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Bennett Jackson is a consummate musician. He's a technically proficient songwriter and guitarist, a thoughtful lyricist, and he's educated in the country music canon.
In addition, he's intelligent and articulate in his understanding of country music and its importance in the American musical landscape.
Landscape is the appropriate word, because - though he grew up in Santa Cruz and just returned from four years honing his craft in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York - Jackson's first EP (a short collection of songs) is titled "Plumas County."
If this seems an anomaly for a beach and city kid to name his first-ever EP after a small rural western county, it's not. Jackson's been vacationing here for as long as he can remember. The EP's cover photo is a scene straight out of the Sierra Valley and is about as Plumas County as you can get. In fact, it's from a photo Jackson took while cycling on the A-23 between Sattley and Beckwourth.
Jackson may be only 22 years old, but he's been around music since he was crawling around Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz as a baby. His father, Tim Jackson, started Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz 35 years ago, and is general manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Though the primary music Jackson listened to growing up was jazz, his maternal grandfather was a big influence on his life. He was a "cowboy type," with the last name of Chavez - in fact, Jackson's second EP will explore the Mexican ranchera musical tradition.
Jackson started listening to country music in junior high, he said, and started playing it in high school. The aesthetic interests him because he sees it as a "true American art form."
While jazz has traditionally been considered the quintessential American art form, Jackson said, "country music is just as important to the musical tapestry of America."
While the genre has frequently been "derided for being overly simplistic," Jackson, quoting Harlan Howard, defends country music as "three chords and the truth."
Jackson wants "to dispel that myth ... It's fantastically intricate."
What draws him emotionally to the music is the way it deals with "complex human emotions, love, longing and death - severe topics - but it distills them down to the essence ... you can take away a feeling in just two or three verses."
Jackson referenced Appalachian songs of the 1920s and '30s, which dealt with the death of babies, family tragedies - heartbreaking subjects.
The lyrics of country are a kind of almanac for all of life's situations. Jackson said, "Country music is never afraid to tackle any subject, no matter how complicated ... (delivering) a short, true, powerful message."
Jackson's own music has been influenced most directly by what he called "outlaw country exemplified by Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris."
He also incorporates the country rock style of Neil Young and the southern country rock of Hank Williams, Jr.
Jackson calls his take on country in "Plumas County" anthropological. He tries "to paint a broad spectrum of country and Americana ... It signifies a journey through America both physically and musically."
The title song has an "old George Jones country ballad" sound to it - very slow, almost melancholic.
"Dead Roses" is a raucous, country rock song with Neil Young overtones, while "The Great Above" channels Hank Williams, Jr.
The landscape of the American West is a looming influence on this first EP, and that West is best exemplified, for Jackson, by his own experience in Plumas County.
The cover photo shows a road that leads out into the physical landscape, and metaphorically, into the musical one, as well. With its "wide open roads," it represents the west as a "mythic place."
Jackson still vacations here with his family and it continues to form the backbone of his experience; he calls Plumas County his "ultimate favorite place."
He and his band, "Bennett Jackson and the Ranch Hands," just completed their short "Westward Expansion Tour," which included that famous venue, the Graeagle Outpost.
"We had a great time at the Outpost," he said. For the rest of the band, Plumas County had been an artistic and musical vision. They'd never "experienced it and it was a real treat to see" the place behind the music.
"It was nice to have been able to connect with the folks in Plumas County," Jackson added.
Looking to the future, Jackson said while he loves the urban life and energy of cities, he's also West Coast-born and bred. In New York, he admitted, "there's a lot of grind - it gets a little tiring."
He's planning to dive into country more fully at the beginning of the New Year, though, with a move to Austin, Texas, which blends that city energy with a close-knit musical community.
This fall, Jackson and his Ranch Hands will release a companion EP to "Plumas County" entitled "Ranchera." It will be a "country exploration of ties between America and the Mexican Ranchera tradition" that he learned from his grandfather.
Jackson continues to think and create in a tradition that ties the memory of an American past to memories of his own, showing a level of sophistication and comprehension that would be impressive in a man twice his age.
It will be interesting to see what he brings to us in Plumas County and beyond in years to come. For now, to learn more about Bennett Jackson and download the Plumas County EP, go to Jackson's main music site, myspace.com/bennettjacksonmusic or bennettjackson.bandcamp.com (the homepage for the "Plumas County" EP; it can be purchased here). The songs are also available for download and purchase from iTunes and Amazon.com under the name "Bennett Jackson."
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