Jeremy Pinnell’s Music Is Barbed Wire Around a Heart of Gold

Northern Kentucky singer/songwriter Jeremy Pinnell talks about his new album, his deadpan public face, and making music during the pandemic.

Jeremy Pinnell did what a lot of us had to do during the pandemic: He got a day job when his preferred gig dried up. The 43-year-old singer/songwriter grabbed some landscaping and construction work when COVID hit, temporarily putting on ice his third album of country outlaw anthems about love, trouble, and the combination of the two, Goodbye L.A. The follow-up to his acclaimed 2017 album, Ties of Blood and Affection, is a knock-out collection about regret and family ties inspired by the vaunted 1950s “Bakersfield” sound spearheaded by his musical hero, Merle Haggard.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JEREMY KRAMER

Pinnell, a native of Elsmere, talks about his new album and recalls driving around Cincinnati to film the video for the single, “Wanna Do Something.”

You worked construction last year. As a guitar player, weren’t you worried about crushing a finger or hand?

I got a job working for Messer Construction for six months and then started working for a local landscaping company. I’ve always done any kind of labor: construction, landscaping, heavy equipment, bricklaying. I’ve thought about [getting injured], but you can’t go to work thinking about stuff like that or you’re gonna mess up.

The new album was recorded in Austin, but you’ve said it was inspired by the Bakersfield, sound. What do you love about that era of country music?

I was looking for a 1980s Waylon Jennings/ZZ Top kind of feel. All those records from the ’80s feel good, they drive good, and people want to have a good time listening to them. Stuff like Waylon’s “Sparkling Brown Eyes” or ZZ Top’s “Legs.” Merle Haggard was the real deal—he was such an amazing singer and songwriter, and he wasn’t in a hurry to do anything.

You bragged about “loose women” on your first album [OH/KY from 2014] and having no time for a family or wife. But on Goodbye L.A. you sing about not seeing your girlfriend in a while and “pretty ladies” from L.A. who don’t want to have your babies.

You grow as a human being. Since 2014 there’s a whole lot of livin’ to be done in that short amount of time. You get a girl pregnant, then you have a son and you get a stepdaughter, and then you get to go play music as a career.

The National throw a lot of Cincinnati references in songs, and you’ve shouted out Bobby Mackey’s and Kenton and Boone counties in the past. Why is it important to shout out your roots?

It’s mostly a reminder for me where I’m from. I grew up in Madisonville, then we moved to Kentucky when I was 7 and spent the rest of the time in Elsmere. I do it for selfish reasons, I guess.

What was it like recording an album during the pandemic? What precautions did you take?

We recorded it at the beginning of 2020, in February and March in Austin, and finished it on the Monday they started asking people to stay home. So we got it done right under the wire and had a whole year and a half to plan it out.

Talk about filming the video for the classic Haggard-like lament “Wanna Do Something” in Cincinnati.

I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with anyone with drinking or drugs, but there’s this blind spot where you don’t know why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You don’t know why you’re drinking at 6 in the morning. That’s where the seed started, and I started thinking about how I don’t know why when I’m driving to work I’m thinking about how to write music. It just happens. So that’s what the song is about—trying to do other things and then always finding yourself with a guitar and a pen and paper.

We filmed the video in Cincinnati because we live in Southgate, just across the river. We used the Greyhound bus station because I’ve traveled across the country and ended up back there.

You managed to get the Hard Rock Casino in there, too, which also feeds into that vibe of just driving around and taking your time in no hurry.

I wanted to make the video like a flat line because that’s just the way it is. You can see on social media that people look like they’re having a blast, but life just isn’t like that at all. So I wanted to the video to be real melancholy.

Speaking of social media, you have this amazingly consistent deadpan look you give in almost every picture. Is that your resting outlaw face?

I’ve noticed that too. People will ask to get a picture, and I will just get serious for some reason. It’s weird. It’s so hard for me to fake a smile. I’m not that guy. If there’s something funny I’ll laugh at it, but it’s usually some ruthless humor.

You had a minor hit during the pandemic with an acoustic cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” which you made all your own. Why that song?

I’ve always liked that song and thought it was so powerful. I don’t know why I connected with it. It was also my go-to bar song—get a beer and a whiskey and put a quarter in the jukebox and play it. It was on a whim. I sang it once and recorded it with my phone, and then a friend of mine said, “You should put this out.” It got like 10,000 views in four days, so we took it down, went through proper channels, got it mixed and mastered, and then put it out. People seemed to like it.

You spent a lot of early summer on the road. What was that like?

We’re all vaccinated [in my band], and I try not to get into the middle of all that. Of course I want everyone to be safe and I don’t want nobody to get sick…but we’re never gonna get everybody to agree.

Are Cincinnati shows a bit special for you?

It’s real cool to see people come out, and they’re really grateful. It’s hard on the road, because some nights you’re playing to three people and some nights it’s a sold-out show. It’s hard to gauge when you’re traveling, but when you come home and have people who are really grateful it makes it nice.

Your Instagram bio calls you the Pancake King of Northern Kentucky. Do you have a secret sauce or trick you want to share?

No, I was just being funny. I just thought the title was funny, like there are multiple pancake kings, you know? Originally I wanted to name this record The Pancake King of Northern Kentucky, and I still might name the next one that. I had this idea of a woman sitting on top of a stack of pancakes, something totally ridiculous.

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