Down to earth would be one way to describe Gethen Jenkins. So would unassuming, generous, and humble. But that doesn’t mean this big, gentle guy isn’t 100% outlaw at heart.
If youâ€™re in Southern California and feel an earth-groaning rumble, dishes rattling in your cabinets, and your instincts tell you to take cover under the nearest door jam, itâ€™s probably because The Freightshakers are playing in your neighborhood. The only choice you have is to put on your boots and go out partying with the outlaws. This hard-driving, honky-tonk group lead by Gethen Jenkins is a perfect way to spend any night, wherever it may take you.
We caught up with this hard working group last week as they performed a rare show in Los Angeles.
Jenkins is from Orange County where the attitudes are bigger, the bodies are harder, and the fans arenâ€™t afraid of two-stepping. It isnâ€™t difficult to understand why LA only gets a visit or two per year from these bad boys.
I met Jenkins during a Billy Joe Shaver concert at The Troubadour last March. He had his arm signed that night by the outlaw legend and then had the signature tattooed over the very next day. It is hard not to like a man like Jenkins and his complete lack of pretension.
Judging by his honest and genuine nature, The Freightshakers werenâ€™t like anything we had been witnessing locally (aside from a select few), which consisted of some thrift store folk bands still trying to find their country sound, and spending more time playing dress up for Instagram than writing good songs.
The Freightshakers had just won The Ameripolitan Award for Best Outlaw Group, an honor they share with Whitey Morgan and the 78â€™s, and now breakout star, Margo Price. They also opened for David Allan Coe in December at the famous M15 saloon in Corona. Although a lot of great bands played that night, The Freightshakers brought the roof down making it nearly impossible for Coe to follow.
They grace us once again at the trendy and famous Grand Ole Echo, near downtown LA.
In a pre-show photo shoot just after sound check, the band were unseasoned and boyish in front of the camera. Photographer Matt Stasi reports that they lacked all sense of vanity. He said they were refreshing to shoot and â€œnervous about what to do their hands,â€ something that might seem strange given they are pros when holding instruments.
â€œWeâ€™re an outlaw band, remember,â€ Gethen tells Matt. When they line up for a photo, they immediately break into a patented Rockettes, synchronized leg kick. â€œTheyâ€™re just really big kids,â€ Matt says.
Jenkins leads the band with a strangely familiar, soothing, yet smoky baritone voice while David Gilliard (The Duck) on stand-up bass, is a jovial contrast. The stoic, sophisticated Gary Brandin on the steel pedal is a master class in the art of subtlety. Firecracker Dale Daniel provides the classic backbeat we have come to look forward to in the California Country sound. Less is more with this band, but somehow you still walk away feeling like youâ€™ve been schooled on how outlaw music should sound.
Post show shenanigans with Jenkins are always anticipated. When hanging out with him after a Jamey Johnson show in Anaheim, our group took over a hotel lobby, shared whiskey, and talked about country music until someone finally delivered some Mexican food around 2:00 a.m. To describe them as “easy going” would be an understatement.
Arriving a few songs into their set, I missed â€œStrength of a Woman,â€ a new song inspired by the relationship between Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings. No worries, though; Jenkins played a private, acoustic version for me in the green room after the show. It is one of the prettiest things I have ever heard.
When encouraging him to send it to Colter, Jenkins expresses that he is careful not to use other musicians to get ahead. â€œIâ€™m just happy to be able to do what I do. I donâ€™t want to profit off of anyoneâ€™s name or hard work.â€ Thatâ€™s the kind of guy he is.
Someone in the group got word that Isaac Rother was spinning some Haggard, and off we go. Seeing the 6â€™ 5â€ Jenkins squeeze into the front seat of a tiny Prius is a good time in itself, but itâ€™s hard not to adore the way he is sincerely interested in people. He asked about our driver’s girlfriend situation, offering his advice on how to deal with women.
Footsieâ€™s is something straight out of a Bukowski story, and everyone in the place looked like a cereal ad from 1975, including Rother, who we met at the entrance carrying in a crate full of vinyl. The swinging saloon doors, long bar facing the front, and the low, padded horseshoe-shaped booths were the perfect setting for some Merle memories.
Women two-stepped and twirled their dresses on the dance floor while Jenkins got to know most of the bar. Having served as a Marine in Iraq, he is sensitive to his surroundings and the culture that makes up any space. Heâ€™s the kind of guy that is the first to buy a round for strangers and always sticks up for his buddies.
Before long, Jenkins had requested a list of his favorite Merle songs, which play between some Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings. We talked and reminisced about country legends mostly, Jenkins still visibly upset by Haggardâ€™s recent death. â€œWho is going to replace these guys? They are our bridge to the great ones before them,â€ says Jenkins.
He acknowledges Jamey Johnson, Whitey Morgan, and a few others as being â€œour generation of greats,â€ but admits that he gets disturbed at the lack of publicity these guys receive. â€œIt took Billy Joe Shaver so long, and his songs influence a lot of what I do. The fact that I get to share a stage with him here and there is still unreal to me, but that wonâ€™t always be. I just want to spend every second I can with these guys.â€ The Freightshakers have a show scheduled the following week with Shaver in Orange County.
We all agree with him, and that feeling has abounded since Merle canceled his first show in Los Angeles this year because of his health.
But now that itâ€™s been said, one can’t help but think about where we were. As a long time fan of the Outlaw genre, I never imagined sitting in a hipster Los Angeles bar listening to a guy wearing a righteous Afro spin Merle Haggard on vinyl. So, maybe thereâ€™s hope for this music, even without big radio play.
After too many IPAs and swirls on the tiny dance floor, “Silver Wings” by Haggard comes on, as requested by Jenkins. We remove our hats, set them in the middle of the table, and end our night in silence.