You could mistake JD McPherson for a revivalist, given how few other contemporary artists are likely to assert, as he boldly does, that “’Keep a Knockin’ by Little Richard is the best record ever made. But in a very real sense, McPherson is much more a pioneer than roots resuscitator. He’s knocking at the door of something that arguably hasn’t yet been accomplished—a spirited, almost spiritual hybrid that brings the forgotten lessons from the earliest days of rock & roll into a future that has room for the modernities of studio technique and 21st century singer/songwriter idiosyncrasies. Let the Good Times Roll, his second album, is a stranger, and more personal affair than its Fats Domino-redolent title might at first suggest.
His first album, 2012’s Signs & Signifiers, was hailed as “a rockin’, bluesy, forward-thinking gold mine that subtly breaks the conventions of most vintage rock projects” by All Music Guide. The Washington Post wrote that, “he and his bandmates are great musicians taking ownership of a sound, not just mimicking one.” That same review remarked upon how, “the album sounds as if the band is in the same room with the listener.” But for the follow-up, McPherson wanted to maintain that raw power while also capturing the more mysterious side of the records he loves. To that slightly spookier end, he enlisted as a collaborator Mark Neill, known for his work as a producer and engineer with versed-in-the-past acts going back to the Paladins in the 1980s, but, most recently, for recording The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach—a friend of McPherson’s who co-wrote the new album’s “Bridge Builder.”
“It’s still a rock & roll record, but the borders are expanding a little bit,” McPherson explains. “With some of the writing that came out this time, it became apparent the songs weren’t going to lend themselves well to our usual process. So as we sought out a producer, we took aim for a slightly wider—I guess hi-fi is the word—sound, and got more experimental. …gosh, we listened to so much David Bowie making this record. We’d play Primal Scream’s Screamadelica to listen to how they suddenly started making dance records, and then Mark would play us Marilyn McCoo singing ‘Marry Me, Bill’ over and over again, I guess trying to re-wire our brains.”
Amid this flurry of possible influences, a few production approaches stuck. “I find that the records that I like to listen to over and over again are the ones that have those strange engineering choices, or weird sounds…So whereas the first record was really informed by New Orleans rhythm and blues, where everything was very dry and up-front, I really was listening more this time to a ton of Link Wray, and the Allen Toussaint-produced Irma Thomas stuff, and all the early ‘60s rock & roll that is saturated in plate reverb.”
McPherson certainly doesn’t begrudge the attention that Signs & Signifiers unexpectedly brought him. The ‘North Side Gal’ video helped them find fame on YouTube even before Rounder picked up his indie release. “I was still teaching school, and here I am with got this video that’s like a million hits…I had no plans to quit my job. Luckily, I lost it.” A middle school art department’s loss was Rounder’s and the rock world’s gain.
“There wasn’t much to do where I grew up in rural southeast Oklahoma…” McPherson says. When he discovered early rock & roll and R&B, “it was like finding a treasure no one else knew about. Nobody around me had any interest whatsoever in Little Richard except for me and my friend. Once we started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, and to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which was the best thing you could ever find, everything started to change. I’ve got a videotape of us playing at a pool hall in the early ‘90s in Talihina, Oklahoma, and it’s cowboys and criminals and people that are cooking meth up in the hills standing around playing pool, and here we are with our greaser uniforms on, playing Buddy Holly followed by the Clash, and all these people are really confused. Those were happy times.”
The covers and the grease got dropped along the way to adulthood, of course, even though he knows what he does now is likely to wind up with some inaccurate revival tags. “There’s never going to be a point where I’m not going to hear the word ‘rockabilly’,” he says with a laugh and a sigh, “even though it’s not anthropologically correct, because it’s separate from rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Not being able to be perceived as how you sort of define what you’re doing is frustrating, but you just have to understand that not everybody is a nerd about this stuff. What it comes down to is that you can’t expect for people to listen if you’re not doing something personal… And you take everything you love about it and write personal music and hope it translates into its own thing.”
McPherson & his band have opened for acts ranging from Bob Seger to the Dave Matthews Band to Nick Lowe to Eric Church. For a Halloween night 2014 show at the Forum in L.A., super-fan Josh Homme, one of McPherson’s biggest supporters, handpicked him to open for Queens of the Stone Age. These may not all seem like natural pairings, but the music is primal and melodic enough that, after a few minutes, it never fails to make sense even to audiences with the least of expectations and musical educations.
“I’ve seen it happen over and over again. You’re in a record store where they’re playing some weird underground amorphous electronic record that has no configurable beat per minute, and then they put on a Sam Cooke record, and everybody is just like ‘Ohhh’— like a weight lifted. All kinds of music are interesting, but man, there’s something about the 1/4/5, 12-bar blues form that’s just hard-wired into American brains. And I shouldn’t say just American brains, because this stuff is still really huge in Europe, too. Everybody likes rock & roll. They just either won’t admit it or don’t know it yet,” he laughs, unshakable in his faith that the whole world is or will be on a roll.
Nikki Lane’s critically acclaimed third album, Highway Queen, is out now via New West Records and available digitally, on compact disc, LP, and cassette. In celebration of the release, Lane performed the album’s lead single “Jackpot” on Conan, and made an appearance on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” in April. Additionally, CBS This Morning Saturday featured Lane and her band performing two tracks from Highway Queen at Loretta Lynn’s historic home in Hurricane Mills. Loretta Lynn joins Lane for a very special duet of her 1966 hit song “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” of which Lynn has recorded a new version for her upcoming album Wouldn’t It Be Great.
Prior to the release of Highway Queen, Entertainment Weekly featured an exclusive, full stream of the “boisterous” and “raucous” new album; while Vice’s music site Noisey ran an in-depth interview with Lane and praised, “Highway Queen is a forceful, rollicking collection of fiery country tunes that places [Lane] toe-to-toe with any outlaw in Nashville,” adding, “it’s her best yet.” The piece premiered the standout track “Send The Sun,” which MTV News calls “a waltzing love song that could be Lane’s best shot at a mainstream country crossover hit, if that’s even what she wants.” Previously, Billboard premiered the music video for “Jackpot,” which Rolling Stone included in their “Our Favorite Songs Right Now” roundup calling it “a trip to Vegas you won’t forget.” Rolling Stone Country originally announced the album by revealing the music video for the title track. Of the song, they hail, “It’s gritty Southern rock with an extra spike of danger – her guitars always sound like they’re running from the law, the drumbeat rolling on the adrenaline of a high-speed chase.”
Following Lane’s Walk of Shame debut and 2014’s Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin’, Highway Queen was co-produced by Lane and fellow singer-songwriter Jonathan Tyler and features the Texas Gentlemen as Lane’s band. A Greenville, South Carolina native, Lane is also a fashion entrepreneur as the owner of the popular vintage clothing boutique High Class Hillbilly. She has lived – and been heartbroken in – Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, so it’s no surprise that her music seamlessly crosses musical genres with lyrics steeped in the doomed perseverance only a true dark horse romantic knows. Like a true wanderer, her sound crisscrosses musical genres with ease, while the lonesome romantic in her remains. “Love is the most unavoidable thing in the world,” Lane says. “The person you pick could be half set-up to destroy your life with their own habits — I’ve certainly experienced that before and taken way too long to get out of that mistake.”