JD McPherson goes back to the old mine for musical gold

Samantha Franklin/Special to the News Sentinel
JD McPherson says he knows rockabilly and that isn't what he plays, but if fans want to call it that it's fine with him.

Samantha Franklin/Special to the News Sentinel JD McPherson says he knows rockabilly and that isn't what he plays, but if fans want to call it that it's fine with him.

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JD McPherson's performances used to be described in a very strange way.

"People used to say it was like Marty McFly in 'Back to the Future,'" says McPherson, in a call just after playing a gig on satellite radio. "We got that a lot. And I thought, 'What a strange connection. The language of 1950s rock 'n' roll and translating it through a character in a 1980s movie. But the people who are saying that like something about it and want to talk about it and don't have the knowledge base. They're just getting into it. As long as they're excited about it and telling friends about it, it doesn't really matter how they talk about it."

In truth, McPherson is well schooled in the rock 'n' roll pioneers and precursors — from the jump blues greats like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris to rock greats like Little Richard and Gene Vincent.

"A guy on Twitter yesterday said, 'Could you give me the name of a vintage album that has a 'North Side Gal' feel and I just said, 'Start with "Here's Little Richard!" on Specialty Records.' Who knows? He might go completely nuts over it!"

McPherson's debut album, "Signs and Signifiers," has been a critical hit and a slow-burner. It was self-released in 2010 before being picked up by Rounder Records early this year.

McPherson and bass player Jimmy Sutton recorded and financed the album and made a video for the song "North Side Gal" and performed at a roots music festival in Europe.

"It was just kind of project we had because at the time I was a full-time teacher," says McPherson.

The project, though, started getting attention around the country.

"Major labels were sniffing around," says McPherson. "They liked what they were hearing, but they just had no idea what to do with it."

Roots music label Rounder, though, thought they smelled a winner.

It was at about that time that McPherson's gig as a technology and art teacher at a Tulsa middle school.

"That lasted about three years until the budget cuts came in," says McPherson. "I didn't know what I was going to do, but I did know I was getting paid through August and I should hit the road and make some extra money."

McPherson says he had been in bands his "whole semi-adult life," but had never tried to make music as his primary income source. And he had always been interested in music.

Surprisingly, he says the first music that really struck him was when his older sister put a pair of headphones on him when he was about five years old.

"It was 'The Reflex' by Duran Duran," says McPherson. "She was a Duran Duran fanatic. It was total ear candy."

With that introduction he began digging back for music with a little more meat on it.

"I got really interested in black rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues when I was a teenager. I was interested in punk rock and alternative music and New Wave. That early rock 'n' roll stuff just kind of encapsulated everything I liked about what I was listening to ... and all that New Orleans stuff — Professor Longhair, Allan Toussaint, that's just my favorite stuff in the world!"

He says he could also identify more with the Southern rural beginnings of Little Richard and Buddy Holly more than the British Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks or New York's Ramones.

"I just went to New York for the first time this year!" says McPherson.

He says great things have been continuously happening to him for the past couple of years.

"Just the other night I was afforded the incredible opportunity to play two Chuck Berry songs for Chuck Berry himself at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was pretty incredible. I'm standing on stage with Lemmy from Motorhead and Vernon Reid from Living Colour and David Johansen from the New York Dolls and Ernie Isley from the Isley Brothers. That was just off the charts!"

And some other folks have been pretty excited about McPherson's newfound fame.

Check out his video for "North Side Gal" on YouTube and you'll see the comment: "That's my old technology teacher, Mr. McPherson!"

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JD McPherson

With: Sean Rowe

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10

Where: The Shed, 1820 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville

Tickets: $15, available at http://www.smh-d.com/shed.php

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