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Music Preview: With a gritty honky-tonk appeal, the Freightshakers head toward proper recognition

Freightshakers frontman Gethen Jenkins

Freightshakers frontman Gethen Jenkins. The band performs Saturday at Viva Cantina in Burbank.

(Courtesy of Erin Collins)

Outlaw country band the Freightshakers perform their resolutely traditional music with such intensity and penetrating resonance that it simply cannot be ignored.

The band, who appear Saturday at Viva Cantina, manifest a potency and depth which country fans and musicians alike immediately respond to — after the late Bard of Bakersfield, Red Simpson, happened to hear them one night, he promptly brought the group up to famed Oildale honky-tonk Trout’s for a series of bandstand collaborations.

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That type of pervasive appeal isn’t easily come by and Freightshakers frontman Gethen Jenkins earned it the hard way.

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“I was born in West Virginia, raised in Kentucky and Ohio. When I was 8, we moved to the Alaskan bush, lived on the Yukon River in an Indian village called Galena. My dad taught me to play guitar there, and I got the bug pretty bad, spent a lot of time playing in my room,” Jenkins said. “I graduated from high school and did eight years in the Marines, went over to Iraq. I came back when that war was supposedly over in 2003 — obviously, it wasn’t. I was in San Diego and stayed in California ever since.’

Jenkins, with his powerful baritone, voluminous mountain man’s beard and six-foot-four-plus stature, is a striking figure, and a single chance encounter led to the Freightshakers formation in 2011.

There is no money in it, and we know that -- the relationship between the listeners and the music is what I feed on.
Freightshakers frontman Gethen Jenkins

“I was going out to see this one bluegrass band every Saturday in Long Beach, and one night I took my Martin over there to show them that I could play. And the guys from the Freightshakers were there. They wanted to start a band and were looking for a singer. I got a call the next day,” Jenkins said. “We started out like everybody does, playing covers but now we’ve got an hour and half’s worth of original music. I love late ‘60s country, and that’s what they had originally wanted to do, but vocally I can’t quite pull that off, so we evolved into a much grittier, outlaw honky-tonk band. I almost hesitate to use that word because so many people being called ‘outlaw’ these days just aren’t. To me, a lot of it sounds like Southern rock, not country.”

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Their current album “Where the Honkytonk Belongs” is nothing if not hardcore country. Jenkins and his band mates, guitarist Jeremy Long, pedal steel veteran Gary Brandin and the formidable rhythm section of bassist David Gillard and drummer Dale Daniel are an ensemble of compelling skill whose emotionally charged and sonically restrained approach is drastically effective.

“Gary Brandin, and his tone and taste, is a big part of our sound. He’s been playing pedal steel since before ’71.” Jenkins said. “We sound like we do because of taste, and we play to the song — we don’t overplay. It’s a big sound but there’s still space.”

“And there is a real hunger for this music, for that deep pedal steel and Telecaster sound — that’s country — and there’s not a lot of people playing it, especially out here. Nobody’s playing it in California.”

They don’t limit themselves to the Golden State, and have been making regular incursions through the South and Midwest, gaining not just notice but a significant accolade — taking a trophy at last year’s Ameripolitan awards, an Austin, Texas, grass-roots organization that celebrates working, traditional country performers — musicians often overlooked by Nashville and consistently ignored by Big Radio.

“We were nominated a couple of times, and we won the Ameripolitan Outlaw Country Band award for 2015,” Jenkins said. “That was huge for us, because we’re a California-roots-based country band and for us to go to Texas and do that, up against all these bands from the South and East Coast, well, it really says that we are keeping it alive.”

“We try to go out every few months, Texas, Kansas City, Nashville. There is no money in it, and we know that — the relationship between the listeners and the music is what I feed on. Many’s the time we’ve walked away with nothing, but there’s never been a show when we didn’t get a good response. So we keep on, and I just hope that someday we get to a point where we can earn a living off it.”

“But it’s that relationship with the audience, moving people, making someone cry, making someone smile. I really enjoy that, it’s what keeps me going.”

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Who: The Freightshakers

Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank

When: Friday, April 29, 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info: (818) 845-2425, vivacantina.com

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JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”

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