Greenville's Jake Garrett, a.k.a. John the Revelator, plays music that seems to float free of any particular time period. His viciously sharp slide-playing harkens back to the Delta blues masters, but it's just as informed by modern-day rock as it is the blues. His songs reach back into the swamps of the South and the Appalachian mountains for their subject matter and atmosphere, but there's often a coat of jagged, distorted noise-rock splashed across these tales of broken hearts and broken men. It's a dark, foreboding sound that, in an age of antiseptic, note-perfect productions, is undeniably ragged, off-kilter, and alive.
Garrett stumbled upon the seemingly disparate ideas for John the Revelator while serving as the rookie in an experienced cover band. "The other guys in the band were all in their 40s, and I was like 18," he says, "We were riding around in an old minivan, and one of them had this old cassette tape called Bottles, Knives, & Steel, and it was this collection of old blues artists. It was the first time I'd heard artists like Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red."
Garrett's still in awe as he describes hearing that tape. "As soon as I heard Blind Willie's 'God Don't Never Change' and 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground' — I'd never heard anything like that before," Garrett says. "From then on, all I thought about was that music. I just fell in love with his music, and that's what got me into playing slide guitar."
At the same time, however, Garrett was playing with a bluegrass band that introduced him to Appalachian storytelling songs. "So what it came down to was that I loved those two genres: The pre-WWII slide guitar and gospel blues, like Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and then you've got the Appalachian music," he says. "And I also loved Sun Records, Johnny Cash, and all those cats. They had a very intense kind of slap-back groove on those recordings that gave it this nice, hollow, dirty sound."
But there was also a more practical angle behind the new music Garrett started playing. "It was really a way to play shows by myself," he says. "Now, if the cover band couldn't play a show, I could go and play the show myself as John the Revelator. I started trying to play as many instruments as I could at one time and make a big sound so that I could play these gigs that technically weren't supposed to be acoustic gigs."
Garrett's onstage alter-ego John the Revelator came from the gospel-blues song of the same name, recorded by both Johnson and Son House. "From what I understand, Blind Willie Johnson did the first recorded version of that song," he says. "It was kind of one of those things where I wanted to pay homage to Blind Willie with whatever name I chose."
As much as the noise and distortion and Appalachian goth folk add atmosphere to the Delta-blues style songs that Garrett writes, he sees those trappings not just as enhancements but enticements for those who might not be familiar with his roots. "When you're writing and playing music in the style of that period, a lot of times you have to modernize aspects of it," he says. "You do that to grab people who wouldn't be able to sit down and enjoy some of those old recordings and old styles of music like the Delta blues or the Carter Family and understand why they're so good. So you add dynamics and stomp-beats and whatnot to make what's already there more prominent."
Garrett also produces other bands, and he says he uses the John the Revelator name instead of his own so that he's not connected with just one project or one style of music. "I do so many projects that I really don't like to ever use my name, because I would be completely tied down to it," he says. "It's a way to avoid that."
Centered around a disparate group of Upstate artists, Garrett runs his own record label called DeepRoots Family Records. He originally launched the company eight years ago as a means to release his own music. "Greenville was a very different scene back then," he says. "There weren't many spots to hit for new music, and if you weren't in a specific group of people, you couldn't play. And so we just started putting out our own music and created our own label."
The current roster for DeepRoots includes Before There Were Gods (a vocals-bass-drums trio that specializes in corrosively heavy noise-rock), bluesy trio Mason Jar Menagerie, electronic-music duo Soulless Robots, frenetic indie-rock outfit Dables, and two acoustic singer-songwriters — The Last Southern Gentleman (a.k.a. Chad Hudson) and Amy Lynne Reed. And Garrett is the producer for all of them.
"The hardest part about it is to make sure the work with each of the artists is separate," he says. "The sound I tried to mold for John the Revelator is something I try to keep completely separate from the others, because it will intrude onto the sound of the other artists. You have to be very careful."