For nearly five years, Texas singer-songwriter circles have been enamored with Jack Barksdale. Since the age of 9, the skinny kid in his signature oversized Texas flag-emblazoned boots and red beanie has been sharing stages with folk and country luminaries three and four times his age and holding his own. It’s no doubt a bit of a novelty to see a child, practically dwarfed by the body of his acoustic guitar, manage to make his way through a few complete songs, much less be able to command rapt attention for full three-hour sets, but since releasing his debut single in 2017, Barksdale’s songwriting has demonstrated he’s so much more than a child prodigy. With Death of a Hummingbird, his debut album, the now adolescent troubadour is proving his songcraft should be taken at face value, regardless of his age.
“My goal is always just to do the best that I’m capable of and hope that people see that just as they would for any other artist,” Barksdale said. “I know there’s some novelty around my age. I feel like that’s fine. I’d rather it not be the case, but I hope that as I get older, my songs will be recognized and thought of” in their own right.
Death of a Hummingbird is a statement of sorts in this regard. The fruits of a grant provided by Barksdale’s beloved La Grange listening room, Bugle Boy, which is given to artists to help fund recordings and other financially intensive projects, the 11-track LP reads like the work of a mature and experienced songwriter decades into the craft exploring his own evolving viewpoints, albeit, delivered in a contrastingly high (high, even for his young age) singing voice.
“I’m still pretty young,” he acknowledges, “but as I’m getting older, I’m becoming more aware of things around me, learning about so many things, and figuring out what I think of these things — what I believe and what I stand for. A lot of these songs on this album are kind of arguments or ideas that I was thinking of at the time. I feel like the album is going to be a time capsule for me of what I was thinking about, and what I was wrestling with, and of me figuring some things out. I hope some people find those things helpful.”
Co-writing, for the first time, with heralded Texas singer-songwriters like Guthrie Kennard and Jeff Plankenhorn, Barksdale wrote nearly all of the material on Hummingbird during the early months of the pandemic. His verses explore themes of personal growth or are immersive story songs, and they add in a heavy inspiration by a newfound love for Leonard Cohen.
“I’m not sure if it’s quite the lockdown [that inspired me] as much as it is the music I started getting into during the lockdown,” he said. “I started getting into what I guess you could call ‘hardcore’ songwriting like early Leonard Cohen and, more recently, Tom Waits. Of course, I’ve always been a big fan of Townes Van Zandt, but Leonard Cohen was one of the big eye openers for me. Just the way he words things, phrases he chooses — I’ve really been loving it, and I think some of that shows up. The songs definitely aren’t as good, but I think you can tell that maybe they were inspired by him.”
During the recording last August over three days in Nashville’s 3Sirens Studio with producer Mike Meadows (Hayes Carll, The Grahams) and engineer Dex Green (Elvis Costello, Devon Gilfillian), Barksdale said he learned a lot by working with the other songwriters and the amazing session musicians who were brought in.
“It’s really interesting because you get to get right in the middle of someone else’s writing process,” he said of the collaborations. “To get to learn how other people write and how other people work, I definitely learned a lot and ended up with some pretty cool songs with musicians and writers that I really look up to.”
Though the actual recording process isn’t necessarily his favorite, Barksdale understands its value.
“You kind of record because you have to,” he said. “I don’t really love recording, but I love the finished product. Making it is never the most fun. It’s fine, but my favorite part is always the writing of the songs.”
That care for the crafting of a song is fully showcased on the record. Whether Barksdale is highlighting his impressive guitar playing on the instrumental tracks that bookend the album, opener “Revival Song No. 3” and closer “Bugle Boy Blues,” spinning haunting tales with tracks like the jazzy New Orleans shuffle of “Man in the Ground” and the slinky, dark, gospel blues of “Before the Devil Knows,” or trying to touch the listener with poetic ballads like “Trances” and the title track, Barksdale is absolutely earning the appreciation he’s receiving. And there seems to be plenty of it, though he shrugs off being overly concerned with it and “obsessively searching for any reviews online.”
As a testament to the response, the tracks on Hummingbird have been streamed tens of thousands of times on Spotify in just over a month since the release.
“Whenever I release music, I think it’s going to be the best music I’ve done [so far] because I’ve learned more since the last thing,” he said, “and I’ll learn more before the next thing. I think that’s the best I can do, and it makes me happy, so I really can’t worry about how it’s received.”