With a performance of his original Christmas song "Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights)" this past week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman earlier this month and a debut record, Signs and Signifiers, that reached #47 on the Billboard album charts earlier in the year, JD McPherson is enjoying one heck of a pop cultural high. Still, the roots rock 'n' roller, recently tagged as a "band to watch" by Rolling Stone, isn't letting the wave of attention go to his head. "I feel that at any minute someone's going to pull the carpet out from under me," says McPherson.
There's something decidedly old-school about that sort of humility, which is perhaps fitting, because McPherson bears the torch for a genre of music -- call it rockabilly, R&B or roots rock, just don't call it self-consciously retro -- that hasn't been a true force on the Billboard charts for decades. Moreover, this roots rocker's rise to pop cultural prominence didn't happen overnight. Signs and Signifiers took over two years to find a large audience, and McPherson and his crew did it largely the analog way: with a sound and strategy that owe a debt to the road-friendly rockabilly artists of old, with a bit of social media savvy thrown in for good measure.
McPherson was finishing an MFA in the visual arts at the University of Tulsa, playing in local rockabilly bands and writing his own songs when he introduced himself to Jimmy Sutton on Myspace. Sutton, a charismatic upright bass player and the driving force behind Chicago's Hi-Style Records, responded enthusiastically to his demo. Before long, the two were recording on quarter-inch tape at Sutton's Chicago studio, which is outfitted with pre-1960s radio-quality equipment. But McPherson insists it's the ethos, not the equipment, that made all the difference: "It's about the recording philosophy and performance philosophy. We don't wear headphones, we play in the room together, everything goes right to tape." The result is a record that allows Alex Hall's drums and Sutton's doghouse bass to serve as the backbone for McPherson's swing guitar ramblings, à la Chuck Berry, and his alternately honey-smooth and bramble-edged vocals. The vintage sound harks back to the birth of rock' n' roll -- the record coming at you as though recorded at Sun Records in Memphis, circa 1956 -- but the energy and style on tunes such as "North Side Gal," "Firebug," and "Dimes for Nickels" maintains a firm grasp on the present. "We try to keep things on an edgy side," McPherson explains, "if you can say you can try to do something like that."
Some of that edge may come from the left-over punker in McPherson, who awakened to rock music during the glorious reign of Nirvana:
The first thing that got me playing was my older brothers," he says, "but as far as having a band goes, it was in the mid-1990s when Nirvana was on the radio and stuff, and that was the perfect time to be fifteen or sixteen years old and wanting to start a band. But as far as debts go, you know, I listened to The Stooges and The Buzzcocks and some of the weirder little English bands, stuff that you don't always get unless you dig.
He was still playing in punk bands when someone introduced him to a compilation of Buddy Holly tunes on Decca Records, opening his ears to the sound he'd been pursuing all along. "Everything I liked about the Ramones and the Dead Boys was present in that music," says McPherson.
His conversion didn't take long. He started covering "Rock Around with Ollie Vee," adding tracks from Elvis and Gene Vincent to his set lists, and throwing in a track or two from Larry Williams and Little Richard for good measure. And before long, he was on his way to developing a signature style -- call it rockabilly with a radical twist -- that he's been pursuing ever since.
You can feel all that history bearing down on "North Side Gal," the joyous first single from the record. McPherson, putting his MFA in visual media to good use, created the song's pure-of-heart and unadorned video, which, thanks to social media -- today's version of word-of-mouth -- found its way to McPherson's current manager, Burn and Shiver's Kenny Schnurstein, who still remembers that first listen: "In a matter of 10 seconds I believed it." "North Side Gal" also caught the attention of legendary singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, who invited McPherson to join him on a solo run up the West Coast.
"I was absolutely like chewing my nails," says McPherson about my meeting Lowe. "I couldn't believe that he wanted anything to do with me." After the tour Lowe, whom McPherson describes as "the coolest man in the world," asked him to create a video for Lowe's song "House for Sale," off the critically acclaimed album The Old Magic -- and the result is a visual narrative perfectly attuned to the song's gently crooned melancholia. McPherson shot the video back in Oklahoma, sans Lowe, with photographs of the singer serving as stand-ins, with McPherson's own friends serving as the actors.
For much of 2010 and 2011, McPherson logged his time on the road, playing European music festivals, where there's real cachet in being an American band playing authentic American music. "They hang on to music a little bit longer over there," says McPherson, sounding as though he'd like to see a similar sense of history this side of the Atlantic. "They let the past bleed into the present."
A few months after the album's original release there was just enough buzz around the record for McPherson to take a chance. The father of two young girls, he talked it over with his wife and took to the touring life full-time. "I gave myself a year to see if anything was going to happen." After conversations with a number of major labels, he signed with Rounder Records, and the company re-released Signs and Signifiers this past April, expecting a good six to eight weeks bounce. But eight months later, the record is still going strong -- a holiday gift that this humble Oklahoman surely never imagined.
I'm still struggling with this thing. It's a really, really unusual story. I never would have thought I could have done it -- the world I'm operating in, it's sort of 60 years old. For some reason it's very easy for the trendsetters to latch onto other older forms, like soul, like funk, but it hasn't been easy for them to recognize the tradition of rock 'n' roll and the blues as valid.
Still McPherson has always known, even when he was playing tiny bars in Tulsa, that his particular brand of music resonated with everyday people. He'd be playing a show and the people passing by -- frat guys, business guys, a group of ladies on the town -- would come off the streets and start to dance, they would always dance. "Americans are sort of hard-wired to understand blues-based music," he believes. "1-4-5 chord progressions, 12-bar blues."
McPherson isn't taking his success for granted. But perhaps we should take his success as a sign that in our postmodern, post-mediated world -- amid the buzzing, often vacuous din of so many over-produced and over-promoted Top 40 sounds -- musicians who tap the source of original American music can still inspire.
"It's refreshing sometimes to simplify," McPherson says modestly, "and strip things down."
R. Clifton Spargo is an award‐winning writer, author of the forthcoming novel Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. For more, visit his website.