JD McPherson’s band includes (left to right): Jason Smay on drums, Raynier Jacob Jacildo on keys, McPherson on guitar and vocals, Doug Corcoran on saxophone and miscellaneous instruments, and Jimmy Sutton on electric and upright bass. Photo by Jo Chattman.
It’s not uncommon for a guitarist to become steeped in a particular era or genre. But it’s rare that a player pulls off a signature approach in doing so. JD McPherson, with his deep knowledge of 1950s and ’60s rock and R&B, is just the sort of exceptional musician who makes something new from old materials.
McPherson, who turns 38 this month, grew up in Oklahoma on a cattle ranch. He took up the guitar at 13 and essentially worked backwards, starting off in punk bands and learning about early rock by checking out the musicians who inspired such groups as the Clash. Though a formidable guitarist by his late teens, McPherson studied film as an undergraduate and open media as a graduate student. While he focused on video-art installations, he devoured obscured 1950s sides and played guitar in his downtime.
After school, McPherson took a job in the art department at a middle school in Tulsa, but was fired from that post when the school’s administration took exception to his avant-garde tendencies. He also played in the Tulsa-based rockabilly group the Starkweather Boys, catching the attention of Jimmy Sutton, a Chicago bassist, record label owner, and producer. This led to a gig playing with Sutton, who eventually produced and released McPherson’s strong first solo album, 2010’s Signs & Signifiers (re-released on Rounder in 2012).
Following a 2014 EP, The Warm Covers, McPherson released his sophomore full-length album, Let the Good Times Roll. This time McPherson teamed up with producer Mark Neill, who’s known for his work with the Black Keys. With Sutton on acoustic and electric basses, Jason Smay on drums, Raynier Jacob Jacildo on piano and organ, and Doug Corcoran on saxophone and miscellaneous instruments, McPherson has created an album that’s a lexicon of vintage rock grooves and timbres, and an incredibly fun listen.
McPherson told us about his antecedents and his fondness for Partscasters and boutique pedals, as well as working in the time machine that is Neill’s studio.
Describe your formative musical experiences.
The very earliest musical experience was when my sister put a Walkman on my ears and played “The Reflex” by Duran Duran. I remember it was like having candy in my ears because at that point, I’d only listened to what my parents played in the car. I had much older brothers who were musicians, and when I first became a really active listener, they turned me on to guitar-oriented music of the ’60s and ’70s: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Allman Brothers. That of course got me wanting to play the guitar. My oldest brother told me, “If you can play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ you can play anything.” And that’s how it all began.
“I can’t live without tremolo and delay,” says McPherson. Photo by Sarah Hess.
When I was a teenager I got into punk rock, which my brothers weren’t at all interested in, and everything that springs off into punk. For example, take London Calling by the Clash. It might be categorized as punk, but it encompasses so many different categories—rockabilly, ska, rocksteady. It really opened a lot of doors for me. My dad is really into Delta blues and jazz, so that rubbed off on me, too.
When did you first get immersed in the 1950s rock that’s such a big influence on your sound?
I was probably 17. Of course I’d heard the music before that, but it didn’t really click with me until I listened to it carefully. I got really into songs like “Midnight Shift” and “Love Me” with Sonny Curtis on guitar—such a great player. I found 1950s rock at just the right time in my life. It was energetic and fun music for teenagers, but it also had great finesse and musicality. At the same time it was raw and primal, with the immediacy of the punk rock that I was really into. In any case, once I got a hold of ’50s rock, I started playing songs like Buddy Holly’s “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” in my punk band.
How did you go about absorbing this music? Did you sit down with a record player and transcribe the tunes?
Figuring out Merle Travis picking on my own was a big thing. I also learned from videocassettes, which were not readily available like YouTube lessons are these days. My family and I used to go to a music store in Portsmouth, Arkansas, and there I found rockabilly VHS lessons by Jim Weider and Brian Setzer. I started with the Weider tape, which taught specific licks, like in the style of Cliff Gallup, and then I graduated to Setzer, where he’s doing totally nuts, acrobatic stuff.
I’ve always had a pretty good ear and have been able to pick things out for myself. The hardest thing I ever did was transcribe the head for Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” This was before there was slow-down software, which would have made things a whole lot easier!
Are you a jazz fan, and if so, how has it impacted your music?
Oh god, yeah, absolutely. Charlie Christian is one of the finest players in any style who ever lived—I really love that stuff. Although it doesn’t find its way into most of my music, jazz is definitely a strong influence. Having that vocabulary is really important in terms of fluidity on the guitar. Also, it’s interesting how jazz has filtered into blues and rock. T-Bone Walker listened to a lot of Django, and Chuck Berry listened to a lot of T-Bone, so it’s all very closely knit.