From Rock to Country, Musician Follows His Dreams

By Beacon Staff

As often happens in the infinite potential of youth, Jonathan Jenkins dreamed of being a rock star.

When he began his guitar lessons over 20 years ago, Jenkins imagined the glory of touring the world with a band. Now, the dream has shifted but the music remains the same, as the Kalispell guitarist continues his journey to become a country star.

On Oct. 17, Jenkins will take the stage in Coos Bay, Ore., to compete in the Colgate Country Showdown regional competition. He won the Kalispell competition in March and was one of the two state winners in August.

The showdown is considered one of the most important country talent searches in the industry, with previous competitors including Brad Paisley and Martina McBride. Jenkins, 35, said he feels honored to be in such a competition.

“I thought when I first entered this, ‘There’s no way,’” Jenkins said. “Then, ‘There’s no way I’m going to win state.’ The only thing I can do, that I’ve been doing, is my best.”

His love of music began at a very young age with influence from his father, a former touring musician himself. At age 7, Jenkins lost his right hand in an electrical accident, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing any of his passions.

When he was 14, he got a cheap guitar and his parents signed him up for lessons with Larry Miletich at Music One Workshop in Kalispell. Jenkins also briefly toured Europe with a rock band when he was 17, playing mostly in Poland.

He adapted his style, using his left hand to create powerful and nimble sounds while he pulls out dead-accurate melodies with the guitar pick fixed in his prosthesis with black electrical tape. Miletich said this distinct sound has put Jenkins in a musical category of his own.

“Some of us would look at this and see a disadvantage but he’s turned it into a unique technique,” Miletich said. “He’s developed his own signature sound.”

On a recent day in Kalispell, Jenkins holed up in his loft-turned-studio full of his power-lifting trophies and practiced the songs he would sing for the judges in Coos Bay. He used to have a framing business, but he lost work when the construction industry took a nosedive during the recession. He said the free time has given him more opportunity to practice, when he’s not helping fix up his landlord’s properties.

Jenkins’ music fits the country mold, with references to gunslingers, freedom, cowgirls and rodeos. The deep, heavy chords and fast tempo show a combination of influences; a mixture of country singers like Toby Keith and rock artists like Eddie Van Halen and an overarching blues theme.

Jenkins writes and sings his own songs, a relatively new venture for him. He said he didn’t sing when he was younger because he didn’t know how and was scared to try.

“As I got older, I noticed that my style of music changed and matured,” Jenkins said, adding that he still gets stage fright before singing.

He credits his family and friends for much of his success, as well as the support he has received from the community. His girlfriend, Elizabeth Kitterman, talked him into trying out for the Kalispell competition and his parents have always been his biggest fans, he said.

His father, David, passed away in June after a heart attack. Jenkins wrote a new song about his father that he is considering for the competition, but he said he’d probably stick with the songs that he has been practicing the longest.

A winning performance on Oct. 17 could earn Jenkins a ticket to the national showdown in Nashville, which will be hosted by LeAnn Rimes. The grand prize is $100,000, money Jenkins said he would use to record his music professionally. He also understands the possibility of getting discovered and signed to a music label, but he isn’t pinning his hopes on it.

“You still have to pay your dues,” Jenkins said. “I had to learn from a young age what people are like. You can’t just be naïve.”

But Jenkins is sure that the experience and recognition he will get for playing with such a talented group of artists will help him no matter what happens in Oregon. The exposure will help him reach new places in his solo career, he said.

The regional showdown will be something of a family reunion for Jenkins, as more than 20 family members from California, Washington and Montana plan on attending. And though he often talks about the competition in terms of realistic expectations, he has occasional, unguarded moments when the dreams of a young rock star shine through.

“Inside, you don’t want it to stop,” he said with a smile.

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