Jeff Plankenhorn plays a soulful, distinctly Austin brand of roots rock that, over the past several years, has gained him a devoted national following and a seat among the very best contemporary Americana songwriters. His confident, catchy-as-hell fourth studio album, Sleeping Dogs was released to rave reviews (Rolling Stone Country, the Boot, Twangville, among others) and spent a good chunk of 2018 on the Roots Rock and Americana radio charts (#5 and #44). The four-piece band that bears his name has become a favorite on the festival circuit, scoring spots at Old Settlers Music Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, Telluride Americana Music Festival, and Austin’s annual New Years Eve blowout at Auditorium Shores.
Well before he started rocking festival stages as a solo artist, Plankenhorn was already in the musical DNA of his adopted home of Austin, Texas. His bluesy, slide-driven guitar style was born out of jam sessions, residencies and house shows played for local audiences eager for the electricity and edge-of-your-seat musicianship that makes Austin the live music capital of the world. “In Austin,” he says, “Few players rehearse. You show up and you play, for better or for worse.”
His freewheeling philosophy, and the disciplined songwriting craft that underpins it, is the result of Plankenhorn’s almost ten year run as a member of the Resentments, a supergroup of sorts that hosts one of the longest running residencies in Austin. Every Sunday for the last 20 years, a rotating cast of Austin’s best songwriters has brought their newest tunes to debut at the Saxon Pub, an Americana stronghold on the famous Lamar Street. They group walks a tightrope between improvisation and songcraft that is thrilling. This musical bootcamp sharpened Plankenorn’s writing process and gives his songs a lived-in ease.
Over five freewheeling solo albums, Plankenhorn has drawn on a wide range of styles, combining influences from electric blues, progressive bluegrass, sacred steel, and powerpop to create a musical identity all his own. A big part of it is his voice. Plankenhorn grew up in Ohio singing choral music as a boy soprano. The vocal clarity and power he developed in those early years is evident in the soulful baritone he employs now.
The biggest contributor to Plankenhorn’s sound is his virtuosic touch on anything with strings – ranging from electric and acoustic, guitar to dobro and lap steel. His most distinctive sonic paintbrush is the custom electric dobro he invented, called, appropriately, the Plank. If you’ve listened to roots music from Austin in the last couple decades, you may have heard it – a sharp, crunchy slide sound derived from the instrument’s combination of a lap steel neck and electric guitar body. That distinctive burn is all over Plankenhorn’s 2016 album, SoulSlide, in addition to recordings from Austin greats like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Joe Ely. (In between solo gigs, he’s a first-call session guitarist.) Word of mouth at his shows even resulted in a few one-off orders for the Plank, including from members of Wade Bowen’s band and Blue October.
Plankenhorn’s early musical upbringing was as eclectic as his career might suggest. In his 20s he was as likely to be found arranging horns in a 12 piece funk group as playing guitar in a progressive bluegrass band. But his biggest musical influence by far, he says, is Stevie Wonder, whose positivity is all over Plankenhorn’s songs. Stevie’s mastery of instrumental harmony can also be heard in the jazzy, descending chord progression of “Further to Fall.”
Plankenhorn is a magnet for diverse ideas and collaborators, and his genius is in bringing them together. Sleeping Dogs merges styles effortlessly, juxtaposing sweet-hearted anthems like “Love is Love” (a response to the Pulse nightclub shooting) against ominous, weathered tunes like “Tooth & Nail”, which he co-wrote with Ray Wilie Hubbard. Several of the album’s standouts are the result of collabs with Americana royalty, including “Holy Lighting”, which features a duet with Patty Griffin. Tying it all together is a positivity and big-heartedness that speaks to a worldly approach to Americana music.
Plankenhorn came to Austin by way of Nashville. The way he tells it, he met outlaw-country great Ray Wilie Hubbard on a Nashville sidewalk, sat in with him that very night on dobro, and, before he knew it, had a long-term gig crashing on Hubbard’s couch in Texas hill country. From there, he launched a new chapter as a solo artist, and Hubbard is a mentor to this day.
The last few years have been a time of outstanding creativity and commercial breakthrough for Plankenhorn – success for which he credits his sobriety. “I’d toured the country and played the world, but it wasn’t until I got clean and went to rehab that things really started to come together.” Since getting clean seven years ago, Plankenhorn has channeled his addictive energy into songwriting. He spends half the year now living with his wife on Vancouver Island, Canada, where he spends idyllic days writing and playing with their dogs. The other half he spends in Austin, where he remains in demand as a session player, cowriter, and producer. The success of his last two albums have brought international interest in his music, and full tours of Europe and Canada are in the works.