By Mike Ethan Messick
When Oklahoma singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins died on March 2, 2018, after several harrowing days of fighting for his life in the wake of undergoing major heart surgery, the news hit hard. But the symbolism of him leaving this world with his heart wide open likely would not have been lost on a writer as gifted and prolific as Jenkins. In the uncertain week between his surgery and death, the flood of love, prayer and concern from his listeners and fellow musicians reflected the decades of soul and labor he had put in to making his original, relatable, and highly influential (at least in these parts) music.
Driven by circumstances to take stock of a life and career that we all would have hoped had many more years left in it — Jenkins was only 48 years old — even fans of his work might be a bit surprised at just how much music he managed to put out in the time he had, right up until the very end. By his own count, Jenkins’ last album, Tail Lights in a Boomtown — issued digitally on Feb. 9, just 20 days before his death — was his 18th in a career reaching back to the early ’90s. Although two of those releases appear to have gone AWOL somewhere along the line, most of the 16 titles listed on his official discography are still readily available either on CD or via download and streaming services, and it’s worth noting that very few of those albums are built around live tracks or re-recordings. Simply put, the man wrote a lot of songs. Which means that grieving fans have a generous legacy to remember the Tulsa native by, while the uninitiated, moved by the tributes and memories that will no doubt continue to pour in for years, have much to discover.
In tribute to the man’s life’s work, here are 10 standout songs among the many for which the “Red Dirt Legend” was revered — a respect sharpened for now by grief and that will hopefully be carried through the years to come by gratitude.
- “Refinery Blues” (Unmended, 2003)
Edged along by a sparse, barbed folk-blues guitar riff, this dark rumination on living in the shadows of the regional oil business was one of the Brandon Jenkins’ first attention-getters. “Too sick to work, too poor to leave,” he sings, chased by a line about how “nobody lives past 53, livin’ next door to this refinery” that can’t help but sting a little extra now.
- “My Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” (Unmended, 2003)
Thanks to the regional-and-then-some success of his friend and collaborator Stoney LaRue, this number and “Down In Flames” may be Jenkins’ best-known compositions. Fine songs both, but the first number’s mix of giddy affection and smooth melody has made it one of the all-time go-to songs for Red Dirt fans looking for something to dance to at their weddings.
- “Finger on the Trigger” (Down in Flames, 2005)
Bolstered by a well-known cover version by Bleu Edmondson, this harrowing number about an overwhelmed family man’s last-ditch turn to armed robbery bristles with detail and narrative momentum. Sure, recent history might not make a song about a gunman on edge go down too smoothly, but that’s part of the point. The good-natured Jenkins didn’t reserve his sympathies (or his imagination) for only the levelheaded among us.
- “Big Mama’s Kitchen” (Faster Than a Stone, 2008)
Keeping in mind that this isn’t a “10 deepest” list, this number caught a playful side that Jenkins didn’t always lean on very much. And like pretty much every track on Faster Than a Stone and 2006’s VII, the picking and production go above and beyond in service of Jenkins’ songs, giving him his best crack at radio play in the scene he helped foster.
- “Marching Towards the Guns” (Brothers of the Dirt, 2009)
A fatalistic, ominously bluesy stomp off the politically-loaded Brothers of the Dirt album, “Marching” tore into the prospects of war and revolution with a lyrical fervor that wasn’t overly specific but carried no lack of conviction.
- “Get Down in the Mud” (I Stand Alone, 2014)
Jenkins’ 2014 release broke a rare-for-him five-year stretch of no new material, and perhaps not coincidentally contains some of his most focused and formidable compositions. On an album mostly framed by simple but evocative acoustics, the lead-off track sang of manly conviction and follow-through. “Words just ain’t enough, you’ve got to show ‘em what you mean,” he insisted, but his words throughout this record showed plenty.
- “Haunted” (I Stand Alone, 2014)
Another mostly solo-acoustic track on an album defined by them, “Haunted” stood out with its subtly tricky melodic turns and aching vocal performance. A left turn from Jenkins’ usual meat-and-potatoes directness, more spooky and elliptical than usual, “Haunted” feels oddly (yet satisfyingly) like an ‘80s alt-rock hit in dusty work clothes.
- “Blue Bandana” (Blue Bandana, 2015)
The title track to a worthwhile but sort of under-the-radar Jenkins album, “Blue Bandana” kicks along with a spiky minor-key rock arrangement as a slippery counterpoint to his warm-as-ever, relatable-as-ever vocals. Unlike some of his much younger counterparts already putting out prematurely road-weary ballads on their debut albums, Jenkins’ scenes-from-the-road lyricism carries the gravity of time and miles.
- “Fade to Black” (Tail Lights in a Boomtown, 2018)
Jenkins almost certainly didn’t mean to write his own swan song, at least not this year, but an album that just popped up in the past month can’t help but shoulder more weight than intended. “Peace is wasted on the rested/While those who need it most are stuck down here in hell,” he laments, and his refrain of “it’s over, it’s over, it’s over” would be almost unbearably sad if it weren’t for the respite offered only a couple of tracks later on the same album …
- “Be the Revival” (Tail Lights in a Boomtown, 2018)
Like pretty much any songwriter worth his salt, Jenkins dished out no shortage of material on the dark, down, and desperate, but he wasn’t one to wallow. There’s plenty of humor, up-by-the-bootstraps courage and optimism running through his catalog as well, and this most recent example is also one of the best. Bolstered by hearty chants as the chorus kicks in, Jenkins belts out “know your faith is linked to your survival … we’re so much better than the worst deeds that we’ve done.” To his friends and family, Jenkins was of course much more than just the songs he leaves behind. But even if you only know him through his songs, he gave the world his best, gave it well, and gave it often.