17 Aug 2015
JOHN JENNINGS (1953 – 2015)
Photo by Clark Thomas
John Jennings was that rare breed of musician – a jack of all trades and a master of all. Over his decades-long career, he was known in the Washington music community and nationally as an effortlessly gifted guitarist, a record producer, and a superb sideman on the road, most notably with his dear friend, Mary Chapin Carpenter. As a producer, he was known for bringing an artist’s best efforts to fruition by gently leading with a firm but accommodating hand.
He was also a distinctive singer, songwriter, and excellent session player, gaining a loyal following of fans and fellow musicians. In 2014, three packed benefit concerts at Bethesda Blues and Jazz brought together dozens of musicians from the DC area and all over the country to honor John. Their heartfelt tributes proved what an important influence he was and how deeply they appreciated his gracious mentoring and friendship.
At the start of his pro career, he played guitar with singer-songwriter Bill Holland in his band Rent’s Due. Jennings branched out on his own by founding Big Yankee Dollar. He was the lead singer and guitarist in that group. Although critically acclaimed, because of a shift in audience taste Big Yankee Dollar never received the fan support that local grunge and punk bands were getting. It was not without good reason that at the July concert, a group assembled to perform some of his 70s-era Big Yankee Dollar songs had to call on a top-notch guitarist to play Jennings’ parts and a singer to sing the lyrics. There was no one who could do both.
After spending time in the early ’80s as a session player creating and producing jingles, John helped start Mary Chapin Carpenter’s career. He recorded and produced her first album, “Home Town Girl,” which was initially conceived as a local offering but was snatched up by Columbia Records in 1987. He performed, produced or co-produced, and sometimes co-wrote with her on at least eight of her albums – which included 11 Top-10 singles. He received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year for co-producing the Carpenter-penned song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” Some music insiders say that Jennings’ arrangements for Carpenter helped forge a new sound among young artists coming out of Nashville. He also won five Wammie awards for Producer of the year, ten as Best Instrumentalist in a variety of genres, two as Best Vocalist, and one for Best Video.
John produced albums for artists including Janis Ian, John Gorka, Robin & Linda Williams, Bill Morrisey, and BeauSoleil. As a studio musician, he recorded with artists including George Jones, Kathy Mattea, Ricky Skaggs, Iris DeMent, Indigo Girls, Tony Rice, and many local musicians. He also toured in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band.
Jennings was a brilliant songwriter. He started in the 1970s with complex and adventuresome rock songs with Big Yankee Dollar and progressed to stripped down, elemental folk-rock songs on his six solo albums, written from the 1990s onward, including two well-received releases on Vanguard Records. Even as Jennings’ illness progressed, he continued to write new songs. He left an unfinished project in the hands of his beloved Tamara Meyer, about whom he wrote one of his last songs, a haunting “I Believe Love Will Save My Life.”
He composed instrumental soundtracks for audiobooks and videos of picture books, Looking to assist the Washington Music Community, Jennings served as president of NARAS’s Washington, DC chapter.
An amazing self-taught guitarist, Jennings played many other instruments, including trumpet (in his high school days), keyboards, synthesizers, electric and upright bass, mandolin, and drums. Born November 22, 1953, in Harrisonburg, VA, he died of cancer in the company of close friends in Derwood, MD, on October 16, 2015.
Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.
Header image photo credit: Andrzej Pilarczyk