As with most journeys, Beau Jennings didn’t end up where he thought he would.
The 35-year-old Oklahoma native began a creative odyssey eight years ago, becoming intrigued by the life of Will Rogers, a towering figure in Oklahoma’s history, but one Jennings felt he didn’t fully understand.
The pursuit of the late humorist, who died in an Alaskan plane crash in 1935, would come to define the next decade of Jennings’ life, as he wrote and recorded The Verdigris while participating in a documentary (produced by, among others, Texas Theatre co-owners Eric Steele and Adam Donaghey) retracing Rogers’ footsteps.
The record is a powerful document of a man chasing a ghost while also struggling to understand himself and where he comes from.
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“The subject matter, examining someone else’s life while living my own — it colored it in a certain way,” Jennings says by phone.
What could have tipped over into a morose, narcissistic enterprise is instead a moving, sensitively rendered homage to a mythical figure, the inescapable pull of home and what happens when you get out of your own way long enough to find yourself: “I can see you there a little ways upstream/And I’m waiting here quiet ’til I know what it means/And I’m open to receive just whatever it is/Whatever you sent floating down the Verdigris,” Jennings sings on the insistent title track.
Even now, with The Verdigris album released earlier this year and the documentary, The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers, set to premiere at Oklahoma City’s deadCENTER Film Festival on June 13, Jennings finds himself at a loss when trying to precisely articulate what the two projects mean.
“I think that’s the whole reason you make an album or a film or some other statement is to get out what you’re trying to say,” Jennings says. “What you wanna say is contained in these 61 minutes [of the documentary] or the 53 minutes [of the album], that’s the statement. I know what it started off as was just ‘I want to explore Will Rogers’ life’ because I didn’t feel like I had a grasp on it.”
Jennings will perform songs from The Verdigris, and possibly pull from his days fronting indie rock outfit Cheyenne, Friday at Fort Worth’s Magnolia Motor Lounge, sharing the bill with Denton singer-songwriter Doug Burr and rising Fort Worth star Jake Paleschic.
Retracing the steps
The creative process for both the album and the film, which Jennings directed, with Bradley Beesley serving as executive producer, was a deliberate one, in part because Jennings was insistent that the locations Rogers visited inform the music he was making, and also because, well, documentaries are often a hard-knock proposition.
“I think the record would’ve happened a long time ago had the film not entered the picture,” Jennings says. “Making a documentary or a film of any kind takes long enough. This one also involved traveling, but doing the research and getting permission — all that along with a shoestring budget; it was just really a matter of saving up for each shoot.”
As the years slipped by — Jennings got married in 2008, not long after he began work on The Verdigris, and before much more time passed, became a father of two — the musician began to slowly refine his grand vision, assisted along the way by friends like Sufjan Stevens (who sang backing vocals on First Line of a Dream and Scattered Lights) and Starlight Mints’ Allan Vest (who scored string parts for I’m Not Askin’ and Me & Wiley).
“Working hard doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good,” Jennings says. “That’s the thing I was trying to be careful [of] — just because it’s taking a long time doesn’t mean it’s going to mean anything to anybody. ... For me, it’s the most ambitious thing I’ve tried.”
Jennings plans to continue playing dates in the region and elsewhere in support of the album, and says the companion documentary will screen at the Texas Theatre on Aug. 12. This will be a joint screening with Bradley Beesley’s documentary Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story.
With The Verdigris completed, Jennings is, for the moment, at an artistic crossroads: “Do I even bother trying to do something more ambitious or go another way?” he wonders aloud during our conversation.
Maybe such questions are beside the point, given what he has gained.
Although it took the better part of a decade, The Verdigris — both the river and the record bearing its name — carried Beau Jennings home.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713
Beau Jennings and the Tigers
10 p.m. Friday
Magnolia Motor Lounge
3005 Morton St.