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15 Apr 2014

Stagecoach: JD McPherson Says His '50s-Style Rock Will Fit in Just Fine at the Country Music Fest

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JD McPherson. JD McPherson.

Stagecoach lineups have been known to stretch the definition of country music a bit—and that explains JD McPherson’s inclusion in the 2014 lineup.

JD McPherson—who will perform on Friday, April 25—plays music that is a throwback to ’50s rock ’n’ roll. Yes, his music includes some classic country elements, too, but McPherson is best known for belting out high-energy vocals with that ’50s bass and guitar sound in the background. Since he released his debut album, Signs and Signifiers, in 2012, he’s been on fire and was named an “artist to watch” by Rolling Stone.

McPherson, a native of Oklahoma who currently lives in the city of Broken Arrow, talked about his upbringing in Talihina, Okla., during a recent phone interview.

“My upbringing in Oklahoma was very rural,” McPherson said. “I grew up on a 160-acre ranch in southeast Oklahoma, and I had a lot of time on my hands. The ‘mall’ for me was kind of a monthly trip with my parents to Portsmouth, Ark. That’s when I would pick up music and music magazines.

“The (local) music scene was the one me and my two friends made for ourselves,” he said with a laugh.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in arts at the University of Tulsa, and became an art and technology teacher. However, he didn’t feel like teaching was really his calling.

“I always poured more energy into music than I really had business doing as far as a ratio to responsibility,” he said. “Music was something I was perfectly happy doing in my spare time, and I was fortunate enough to go on to be doing it for a living. It was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me.”

McPherson’s musical influences are undeniably diverse. Buddy Holly is one; another is Little Richard. I asked what drew him to the music of Little Richard.

“One of my favorite (songs) of all time is ‘Keep-A-Knockin’,’ and it’s just the most awesome, swinging, full-abandon record I’ve ever heard,” he said. “I can’t believe that got played on the radio. It’s just really, really psycho. That record sums up everything for me. It obviously influenced a lot of folks; Led Zeppelin copied the drum intro for ‘Rock and Roll.’ A lot of the garage bands are trying to touch that sound. It just sounds like fun and danger at the same time.”

Another influence: hip-hop from the ’90s, such as the music of Wu-Tang Clan.

“It’s the sound and textures,” he said. “Especially in the ’90s, a ton of really exciting sound textures were happening. I don’t know if it was the sampling technology they had at the time, but everything sounded like it was coming from a TV, and there was some really cool production stuff happening back then. I think a lot of the Ice-T records were really cool, and the Dr. Dre records obviously sound cool. They were sampling all these funk records and stuff, which were already squashed and crunchy-sounding. But when they did their treatment to it, it just sounded really cool.”

He said the release (by Rounder Records) and eventual success of Sounds and Signifiers caught him by surprise

“I made that record as a project while I was still teaching school,” he said. “I had no idea that I wasn’t going to be teaching school any more. We just made it as something we wanted to make. Everything sort of happened at the right time—including me losing my job. That allowed for it to happen.”

The recording process was entirely independent, he said.

“It was not made for general consumption by any means,” he said. “It was the first full-length recording recorded at my bass-player Jimmy’s studio. He had been building a studio in his attic, and it was the first thing he did. We put everything into it.”

While the record’s success was a complete surprise, McPherson said he and his band did have one goal—eventually accomplished—in mind with the recording.

“There was a little scene of places we would be able to get gigs once in awhile, especially overseas,” he said. “We knew for sure we’d probably get some weird rock ’n’ roll gig at a festival in Spain. Spain has this really rabid rock ’n’ roll fanbase. We were like, ‘Hey, man, we might get a free trip to Spain out of this. Let’s put everything into it!’

“We worked really hard on (the album), but the more we worked, the less … it looked like a ’50s record. I have to brag about our sound engineer, Alex Hall, for a moment, because I don’t think there’s another modern record that completely nailed the sound of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. But it was mission accomplished, because our second gig was in Spain.”

There’s a new album in the works. McPherson and his band are working with Mark Neill, one of the producers on the Black Keys album Brothers.

“We’ve been working on it for a while now,” he said. “We’re really excited about it. Mixes are starting to roll in right now, and it’s sort of preliminary.”

As for his performance at Stagecoach, he said he’s not worried one bit about his music fitting in.

“We’ve played very, very sacred folk music festivals where we had no business wheeling a Hammond organ onto the stage, and we’ve played things like Bonnaroo,” he said. “We just kind of go and do our thing. We’ve been very fortunate to be invited to so many kinds of festivals. There’s no bigger country music fan than me, and I personally love the challenge of going into something that seems like we don’t necessarily belong. I love that.

“We will play our hearts out every time.”

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