Taking up the look and sound of your music heroes can be dangerous—it's entirely possible to be too reverent. Where does their influence end and your originality begin? This hazy line has tripped up countless rockabilly revivalists over the last few decades who've been able to perfectly emulate the style—from the ducktail haircut to the swinging wallet chain—but couldn't quite find their own sound. But Oklahoma's JD McPherson is the real deal.
Sure, he's got the cuffed dungarees and vintage gear, but he's also managed to tap into the very essence of what makes the earliest rock 'n' roll so special: unfettered joy. You can hear it from start to finish on his debut album, Signs & Signifiers, a stand-out collection of what we call roots music nowadays but what was once actually genuine "fusion." Just like the original 45s by rock 'n' roll's progenitors—from Little Richard to Jerry Lee Lewis—there's an audible delight to the album as guitarist McPherson, bassist Jimmy Sutton, and drummer/keyboardist Alex Hall brazenly meld blues, R&B, and country soul into its own thing.
The trio is not so much trying to live in the past as they are simply playing their hearts out in the best way they know how—which just happens to be raucous rock 'n' roll that wouldn't be out of place on a Sun Records compilation. Playing in a style that's so specific to one era of rock does make the group an easy target for the "retro" label, though McPherson says he doesn't worry about it much. Because, well, it's unavoidably true.
"That sort of idea of being a throwback, it's not offensive to me," McPherson says from his tour bus. "Obviously, I'm wearing it on my sleeve. I love Little Richard, I love Larry Williams, I love Irma Thomas, I love Allen Toussaint. I make no arguments about that. You can say it in a positive way or a negative way, but it doesn't change the fact that it's definitely true."
His passion for early rock and R&B was an unexpected turn for the high-school student growing up in Broken Arrow, Okla. He was mostly into punk and new wave when he was given a Buddy Holly collection, but it struck a deep chord. It led him to find albums by Elvis and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and the rest the '50s pantheon, essential music that became "the primary love of my life." Later, he entered the film program at the University of Oklahoma, and eventually earned a master's degree from the University of Tulsa in open media, covering several different art forms.
After college, like many art-school grads, he ended up teaching middle-school art classes. ("I loved it because I was working with kids. I'm kind of on the same maturity level as the average 12-year-old anyway, so we got along really well.") Meanwhile, he had also been pursuing music, recording his own album—so, when he got laid off after three years of teaching, he knew what to do next.
"I had three months of summer pay coming to me, so I said, ‘Man, let's hit the road,' and it hasn't stopped," he says. Rounder Records picked up his self-made record, and he's been mostly on the road since it was re-released in April. McPherson admits that some audiences don't know what to make of his sound when they first hear it, since it's outside the norm for even Americana fans. "They don't have the academic sort of music-geek knowledge to define it, but what they're saying is they're liking it," he says. "When we come back to a town, we're getting friends of friends coming out and bringing in more folks."
For those who already love '50s-era rock 'n' roll, they'll certainly find some of the signature sounds of the period—twangy guitar solos, a honking sax, primal drum beats—but there's still a sense that this is new music. McPherson may follow his heroes' footsteps by using vintage recording gear and by sporting slicked-back hair ("Gotta have the rock 'n' roll haircuts!"), but he stops short of trying to rewrite their songs.
"I don't think anybody can really argue that we're trying to write '50s songs," McPherson says. "The band I play with has got that language down—the drums and the rhythm section and the horns—but I'm just trying to write songs that are relevant to us as folks living in the now. You're doing yourself and your listener a disservice if you're trying to write from another time. So hopefully folks can hear there are other influences creeping into our stuff, because we love all music, we'll listen to anything.
"There are so many sounds and vocabularies to learn from. And when you find something that you really enjoy, you can do it and feel good about it."