasn’t planning on releasing.
What are or were some of your favorite venues to play in Nashville?
The first gig I ever played in Nashville was at The End when I was on tour with The Damnwells… such a classic small rock club. I also played a few times for The Whiskey Jam at Winners Bar when I first got to town, so there’s a soft spot for those two places… Nostalgia gets me every time.
“I have the best memories pushing my daughter in her stroller to hear the live music, and once she could walk she would lead me there when she heard the music playing. It was the Nashville dream – music all around you – a place that fostered creatives and community… gone for more condos.”
What are three Nashville establishments Howard Jennings can’t live without?
Ryman Auditorium (best place on earth to hear your favorite artists), Barista Parlor (go with the Whiskey Caramel latte – these folks pair the best records and coffee), and Grimey’s New & Preloved Music (best record release in-store shows).
If you could have a drink (doesn’t have to be alcoholic) or a smoke with one of your living idols, who might it be?
I have to go with Willie. I met him at Farm Aid and he couldn’t have been nicer. Maybe one day I’ll make it on to his bus for “the legendary hang.” I love his songs, his outlook on life, the way he treats others… he gets it more than the rest of us… Willie for President 2020!
I see you’ve toured/opened for a number of artists like Ryan Cabrera, Vertical Horizon, Rusted Root, and more. What’s one of your favorite memories of your time on the road or on the stage?
When I was touring with Cabrera, we played Boston College. As I entered the stage through the curtains at the auditorium the place went crazy… I honestly felt like The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I remember saying “Hello, just so you know, I’m not Ryan Cabrera”, then they got even louder… by the end of the set they had a Howard chant going… it was dreamlike. It’s like golf- that one shot (gig) that keeps you coming back. You need one of those every once in a while.
What might a dream gig entail for you?
Headlining Ryman Auditorium. Since moving to Nashville in early February 2013, that’s been my ultimate goal. Okay- Red Rocks would be nice too!
What might fans expect from Howard Jennings to close out the year?
I’m planning a couple of livestream shows in November and December where I’ll play one of my old songs re-imagined and rewritten, a cover, a more recent release, and something new… so listeners can tune in via IG and FB!