JD McPherson does what he wants

  • Photography by Jeremy Harris
    While recording his new album, Undivided Heart & Soul, at Historic RCA Studio B, JD McPherson discovered some unexpected collaborators. “The first day we recorded the song ‘Undivided Heart & Soul,’ ” McPherson recalls. “We had all the bells and whistles ready to make it sound like a classic Roy Orbison record, but it wasn’t working. The longer we were there, the louder and fuzzier it got. It honestly felt like there were ghosts in the walls with a rope around me pulling me in the direction of 
    something different.”
         Setting a course for the familiar, but ending up with “something different” aptly describes McPherson’s musical career. Since the release of his first album, Signs & Signifiers, he’s become a leading advocate for the original, undiluted excitement of 1950s-style rock & roll, while avoiding the gabardine-lined trap of nostalgia and retro-culture idolization. Mixing the energy and passion of first generation rockers like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Roy Orbison with contemporary lyrics and concerns has gained him a following across a wide spectrum of music aficionados, including rockabilly cats, punk blues pounders, alt-country rockers, and more.
         McPherson’s fearlessness and hardheaded refusal to stay in the musical pigeonholes created by seven decades of rock compartmentalization is rooted in isolation. When there’s no one around to tell you the rules, you’re never restrained by them. A native Oklahoman, McPherson grew up on a 160-acre cattle ranch in rural southeastern Oklahoma, near the small town of Talihina. The youngest of five siblings, his sister and three brothers had already left home by the time he started school.
         “I grew up very isolated,” McPherson says. “I went to a very rural school, only 11 kids in my class. It was geared toward agricultural science, no art or music programs. It was a horrible situation if you are wired toward the arts, but a great place because it grants you isolation. When I had time, I could devote myself completely to what I was interested in — listening to music, playing guitar, drawing, and making videos.”
         Learning to play guitar at the age of 13 without a musical mentor to guide him, McPherson became a diligent researcher and a ravenous consumer of music. “We weren’t near any towns, and there wasn’t any internet yet,” he says. “I had to call the Hastings in Fort Smith, Ark., to order CDs, which was 70 miles away. I’d buy rock magazines to read and figure out what I was going to order for the next trip. Any time we’d go to Tulsa, I’d go to Mohawk Music or other record stores and pick up ’zines to piece together my musical knowledge. I’d order punk records directly from indie labels like SST and Sub Pop over the phone, and I’d talk to the person taking the order about music. I had no one else. My parents weren’t interested, and none of the kids I knew were either.”
    In high school, McPherson acquired one music-obsessed friend, Mitchell Hamilton, and the duo soon turned to making their own music. “It was just us recording tapes on a Tascam four-track, and we played shows for two or three friends. Mitchell wanted it to be Nirvana, and I wanted it to be like Siouxsie and the Banshees. That’s where I first learned that being in a band means a lot of pushing and pulling.”
         McPherson’s passion for punk soon found a new direction as he discovered the unrefined, original power of the big beat through the music of Buddy Holly. “I was all about playing guitar at that time, so when I discovered Sonny Curtis’ playing on Buddy Holly’s early records, it blew me away,” he says. “It was focused and simple, a short burst of just incredible playing that was never self-indulgent. Early rock & roll had everything I liked about punk. It was high energy, but with really good guitar playing. I started wearing black, high-water jeans, white socks, and trying to make everything sound like ‘Rock Around with Ollie Vee.’ But naturally Mitchell got into Jerry Lee Lewis, and he wanted everything we played to sound like that.”
         McPherson’s band options and exposure to varied influences exploded when he entered college at University of Tulsa in the mid-’90s. “I was standing in the lobby of Walker Tower on the first day after moving in, and I met this guy who had a Social Distortion T-shirt on. I was like, ‘OH, MAN!’”
         For the next decade McPherson divided his time between academia and rock & roll. While he eventually earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Tulsa, his true passion was music. “I was never without a band from the time I was 16,” he says. “I always had some kind of musical project going, and almost everything suffered at the hands of it. I took off two weeks to tour when I was an undergrad and really didn’t understand why I was in trouble when I got back. I had blinders on about everything except music.”
         McPherson was particularly attracted to Oklahoma City’s thriving rockabilly scene, performing in such bands as F.B.I. and local neo-rockabilly legends, The Poison Okies. McPherson sharpened his performing and songwriting skills, and got the opportunity to back Oklahoma rockabilly legends Wanda Jackson and Big Al Downing. Although McPherson was deeply ensconced in the rockabilly revival scene, his egalitarian views of American music remained strong. In 2007, he formed The Starkweather Boys, a first attempt to scratch his many musical itches.
         “The Starkweather Boys reflected my desire to do more than just rockabilly — Western swing, pop, R&B, and more,” McPherson explains. “We made one record, but it wasn’t what I really wanted it to sound like. We tried to do one of everything, and we confused a lot of people.”
         The Starkweather Boys sole album, Archer St. Blues (2007), is a musical scattershot. Filled with great original songs and performed with gusto, the album is a Whitman’s Sampler of styles, with compartmentalized servings of varied retro-rock styles rather than a unified musical vision. Although reconciling multiple musical influences proved frustrating, it plugged the band into the European rockabilly touring circuit, leading McPherson to an important connection. “I met Jimmy Sutton of The Del Moroccos at a rockabilly festival in Spain,” McPherson recalls. “He was a hero of mine. All of his bands — The Del Moroccos, The Mighty Blue Kings, The Four Charms — had top shelf players and their records sounded amazing. He also came from a punk background. We started talking about music beyond the roots scene, and he loved the idea of bringing in a lot of outside elements. He had built his own studio in Chicago, and he invited me to come up and record.”
         The album that resulted from those sessions, Signs & Signifiers, brought immediate attention to McPherson’s retro-roots rock & roll infused with modern sensibilities. Avoiding both the fashion fetishism prevalent in some neo-rockabilly and the goth-horror excesses of psychobilly, McPherson navigated a simple yet powerful course — creating back-to-basics rock & roll for the here and now with an eye cast toward the future. The album’s first single, “North Side Gal,” echoed the classic New Orleans sound of Fats Domino and Little Richard records, adding a timeless urgency immediately attractive to non-roots rock fans. Other cuts, such as the sublime “Your Love (All That I’m Missing),” invoke the charm and swagger of a young Jackie Wilson transposed to the 21st century.
         Although McPherson successfully captured the sound he wanted, delivery to a wider audience proved complicated. With a family to support, quitting his day job as an art and technology teacher in a Tulsa middle school didn’t seem an option. Then the great motivator of music careers came along, unemployment.
         “I had been getting calls from a booking company that wanted me to tour,” he says. “Jimmy Sutton wanted me to do it, but I didn’t want to just be back on the old rockabilly club circuit. On the other hand, when I was teaching fourth graders how to type, I had them copying essays about the Collins Kids or Charlie Christian. I was forcing that round peg into a square hole and something had to give. When I lost my job, I kind of saw it coming.”
         With the buzz generated by good reviews and the video for “North Side Gal” a viral hit on YouTube, McPherson hit the road with his band. “The first shows we played were to rockabilly crowds in Europe, and they really responded to the music,” he says. “That’s to their credit because there is some weird stuff on that first record, things that just don’t fit in that scene. In the U.S., we began to build our own following. I think it was off-center just enough to catch people’s attention.”
         The next step came in the spring of 2012 when McPherson signed with Rounder Records. Rounder reissued Signs & Signifiers, and with a push from the label, the record debuted at number one on the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart, eventually reaching No. 47 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart and No. 161 on the magazine’s overall album chart, Billboard 200.
         McPherson’s second album, 2015’s Let the Good Times Roll, continued the pattern of smart, literate, and contemporary songs set to a classic rock & roll beat, this time with the assistance of producer Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Los Straitjackets). Although the album scored higher on the charts, hitting No. 17 on Billboard’s Rock Albums chart and No. 142 on the Billboard 200, sales were slightly less than the first album.
         “The second record came out at a time when Rounder was going through some major changes, and we got lost in the shuffle.” McPherson explains. “That’s why we left. Fortunately, we had built our reputation on live shows, and they got even bigger.”
    McPherson’s departure from his record label coincided with a decision to relocate his family to Nashville. He had already made several Music City connections, and the move felt right. First landing in a less than comfortable Cool Springs apartment, McPherson, his wife Mandy, and their two daughters are now settled into a comfy home in East Nashville. McPherson soon signed with Nashville-based New West Records. For his third album, McPherson planned to explore new directions, but finding the right course proved to be a challenge.
         “I didn’t have any ideas for a new record when we signed with New West,” he says. “This record was really hard to make. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of band infighting. We had one producer cancel on us. The songs weren’t ready, and I was going through a depression. I’m sure the label was wondering, ‘Why did we sign this guy?’ We were out of options, but we needed to get something out this year, because we needed the work.
         “That’s when our engineer, Scott McEwen, suggested we try booking time in an out-of-the-box place like an isolated cabin or maybe an old studio like RCA Studio B. I didn’t think Studio B was a real option, but I emailed the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they said yes. It was completely out of left field, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”
         Since Historic RCA Studio B operates as a museum and tourist attraction during the day McPherson was limited to evening hours, with sessions often running until 3 or 4 a.m. Burning the midnight oil proved inspiring, especially with the knowledge that similar hours produced some of Elvis Presley’s greatest recordings.
         “Every night was special,” he says. “They had the tour music playing, so we would hear Elvis, Roy Orbison, and The Everly Brothers every night while we were loading in. I was still struggling to get songs finished, but when we sat down at that grand piano, (McPherson band member) Ray Jacildo and I wrote ‘Jubilee,’ ‘Hunting for Sugar,’ and ‘Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young’ like that. It was such an inspiring place.”
         The inspiration flowed beyond songwriting as McPherson found the sonic architecture of his basic rock & roll taking on new shapes. “It wasn’t a deliberate choice to make a really loud, fuzzy, jagged-edge record,” he says. “We just turned on the faucet and that’s what came out. Knowing where we were recording, it felt like I was in church saying dirty words, but every time we leaned more left of center it felt right. I needed to shake off some rust, and everything was coming from a more deeply personal place than before.”
         McPherson and his band’s collaboration with the ghosts of Studio B resulted in his most impressive record to date. Throughout Undivided Heart & Soul, his sharp, passionate lyrics are complemented by his back-to-basics rock & roll sound, coupled with a new degree of musical fearlessness. The songs are sprinkled with references from decades of musical history — the big, bass fuzztone solo from “Crying’s Just a Thing You Do” invokes the golden age of garage punk, while “Hunting for Sugar” summons the ghosts of lush, ’60s soul ballads, and the romantic rocker “On the Lips” combines surf reverb with the drive of late ’70s new wave. Far more than musical footnotes, these elements combine to create a dramatic and personal reinvention of rock & roll for the 21st century.
         While such fearless fusions seemed sacrilegious to McPherson at the time of recording, they’re actually perfectly in line with the royal legacy of Studio B. Hits like Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” and Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” weren’t recycled and reverent tributes to the past. They were bold steps forward by artists unafraid to create records that broke the rules and upended expectations.
         “It was a difficult record to make and it felt weird making it, but to me it’s been a natural progression, just following the rabbit,” McPherson says. “I’m not saying my sound will always be this from now on, but it felt right at this time. My booking agent told me he could hear shackles falling off of me when he listened to the record, so we’ll see.
         “We just played a sold-out show in Toronto that was really badass,” he continues. “We were tearing down when one girl came up and said, ‘You know nobody likes this new record.’ I wanted to say, ‘Well, why did we just sell out this show?’ My biggest worry is that people who love my first two records might feel like I’m turning my back on them, but it’s still a rock & roll record, and it makes sense to me. Besides, I’m from Southeast Oklahoma, and I do what I want.”