Musician Jeff Plankenhorn’s move from sideman to frontman was an inevitable step in his career. The Austin-based musician – who Joe Ely, Slaid Cleaves, Ruthie Foster, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others have called bandmate – is a commanding songwriter and soulful vocalist, skilled at penning rootsy Texas blues, bluegrass-inspired Americana, and some jangly roots. It’s a well-rounded cache of music, with influences that clearly stem from some great underground music.
The multi-instrumentalist’s career kicked off as a stubborn Midwesterner kid from Ohio with a plan to learn as many instruments as he could.
“My brother gave me sage advice. He said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you get like five Stratocasters. You should have one mandolin. You should have one Martin guitar, and one electric. You should have one bass.’ I just believed him at a very young age that I could play anything if I had enough time,” said Plankenhorn. “As a jack-of-all trades, master of nothing, it works. It’s the same thing when I’m in the studio if I’m working on a record. It’s right there. I’ll get a sound out of it.”
Back in 2000, he moved to Austin at the urging of Ray Wylie Hubbard, quickly getting work as a sideman, or session musician. He found himself playing dobro, an instrument he picked up while playing bluegrass in Nashville during the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” era. But, the dobro has its limitations, and Plankenhorn found he needed to be louder than he was in bluegrass bands. So, his love of pedal steel led to the invention of the plank, a lap-steel in the body of a dobro, which gave him the ability to plug in and play loudly.
While his 2016 release, “SoulSlide,” explores the plank and connects the dots between his dobro and pedal steel influences, his 2018 release, “Sleeping Dogs,” bounces between folk rock, jangle pop, and music from The Paisley Underground. He recorded “Sleeping Dogs” near the time of Tom Petty’s death, which influenced the direction of the record.
“The day that Tom Petty died, it changed everything,” said Plankenhorn. “It’s not that they turned into Tom Petty songs. It’s just that we started to make an Americana roots rock record.”
They’re songs of great lyrical and instrumental depth, and a show like the Durango performance, which he’ll play solo, will reveal that they can be just as impactful in stripped-down form.
Plankenhorn is a fan of the listening room vibe, where the barrier between performer and patron is nonexistent.
He takes none of this for granted. Performing his own music brought about the realization that he’s a lucky man.
“…For the first time, just within the last couple of years, it’s my music,” said Plankenhorn. “I play some of these stages, and when I do, and I go out, it’s my thing. I’ve played with some great cats over the years, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s humbling.”
Jeff Plankenhorn will play a solo show in Durango on Saturday at the Red Scarf Studio Listening Room.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]