Punk was the gateway drug for McPherson, who plays One Eyed Jacks on Thursday. It helped him find his music and his voice.
JD McPherson learned much of what he needed to know from punk rock. That’s not obvious on his four albums including 2017’s Undivided Heart and Soul, where his debt to Buddy Holly and the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, and R&B are far more evident. But punk rock was his gateway drug when he grew up in rural Oklahoma in the 1980s. It got him started playing in bands, and it introduced him to the artists who influenced the bands he liked.
“The Clash are coving this song,” he remembers. “What are into? What are they listening to?”
The fierce spirit and intensity that connected those musicians show up in McPherson’s music in proper measure. He plays roots music fueled not by punk’s extra boost of nitrous but the honest representation of the sound in his head. If Eddie Cochran and the musicians who inspired him had the recording technology that is available today, their music would have sounded like his.
JD McPherson plays One Eyed Jacks on Thursday with Duz Mancini and the Wasted Shades opening.
McPherson’s musical education was like most people’s—self-made, shaped by his curiosity and whatever was at hand. He listened to the radio and read whatever he could find. Friends turned him on to ‘zines out of the nearest big city, Tulsa, and when he saw a short review of Black Flag’s Damaged in a guitar magazine, he had to have it even though he wasn’t sure what hardcore was. He learned about music from record stores, but not cool, legendary indie record stores but from mall stores, and he had to get his mom to drive him an hour and a half to get to one.
“I got so many important, formative records from mall CD stores,” he says. “My first Pixies record was recommended to me by a mall CD store worker.” Another record store employee passed him the Buddy Holly compilation that turned his head around.
All of this helped McPherson address some existential rock ’n’ roll questions. “I was piecing it all together,” he says. “Where do I fit in to all of this? What’s my identity in this? What do I have to say that anybody would care about? Couple that with this consuming desire to learn everything I could about rock ’n’ roll music and rock ’n’ roll culture. One good thing about growing up where I did is that I had a lot of time and zero distractions.”
How did he fit in? On the margins. The magazines, books, and albums all confirmed his suspicion that there was a bigger world out there, one that he wanted to be a part of. His identity? He was very conscious that he wasn’t from Los Angeles, New York City, London, or any of the other places he associated with punk, and he didn’t know of any models for a punk rock band in the rural Midwest. At the same time, the relative isolation of his upbringing freed him from doctrine. Punk emerged as a reaction against prog rock, Eric Clapton, and the mid-‘70s reification of chops, but with no peer pressure on that side, McPherson didn’t feel compelled to embrace its musical amateurism. He had played drums for the band in the church where is mother was pastor. He liked playing guitar and worked to get better. He valued a core musicality, and as he began to backfill his musical education, McPherson started to appreciate the foundational rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly and R&B records as music and as the start of the first youth culture.
“Kids didn’t have their own music until that point,” he says. “They went bonkers and changed the whole world. That was appealing to me.” It didn’t hurt that rock ’n’ roll was also fun.
McPherson formed his first band when he was 16 and hasn’t been without one since. When one started to fall apart, he launched another so that the transition would be as seamless as possible. He would tour for two or three weeks at a time while going through college, and he played on the weekends when he had full time jobs. While teaching, he was offered a chance to cut an album and accepted with no goals for it the beyond the experience. When his administrative shortcomings cost him his job in the classroom, that record had found fans among potential managers, booking agents and labels, so much so that he convinced his wife to let him try a year as a touring musician to see where that got him. He was in his early 30s and had a family at home, so playing almost 250 dates that year wiped him out physically and emotionally, but it also got him in the game.
He doesn’t think of any of the songs he wrote in those days as worth talking about. McPherson thinks the songwriting on his debut album, Signs and Signifiers (2012), marked him as a different musical voice because “it had a little bit of a weird streak to it,” he says. The title and touches in the songs reflected his grad school background, but there was little personal in them. He considers himself a fairly private person, so he wrote songs around themes and characters just as countless pre-Dylan songwriters had done for decades.
Dylan changed the songwriting game though, and now listeners look for the artist in his or her songs. If you know where to look, McPherson is more present in the songs on his second album, Let the Good Times Roll (2015). “That came at a time when I was losing my mind,” he says, and the anxiety he was feeling and friction within the band show up in veiled references. By Undivided Heart and Soul, he was in a better space and less precious about his songwriting. A number of ideas even came from his wife.
“I’m a little more comfortable with myself now, a little more confident. If I have something I want to say, I’ll bring it in.”
It helps that he has a better understanding of himself as a songwriter. “I see things in boxes,” he says, and points to his 2018 Christmas album, Socks. He thought about the Christmas songs that songwriters Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller wrote for Elvis Presley and The Drifters, and realized that they never wrote Christmas songs for The Coasters, for whom they did some of their best writing. “That’s the most perfect artist/writer relationship that I can think of,” McPherson says, and he decided to write an album’s worth of songs that Leiber and Stoller would have written for The Coasters. With that clear vision, the songs came easily and quickly. Once he has a concept, everything else follows naturally.
“I consider music I listen to to be inherently anti-authoritarian, and at its core it’s more about the human spirit than systems or institutions,” McPherson says. That’s something he recognizes in all the music that influenced him from across eras, and he hears it in music that’s made today. Sometimes, people come up to him after shows and thank him for keeping real rock ’n’ roll alive. You’re really sticking it to all the garbage that’s out there now, they tell him. He appreciates the sentiment but feels misunderstood by people who say that.
“I’m not any sort of reactionary figure,” he says. “I like the garbage that’s out there now. I’m a sponge for anything that’s good.”