Lansing man on the verge of country success in the Nashville music scene
LANSING — Keegan Jacko remembers as a boy humming along to the favorite tunes of his mother, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, whenever their country twang filled the house.
It might be easy to imagine Jacko, who now has his own recording contract, working his whole life to become a country star like them, but it wasn’t until five years ago that Jacko started singing to a crowd at the old Lansing Mall bar, Tequila Cowboy Bar & Grill.
By then, the injuries he had sustained in a stunt had already ended his hopes of a professional in-line skating career. Getting up on the bar stage to sing karaoke gave Jacko the same rush he’d had every time he took a spin on the concrete ramps at Ranney Skate Park.
“The feeling it gave me to sing in front of people is the same feeling I had when I was skating and competing,” said Jacko, 28. “I just fell in love with it.”
In 2020, three years after learning to play the guitar, Jacko packed his bags and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to try his hand at a career in country music.
“I had $1,000 in my pocket and packed it all in my truck,” he said. “I just decided if I was going to do it, I was going to do it all.”
Last month, he signed with New York-based BGR Holdings to produce his debut album.
Jacko, who has Hispanic and Native American roots — he was born on the Wiikwemkoong First Nation reservation in Ontario, Canada, before moving to Lansing at age one — challenges the stereotypes that often surround the country music.
When he walks on stage covered in tattoos and wearing a baseball cap, Jacko’s sound usually surprises people, he said, “That’s why it works.”
From skating to singing on stage
Delores Zarka raised Jacko on country music, blasting it during car rides and when she was vacuuming or cooking dinner, but growing up her son was more interested in skating than music.
He got into the sport when he was 7, spending a lot of time at Ranney Skate Park in Lansing, where he would put on headphones “and disappear for a while,” Jacko said.
Then, at age 21, when he had 15 years of inline skating, he broke his right ankle and dislocated his right shoulder while doing 2½ full turns on a skating ramp.
Injuries ended Jacko’s skating career for good.
“It hit him pretty hard because it’s something he struggled with for a long time,” Zarka said.
Singing on stage helped him out of a depression, Jacko said. He performed almost daily for two years at Tequila Cowboy, releasing his first single, “Night Lights”, with an independent label at age 24.
“I was amazed how quickly it came to him,” Zarka said.
He moved to Nashville in the fall of 2020.
“No friends. No plan,” Jacko said. “I just left. Something told me I had to go. It was one of those things where as soon as I started driving, I felt a sense of relief.”
Jacko spent the next year writing songs and performing wherever he could.
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Album release planned for this year
Jacko offers a rare combination that is hard to find in the music industry, said Joseph Rhodes, president of BGR Holdings.
“A great voice and a great stage presence,” he said. “People notice immediately when Keegan takes the stage.”
Rhodes was introduced to Jacko this year by the Nashville producers he had worked with. BGR Holdings signed him for “at least one album and five singles,” Rhodes said. It should be released later this year.
Artists like Jimmie Allen and Darius Rucker, two successful black country music artists, have already come a long way in breaking down barriers in the genre, Jacko said.
“I don’t look like everyone else,” Jacko said. “But people don’t talk to me because of the color of my skin. They talk to me because of the level and quality of my music.”
“He is who he is,” Zarka said. “He won’t change that for an image for anyone.”
Jacko’s grandmother, Florence Jacko-Peltier, who grew up on the Wiikwemkoong First Nation reserve, had the same love for country music as her grandson, Zarka said.
Before dying in December, at age 80, Jacko performed on the reserve. Jacko-Peltier had a front row seat, she said.
“She was so proud of him,” Zarka said.
Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.