Spoleto 2013 » Jazz, Blues, & Roots

JD McPherson heats up '50s rock 'n' roll in a punk pressure cooker

Burn It Up

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Forget the Nifty Fifties. Forget sock hops, drive-in movies, and poodle skirts. If there's one thing you learn from hearing JD McPherson's take on those halcyon days of rock 'n' roll, it's that the music had teeth.

"Tried to make my killer move a lonely summer night/ She strung me out and lit me up like Christmas in July," McPherson snarls on the song "Fire Bug," off of his 2010 album Signs & Signifiers. Then comes the chorus, which McPherson says came to him on a long drive: "Fire bug, fire bug/ She's my little fire bug/ She gon' light a fire with a little bitty kiss and a hug."

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"My favorite thing is '50s rhythm and blues and '50s rock 'n' roll, especially black rock 'n' roll," McPherson says. Not to disparage white rockers like Elvis, Buddy Holly, or Eddie Cochran, he says, but "it's just that there's such a larger catalog of good music from that community." Growing up on his parents' cattle ranch in southeast Oklahoma, he got an early taste of blues and jazz from his father, but it didn't fully sink in until later — after his big brother introduced him to Zeppelin and Hendrix, after his hardcore punk phase in high school, after he tried his hand at postmodern visual art in the eclectic Tulsa art scene ("It's definitely the coolest city in Oklahoma," he says). Today, McPherson still considers the Clash's Joe Strummer a genius songwriter, but you'll hear more direct influences in his music from the likes of Little Richard, Joe Houston, and Larry Williams. "There was a dialogue that was happening secretly between the black radio stations and the young white listener that was inspiring to them," McPherson says, reflecting on the cultural cachet of old record labels like Chess, Vee-Jay, and Cobra.

On a first listen, Signs & Signifiers sounds like it couldn't have been recorded less than 60 years ago. The guitar tones are perfect vintage, McPherson's howling vocals clearly hail from an era before Auto-Tune, and the songs about women — there are a lot of them — have a direct simplicity of purpose that's hard to come by anymore. For the authenticity of his sound, McPherson owes a debt of gratitude to acclaimed bassist and producer Jimmy Sutton, who grew up in the '70s on Chicago's Southside and came to rock 'n' roll via rockabilly in the '80s. From the reverb-heavy guitar solos to the impeccable horn arrangements, the album sounds like it could have been a summer hit in bygone years.

But McPherson's music is more than re-enactment or anthropological curiosity. He's taken to calling the sound "Buzzcocks meets Bo Diddley," and seeing the show live, you get a sense of the ferocity that made the kids go nuts during both the rock 'n' roll era and the punk era. The fusion takes unexpected forms. McPherson says he wanted "Fire Bug" to sound "as if Stiff Little Fingers had recorded at Del-Fi Records." And while his bombastic cover of the Big Tiny Kennedy classic "Country Boy" sounds fairly faithful to the original, trained ears will detect subtle echoes of a Wu-Tang Clan piano loop from Enter the Wu-Tang. Whatever the formula, it's working, earning positive press in Rolling Stone and big crowds from Atlanta to Australia. "We're getting quite a few young folks coming out, hipster kids that bring their grandparents," McPherson says. "It's almost like new music to them."

These days, McPherson has kids of his own, and he does what he can to instill good taste — just like his father did on the ranch in southeast Oklahoma. "Yeah, of course I've been trying to do that since they were born. You know, 'This is the Ramones, this is the Everly Brothers, this is T. Rex,'" McPherson says. "And they like it, but ultimately, at some point, they're going to want to hear that ear candy that's on the radio. You know, that's fine. I did the same thing. They'll grow out of it."

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