- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

Singer-songwriter John Jennings suspects some will react unfavorably when they hear he recorded his new album completely by himself.

"There's always the possibility people will think you're the world's worst egomaniac," he says in a tone that suggest anything but.

His time spent performing with the likes of Lyle Lovett, the Indigo Girls and longtime collaborator Mary Chapin Carpenter indicates he is more than qualified to enter the studio sans support.

Mr. Jennings celebrates the debut of his album, "It's All Good," at a sold-out CD release party-concert at 7:30 tonight (Jan. 27) at the Barns of Wolf Trap. Singer Mary Ann Redmond is the opening act.

Speaking from his Potomac home, Mr. Jennings says he was "stunned" the concert sold out so quickly.

"This is not some little gig," says Mr. Jennings, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Northern Virginia and knows the concert venue's reputation.

The news came as an encouragement for a singer more likely to inspire devotion in a small, fervid following than crowd Britney Spears on the Billboard charts.

Mr. Jennings is best known as the regular guitarist and producer for Miss Carpenter, the Grammy-winning, country crossover chanteuse.

The two met in the mid-1980s — he fresh from work as a commercial jingle writer and occasional rock 'n' roller and she mired in an unsigned singer-songwriter's obscurity.

Their enduring partnership has made him a wanted producer and guitar slinger with acts including John Gorka, Bill Morrissey and Janis Ian.

But Mr. Jennings always longed to cut an album of his own. He just never got around to it.

"I got tired of not having done it," says Mr. Jennings, whose song style has been compared to those of John Hiatt and Mr. Lovett. So he used that motivation to start recording his solo debut, "Buddy," around 1997. He followed it up with the sophomore release, "I Belong to You."

For "It's All Good," the decision to jettison his support system of colleagues boiled down to time management, or lack thereof.

"I was a victim of my own scheduling," he explains. "My dance card has been really full. I didn't have the time to organize the sessions [with other musicians]." The urge to record a new album wouldn't go away, though, so he decided to do all the heavy lifting.

"I did everything … except put the CD in the shrink-wrap," he says.

He describes the process as ranging "from boring … to paralyzing." Although he missed the energy a band can instantly summon, he discovered the quiet joys of solitary work.

The results: the quickest turnaround time of his three albums and the kind of textured music in which the emotions ring out unfiltered.

"It's sonically less defined. That's a good thing," he says. "It's pretty intimate. I dislike anything that creates distance between the listener and the person playing."

Mr. Jennings is self-releasing the album. His previous records were promoted by Vanguard Records.

"More and more people are self-releasing projects," he says. "And some of them are making money."

In the jazz world, he says, sales of 5,000 to 10,000 records marks a success. Repeating that with "It's All Good" sounds attainable to the Virginia native.

But don't mistake his optimism for a misunderstanding of the music industry. His conversation occasionally veers toward how easily some pop music reaches the masses. To be fair, how could any accomplished musician not cringe over the state of the industry?

His cynicism, however sagely observed, is short-lived.

He's a working musician, he says, one who splits his time between Miss Carpenter, his own projects and those of other respected contemporaries.

What's not to like?

The themes that populate his music — the unsolvable sting of relationships — continue to serve as his muse.

"I walk over the same old ground with a different scope," he says of his material. Inspiration lurks around every conversation, road sign or newspaper, forcing him to scribble lyrics onto napkins and other found materials. Often, he speaks or sings an idea into a miniature tape recorder.

His solo recordings allow him to comment on the human condition within the comfort of the pop song format.

"I aspire to art … whether I reach it or not is for someone else to figure out," he says.

Should the new album's sales disappoint, the lessons learned could in some small manner find their way into his next recording.

In life, "if you're not learning, you're not paying attention," he says.

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