Rock ‘n’ roller JD McPherson goes from opening tours for Robert Plant and Eric Church to headlining his own concert at Santa Monica Pier

By Bliss Bowen

JD McPherson commits to an earthier, fatter sound on his enthusiastically reviewed sophomore album Photo By Jim Herrington

JD McPherson commits to an earthier, fatter sound on his enthusiastically reviewed sophomore album
Photo By Jim Herrington

It wasn’t so long ago that JD McPherson was just an unknown musician/art teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla., with one well-received indie album to his credit. But in the past couple of years he’s morphed into a buzz-making up-and-comer, opening tours for Eric Church, Dave Matthews, Robert Plant and Queens of the Stone Age. Now he’s headlining a Twilight Concert Series show at Santa Monica Pier on July 30, and preparing for a cross-country tour to promote his enthusiastically reviewed sophomore album, “Let the Good Times Roll.”

“If you had told 15-year-old me that one day I’d be shaking hands with Bob Plant backstage and talking old records,” he marvels, “I would have literally exploded.”

One of the savory pleasures of “Let the Good Times Roll,” released by Rounder in early February, is hearing the influence of some of those “old records” — Stax, Sun, Vee-Jay — saturating the grooves.

McPherson moves beyond the rockabilly that shaped 2012’s “Signs & Signifiers” and commits to an earthier, fatter sound that simultaneously evokes old-school R&B and rock ‘n’ roll while corkscrewing the mix with fuzz-toned baritone guitar, Pretenders-style harmonies, a mid-ballad drum breakdown and sharp metaphors.

Considerable credit goes to Grammy-winning producer Mark Neill (Black Keys, Old 97’s, Paladins), whose Soil of the South studio in Valdosta, Ga., was modeled closely after the La Mesa home studio where he worked for many years before returning to his native state. Neill’s one of those guys who can tell you where someone was positioned to get just the right slapback echo on classic recordings, and exactly who played what instrument through which amplifier — numerous models of which he now owns. A friendly, walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge, McPherson’s no slouch but no purist either: “I’m a pragmatist in every way … use whatever tools you need to get the job done.” But he relied on Neill’s extensive vintage gear and expertise because, he recalls with a laugh, “the songs weren’t really fully fledged out yet.”

“After two years of touring really, really hard, constantly away from family, the songs coming out were a little darker, a little weirder,” he explains. “We tried recording the old way, in the studio where we recorded the first record, and it was very apparent to me it wasn’t going to work at all. This is guitar stuff; these are big, kind of explosive type songs. These are a lot more Link Wray than they are Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, even though there’s a lot of Eddie Cochran on this record. … There is no one on the planet that does big, expansive plate-reverb, billowy recording like Mark Neill. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the business … like a mad scientist.”

The album bristles with edgy tunes like “Bossy,” “Head Over Heels” and the horn-scorched “Mother of Lies” that get hips twitching before feet know they’re moving. The swooniest track, “Bridge Builder,” is a doo-wop throwback that McPherson co-wrote with Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach; he describes it as “a love song with a maritime theme.”

Press accolades have included invitations to late-night TV stages, and he recently ducked into Los Angeles to perform on Conan O’Brien’s show. One perk of that: bringing his family, including his 11- and 7-year-old daughters, who usually don’t see Dad when he’s working.

“We hung out at the Annenberg Beach House for a whole day, fighting the waves,” he says. “My daughter kept saying they were gnarly waves. They had a great time doing that. The road’s honestly not a fun or good place for them to hang out unless you’re there working because it’s a lot of sleeplessness and heavy lifting and long, long hours. We’re not on the Van Halen budget with six tour buses. I wouldn’t dare submit them to the van life.”

He’s quick to express “gratitude — gratitude, gratitude, profuse amounts of gratitude, to be able to do this. It’s not always easy, but who could ever complain if you’re doing what you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid? It feels incredible to make a living playing music.”

Artistically curious, he’s prone to tucking a copy of 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Interior” into his backpack, and recently discussed Robert Bly’s translation of Rumi with Garrison Keillor at a “Prairie Home Companion” taping. He listens to soul queen Irma Thomas almost daily (“She lives in my phone”), and says if there’s one community to which he’d enjoy time-traveling, it’s 1920s New Orleans.

“Just to see America’s greatest cultural export taking shape,” he says. “To be able to see Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller and then the boogie-woogie guys … I’d love to stick around through the 1950s and see Little Richard and Earl Palmer and Lee Allen making records. Basically, just let me live in New Orleans from 1920 to 1960, and I’d be good.”

JD McPherson headlines the Twilight Concert Series show at Santa Monica Pier on July 30. Angeleno-turned-Nashville-twanger Sarah Gayle Meech opens. Music begins at 7 p.m. Free. Call (310) 458-8901 or visit jdmcpherson.com or santa-
monicapier.org.

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