Local up-and-comer Jefferson Coker is a unique musician with a hell of a life story. He manages to imbue his songs with the joy found in rock's most elegant records and with the sadness found in the most heartbreaking blues and country masterpieces.
"With my heavy country, Southern rock, gospel, and blues influences, my music is a mix of all of that," says Coker. "I loved everything from Etta James to the Grateful Dead. I loved music that was about genuinely feeling something. I hope that this new album comes across like that as well."
The Summerville-based singer/guitarist has been playing both as a solo act and with the backing of a full band in local venues since 2007. This week, he celebrates the release of his debut album Freedom.
"This album reflects the last 30 years of my life," Coker, 36, says of the 12 songs on Freedom. "I lived all of the songs."
Although Coker was born in the small Italian town of Pozzouli, located just outside of Naples, he and his family soon relocated to Summerville in 1974. In his infancy, Coker suffered from cystic hygroma lymphangioma. The serious nature of the illness prompted his family to move to the Charleston area where MUSC's children's hospital would be nearby. Coker gradually recovered.
"I was really ill when I was young," he remembers. "I grew up in a hospital. But I had a box of cassettes, a tape recorder, and a guitar by the time I was nine. I learned chords and started writing, but I never put anything serious to music until high school."
Coker attended Fort Dorchester High School when Summerville was still a sleepy little town. Afterward, he earned his bachelor degree at the College of Charleston.
"I did the high school band thing, and I played with a few blues and Southern rock bands in college, but I wasn't a singer back then," Coker says. "I was afraid of the microphone for some reason."
In 1997, Coker moved to Seattle where he worked for several years as a graphic designer for Microsoft. He moved back to his hometown in the spring of 2007 with the goal of becoming a full-time working musician. He started booking gigs, refining his best original songs, and planning ways to record his debut.
Freedom isn't necessarily a concept album, but there are two themes running from song to song. A sense of patriotism matches the album cover artwork, which features a five-point star with red, white, and blue bands.
"The idea was to put the colors of the American flag on there to imply the idea of freedom," Coker says. "The title of the album and the title track is 'Freedom.' To me, it doesn't just represent what the Constitution says. It represents what the people who wrote the Constitution stood for.
"I wrote 'Freedom' about my father, who served in the Navy for 27 years and worked post-military for another 20 years," he adds. "Three years after he retired, he went blind from glaucoma and diabetes. He never missed a day of work. Now he sits at home and listens to books on tape. He worked for a comfortable retirement, but now he has no freedom in a way. The song touches on several things, but basically I'm saying your vote counts for something, so pick something and stand up for it. Let your voice be heard."
Another theme is one of sturdy optimism by way of perseverance. Coker conquered his medical challenges, but picked up a heavy cocaine habit in his 20s. It's been 14 years since he kicked the drug.
"I wrote 'One More Notch' in 2002 about my old drug habit," he says of one of the more waltzy tracks on Freedom. "There's a line that goes, 'take another drink, smoke another smoke, do another line, take another toke.' Some people hear it and initially think I'm praising drug use. When they actually listen to the song, they hear the real message. It's really a testimonial to what I've gone through and who I am now."
Coker's current backing band includes longtime colleague Kevin Church on rhythm and lead guitars, drummer Christine Schinker, harmonica player Rob Lowe, and bassist Dave Jones.
"I was fortunate to hook up with some musicians in recent years who really helped my creative flow," says Coker. "It took me a while to find the bandmates I have now. I had to look hard for the right people who were willing to work on different arrangements, time signatures, and ideas. These guys are all willing to change things up, and they'll put up with me putting ideas out there, too."
The full band will be on hand this week for the CD release show.
Despite his personal ailments, addictions, and challenging experiences, Coker takes life one day at a time and looks for the decency and positivity in people. His upbeat approach is obvious on much of Freedom.
"The songs also talk about treating people nicely and taking care of the people you love," he says. "Things can work out. There's no need to step on people to get ahead. I'm just talking about freedom in general. Love who you want to and love and live how you want to love without fear of retribution."