In Austin and TVs across the Land, Jenny Reynolds Connects through Stories and Emotions
Growing up in Westwood, Massachusetts, singer-songwriter Jenny Reynolds appreciated all of her mother’s records—except one.
“Before I was old enough to go to school, my mom and I used to listen to her records, including the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, and Peter, Paul and Mary,” Reynolds says. “She also played The Flying Nun record, but I thought that was awful.”
Apologies to Reynolds’ mom and the talented actress Sally Field, but Field’s 1967 LP with the same title as the role she played in a campy TV series couldn’t hope to cut it in a year that saw the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?
After surviving spins of The Flying Nun during her youth, Reynolds worked in the Boston area for Tone-Cool Records before she was laid off and moved to Austin, Texas, in 2003. Tone-Cool’s stable of artists then included Susan Tedeschi and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
“I like twang and free thinking,” Reynolds says. “Austin seems more of a place for both. I have always liked the song itself more than songwriter swagger and feel at home here. I miss my family, but living here connected me to wonderful musicians and people, including Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who co-produced my most recent CD, Next To You, and Mark Hallman, who is producing the one I am working on. I also moved in with my now wife when I moved to Austin. We met in 2001 at (the Southwest Regional) Folk Alliance (Conference).”
Austin was also where Reynolds met Ian McLagan, the great Faces keyboardist who moved from England to the Texas city in 1994 and played with his Bump Band for many years before his death in December 2014. The band also featured Newcomb, one of Austin’s top guitarists.
“I went to see Ian a lot when he and the Bump Band had a residency at the Lucky Lounge in Austin,” Reynolds recalls about McLagan who played keys on her song “Ain’t No Reason.” “Scrappy Jud Newcomb is our mutual friend. One night. I got there early, and no one else was really there except Ian and Scrappy. I was so worried I’d say something stupid that I didn’t say anything. Ian almost instantly started a conversation about what it’s like to play with Scrappy and asked about my experience with him. It very quickly became an engrossing and relaxed conversation. Then Patty Griffin walked in. It stayed familiar and fun. This is still one of my favorite nights in Austin. Ian was every bit a genius and, at least, part Muppet; the Muppet part came out in the obvious joy that playing music gave him. The genius part was everywhere.”
Reynolds says her musical idols while growing up were James Taylor and Lindsey Buckingham — for their picking talents.
“Later, I came to appreciate Mississippi John Hurt and Merle Travis for the same reason. I had to go to the library to get Hurt and Travis’s music. I have also always loved Bonnie Raitt. When my older brother brought her records home, I learned girls could play guitar. It wasn’t just for boys. I got my first guitar on my fifth birthday from Sears Roebuck in the Fenway in Boston, back when the sign actually said Sears Roebuck.”
I ask Reynolds how her CDs have differed over the years. She says her first CD, Colored in Poetry, which was released in 1998 and featured Catie Curtis, is very melodic.
“In terms of production, there are keyboards and vocals that give the instruments that hold the melody a sort of sonic bed to sing or play over. It doesn’t twang. It’s a bit more James Taylor-y but with open tunings. In the next CD, Bet on the Wind, I wanted more guitar and other strings like cello. Enter Duke Levine, Kevin Barry, and cellist Stephanie Winters.
“With the third CD, Next To You, I worked with more strings, like Warren Hood on fiddle, and more guitarists, like Scrappy Jud. Across the three CDs, I think my lyrics have become a bit more literal. They tell stories and evoke feelings, rather than just evoke feelings. I am a better guitar player and, in general, use fewer open tunings. On Bet on the Wind and Next To You, I include cover songs. Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’ is on Bet on the Wind, and the Beatles’ ‘I’m Looking Through You’ is on Next To You. I changed the arrangements of each song considerably. With these CDs, I became a better listener, and that made me a better musician. That’s why I was able to pull off the covers.”
Reynolds says her music and lyrics expose human questions and issues.
“I like a melody that breaks right where the lyric is most vulnerable as in the songs ‘Bet On the Wind’ and ‘Exhale.’ I believe people feel better about themselves when they witness artists revealing and embracing vulnerability. And I like making people feel good.”
Reynolds says “Exhale” is the best song she has written because it connects well with people.
“The three people in the song have human problems that resonate with listeners,” she says. “Some friends and fans in Austin are telling me that a few of my newer songs, which will be on the next CD, are very good. One is called ‘Any Kind of Angel,’ which will likely be the title of the new CD. It’s about what happens to a family when the family business, farming, is ruined by drought. In living here, I have seen some of what drought can do. It is alarming. Water is the new oil. Another new song that will be on the next CD is called ‘Dance for Me.’ It tells a story of a ballet dancer who gives up her life for dance. It has a Latin guitar part, which I hadn’t done before and actually had to learn. The lyrics have good word economy, and the melody works with the guitar. I think the song is, at least in part, a result of exposure to other cultures here in Austin.”
Reynolds music has gotten much exposure on TV. Most of Colored in Poetry was played on ABC soap operas, including General Hospital, All My Children, and One Life to Live. Her music was also played on NBC’s soap The Bold and the Beautiful and on CBS’s The District.
Reynolds is also the founder and producer of Austin’s Williams Nite: A Tribute to the Music of Hank and Lucinda Williams, which will happen for the seventh time this year.
“I had seen a similar tribute show in the mid-’90s in Boston, and Hank’s and Lucinda’s songs really stood out to me. Both have an uncanny ability to simplify the most complex things and boil them down to their bones. You can notice everything around you, a bird, a train, and yet all you really feel is lonesome. I can’t think of a more vulnerable thing to say than ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry.’ But then there’s Lucinda’s song ‘Sweet Old World.’ Damn, they both have open-wound honesty.”
Lucinda Williams and Reynolds met a few times, but Reynolds says she doesn’t think Lucinda knows her.
“We met a couple times backstage when I knew someone who had a pass or something,” says Reynolds, who teaches guitar at the University of Texas and has a master’s degree in education from Boston College. “What I know of her is her beautiful melodies and rich, poetic lyrics that both convey feeling through raw emotion. I can tell she writes what she feels, and I am grateful for it. The other thing about Lucinda is how she shares her music with other players onstage. Seeing her play with Kenny Vaughan, John Jackson, and Doug Pettibone, I could tell they weren’t just playing together. Their interplay makes the songs feel alive.”
Reynolds says her personal life caused a recording hiatus.
“My wife, Kerry, has a terminal, progressive neurological disease called supranuclear palsy,” Reynolds explains. “We had to move her to a nursing home last May. Before then, I was her primary caregiver. With the help of friends and my family, I have been able to keep playing and gigging throughout her illness since roughly 2010, but recording has been hard, especially before she moved to the nursing home.
“Now I am rediscovering music and myself and am learning not to feel guilty about it. I have the time and the quiet needed to complete a thought and to experiment with ideas long enough for them to become songs. And I have patience to take risks. I bring new songs to Kerry in the home and we share music and ideas. She still has all her mind. Dealing with her illness and gradually losing her in my life has made me more of a fearless artist. Now I write more verses—like 10 or 12—and choose the best three or four. I feel less likely to fail if I am always willing to keep trying. And I am very interested in learning new styles of guitar, like Latin sounding patterns.”
Reynolds says she also enjoys spending time with her dog Oakley, reading poetry of Mary Oliver and nonfiction books by Erik Larson, and rowing several times weekly on a machine, in a shell, and in a kayak.
Some of the best concerts she enjoyed as a spectator were performances by Ani DiFranco, John Hiatt, and David Lindley.
“About 2010, I saw Ani DiFranco play at the Paramount Theater here in Austin,” Reynolds says. “She is the epitome of fearless, and she always tours with fantastic musicians. Clearly, they practice a ton, but together in performance they sound as free and together as a Greenwich Village jazz quintet. They are well prepared and still curious. You can’t do that unless the music is great.
“I also saw John Hiatt on a tour, and David Lindley opened, maybe about 2006 at the Paramount. Both played solo. In their and Ani’s performances, the artist let nothing stand in his or her way. There was a constant, direct relationship between the artist and his or her songs, even if the instruments changed. These people give everything to their songs and the audience that is there to hear them. From these shows, I learned artistry isn’t about greatness or braggarts strutting their stuff; it’s about sacrifice and how much an artist is willing to give.”
Reynolds cites three other musicians for performances that influenced her most as a musician. One was last year when she watched Ray Bonneville perform at Strange Brew in Austin.
“I love how he picks his electric guitar and the amp tone he gets that makes the music between the notes sound so good. Fabulous bass lines, especially on Run Jolee Run.”
Reynolds also recalls two other memorable and inspiring live shows.
“When I was high school, I saw the concert James Taylor did for PBS. That was influential, because I could see and hear how he changed his picking pattern with every chord. It seemed like a jazz approach to a folk sound, together with melodies I still hum.”
In the late 1990s, she came away raving about a Chris Smither concert at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“That was amazing!” Reynolds exclaims. “His solo fingerstyle guitar and understated vocals, and the small venue, combined to make listeners feel closer to Chris. After that show, I bought Live As I’ll Ever Be and have since loved every note. I play fingerstyle a lot. Every time I see Chris, I learn something. The way he uses his right thumb and the bass strings from song to song—steady bass on blues and alternating bass on songs like Leave the Light On and Origin of the Species, plus slides and bass runs throughout—is so interesting I can’t listen to it when I drive. It asks that much of my mind.”