Interview: Kyle Jennings Brings Hockey Principles, Old-Fashioned Storytelling to ‘American Vinyl’
Hockey coaches and players often toss the phrase "dig in the corners" around on the rink and in the locker room. Literally, it means to chase the hockey puck into the corners of the rink and fight for possession; more broadly and figuratively, it means to push yourself hard until the job gets done. And it's one of many hockey-related life lessons that Kyle Jennings has found himself applying to his country music career.
"[In hockey,] you don't have any excuses when you come back to the bench," Jennings, a Comstock, Mich., native, former junior hockey player and hockey coach, tells The Boot. Citing some other qualities he picked up on the ice, such as "accountability" and "blatant honesty" -- not to mention learning to travel often -- Jennings adds, "That's part of the culture is, you either get the job done, or you've failed, and you've got to find a way to get the job done."
Jennings has been in Nashville since 2002, but his Midwestern, blue-collar roots are still strong. On his new album, American Vinyl, the singer-songwriter weaves 13 vivid tales that draw from both the country storytelling of the 1980s and '90s and the classically American tales of rockers such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Tom Petty
"I love all kinds of music ... but I love country storytelling. The '80s and the '90s just had some unbelievable compositions, some unbelievable songs," Jennings gushes. "The storytelling was just so killer."
On American Vinyl, the standout example of Jennings' own storytelling abilities comes just four songs into the 13-track disc: "Eddie's Garage" tells the story of a mechanic and his garage -- someone who "never wanted to be a rockstar," Jennings describes. "He was a dad, he was a businessman ... and that was what was his dream." Jennings was inspired to write the tune after observing a mechanic and patron -- small-town guys on a first-name basis who talked family, politics and plenty more before finally, at the end, getting to the car troubles -- at Eddie's Garage in Nashville.
"I just got this really cool snapshot," the artist explains. "As a songwriter, I think you can take things in a little different, from a different perspective or from a different angle, or see things that maybe a lot of people miss."
"Heart on Fire" has a "That Summer"-esque vibe. "Fierce" quotes Shakespeare to tell a story inspired by a real-life hockey mom fighting cancer. "The Power of a Woman" is an all-out soulful surprise.
"One of the things that I wanted to accomplish with this record was, I didn't want to build a project around one or two songs ... but more of a record that takes you through different [feelings and emotions]," Jennings notes. "It was really important to me to build a project that people can put in and, for 50 minutes, can just close their eyes, and they can go through love, and they can go through fun, and they can go through passion and yearning and desire and fire, and they can go through perseverance ..."
Jennings produced American Vinyl himself, working with engineer Pat Lassiter ("just a supremely talented guy"). Although he dreamed of a career in hockey while growing up, music is in his blood: His grandfather was an accomplished fiddler, keyboard player and guitarist, and his grandmother was a singer; the two performed on The Green Valley Jamboree, a Midwestern TV show and radio program, and Jennings remembers his grandpa playing his fiddle for his grandchildren. Jennings' grandfather even helped bankroll some of his earliest recordings; "I think he was happy that I was getting into music," Jennings says.
Formerly devoted "hockey parents," Jennings' mother and father, too, have been incredibly supportive of his career: "There was a bit of a pause -- 'What the hell do you know about songwriting?'" Jennings recalls of telling his parents he was going to move to Nashville, "but it was just a brief 'oh,' and after that, they've been unbelievable."
Concussions forced Jennings to look into non-hockey options in the first place, but once in Nashville for a few years, he picked the sport back up -- this time, as a coach. His music has put even coaching on the back burner recently, but he still skates with friends and will occasionally see old team members and their families at the rink.
"I absolutely love coaching, and I didn't know that I would love it as much as I do, so I miss it," he admits. "It really, really is a special culture. It's a group of uber-devoted people."
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