John Paul Keith’s music projects always start out well. He’s just not had much luck with making them last. When he was just 19, Keith was one of the original members of Knoxville’s Viceroys; he left that band before they changed their name to The V-Roys and put out two nationally acclaimed albums. In the late ’90s Keith moved to Nashville and put together The Nevers, a British Invasion-inspired power pop group with former Knoxvillians Rick Tiller, Dave Jenkins, and Paul Noe. The Nevers were signed to Sire Records before they recorded a note, but a dispute with the label kept them from ever releasing an album. Then Keith moved to Birmingham and fronted the rootsier Stateside. His luck hadn’t changed.
“I sort of hit a dead end with the business stuff,” he says. “I decided that was the last straw for me. I’d hit a wall with the music business. I figured I was going to do something else with my life besides music.”
So he moved up to Memphis, with no intention of playing music. He worked temp jobs for a while, but within a few months he was filling in as a sideman for Beale Street bar bands. “I was having fun, and got into guitar again,” he says. “There are so many good guitar players here that it inspired me to start playing again.”
Then he met bassist Mark Stuart and drummer John Argroves, the rhythm section for The Pawtuckets, at a music store. They only had one rehearsal together before their first gig, a two-hour set of old country, R&B, blues, and rock ’n’ roll at a Memphis bar in 2006. Stuart and Argroves brought guitarist Kevin Cubbins and pedal steel player John Whittemore to join them on stage that night, and the lineup for what’s become John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives (the name comes from the classic I-IV-V blues chord progression) was set.
“We just winged it,” Keith says. “I’d call a Chuck Berry or Johnny Cash tune and those guys followed right along.”
Further inspiration came when Keith played a show at the Corner Lounge later that same year with Jeff Bills, Chad Pelton, Tom Pryor, and Noe. “I hadn’t played my own songs in front of an audience for two years,” he says. “That really got me inspired to do it again.”
Next came a steady set of Memphis gigs, a few out-of-town dates on the weekends, and Keith’s six-week tour of Europe with Jack Oblivian’s Tennessee Tearjerkers. Keith was impressed with the way European fans fetishized vinyl over CDs. The only time Oblivian sold any CDs was when he’d sold out of his records. When Keith got back from Europe, he felt ready to take the next step and start recording with his band. He and the One Four Fives had gotten used to playing with each other, he’d adjusted to Memphis and had started to absorb the city’s blues and R&B heritage in addition to his own country and rock ’n’ roll roots, and he’d started writing songs again. He took the band into the studio to record what he envisioned as a vinyl-only release. Then Keith got an offer from Big Legal Mess, an imprint of the Oxford, Miss., label Fat Possum, to release Spills and Thrills as a CD.
“In two years I went from thinking my music career was over to being on my favorite label,” he says. “I didn’t see it coming.”
Spills and Thrills is Keith’s most sustained work, and the one that sounds closest to a complete realization of his broad, democratic vision of roots music. The songs range from hard Bakersfield country (“Smoke in a Bottle,” “Otherwise”) to rollicking R&B (“Pure Cane Sugar”), classic rock ’n’ roll (“She’ll Dance to Anything”), and dirty rockabilly (“Let’s Get Gone”). The instrumental “Cookie Bones” is a long, organ-drenched jam in the Memphis style of Booker T and the MGs. The addition of pedal steel, piano, and organ give Spills and Thrills the fullest sound of any of Keith’s recordings, and his voice is just as smooth at 33 as it was at 19, and a little more polished. It sounds like the record he’s been trying to make for more than 10 years.
“I’m more proud of this record than anything I’ve done,” he says. “A lot of my records aren’t very representative of me. This is the first time I feel like the stuff that I really like, the stuff that means something to me, has come through.”