First recognized for his chops as a guitarist, singer-songwriter Jeff Plankenhorn has crafted an impressive body of work with his short list of solo releases. His latest, Sleeping Dogs, is highlighted by the artist’s impeccable musicianship, expressive vocals and openhearted conviviality.
An Ohio native from the Columbus area, Plankenhorn’s discovery of music began singing in church choirs as a young boy. “I got a taste of how music can make people feel. Coming from a pretty broken home, with my mom having to work a lot, I got a sense of community through music, and a sense of something through which I could give back.”
Plankenhorn explored jazz, funk and classical music while studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When a friend put together a bluegrass band, each member chipped in $20 to purchase a Dobro for Plankenhorn to play. “They gave me Jerry Douglas records and said, ‘Play this.’ At the same time I was also playing in a 12-piece funk band,” he recalls. Moving to Nashville, he continued in bluegrass bands throughout the O Brother Where Art Thou? era.
Departing for Austin, TX in a Geo Prism with $100 and seven guitars, he stayed at the home of friends Judy and Ray Wylie Hubbard, the latter a legendary figure in a town famous for its songwriters. It was there, as a guitarist, that Plankenhorn learned how to back up singer-songwriters in performances. “To not get in the way of the words. To listen to what was going on in the song and try to complement it,” he says.
“I had this education where I had reverence for the song,” he continues. “It was daunting when I started writing my own songs. Not only did I have this legacy of people to hold myself up against, sadly, but everyone else who was playing was pretty damn good. It’s still a wonder to me that I’m doing this myself when I played with people like Joe Ely, Eliza Gilkyson and Willis Allan Ramsey.”
Hubbard joined Plankenhorn to co-write the track “Tooth and Nail,” from the new album. It includes a divulging line about songwriting, “Like an old cat having kittens, you just crawl under the porch and do it.” Plankenhorn credits Hubbard as a teacher. “I’m attracted to writers who are better than me at a lot of things. One thing Ray is really good at is imagery.”
His song “Heaven on Earth,” Plankenhorn says, was inspired by his wife, a horticulturalist, arborist and gardener. “Most of that song is how she might have written it; things she talks about, like these birds on our back porch that nested in her gardening hat. The second verse and bridge are her favorite things in nature.”
In addition to guitar, Plankenhorn plays piano, bass, and pedal steel on Sleeping Dogs. He is the inventor of “The Plank,” a standup version of the lap steel guitar that combines aspects of the Dobro.
An eloquent and evocative vocalist, Plankenhorn said in making the latest record he had to “de-pretty” his vocals. “The engineer said, ‘It sounds too pure for what you’re writing about,’ so we recorded the vocals with a little harmonica mic underneath the vocal mic to add the edge.”
Harkening back to his church gigs, Plankenhorn and his Austin songwriter friends have created what he deems “A pseudo gospel brunch,” to raise funds for a local food bank. “It’s whatever we think is gospel music at that moment,” he says. “My songs ‘Love is Love’ and ‘Heaven on Earth’ go over great. Not to sound lofty, but with my music I want everyone to feel welcome when they walk in. And I mean everybody.”
Overall, Plankenhorn is grateful for the opportunity to share his songs with enthusiastic audiences. Now 45, He marvels that he launched his solo career a scant three years ago. “It happened organically. I love what I do and I’m humbled by it, not just because of the people I play with, but it’s given me a great life. The idea I could move into a solo career seems miraculous to me.”
Contact Cary Baker, conqueroo, [email protected]