music (2007-07)

Just Actin' The Fool

John Puckett plays funk, with eagle sounds and tribal beats

by Kevin Crowe

Two years ago, when John Puckett came here from West Virginia, he felt as though he was stepping into his element. "I've been back and forth, visiting Knoxville my whole life," Puckett says. "My mom's from Knoxville. Both my grandparents on my mother's side are from Maryville. So I've been coming down since I was a kid."

It seemed like a good fit, back then, a way to find a steady job and to hold a few weekly gigs. See, Puckett had just graduated with a degree in history from Concord University. Maybe he felt stuck. There were a few places to play near his hometown of Oak Hill, when the tourists would pour into the mountains of West Virginia for rafting season. Nothing was steady.

"This is a tough town, too," Puckett says of Knoxville. "It's hard to get in and get rolling. It's taken me two years, and I still don't have a massive following. I still get those nights where I end up playing for three people and the bartender. But it happens. Pull out new material and fuck around.

"I like that it's a bigger city than what I'm used to, and everybody's cool, in that good-ol'-boy, Appalachian kind of way. I like that, I like the vibe."

I feel so alive/ I feel so much better than yesterday , he sings on "As We Go Along," a song that appeared on his first EP, which was recorded in West Virginia. Where are we going/ Who's got the key ... We make it up as we go along.

The guitarwork is superb, a fluid mix of country and funk, with a hearty helping of soul. At a recent show at Backroom BBQ, Puckett jacked his guitar into a synthesizer and a loop station, all of it beefed up with a distortion pedal and a wah-wah.

"Effects?" Puckett says, "I'm not using a whole lot." But it's enough to transform his guitar into a saxophone, or a police whistle when he needs it. When he's building his loops, he'll usually start with a good, primal drumbeat. After that, it's usually an experiment, a voyage into sonic fantasyland.

"It's whatever you want to do. It's totally my call, from making frigging eagle sounds to making tribal music and just acting the fool."

His newest album, Green , was recorded by Dylen Terflinger, one of Puckett's buddies who works over at Rivr Media. It's an interesting album, as each song feels isolated or, perhaps more accurately, encapsulated in its own particular philosophy of sound. There's "The Pineapple Jam," which has a lax reggae feel. But then, on the very next track, he goes right into a harder, uptempo jam. Full speed ahead.

It might seem irritating each time he flexes his musical muscles in unexpected directions, if only the songs weren't so solid. And when Puckett is on stage, there's something for everyone, from the regular barflies to the accidental audience that's craving something a little more southern-fried.

"What I enjoy is seeing other people who enjoy it," he says, "seeing other people who enjoy and appreciate music. You know, the people who like to dance, who come out and just throw down. Party their asses off.... Change and adapt, and do your best wherever you're at.

"It's like performing without a net, what I do. It's being able to put together what I'm thinking, not necessarily what I've practiced. People just throw things at me, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I just might be able to do that.'"

That's probably why Puckett's music tends to be all over the place, as he gleans a little inspiration from each audience, always taking requests, never afraid to try what he hasn't practiced. "I think I've just changed as a player," he explains. "I remember that first album, I was writing music for bands.... But then I started playing it for myself." The music evolved because of that change of heart. He'll keep doing what he's doing, to have the freedom to come up with anything he wants, most of it completely ad hoc. And it's never dull.

"I got to be out there. I got to play. I go crazy if I'm not playing," he goes on. "All day long, dude, I think about it."

Who: John Puckett