Interview: JD McPherson

My introduction to JD McPherson and his band was at the 2017 Cherry Blossom festival, when they played a late afternoon slot on a stage in front of city hall for a handful of lucky folks, myself included. Going into it, I knew little more than a catchy ditty called “Head Over Heels” that I found after a quick search of the interwebs.

The song, and JD’s overall sound I would soon discover, hearkens back to the time of drive-in movies, American-made muscle cars, and white tee shirts with a soft pack of smokes rolled up the sleeve, to a time when rock ‘n’ roll was young and dangerous. JD unapologetically draws heavily from this time without being overly sentimental or creating some sort of nostalgic schtick.

We got to chat about the trials and tribulations of being a public school teacher, dealing with the almost paralyzing magnificence of recording at Historic RCA Studio B, jamming with Josh Homme out in the desert, the conspiracy to kill rock ‘n’ roll in the late 50’s, and, last but not least, the architect of rock ‘n’ roll himself.

As a former teacher myself, I absolutely have to ask about your transition from middle school art teacher to the leader of a rock ‘n’ roll band. What has life been like for you since leaving the classroom?

I’ve never not had some form of band going since I was sixteen years old, so the main change related to having a band was to go from playing shows every weekend or so to suddenly playing around 250-260 shows in a year.

I lost my teaching job – “We’ve decided not to renew your contract” – after the first album had already been made, and there was already a bit of interest from potential band managers, booking agents, even a few festivals in Europe, so it seemed like a chance to try out rockin’ as a full-time gig.

As far as the teaching gig goes, it was rewarding, I was pretty good at it, I had goals for it, but in the end, I wasn’t good at keeping up with paperwork, office politics, and administrivia. Grading kids for free expression and creative output seemed wrong to me. If you ask any of my former students, I reckon most of them enjoyed my classes, if you ask my former administrators, they’ll likely say, “McPherson WHO?”

Now that you’ve been in it to win it for a few years now, what does success in the music business look like to you?

Success in this biz is completely and totally subjective, so I suppose my self-defined version would be that I can make a living for my family doing what I did a long time for free. Everything else is perks.

That TK Smith custom guitar looks like Bo Diddley jumped in a Delorean to meet George Jetson. It also sounds incredible. Talk to me about it.

That guitar is so incredible that it fools people into thinking I can actually play it!  It produces a reality distortion field. Sometimes I say, “I’m a guitar owner” instead of, “I’m a guitar player.”

TK is a very close friend, and a hero/mentor of mine. When I first learned of TK, he had been a guitarist in several bands I loved – Big Sandy’s Fly Rite Trio, Smith’s Ranch Boys, Bonebrake Syncopators – and then he started building guitars.

Believe me when I tell you that the instruments he builds are better quality than you will find anywhere. I remember handing it to Kenny Vaughan – Marty Stuart’s lead guitarist and a certified Nashville A-list session guitarist – and him saying, “Oh wow. It’s a REAL guitar.”

TK and I spoke about building a guitar for me for almost two years before he started. It’s a nod to TK’s Smith special, a Paul Bigsby guitar, Bo Diddley’s Jupiter Thunderbird, and the three bombs are a reference to Joe Strummer from The Clash.

You’ve had the privilege of cutting some tunes at the Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville, Tn. What was that experience like for you? 

I imagine that it’s like a president spending that first night in the White House. It’s my favorite thing about Nashville. It’s so incredibly charming, and the weight of the history there is palpable.

Every night when we were wrapping up cables and tearing down after the session – we had to do that, because it’s a museum in the daytime – we would listen to music that had been recorded there in its heyday on the big speakers. Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Til I Kissed You” are among my favorite songs EVER, and they were recorded in that room.

The echo chamber above the control room must be hewn together with magic spells. Anything you run through it sounds amazing. The Floyd Cramer grand piano is still there. The hole in the cupboard that Elvis kicked through and that Chet Atkins refused to repair is still there. It was a magical experience.

As a working and touring musician, you’ve joined the ranks of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, all of whom have talked at length about the delicate work/family balance in your line of work. How do you achieve the work/family life balance?

It’s particularly difficult.  It’s not a normal life.  You miss so much, even if you try your hardest not to.  Touring is absolutely necessary these days, and you spend long stretches away from home.  When you’re home, it feels wrong to keep working on things.

In all honestly, I don’t think it’s always possible to have a balance. When a new record comes out, you’re gone ALL the time. You just have to do your best until things get better, and you have to take advantage of smartphone technology.

You’ve recently worked with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. You stated that much of this work centered around “no expectation jam sessions and the creative process.” How did this collaboration come about? What did you get out of it?

Our third record was very difficult to make, and it put me in a rut. A producer had just cancelled our session with him, and I was at the end of my rope, out of budget, and out of time.

I was in LA for something, and Joshua asked if I’d like to come to the park and hang out with his family a bit. I told him my woes, and he invited me to come out and just have fun for a couple days.  For him, it was like helping a buddy move a refrigerator, but for me, it was just the trick to get my head right.

Josh, Dean [Fertita], and I just spent two days playing around with fuzz pedals and having fun.  At one point, he made me watch the Martin Short Goes Hollywood comedy special. It was a blast.

A 2015 Rolling Stone feature mentions that you believe that there was a conspiracy to squash rock ‘n’ roll music at the end of the 1950s (a sentiment shared by many, including Bob Dylan). Inform our readers of this conspiracy.

When rock and roll started happening, it was a new culture, the first YOUTH culture. It brought with it new ideas. It was cutting against the grain. You can read quotes from worried politicians at the time against it. Journalists were against it. Preachers were against it. Parents were against it. Racists were against it.

There was a period of time there where prominent rock stars were rapidly being taken out of commission. Probably the most obvious example is Elvis Presley being drafted into the Army at the peak of his career (especially considering the amount of taxes he was paying).

As I’m sure you already know, Macon is Little Richard’s hometown. Are you a fan? Any specific era or record that sticks out to you? Any covers we can look forward to?

Well, he’s without question my favorite recording artist. He’s the best there ever was. THAT’S rock ‘n’ roll.

My favorite Little Richard track is “Keep A Knockin,” which is like a dose of amphetamine and aphrodisiac taken in sonic pill form. What a treasure he is… Macon has so much to be proud of, and Little Richard is to me, the brightest star in Macon’s musical firmament.

JD McPherson’s new record, Undivided Heart and Soul, which was recorded at Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville, is out now on New West Records. He plays the Cox Capitol Theatre on Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 8:00 p.m.